The Nazis’ War on Modern Art
by Diane M. Bolz
In July 1937 Germany’s National Socialist Party opened an exhibition in Munich it termed “Entartete Kunst,” or “Degenerate Art.” Intentionally housed in cramped, poorly lit conditions and awkwardly hung, the works on view were accompanied by inflammatory, denigrating labels. The exhibition was an open declaration of the Nazis’ state-run war on modern art and the effort to impose their officially sanctioned conception of art through propaganda and force. This calculated attack on the freedom of artistic expression led to the stripping of museum collections, the destruction of modernism in Germany between the wars, and a tragic, irretrievable loss of art.
The exhibition, which toured Germany and Austria for three years, included masterpieces of Expressionist, Dada and Cubist art that the Nazis had confiscated from museums, studios and private collections. The main aim of the show was to mock and demonize these works. It is said that in Munich alone, some two million people attended the exhibition, which has been called the most popular traveling show of all time. As crowds lined up to see the display during its stint in Hamburg in 1938, Jews were being detained and carted off to concentration camps.
At the close of the exhibition tour, most of the works on display were sold, lost or presumed destroyed. Now the Neue Galerie in New York City has mounted the first major U.S. museum exhibition in more than 20 years to be devoted to the Nazis’ infamous show. Organized by Neue Galerie board member and distinguished scholar Olaf Peters, “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” will be on display through June 30, 2014. Highlights of the exhibition include a number of works shown in Munich in the summer of 1937, including such seminal paintings as Swiss German artist Paul Klee’s The Twittering Machine and The Angler (pg. 23), and German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s The Painters of the Brücke (pg. 22), one of the icons of modern German art. Works by Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka, German Danish painter and printmaker Emil Nolde and German artists George Grosz and Max Beckmann, among others, are also on view.
Of the more than 400 works by Kokoschka seized from German museums, nine paintings—along with drawings, a watercolor and a poster—were included in the Munich show. The drawings were hung next to work by a patient diagnosed with mental illness and a label inquiring which work was made by an “inmate of a lunatic asylum.” Some dozen-plus paintings by Klee, including the two mentioned above, were also featured. The Nazis ridiculed them for their “confusion” and “primitive appearance.” They viewed the subtlety and seeming simplicity of his style as naïveté and equated his works with the untrained art of children and the mentally ill, thus establishing an implied connection between modern art and pathological conditions.
One room in the Neue Galerie exhibition contrasts the so-called degenerate art with the officially sanctioned art of the period, including works that were elegantly displayed at the grand 1937 “Great German Art Exhibition,” which opened one day before and a stone’s throw away from the “Entartete Kunst” show. During the period that followed, this juxtaposition of “German art” and “degenerate art” was repeatedly used to vilify modernism as “un-German.” The Nazis targeted any artist whose work they deemed offensive or antithetical to the official vision of the Third Reich, which favored monumental realistic paintings and grandiose sculpture, often depicting male nudes that epitomized Aryan perfection. The Nazis also linked Jewish patrons and dealers to unacceptable modern art.
The Nazis’ confiscation of more than 20,000 works of art decimated the nation’s museum collections. An estimated 5,000 were lost or destroyed. Of those that survived, only a few were ultimately re-acquired by the museums from which they were confiscated. Some ended up in new collections; others are still waiting to be returned to their rightful owners. Questions of disputed ownership and how many missing works might someday still be recovered persist. The recent Gurlitt case—the discovery in Munich of a cache of artworks confiscated during World War II—and the film The Monuments Men have brought increased attention to the topic. One of the main consequences of the Nazis’ campaign against modern art, says curator Peters, is the fact that the Nazis “destroyed German culture to some degree by destroying these fantastic collections built up during the Weimar Republic.”
For many artists, the “Degenerate Art” exhibition came as a shock and marked the end of their careers in Germany. Even artists who had offered their talents to the regime, such as Nolde, were affected, as were artists who lived abroad, like Kirchner, who became depressed and committed suicide in 1938. Many, including Beckmann and Kokoschka, reacted by leaving Germany to live in exile in Europe or the United States. The livelihood of those who remained was severely affected—the infrastructure of the modern gallery business was destroyed, and exhibition opportunities and perspective buyers were all but eliminated.
Both the historic and current “Degenerate Art” exhibitions, says Peters, have relevance today, providing us with the occasion to “reflect on the freedom of art at present, and on the extent to which art, particularly contemporary art, can be considered a cultural asset, a critical authority, or even a provocative alternative to the existing world.”