A month after controversy engulfed The Jewish Museum’s upcoming exhibition of Nazi imagery in contemporary art, the real thing is now on display in a Chelsea gallery.
Scheduling Leni Riefenstahl’s first New York solo show of photographs from “Olympia,” her film about the 1936 Berlin Games, to coincide with the Salt Lake Olympic Games, gallery owners Marianne Boesky and Marla Hamburg Kennedy are now scrambling to soften the impact of their exhibition of Hitler’s favorite filmmaker.
Buffeted by criticism from friends, collectors and anonymous callers before “Leni Riefenstahl: Film + Photo” opened last Friday, Boesky and Kennedy drafted a statement explaining their rationale for presenting the work of Riefenstahl, who is both hailed as a pioneering modern artist and reviled as a master of Nazi propaganda.
“We can only hope that you will consider that censuring this work will not make it go away or obliterate her dramatic impact on the art of filmmaking and photography,” reads the statement, available at the gallery’s front desk.
Feeling pressure, the gallery owners said they will donate their profits to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and other similar organizations, but have not yet made any contacts.
“I’m confident that, if offered, the museum would reject any fruits of such a tainted and unacceptable person,” said Rabbi “Yitz” Greenberg, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which runs the museum on the Mall in Washington. A few years ago, the museum rejected an offer of proceeds from the auction of Nazi memorabilia, he noted.
“This is to me a somewhat problematic trend in the sense of a continued glorification of Nazi-related imagery,” said Menachem Rosensaft, an outspoken critic of The Jewish Museum and founding chair of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
The 1990s has witnessed the incremental rehabilitation of Leni Riefenstahl, who spent three years in a French detention camp after the war and underwent de-Nazification, though she was never formally charged with war crimes and continues to insist on her artistic purity. Her art is increasingly exhibited internationally, Jodie Foster plans to make a film of her life, and she has begun conducting more interviews as she approaches the release of her first film since 1954 to coincide with her 100th birthday in August.
In an interview a few hours before the opening, Marianne Boesky and Marla Hamburg Kennedy chatted about their Jewish backgrounds and their shared belief in the quality and influence of Riefenstahl’s work. On the other hand, Boesky thinks Riefenstahl was a willing collaborator; Kennedy believes her claim to be an independent artist Marianne Boesky, daughter of disgraced Wall Street trader Ivan Boesky, has become an important dealer in the late 1990s by showing the work of young art stars such as Lisa Yuskavage and Takashi Murakami. Hamburg Kennedy, who investigated fascist architecture in her undergraduate thesis, has been in the photography business for more than 20 years. The Riefenstahl show is their second joint effort since they joined forces in May to introduce journalistic and documentary photography to fine art.
Kennedy says she attends Shabbat services at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun and Boesky says her family has been supporters of Jewish causes. Both have lost family in the Holocaust.
“My father called me up and said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ” Boesky said. “We got so much feedback from people saying, that takes guts and congratulations, to others saying, ‘We’ll never set foot in your gallery again.’ ”
The show at Kennedy Boesky Photographs on West 22nd Street includes eight vintage and 37 modern photographs of idealized Aryan athletes and the theatrical torch relay from Greece to Germany. There are also 13 vintage photos depicting Riefenstahl as an actress in the 1920s film “SOS Iceberg” and directing “Olympia.”
Some works have already sold, at modest prices ranging from $2,000 to $15,000.
A 40-minute abridged version of “Triumph of the Will,” Riefenstahl’s film of the 1934 Nazi rallies in Nuremberg, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, will be screened twice daily during open hours, Tuesday through Saturday.
“We talked a lot about it before opening,” said Kennedy. “We decided this is the only venue [the photography] will be seen. We have to bring it to the public because museums have a tough time.”
“We’re a private gallery with a public conscience,” Boesky said. “This show is not about money. February is a quiet time for sales,” later adding that it would be “dishonest” for them to sell the work privately without a public show.
Rosensaft said: “If they don’t want to profit, why show the works?”
Taking advantage of the rapidly expanding market in fine arts photography, Riefenstahl’s photo representative Anke Degenhard has made her work more widely available by producing new prints of Riefenstahl’s photographs in signed editions of 25. They first were displayed at a Berlin gallery in 2000 and published in a lavish catalogue that makes no mention of her Nazi past.
But conflict follows Riefenstahl wherever she goes, as the general public is less eager than the art world to overlook the political forces that enabled her art.
When David Fahey decided to display 47 photos from “Olympia” at his Los Angeles gallery last year, he was “concerned about negative fallout.” Riefenstahl’s last visit to the United States, to collect a lifetime achievement award from the Cinecon movie club in Los Angeles in 1997, was met with an outcry from the Jewish community there.
Fahey spoke to local Jewish leaders to gauge response, particularly because the Fahey/Klein Gallery borders on the Jewish neighborhood of Fairfax.
“Generally people stood up for her right as an artist, but people thought she was tainted by her past,” he said.
“The show was exceedingly successful,” Fahey said. It was extended by four weeks and sold over 100 previously unavailable modern prints. “My guesstimate is that 60 to 70 percent of the buyers were people I knew to be Jewish,” Fahey noted.
None of the proceeds were donated and Riefenstahl was paid a fee to sign the prints. “People in the arts, film and photography always take her as an artist,” he said. In August, the Fahey/Klein Gallery will present the first public showing of Riefenstahl’s photographs of the Nuba of Sudan.
According to the gallery, Riefenstahl is pleased with the current show but has no plans to visit New York.
“She was a great artist,” Boesky said. “I hate how good these photos are.”