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Deadly Perfection

A stark new exhibition at The Warhol explores man’s attraction— medically and otherwise—to creating human perfection.

“Art puts forth a notion of perfection and beauty. Is it then a form of eugenics?”

-Tom Sokolowski
Director, The Andy Warhol Museum





Dr. Otmar von Verschuer examines twins at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. As the head of the Institute's department for human heredity, von Verschuer, a physician and geneticist, examined hundreds of pairs of twins to study whether criminality, feeble-mindedness, tuberculosis, and cancer were inheritable. In 1927, he recommended the forced sterilization of the "mentally and morally subnormal."

Perfection is a dangerous thing. Who sets the standards and to what extent will we go in order to achieve it? These, of course, are not new questions. But in typical Warholian fashion, this winter The Andy Warhol Museum will deliver a dramatically fresh approach to considering them.

The fact that leading medical experts of the time legitimized Adolf Hitler’s genocide by advocating for racial hygiene is the focus of Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race, a traveling exhibition developed by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and on view at The Warhol December 16 through March 18, 2007.

In tandem, The Warhol will encourage visitors to explore their own ideas of beauty and precision, with Director Tom Sokolowski proposing this conversation starter: “Aren’t we working towards creating a master race of sorts through genetic engineering?” Add to that present-day society’s penchant for plastic surgery and the subsequent erosion of ethnic characteristics, and Sokolowski wonders, “Will everyone end up looking like Britney Spears? Is that something we want?”

Obviously, the Nazis didn’t have Britney Spears in mind when they set out to conquer Europe, but they did march to the drum beat of eugenics. A popular theory of the day, eugenics argued that the intellectually and physically inferior were depleting social and economic resources, and if left unchecked would ultimately cost far more.

Deadly Medicine draws on hundreds of artifacts, photographs, photographic reproductions and survivor testimonies to tell the story of how reputable German physicians, psychiatrists, geneticists, anthropologists, and public health officials embraced the concept of eugenics—even before Hitler took power in 1933. They welcomed his regime because of its emphasis on biology and heredity and the additional funding it brought for their research.

According to Hitler’s deputy, Nazism was “applied biology.” Consequently, the regime touted the “Nordic race” as its eugenic ideal and attempted to mold Germany into a cohesive national community that excluded anyone deemed hereditarily “less valuable” or “racially foreign.”

Complicity by the medically trained empowered the government to begin constructing a policy of positive incentives, such as tax credits to foster large “valuable” families, and negative measures, such as forced sterilization to limit genetic “inferiors.” Under the cover of war, however, the Nazis took eugenics to the uncharted territory of genocide, systematically murdering six million Jews, as well as hundreds of thousands of gypsies, homosexuals, and the physically and mentally ill.

As a way of exploring the continued attraction of biological and reconstructive utopias that promote the possibility of human perfection, The Warhol will feature its namesake’s 10 Most Famous Jews (Gertrude Stein and Franz Kafka, to name two); portraits of Park Avenue ladies who have had several plastic surgeries too many; and beauty composites that bring, for example, Greta Garbo’s forehead, Joan Crawford’s eyes, Marlene Dietrich’s nose and Sophia Loren’s lips together to create one unsettling image. Also on view will be objects that are said to represent perfection, like a Greek bust and a cockroach (yes, a cockroach; after all, this particular pest has managed to survive just about every imaginable cataclysmic event and flourish).

Programming centered around the exhibition will include a slate of lectures featuring philosophers, scientists, and visual artists discussing topics ranging from history and ethics to fashion and style; an outreach program to area high school students; and a series of films that could include the obvious (Schindler’s List), as well as the unexpected (The Stepford Wives).

“ This exhibition should provoke us into thinking about the relationship between the needs and rights of individuals as weighed against the larger concerns of the society,” says Susan Bachrach, the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Deadly Medicine curator. “Scientists dreamed of perfecting human beings by changing the genetic makeup of the population. So this does offer a cautionary note in that regard. And it certainly also speaks to the importance of always respecting the value of the individual and the human dignity of the individual.”

And what of the individual artist who also dreams of creating perfection? “Art puts forth a notion of perfection and beauty,” Sokolowski says; “is it then a form of eugenics?”

Time will tell.

This exhibition is organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, and curated by its Curator of Special Exhibitions, Susan Bachrach. Deadly Medicine is sponsored in part by The David Berg Foundation, Lorraine and Jack H. Friedman, The Blache and Irving Laurie Foundation, and The Viterbi Family Foundation.

The exhibition is locally co-presented by The Holocaust Center Of The United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and sponsored by UPMC.

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