At the Warhol, Deadly Medicine shows how Darwin got twisted into eugenics. | Art Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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At the Warhol, Deadly Medicine shows how Darwin got twisted into eugenics.

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Behind blue eyes: A Nazi chart incorporating Gergor Mendel's laws of heredity, part of efforts to show how "racially mixed" parents produced "inferior" offspring. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM.
  • Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  • Behind blue eyes: A Nazi chart incorporating Gergor Mendel's laws of heredity, part of efforts to show how "racially mixed" parents produced "inferior" offspring.

Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race, an exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum, presents the dubious scientific research and public policies that led to the Holocaust. Central to this story is eugenics, an unintentional descendent of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection (a.k.a. "survival of the fittest").

Deadly Medicine cuts a circuitous path through the Warhol's seventh-floor gallery. The exhibit winds on itself like a helix, taking visitors from the genesis of Social Darwinism to its catastrophic 20th-century implementation in the death camps of Germany and Poland. This layout is partly meant to use the space most efficiently. But it also works figuratively, to suggest how the early, quasi-scientific research fueling the eugenics movement was twisted to serve a specific agenda.

Exhibition curator Susan Bachrach, of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, begins by sketching eugenics' development in the 1860s and continues through America's early attempts to rout alcoholism, venereal disease and psychosis through the promotion of "sensible" marriage. Artifacts include a pamphlet, issued by the Louisiana Department of Health and Bureau of Venereal Disease, which encourages women not to proceed with their nuptials "blindly."

And then, the story turns a corner ... literally. Around the exhibition's first bend, in a section loosely dedicated to eugenics in the 1920s, is the first glimpse of the intersection of Social Darwinism and National Socialism. While Bachrach has not omitted Germany's (or America's, for that matter) interest in eugenics in earlier displays, it's here that the sinister implications of "favorable marriage" become more obvious and more racially oriented.

Visitors continue past the 10 Nazi-issued marriage commandants of 1935 (commandment one reads: "Remember you are German -- everything you are is not of your own merit, but through your nation ..."). A segment dedicated to the euthanization of the mentally and physically challenged follows, along with evidence of racial profiling based on facial characteristics, and samples of the confusing genetic maps underpinning the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of their citizenship and banned the sexual and marital union of Jews and Germans of "Aryan descent." Bachrach closes with the liberation of the concentration camps following World War II, and surveys the fate of Third Reich doctors and scientists who authorized mass executions or used inmates as test subjects.

Yet what makes the exhibition most compelling are the personal artifacts and testimonies -- individual voices that emerge within each thematic display. The photographs of "feeble-minded" children, taken just before their euthanization, and the medical diagrams demonstrating techniques for sterilizing humans, move the story from an abstract to an intensely concrete level.

Also emphasized is the unhurried, almost genial path toward horror. Early eugenicists, like Darwin's half-cousin, Sir Francis Galton, promoted favorable hereditary traits as the key to human advancement. Although Darwin himself never intended his theory to rationalize social organization or repression, leagues of "Social Darwinists" sprung from Galton's philosophy, and a full-blown eugenics movement was born.

Bachrach makes clear that the implementation of eugenics-related ideology did not begin with wholesale extermination. It was first presented as an opportunity to refine, protect and uplift. A more productive and competent social order was promised, along with fewer diseases. Later, in the wake of post-World War I Germany's national humiliation, hyperinflation and misery, eugenics was adapted to heal national fissures through the engineering of a new, and allegedly exalted, man.

Bachrach concludes the exhibition with the small, illuminated portrait of a Polish boy, circa 1942, whose image is accompanied by his research-subject number and the date of his death in the gas chamber at Belzec. Adjacent is a quote by Dr. Alexander Mitscherlich, an official observer at the 1946 Nuremberg doctors' trials: "The question is whether we will ever be able to learn from history."

The quotation seems to reveal the motivation behind the entire exhibition. Few people are aware of the full progression of events leading to the cataclysm that was the Third Reich. Fewer still understand the depth and breadth of eugenics' implementation. With Deadly Medicine, Bachrach sets out to educate and creates an experience that leaves a solid, lasting impression.

Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race continues through March 18. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org

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