By Tom Garretson 

On July 16, 1937, the German city of Munich gathered its citizens for a celebratory public festival of officially mandated, state-approved culture. Meticulously staged by the National Socialists (hereafter referred to simply as “Nazis”), the city’s Prinzregentenstrasse had been aligned with 160, forty-foot high pylons topped with the sinister emblems of eagles and swastikas, in addition to the 243 Nazi flags that decorated it from the railroad station to the center of the city. A tightly choreographed parade spectacle rolled out in a procession of Teutonic knights on horseback brandishing Nazi flags. Gothic-stylized maidens draped in white marched nobly, flanked by somber men in black medieval monk’s robes.  Gurneys rested upon the shoulders of silver-clad knights in armor, who displayed monumental, squared pedestals symbolizing the superiority of the new Nazi-styled architecture. Other floats with assorted themes passed on by, each with romanticized visions of Germanic culture and art. It was pompous and bombastic, if not overtly kitsch.

A giant golden eagle, the symbol of the Reich, was posed fifty-feet high, drawn by rows of horses draped in regal blue. It seemed ready to alight at any moment, held back only by the immense solidity its shape conveyed. Rows of flower maidens in peasant costume, signifying youth and fertility, graced the approving crowds kept securely at a distance by the rows of ominous SS officers. This was the celebration of the Zweitausend Jahre Deutsche Kultur (Two Thousand Years of German Culture), a festival pageant for the opening day of the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition). In reality the crowds were to bear witness to a grand failure, however unapparent it might seem. The celebration was to be temporary, an ostensible victory in this grand masquerade triumphing Nazi culture.

Perhaps never before or since (even in the light of Stalinist Russia or Mao’s China), had art ever been so clearly used as a tool for controlling public thought. In the Great German Art Exhibition Reich chancellor Adolf Hitler and his Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels sought to collectively use art as a vehicle for public propaganda. The artistic merit of individual works became secondary to their collective use in promoting Third Reich ideology. German art existed as a didactic instrument promoting a state-created morality and served as instruction for its citizens. Any art critical of society or that asked inconvenient questions would be abolished, as similarly any art not falling into the Nazis’ rather vague definitions on what art should be. Good German art, according to the Nazis, must be based on traditional values, and reflect the petit bourgeois ideals of the Fascist state. As a failed artist, a mediocre watercolorist who was twice rejected from the Academy in Vienna, it almost seemed as if Adolf Hitler was enacting a personal revenge upon all of the arts, with the sole criteria for quality being his own personal and rather limited, conservative taste.

Figure 1: Hause der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art). Architect: Paul Ludwig Troost.

Already upon taking power in 1933, Hitler authorized the directives leading to the creation of a grand museum for German art in Munich. He commissioned his favorite architect, Paul Ludwig Troost to design and build the House of German Art [fig. 1], replacing the Glaspalast (a museum containing both romantic and modernist art works) that had previously burnt down in 1931. The heavy, dominating stone structure was derivative of the Greek Classical style and the propaganda tactics of ancient Roman Augustus, with rows of columns on its façade, typical in the style of Third Reich architecture. On October 15, the day of the groundbreaking ceremony, Hitler struck at the corner stone and broke the hammer. Conveniently censored from newsreel footage of the time, it certainly did not provide an auspicious portent for neither the Nazi policies on art nor for the longevity of its artists or its works.

The Great German Art Exhibition opened in the new House of German Art with a fanfare of ceremonial speeches on July 16,1937, and closed its doors to the public only three days later on the 18th. Hitler had come, as he stated in his inaugural speech, “to clean house”, leaving little doubt where Nazi policies on the future of art and culture laid. He had previously stated in his 1934 closing speech at the Nuremburg rally, the importance of the “tradition-minded” party members merging with the army and the “German Man”, carrying on their shoulders the “German State, the German Reich”. Here now at last could he display how art would comply in achieving this very objective. In his speech for the opening, he stated that art was to be nationalized, maintain its identity with the inherent culture, and not be “internationalized” as it had become. All movements or new ideas in art were, to Hitler, laughable and nothing but popular fashions produced by delusional artists.

Figure 2:  Gallery in the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition), Hause der Deutschen Kunst, Munich, 1937.

Figure 2: Gallery in the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition), Hause der Deutschen Kunst, Munich, 1937.

A new concept of art was needed, a true “German Art”, which should finally reflect the “eternal value of the people”. He did not, however, ever clearly define indeed what those values were. He negated all sense of development and change within art creativity, stating that German art should remain constant and immediately recognizable as such. No development of style or visual design, composition or technique would be allowed or should be allowed, even over centuries. Art that was seen as belonging to a period of history should be seen as a lesser form of art, because true art, according to Hitler, maintains its identity in the people and crosses across the centuries. There should be no variation of subjects, no changes in themes. “For the artist does not create for the artist,” Hitler stated, “but like everyone else he creates for the people.” Individual expression and creativity was not of interest, and only art that had immediate appeal to the vast majority of the population would be considered to have any value. Above all, finally, art must serve the objectives of the Reich.

After the inaugural speech, Hitler and assorted dignitaries were led inside the House of German Art, through grand rooms presenting the approved themes of the “new” Germanic art. Paintings were distanced far enough from each other to give each work a dignified presence, interspersed in places with sculptures or busts resting on podiums, with room enough so that the viewer could leisurely stroll from one work to another. The rooms were brightly lit, white and clean, enhanced with solid marble doorways. The main “atrium” exhibition gallery [fig. 2] featured a glass roof to convey a sense of openness and healthy, fresh air. Everything was linear with right angles, keeping in line with the style of architecture that Hitler so admired. The public could feel they were indeed in a temple of art. It was to be the model for which all museums would be based on in the Third Reich.

Figure 3: Werner Peiner. Autumn in the Eifel. Date unknown. Oil on canvas.

It was believed that 25,000 works had been submitted to the exhibition’s curators for consideration. However, the actual number had been closer to 16,000. Any lie or exaggeration that might display the Third Reich in a positive light was always utilized. Curated by the president of the Reich Culture Chamber, Adolf Ziegler (also a painter), the sculptors Arno Breker and Josef Wackerie presided over the selection of sculpture. The sole criterion was no stricter than the taste of the Führer himself, and Hitler would personally reject 80 paintings as “unfinished” or too experimental before the final selection was approved.

Progressing through the rooms of this “temple”, one would become aware that the exhibition was presented thematically. In one room, paintings of heroic landscapes that dominated the exhibition reflected the Nazis’ “Blood and Soil” philosophy, recalling a simpler time when man tilled the soil and understood his place in the world. Life in the country was idealistically depicted as it might have been a hundred years ago, without the clutter of modern machinery or the instruments of modern farming [fig. 3].

Figure 4: Helmut Schaarschmidt. Earth Work. Date unknown. Oil on canvas.

It was all derivative of quaint genre paintings of the previous century, and indeed also included works from that period. Heroic beasts in the form of cows, bulls and horses prevailed, as stoic symbols of Nazi dedication and persistence. Peasant farmers, men and women, were shown contentedly plowing fields or in strenuous labor, yet were always presented as determined and happy.

There must never be any doubt as to the joys of hard labor in serving the state. Painters such as Helmut Schaarschmidt excelled at this sort of painting, as seen in his Earth Work [fig. 4] or in Oskar Martin-Amorbach’s The Sower [fig. 5]. These were imaginary landscapes. No matter that they did not actually exist.  German citizens were expected to aspire to their example.


Figure 5: Oskar Martin-Amorbach, The Sower, 1937. Oil on canvas.

Paintings that did not break with tradition were extolled, especially if they promoted a sense of German identity. Often, by simply adding the word “German” to the title of an older painting could an artist present it as faithful to the Nazi doctrine.

Thus titles such as Day in the Mountains became A Day of Peasant Glory in the Germanic Landscape in order to gain advantage in the selection process for their works. Landscape painters such as Martin-Amorbach and Thomas Baumgartner, today largely forgotten by history, were more than willing to allow their works to serve as propaganda. Most of the paintings were depictions of rustic scenes, quaint, trite, and simply a continuation of the genre painting of the previous century.

Family life also was similarly portrayed, in moralistic tales conveying the benefits of many offspring in a home life where every citizen knew their place and their function – to serve the state. The German woman featured in portraits or landscapes was depicted as icons of motherhood or as retired matrons having done their noble duty of raising children.

Figure 6: Fritz Mackensen, Der Saeugling (The Baby), 1892. Oil on canvas.

Figure 6: Fritz Mackensen, Der Saeugling (The Baby), 1892. Oil on canvas.

Fritz Mackensen’s The Baby [fig. 6] aptly shows her breastfeeding an infant (again looking to the past in this painting from 1892 to represent the future). Woman’s duty was to produce cannon fodder for the coming wars.

Female nudity could also be depicted, often in quasi-pornographic representations as erotic objects, such as in Ernst Liebermann’s By the Water [fig. 7]. Such paintings always served as an object for the male gaze, never providing a sense of individuality or female sexuality, but presented them only as passive, fertile figures.

Figure 7: Ernst Liebermann, By the Water. Date unknown. Oil on canvas.

Figure 7: Ernst Liebermann, By the Water. Date unknown. Oil on canvas.





All figurative works of sculpture or painting expressed the Nazi ideal of racial beauty. The Aryan man or woman possessed classically inspired attributes [fig. 8]. Nothing remotely conveying Semitic or African-American racial traits would ever have been allowed to soil the Nazi canvas or disfigure a stone. The Aryan men in the works must be shown heroically, either in battle scenes or as pillars of strength, optimistic and glorified.

Figure 8: Albert Janesch. Water Sports. 1936. Oil on canvas.

Figure 8: Albert Janesch. Water Sports. 1936. Oil on canvas.

Whether leading a stubborn bull on the farm or raising the Nazi flag with his comrades, the image of the Aryan Nazi man was shown as willing to sacrifice himself for the common good, through the sweat and toil of labor or through the ultimate sacrifice in war [fig. 9].

Sculpture always conveyed a sense of power, in a stylized perversion of the classical Greek heroic nude, often carrying a sword or having an eagle by the male’s side, such as in Arno Breker’s gaudy sculpture Bereitschaft (Readiness)[fig. 10]. Josef Thorak’s Kameradschaft (Comradeship) [fig. 11] also reveals such an aggrandized form. Two exaggeratedly muscular men are shown nude, holding hands, with heads lifted upwards to the sky. Its homoerotic element obviously remained unnoticed by the selection committee.

Figure 9: Hermann Otto Hoyer, SA Man Rescuing Wounded Comrade in the Street. 1933. Oil on canvas.

Figure 9: Hermann Otto Hoyer, SA Man Rescuing Wounded Comrade in the Street. 1933. Oil on canvas.

The viewers of the exhibition for the most part must have experienced a sense of blandness and fatigue at viewing the works. One observer of the exhibition commented that the many paintings were dull and “looked like photographs,” and how the depictions of rural life had nothing to do with reality. Most of the art left little impression save for the technical or realistic quality involved. The paintings were based on formulaic ideals, suitable to Fascist ideology, with a clear link to an imaginary past.

For three days the public attended an exhibition that sought to educate them (and artists) on what would be the new cultural policies on painting and sculpture. It left no room for anything but the most obvious depictions of National Socialist ideology. Modernism was swept aside and it seemed as if painting and sculpture was placed back a century, modified by a romanticized ideal of a utopian society free from any conflict, racial infection, or “degenerate” Jewish or foreign art. Of the little over 600 works on display, it was little wonder that hardly any of these sold. The few that did went to Nazi Party members or to only a handful of museums.

Figure 10: Arno Breker, Bereitschaft (Readiness). 1937. Bronze.

Figure 10: Arno Breker, Bereitschaft (Readiness). 1937. Bronze.

The Great German Art Exhibition was the culmination of the Nazis’ drive to rid the Third Reich of any art that they considered “degenerate”, namely art that didn’t reflect the Nazi ideals of society. However, the idea that art could be defined as degenerate was not an entirely new thought. It’s origins stemmed back to the previous century in German culture. The book Entartung (Degeneration) published in 1892 by the pseudo-scientist Max Nordau (coincidentally a Jew himself) had used the term “degenerate” in describing certain forms of art for the first time. In it he decried Symbolism, the Pre-Raphaelites, the writings of Henrik Ibsen and many others, in an attempt to “prove the superiority of traditional German culture.” And in 1911, the German artist Carl Vinnen attacked the purchases of French Impressionsists in what he claimed was inferior works of art in his Ein Protest deutscher Künstler (A Protest by German Artists).

Figure 11: Josef Thorak, Kameradschaft (Comradeship), 1937. Bronze.  Location unknown, exhibited in the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstelung.

Figure 11: Josef Thorak, Kameradschaft (Comradeship), 1937. Bronze. Location unknown, exhibited in the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstelung.

Even in the more relaxed censorship of the Weimar republic, Georg Grosz suffered legal action by the First District Court of Berlin in 1922 for his series of critical drawings and watercolors Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), on obscenity charges. He and his publishers were fined and most of the plates for the series confiscated, and they again lost in their appeal in 1924. That same year Otto Dix’s painting Schützengraben (Trench, 1923) was exhibited at the Berlin Academy and its grotesque imagery received an onslaught of protest and angry criticism because of its anti-war message (strangely enough his depictions of sexual murder were ignored). All of this served and was used by the Nazis to strengthen the National Socialist argument that art had become immoral, indecent, and most of all, “degenerate.”

Also in the 1920’s, the Deutsche Kunstgesellschaft (German Art Association) attacked the works of Grosz and Beckmann, claiming that modern art had been run rampant with “Kulturbolschewismus” (art-Bolshevism), and that the association’s mission was to promote an “art that was pure German, with the German soul reflecting art.” And in 1927 the anti-Semite Alfred Rosenberg, instigator of many of the party’s cultural policies, established the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (known later as the Combat League for German Culture) in Munich. As the Nazis rose in power, so did Rosenberg’s denouncing of modernism, taking full form in his 1930 book Der Mythus des 20. Jarhhunderts (The Myth of the Twentieth Century). The book was an attempt to give validity to the Nazis’ attack on Expressionism and all modernist forms of art. In addition, Rosenberg’s office was also responsible for many art exhibitions and was directly under the authority of Goebbel’s Ministry of Propaganda, a situation that often led to conflict between the two party members. It seemed that no one could really agree on how to treat modernist art, what the new Nazi art should encompass, or worse, who would have the right to veto or approve exhibitions.

In the early years of the anti-modernist crusade this confusion was apparent. Strangely enough, shortly before the Nazi takeover of power Hermann Göring had commissioned Otto Dix, later viciously singled out as a “degenerate” artist, to paint portraits of his children. Emile Nolde at first was embraced by the Nazis (he even became a member of the Nazi party) and then rejected as an outcast because Hitler found his art distasteful. Franz Radziwill, a realist painter who joined the Nazi party in 1933, was himself banned only two years later. And Goebbels had owned a sculpture by Ernst Barlach, who it seemed the Nazis could never make up their minds about, until Hitler expressed his hatred of Barlach’s work and made him persona non grata in the Nazi art world. Barlach had gone from representing Germany in the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair to having his works removed from churches and museums, and his drawings and books banned by 1936.

Also, on March 28, 1934 an exhibition of Italian avant-garde art opened in Berlin, entitled Aeropittura. The Italian Futurists featured works themed around airplanes in a modernist style, which provoked the opportunistic Nazi art critic Robert Scholz to write “Almost as in the hey-day of Marxism…decadent art is everywhere on the rise.” This is made all the more bizarre when one realizes that the Expressionist poet Gottfried Benn gave the opening exhibition speech and that Goebbels was on the honorary committee. Obviously, the regulations and decrees on art were not clearly understood or defined. The criteria for filtering out modernist art seemed to lay solely in the mind of Der Führer.

Apart from the attempts to regulate and control the exhibition of art, art criticism was also under attack. Goebbels issued a decree on November 27,1936 effectively banning all art criticism, a sentiment reiterated again in Hitler’s speech at the opening of the Great German Art Exhibition the following year: “… all these dumb, mendacious excuses, this claptrap or jabbering will no longer be accepted as excuses or even recommendations for worthless, integrally unskilled products.” The Nazis fully understood that art criticism would stand in the way of using Fascist art to sway the populace so they simply banned all criticism in the media.

In the pivotal year of 1933, the onslaught against modernist art was finally given free reign. After Hitler was appointed chancellor on January 30, he immediately set into action the chain of events to control art as an instrument of National Socialist dogma. On March 13 Joseph Goebbels was named Reich Minister for National Enlightenment and Propaganda, giving him the power to exercise a centralized state supervision of culture as well as the purging of “non-Aryans” (Jews) and anyone not faithful to Nazi dogma. In Decrees XXX to XXXIII, Goebbels was given unprecedented centralized power held previously by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Commerce, Agriculture, Posts and Communications. This condensed power over a vast area of society to one man, making Goebbels answerable only to Hitler. Music, the press, the stage, film, literature, art and every other conceivable cultural activity now became under his control.

The purge of art began. Previously in 1929, the Nazi Minister of the Interior for the state of Thuringia, Wilhelm Frick, had dismissed professors, museum directors, and most notably Walter Gropius and the entire faculty of the Bauhaus in Weimar, replacing him with the architect and racial theorist Paul Schultze-Naumburg.Schultze-Naumburg immediately ordered the destruction of Oskar Schlemmer’s murals in the Bauhaus school, as well as the removal of works by Kandinsky, Klee and Barlach from the Schlossmuseum in Weimar. His book Kunst und Rasse (Art and Race) described modern art as “entarte” (degenerate), further promoting Nazi cultural policies. When the Nazis took control in 1933, additional museum directors were removed from their positions across all of Germany and were replaced with party members. Artists such as Gropius, Kandinsky, and Klee fled Germany, and Beckmann, Dix, Hofer, Kollwtiz and many other artists were fired from their teaching positions. Any artist who did not hold a membership in the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture), formed in September, was effectively banned from practicing.

Figure 12:  Exhibitions viewers line up at the entrance of the Entartete kunst exhibition, 1937.

Figure 12: Exhibitions viewers line up at the entrance of the Entartete kunst exhibition, 1937.

The first of many smaller exhibitions decrying “degenerate” art and artists appeared already in April 1933 only one month after Goebbels took office.  Schandausstellungen exhibitions (exhibitions of shame) and Schreckenskammern der Kunst (chambers of horror of art) held in Mannheim and Dresden derided all of modern art. Other cities soon began following their example in sensationalistic, negative displays. These would be the forerunners for the grand exhibition of Entartete kunst (Degenerate art) of 1937 in Munich.

On June 30, 1937, Goebbels bestowed Adolf Ziegler as head of the Reichskammer der Bildenen Künst (Reich Chamber of Visual Art), to head a commission authorized to confiscate art from museums or collections that could be designated as subversive, modernist, or degenerate in any form. In the 1940 film Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), we are provided with a glimpse of the skewed logic used to justify this seizure of art:

“For the purity and neatness of the German concept of art the Jew, without roots of his own, has no feeling. What he calls art must gratify his deteriorating nerves. The stench of disease must pervade it. It [is] unnatural, grotesque, perverse, or pathological. These feverish fantasies of hopelessly sick minds were once extolled by Jewish art critics of German public life as high artistic expressions. Today it seems incredible that such pictures were once bought by nearly all our galleries. The Jewish art dealers and art critics praise them as the only real modern art. German public life was ‘niggerized’ and bastardized. Painting, architecture, literature and music suffered as well.”

Figure 13: Cramped exhibition space in the Entartete kunst exhibition.

Figure 13: Cramped exhibition space in the Entartete kunst exhibition.

It is estimated that at least 16,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings and other works were confiscated, with some estimates as high as 20,000, from private owners and museums. Jewish households, businesses, institutions, and museums, all were raided as the Nazis confiscated works of art, modernist or otherwise. 730 of these artworks by 112 artists found their way into the Entartete kunst exhibition that poignantly served to juxtapose the Great German Art Exhibition.

Opening on July 19 in Munich, the Entartete kunst exhibition was to be the trophy room of the wild safari hunt on modernist art by the Nazis [fig. 12]. Located in the former local of the Institute of Archeology, across the park from the House of German Art, the building was unsuitable to exhibit artworks but intentionally chosen with that in mind. Chaotically hung paintings, some taken from their frames, hung cramped next to one each other on walls with painted slogans such as “Crazy at any price!” or “Even museum bigwigs called this ‘art of the German people’”, deriding the museum curators who had purchased them. The ground floor and seven rooms were covered in white-boarded walls and stuffed with works presented, as in the Great German Art Exhibition, thematically. While the latter exhibition displayed works in a pleasing manner with flat, open surfaces surrounding the works, the Entartete kunst exhibition overwhelmed the visitor with a barrage of images and negative commentary, thrown tightly together in a stifling and extremely confined space [fig. 13].

Figure 14: Ludwig Gies, Kruzifixus (Crucified Christ), c.1921; wood; formerly in Lübeck Cathedral, probably destroyed.  Shown here in the hallway entrance landing in Room 1 of the Entartete kunst exhibition.

Figure 14: Ludwig Gies, Kruzifixus (Crucified Christ), c.1921; wood; formerly in Lübeck Cathedral, probably destroyed. Shown here in the hallway entrance landing in Room 1 of the Entartete kunst exhibition.

In the hallway above the stairs that led to the upper floor, visitors were met by Ludwig Gies’ Kruzifixus (Crucified Christ, 1921) [fig. 14], a wooden, carved sculpture showing the contorted figure of an abstract Christ with an obtruding ribcage, heralded by the text, “This horror hung as a war memorial in the cathedral of Lübeck.” It served as the introduction for Room 1 of the exhibition, devoted to religious art, on which the wall held the inscription, “Insolent mockery of the Divine under Centrist rule.” Religious works by Nolde, Beckmann, Rauh and others hung here. By contrast, there were no religious works shown at the Great German Art Exhibition. These were instead replaced naturally by images of the Führer [fig. 15].

Figure 15: Hubert Lanzinger, Der Bannerträger (The Flag Bearer), c. 1935. Oil on canvas.  Note the slashed face, apparently pierced by a U.S. soldier with a bayonet.

Figure 15: Hubert Lanzinger, Der Bannerträger (The Flag Bearer), c. 1935. Oil on canvas. Note the slashed face, apparently pierced by a U.S. soldier with a bayonet.

Room 2 was devoted to Jewish artists, and included Marc Chagall, Lasar Segal, Jankel Adler and others. Texts by Hitler and Rosenberg were hung on the wall, decrying “Jews and Marxists…the cultural Bolsheviks.” The banner “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul” introduced the room, and under each painting the name of the artist was written with the word “Jew”, and the artist’s position such as teacher or architect, in indignation that a Jewish artist could hold a position in German society. Room 3 held nude expressionist portraits and sculptures of women, with the slogan “An insult to German womanhood” and “The ideal – cretin and whore” painted above them. Quotes by artists, taken entirely out of context, were used to demonstrate their “criminal” nature, such as Georg Grosz’s “How does the artist rise in the bourgeoisie? By cheating.”

Figure 16: Adolf Hitler visiting the “Dada Wall” in the Entartete kunst exhibition.  Note that the paintings have been titled.

Figure 16: Adolf Hitler visiting the “Dada Wall” in the Entartete kunst exhibition. Note that the paintings have been titled.

A quote from Hitler’s speech at the Nuremburg rally, discrediting Dadaists, Cubists, Futurists and their like, was hung opposite the “Dada Wall” [fig. 16 & 17], mocking the movement by hanging paintings and works in a crooked manner (later straightened after Hitler’s visit during the opening of the exhibit). Remarkably, the entire exhibition had borrowed heavily from the First International Dada Fair exhibition of 1920 in its use of aggressive and provocative slogans scrawled on the walls and tilted presentations of works. Again, the irony of this seems to have passed the Nazis by.

Figure 17: The “Dada Wall” without the public, now with paintings positioned vertically.

Figure 17: The “Dada Wall” without the public, now with paintings positioned vertically.

All of the exhibition’s rooms were set up to be defamatory, each one showing works with derisive comments, leaving no room for misinterpretation. The ground floor hallway focused on portraits by Grosz, Dix, Kokoschka, Kandinsky, Schwitters and others, acknowledging Hans Prinzhorn’s 1922 book Bildnerei der Geistekranken (Image-making by the Mentally Ill). That book had made comparisons of faces of the mentally ill and retarded to portraits of Expressionist art [fig. 18], and the Nazis used photographs from it as an obvious reference to their genetic “degeneracy”. Prices were hung by each painting, at their exorbitant Weimar-era inflation prices and not their Nazi era equivalent, so as to further heighten the sense of outrage.  Confiscated books containing art prints were on display, and one ground floor hallway was devoted predominantly to the exhibition of woodcut prints and etchings [fig 19].

Any of the “isms” such as Dadaism, Surrealism, Impressionism, Expressionism or anything considered new or experimental, were all conveniently placed under the umbrella of “modernism”, including also New Objectivism and abstract art. All works shown in the exhibit were the prime examples of Hitler’s Säuberrungskrieg (cleansing war) against such art, described in his appropriated terminology simply as “degenerate” art.

Figure 18: Juxtaposition of works of “degenerate art by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Amedeo Modigliani and photographs of facial deformities, from Paul Schultze-Naumburg, Kunst and Rasse, 1928.

Figure 18: Juxtaposition of works of “degenerate art by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Amedeo Modigliani and photographs of facial deformities, from Paul Schultze-Naumburg, Kunst and Rasse, 1928.

The Entartete kunst exhibition closed its doors on November 30, four and a half months after its opening. Interest in the exhibition far surpassed the Exhibition of German Art, which received an estimated 400,000 to 800,000 visitors compared to Entartete kunst’s 2,009,899 participant viewers. As no art criticism existed, we cannot fairly judge German society’s true response to the works, but judging by the Entartete kunst’s continuing onwards as a traveling exhibition to 11 other cities (and drawing over 3,000,000 visitors), one is inclined to believe that the “degenerate” art won the round.

No doubt the sensationalist component portrayed by the organizers and the Nazis drew the curious. But the truth is that the art offered by the Nazis simply could not match the vibrancy of creative vision that the modernist artists offered.  Modernist art was forward looking, evolving and vibrant. Nazi art by contrast looked backwards, lacked creative insight, and asked no engaging questions of its viewers. It was stagnant, its themes bland and repetitive. In contrast, modernist art was exciting, challenging, and offered no easy, passive participation in the reading of its works. The sentimentality of Nazi art could not match the aggressiveness of the modernists. As the attendance figures reveal, interest was far higher in the “degenerate” art than in the state-dictated art of the Nazis.

Figure 19: Ground floor hallway, exhibiting prints and etchings by Expressionist artists in the Entartete kunst exhibition.

Figure 19: Ground floor hallway, exhibiting prints and etchings by Expressionist artists in the Entartete kunst exhibition.

Hitler and the Nazi artists sought to portray a mirror of their world, but theirs was a world built upon shaky ground. It was a world of illusion and imaginary social fantasies borne by the megalomaniac obsessions of that failed artist, who longed for a golden age that in reality never actually occurred. Utopias are by their very nature non-attainable, especially if they are represented in art works that are complicit to myths and lies. It is because of this that today the art of the Nazis is predominantly considered to be “bad art.” Its substance simply doesn’t hold to the light of day, no matter how good the technique is.

The destruction of “degenerate” works of art has been well documented and written about. Many were destroyed and the Nazis sold some off for much needed currency. Others works wound up hoarded in underground mines, hidden until being discovered by American soldiers. Not all of the works stolen have been found, but yearly we hear of found works being returned to their original owner’s families after lengthy legal battles. The works by Nazi artists for the most part remain hidden away in government storage units or relegated to the back rooms of museums, hardly if ever exhibited. The names of most of the artists closely associated with the Nazis remain ignored by the curators of museums, considered taboo or too unimportant to exhibit, and are only of interest to the art historian.

Today one needs simply to visit a German museum to see how the art of the Nazis has ultimately failed to make its mark or last as a valued contribution to its artistic heritage. Avant-garde artists permeate Berlin’s galleries and the vibrant atmosphere of creative impulses that the Nazis attempted to obliterate, now flourish. Hitler’s dream temple still exists, after modifying its name to simply Haus der Kunst. Inside, the works shown there now are contemporary and installation art, the antithesis of what Nazi art was. And magically enough, the remnants of certain modernist works buried by the Nazis have literally started ascending up from the ground. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, 11 sculptures once designated as “degenerate art” recently were discovered in the ruins of a cellar in Berlin, dug out by archeologists and are now placed in the Neues Museum. All were part of the Entartete kunst travelling exhibition. It seems modernism and “degenerate art” has triumphed after all.


Tom Garretson

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