Degenerate art is a term used to label “forbidden and sick art” and was created by the Nazi regime with the aim to exclude everything that didn’t appeal to their ideology. All artworks which didn’t glorify values of racial purity, militarism and obedience were forbidden, so that Degenerate artists could not exhibit or sell their art and were dismissed from teaching positions, while some of them couldn’t even produce art anymore. All kinds of modernist approaches – avant-garde paintings, early abstract art, German expressionism from the movement Die Brücke – were labeled poisonous for the society during the Munich Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) exhibition in 1937. This show tried to form the public opinion about modern art by hanging the works of Degenerate artists and placing deriding text labels on them. It started traveling through Germany and Austria, where it became one of the best-attended shows of the 20th century.
Beginnings of the Campaign Against Degenerate Art
The entire campaign was directed by cultural and propaganda spokesmen like Alfred Rosenberg and Joseph Goebbels, along with the officials from the Reich Chamber of Culture. About 16,000 works were classified as Degenerate, along with several hundred artists, mostly from Germany. The campaign started in Karlsruhe in 1933, with an exhibition that attacked modern artists and their works. It became even stronger during the same year with the closure of the famous design and architecture school, The Bauhaus. The school was known as the most important open-minded avant-garde center of education, with professors of Jewish or Russian origins and connections who were considered a threat to the Nazi regime.
During the same period, the German Work Federation was also closed. A year later, in 1934, during a Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, Hitler made a speech against Degenerate art in which he stated that the mission of art was not to “wallow in filth for filth’s sake, to paint the human being only in a state of putrefaction, to draw cretins as symbols of motherhood, or to present deformed idiots as representatives of manly strength.” This quote was later used on the entrance walls to the famous 1937 Munich exhibition which showcased around 700 Degenerate artworks, as opposed to the approved art exhibited in a building nearby.
The Biggest Degenerate Art Exhibition in 1937
The opening of the exhibition was held on July 19th, 1937, and remained on view until November 30th, before traveling to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria. The entire show was based on the concept of degeneracy, so well-rooted in the Nazi political campaign already. It meant that artists had pathological disorders and that their art is not just bad, but also sick and contagious. Modernism was a part of this disorder because they didn’t see it just as a distasteful style, or only non-Aryan, but they thought of it as a dangerous lie perpetuated by Jews, communists and others who wanted to attack the healthy body of the German society. The exhibition ended up having more than 2 million visitors in Munich only, and an equal amount of interest in the other cities in Germany and Austria through which it traveled as well. Even though its mission was to disregard the quality of modern art, it still remains one of the most popular shows ever presenting these works. It seems that without even wanting to do so, the Nazi regime did more to promote modern painting than any government before or since.
The exhibition featured over 650 paintings, sculptures, prints and books from the collections of 32 German museums. All the works that were a part of Bauhaus, Cubist, Dada, Expressionist, Fauvist, Impressionist, New Objectivity and Surrealist style were labeled as sick and degenerate. During this period, over 5,000 works were seized, including 1,052 pieces by Emil Nolde (who was ironically a racially pure Aryan and a member of the Nazi Party), 759 by M.C. Escher, 639 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 508 by Max Beckmann, and smaller numbers of works by such artists as Alexander Archipenko, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and hundreds of others. The artworks were placed next to insulting texts which were supposed to prove how degenerate the artists were and ridiculed by being juxtaposed with other works by the inmates of German lunatic asylums.
The Concept and Arrangement of the Exhibition
The curatorial concept in the first three rooms of the exhibition divided the works into different sections, approaching them thematically. The first room dealt with artworks considered demeaning of religion, the second room presented pieces by Jewish artists only, and the third room was made to ridicule women, soldiers, and farmers in Germany. The other parts of the show had no particular thematic structure. While entering the building of the former Institute of Archaeology, where the exhibition took place, the viewers had to pass through a narrow staircase which first lead them to see a sculpture of an oversized, theatrical portrait of Jesus, purposely placed there in order to intimidate the viewers who had to bump into it while entering. The rooms of the exhibition were chaotic and overfilled, deliberately placing the pictures too close to each other, unframed and hung by cords and similar materials. Nature, as seen by sick minds, The ideal—cretin and whore and Insolent mockery of the Divine under a Centrist rule were only some of the titles written on the walls during the exhibition, in order to explain the content of the images on view.
The Fate of Degenerate Artists
The most progressive and valuable painters, sculptors and printmakers of the time were actually labeled as Degenerate. This included mostly Expressionist and Cubist painters from Germany, Austria, France, Holland, and Russia, but also other modernist styles. The leading Expressionist painter Edvard Munch was a part of the list, as well as the leader of Die Brücke movement, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Important names of the art history of the 20th century like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian were all a part of this list and had to deal with such a threat to their works and existence. Many of the German artists had to emigrate and go into exile, since they were considered enemies of the state and threats to the German culture and society.
For example, Max Ernst had to emigrate to America, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner committed suicide in Switzerland in 1938, Paul Klee was in exile in Switzerland but could never get a citizenship because he was labeled as a Degenerate artist. Some of the artists also couldn’t get an exile and remained in Germany but fled to the countryside, like Otto Dix. The ones who stayed in Germany were forbidden to teach at universities, and were often subjects of Gestapo raids, which were to ensure that the artists were not violating the ban on the production of works. Even though there wasn’t an official death penalty for producing art, some of the artists with Jewish origins were forced to go to concentration camps.
The Fate of the Artworks
Fortunately, not all works were destroyed, since a lot of them got sorted out for sale and were sold in Switzerland at an auction. Some were also acquired by museums, others by private collectors. Furthermore, some of the Nazi officials stole works for their private use, like the valuable pieces by the likes of Van Gogh and Cézanne. On the other side, an enormous act of vandalism took place in 1939, when 4000 works got burned by the Berlin Fire Brigade. A similar act was conducted in the summer of 1942, in the gardens of the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris, in a bonfire which burned important pieces by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger and Joan Miró. Since it was not illegal to sell degenerate art in France, even under the occupation, a lot of these works were also sold at French auction houses. The Nazis mostly cared about the German and Austrian viewers, so they let these artworks spread outside of Germany, still with a Degenerate label, but not as forbidden as in their homeland.
The Differences Between Degenerate and Approved Art
In order to show more of the ideology behind banning Degenerate Art, we can compare two artworks: one by a Degenerate artist and the other one by an artist approved by Hitler. Let us take a look at Degenerate artist Max Beckmann’s Departure (1935) as the first example (shown above) and the regime-approved (shown below) Adolf Ziegler’s work Die Vier Elemente (1937). In Departure, the topic of the work is highly socially engaged, as the artist portrays an aesthetic and spiritual departure from his homeland, using a clearly Expressionist manner, enveloped with dynamism and a completely modernist approach to painting. On the other side, in the static Die Vier Elemente, the topic of the work is not socially engaged at all, it is just a fake reminiscence of Classicism, an attempt to shift the focus from the present to the ideals of the past. He presents four women, textbook academic female nudes which are supposed to represent the four elements, using the most recognizable attributes from classical art.
We can now see more clearly that the Nazi regime, and mostly Hitler, wanted people to be trapped in the ideas of the ideal past, which involved no progress, focused on retrieving fake ideals of beauty (presenting only white characters with Aryan attributes) and concerned about neutral topics in artistic practices. All this contributed to an easier control, manipulation, and stagnation of avant-garde ideas which could possibly change the social order. Of course, this approach to art was not only connected to this period in history, but continued to be a tool for all other forms of dictatorship, including the Stalinist Russia (1928-53) with the imposed Socialist Realism style, and also during the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-70) which imposed aesthetic rules on the artists.
An important reminder of the Degenerate period happened with its 1991 presentation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but perhaps the most important exhibition dealing with this topic was surely Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 presented at Neue Galerie New York in March 2014. A number of works which were shown in the initial 1937 Munich exhibit were shown again, such as Max Beckmann’s Cattle in a Barn (1933); Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Winter Landscape in Moonlight (1919), The Brücke-Artists (1926/27); Paul Klee’s The Angler (1921) and many others. The exhibition was followed by an important publication that didn’t only deal with the Degenerate artworks but also the history and etymology of the term “degenerate”, published by Prestel Verlag. Therefore, it reconstructs not just the famous exhibit, but also the entire rhetoric and history which made the exhibition possible.
Degenerate Art – 1993, The Nazis vs. Expressionism
Between The Past and Future
In order to fully understand the entire Degenerate Art problem, it is important to take into account all philosophical, political, racial and moral goals and intentions behind this movement, and the driving forces of corruption which followed them. Starting with the 19th century, concepts of decadence and degeneration found their way into official cultural and scientific discourse. Nordau was a famous physician who argued that the fast pace of modernization disturbed the human mind so much that it eventually created mental illness, which he categorized as “degeneration”. This idea was later developed by Hitler even more, as he linked it with reasons which would justify anti-Semitism and racial segregation.
Behind such a huge project of lowering the voice of progressive individuals wasn’t just a wish to prevent artistic growth, dynamics, and production, but also a wish to prevent the entire population from thinking autonomously, from acting in any way different from what the authorities obliged them with. But, does the apparently democratic and free society of today truly allow artistic and philosophical freedom? Instead of burning and banning, the art market can find its own different and more subtle methods of censorship and control. Even though many contemporary countries are not subjected to this kind of dictatorship, we can still leave an important question open – how big is the influence of the current political and economic systems on our artistic production and distribution?
Editors’ Tip: Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany 1937
This book accompanies the first major museum exhibition devoted to a reconstruction of the infamous Nazi display of modern art since the presentation originated by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1991. During the Nazi regime in Germany, “degenerate art” was the official term for much of the most important modern art of the day. “Degenerate art” was defined by the Nazi regime as artwork that was not in line with the National Socialists’ ideas of beauty. Their condemnation extended to works in nearly every major art movement: Expressionism, Dada, New Objectivity, Surrealism, Cubism, and Fauvism. Banned artists included Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, and Oskar Kokoschka. Richly illustrated, Degenerate Art elucidates the historical and intellectual context of the notorious exhibition in Munich in 1937, which spurred the attack on modern art.
- Barron, S., Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1991
- Peters, O., Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany 1937, Prestel, New York, 2014
Featured images: Emil Nolde – Pentecost, 1909, Labeled Degenerate Art, Courtesy of Wikipedia, Adolf Hitler at The Opening of Degenerate Art Exhibition, 1937, Degenerate Art Exhibition at Neue Galerie New York, 2014, Courtesy of New Yorker, Lasar Segall – Eternal Wanderers, Labeled as Degenerate Art, Courtesy of Wikipedia, Left: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Winter Landscape in Moonlight / Right: Paul Klee – The Angler, Labeled as Degenerate Art, Courtesy of Saarlandmuseum. All images used for illustrative purposes only.