The Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937

Jun 14, 2021 0 comments

Not everybody gets modern art. From Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans to a banana stuck to the wall, there are plenty of examples from the perplexing world of contemporary artwork that defies logic. While most people, when confronted by a piece of cubism or surrealism that’s not to their taste, would simply shrug their shoulders and walk away, Hitler chose to destroy any art that he didn’t like.

Visitors look at works in the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich, which opened on July 19,1937. Pictured are Lovis Corinth's Ecce homo(second from left) and Franz Marc's Tower of the Blue Horses (wall at right), next to Wilhelm Lehmbruck's sculpture Kneeling Woman. Photo: Museum of Modern Art

As soon as Hitler came to power in January 1933, he began cleansing the culture of degeneracy, starting with book burning events. Soon, artists and musicians were dismissed from teaching positions, and curators who had shown a partiality for modern art were replaced by Party members. In September 1933, Hitler established the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Culture Chamber) headed by Joseph Goebbels, although secretly Goebbels and some other members of the Party admired Expressionist works of art. This led to some tension within the party which was settled only in September 1934, when Hitler, who denounced modern art and its practitioners as “incompetents, cheats and madmen”, declared that there would be no place for modernist experimentation in the Reich.

It was Hitler who decided what was modern and what was acceptable art. Once a jury made a selection of artworks for display at the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung ("Great German Art Exhibition") to showcase art approved by the Nazis. When the works they selected for the exhibition were shown to Hitler for his approval, he flew into a rage. Hitler dismissed the jury and appointed his personal photographer to make a new selection.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Street, Berlin”, 1913

To please Hitler, Goebbels conceived the idea of a separate exhibition of “degenerate art” so that “the people can see and understand.” He appointed a six-man commission and instructed it to confiscate from museums and art collections throughout the Reich, any remaining art deemed modern, degenerate, or subversive. Goebbels chose art specifically from the Weimer era, which he called the “era of decay”. Under the Weimar government of the 1920s, Germany had emerged as a leading center of the avant-garde. It was the birthplace of Expressionism in painting and sculpture, of the atonal musical compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, and the jazz-influenced work of Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill. Masterpieces such as Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) brought Expressionism to cinema.

Emil Nolde, “Jesus Christ and the sinner,” 1926

Goebbels’s men seized over five thousand works of art, including more than a thousand by Nolde, 759 by Heckel, 639 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and 508 by Max Beckmann, as well as smaller numbers of works by such artists as Alexander Archipenko, Marc Chagall, James Ensor, Albert Gleizes, Henri Matisse, Jean Metzinger, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh.

The Degenerate Art Exhibition (Entartete Kunst) contained a total of 650 paintings, sculptures, prints, and books opened in the Institute of Archaeology in the Hofgarten. It was not an elegant exhibition. The building was dark, with narrow staircases and small rooms, which were deliberately overfilled and the works displayed in a chaotic manner. Pictures were crowded together, sometimes unframed, usually hung by cord and partially covered by derogatory slogans. The first three rooms were grouped thematically. The first room contained works considered demeaning of religion; the second featured works by Jewish artists in particular; the third contained works deemed insulting to the women, soldiers and farmers of Germany. The rest of the exhibit had no particular theme.

Goebbels viewing the Degenerate Art exhibition.

A parallel show, the “Great German Art Exhibition” (Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung), was organized to take place simultaneously to the Entartete Kunst. Held to display the work of art approved by the Reich, it made its premiere amid much pageantry at the palatial Haus der deutschen Kunst (House of German Art). Yet, Entartete Kunst received nearly three and a half times more visitor than the nearby Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung.

The Degenerate Art Exhibition stayed in Hofgarten for four months, after which it moved Berlin and 11 other cities in Germany and Austria.

Many avant-garde German artists whose works were showcased at the Degenerate Art Exhibition went into exile out of fear for their life. Max Beckmann fled to Amsterdam on the opening day of the Entartete Kunst exhibit. Max Ernst emigrated to America while Ernst Ludwig Kirchner committed suicide in Switzerland. A leading German dealer, Alfred Flechtheim, died penniless in exile in London.

Front cover of the guide for the infamous "Degenerate Art Exhibition". Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Reich Culture Chamber forbade artists such as Edgar Ende and Emil Nolde from purchasing painting materials. Those who remained in Germany were forbidden to work at universities and were subject to surprise raids by the Gestapo in order to ensure that they were not violating the ban on producing artwork. Others, like Otto Dix, changed their style so as not to provoke authorities.

After the exhibition, nearly 4,000 artwork were burned. About 300 of the exhibited works were purchased by art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who had reported them destroyed by bombardments, but secretly stacked them away These works resurfaced in 2013. The couple Sophie and Emanuel Fohn, also managed to save about 250 works by ostracized artists. The collection was handed over to the Bavarian State Painting Collections in 1964.

A number of sculptures and paintings from the degenerate art exhibition are now in display at various museums around the world.

Max Beckmann's Descent from the Cross (1917) (center) among other paintings by Beckmann, Emil Nolde, and Paul Thalheimer in the Degenerate Art exhibition. Photo: Museum of Modern Art

Photo: Museum of Modern Art


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