A Brief History of Degenerate Art

December 22, 2011 MuseumChick

This article was submitted by Lori Hutchison. She owns the site Masters in History (a fantastic resource for those looking to advance their education in history and humanities) and is an Art History Professor.

Adolf Hitler did many terrible things when he ruled Nazi Germany. But one of the horrors we don’t often hear about is what he did to the art world.

Hitler’s personal feelings about what “art” should be were influenced by his anti-Semitic beliefs. He preferred classical Greek and Roman art, because he thought it embodied a racial ideal. On the other hand, any type of art that had primitive, abstract, or modern characteristics was labeled as “degenerate.” According to Hitler, any artwork that was indecipherable, distorted, or represented “depraved” subject matter was inherently Jewish in nature.

In 1937, the Nazi party seized thousands of so-called “degenerate” works from German museums. In order to educate the public about the “evils” of modern art, Nazi officials held an exhibition of 650 works in Munich, which was called “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) and which opened on July 19, 1939.

The pictures were crowded together on the walls, sometimes unframed and hung by cords. There were also slogans painted on the walls mocking the art such as “An insult to German womanhood” and “Nature as seen by sick minds.” Certain artistic movements such as Dada, Surrealism, and Expressionism were criticized in particular.

After the exhibition opened, Goebbels ordered a more thorough confiscation of German artworks. Over 17,000 works of art were confiscated from German museums in total.

Some notable artists whose works were shown at the exhibition include Wassily Kandinsky, Max Beckmann, Franz Marc, Piet Mondrian, Otto Dix, Marc Chagall, and Paul Klee. Even some works by Picasso, Matisse, and van Gogh couldn’t avoid the hand of the Nazis.

Interestingly, another exhibition was held around the same time to show off the art that was approved by the Nazi regime. However, this exhibition was only viewed by a quarter of the number of people who had gone to see the “Entartete Kunst” exhibition.

So what happened to the “degenerate” artists and their art after the exhibition? Many of the artists had to flee the country. Those who remained in Germany were forbidden from creating art or teaching at universities. Some, such as Ernst Kirchner, committed suicide.

The artworks themselves were sold at auction in Switzerland to be bought by museums and private collectors. Some pieces were actually kept by Nazi officials; Göring took fourteen pieces, including one by Van Gogh. Sadly, many of the artwork that didn’t sell at auction was burned in bonfires.

Since the collapse of the Nazi regime, some artwork has actually been found buried underground. Just in 2010, a number of sculptures from the exhibition were found in Berlin when work was being done to extend an underground line. Nevertheless, many other pieces have been lost to history.


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