NEW YORK CITY — Not long after the Nazis and Adolf Hitler seized control of Germany in 1933, they launched their infamous attacks on and defamation of avant-garde art. By late 1937 they had stripped 16,000 Modernist works by 1,400 artists from 32 museums and sent 650 to Munich for a huge exhibition, “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art).
Regardless of their political views, artists who worked in abstract, Cubist, Dada, Expressionist, Surrealist and other avant-garde styles were vilified, dismissed from teaching posts and had their artwork seized. It was a shameful national policy pursued with brute force.
The infamous display was recreated in 1991 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, curated by Stephanie Barron. It is now showcased in “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” on view at the Neue Galerie through June 30. Organized by art historian Olaf Peters, it comprises approximately 50 paintings and sculptures, 30 works on paper and several posters, as well as photographs and other memorabilia. One room contrasts so-called “Degenerate Art” with art officially sanctioned by the Nazis, such as Adolf Ziegler’s insipid triptych “The Four Elements,” owned by Hitler.
Among the artists named as degenerates were such major figures as Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Emil Nolde. The aim of the notorious exhibition was to clarify for the German public, by means of denigration and derision, what kind of avant-garde art was unacceptable in the Third Reich. Of the 112 artists included in “Entartete Kunst,” only six were Jewish, in spite of widespread Nazi propaganda that Modern art was promoted by a small, Jewish clique at the expense of real “German art.”
The anti-Modernist art exhibition was preceded in Munich by a large display ordered by Hitler hoping to showcase the artistic achievements of National Socialist Germany in Munich’s House of German Art. But the quality of this officially sanctioned Nazi art was low, much of it hackwork versions of Nineteenth Century landscapes, genre scenes and nudes, as was recognized by many, including Hitler. Propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels reported that “The Fuhrer is wild with rage” about the mediocre art on view, which drew fewer than 500,000 visitors.
Speaking at the opening of the Great German Art exhibition, Hitler acknowledged that developing a new German art would take time. As Peters observes, “It was primarily the disappointment over the desolate state of the arts in the Third Reich that led to the ‘Entartete Kunst’ exhibition and action.”
The Degenerate Art exhibition nearby attracted unprecedented crowds: during its four-month run in Munich “Entartete Kunst” averaged 20,000 visitors daily, totaling an estimated two million. Nearly a million more saw the exhibition during its three-year tour of Germany and Austria.
The polarization of the avant-garde by the National Socialists started with public book-burnings soon after they assumed power in 1933, followed by the visual arts. Nazi henchmen under Goebbels decided what was acceptable or undesirable in all aspects of Germany’s cultural life. “This elevation of art to such a major role in a totalitarian society was without historical precedent, other than in the Soviet Union,” Barron observes. While Hitler had been an unsuccessful painter in Vienna, the preoccupation of the Nazis with what curator Peters calls “cultural cannibalism” went far beyond the Fuhrer’s frustrated art career.
The hastily organized exhibition of 650 “degenerate” artworks was conducted in the cramped quarters of Munich’s former archaeological institute, with paintings and sculpture packed haphazardly floor-to-ceiling. All currents of Modern art since the turn of the Twentieth Century were represented, but Expressionism dominated. Derisive comments linking artists to mental illnesses, demagogic slogans and inflated sales prices were interspersed with the art to make sure viewers condemned what they saw.
In some ways the “star” of the degenerate artists was Emil Nolde (born Emil Hansen, 1867–1956), a German-Danish Expressionist known for his vigorous brushwork and flamboyant choice of colors. Although an early member of the National Socialists and an anti-Semite, Nolde’s efforts to ingratiate himself with the Nazi leadership failed. His art was condemned and 1,052 works were confiscated from museums, more than by any other artist. A number of his garish, distorted but appealing paintings became a special focus of the “Degenerate Art” exhibition, notably “Red-Haired Girl” and a powerful woodcut, “Prophet.” Prohibited by the Nazis from painting at all, he worked secretly in watercolors.
Distancing himself from his Nazi past after the war, Nolde was hailed as the grand old man of German art, exhibiting widely and receiving honors. One of his paintings sold in 2012 for more than $3 million.
Another prime target of Nazi opprobrium, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938), suffered a breakdown while serving the German army in World War I, and spent much of his life in and out of sanitariums. He was a founder of the artists group Die Brucke (The Bridge), which preceded Expressionism. Kirchner is best known for vividly colored, Cubist-inflected street scenes populated by angular, distorted figures that captured the pulsating energy of modern Berlin.
The National Socialists forced Kirchner to resign from his teaching position in 1933. Later, more than 600 of his works were confiscated from museums; 25 were displayed in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition. These events exacerbated Kirchner’s chronic depression and in 1938 he committed suicide. Today, Kirchner’s work is highly prized: in 2003, a Berlin streetscape fetched $38 million at auction.
Another major Expressionist artist targeted by the Nazis was Austrian-born Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980), who trained in Vienna. He was severely wounded in World War I and became known for intense portraits and landscapes that astonished and shocked the public.
A highly imaginative Expressionist, Kokoschka’s penetrating portraits and self-portraits achieved psychological and emotional depth through vigorous brushwork, nervous tense lines and luminous colors that captured and exaggerated telling features or gestures. An outspoken opponent of the Nazis, he left Germany frequently to live abroad. Learning that 417 of his paintings were confiscated for the “Entartete Kunst” exhibition, he painted “Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist.” Thereafter he turned to antifascist and human rights themes.
Singled out by the Nazis for particular denigration was Otto Dix (1891–1969), a German painter and printmaker noted for his ruthless, harshly realistic depictions of the brutality of war and the excesses of Weimar society. An enthusiastic volunteer for military service in 1914, he saw action as a machine gunner, was wounded several times and earned medals.
Emerging from combat with a scathing view of mankind, Dix created works chronicling the savagery of war, including a portfolio of 50 shockingly graphic etchings. Combining Expressionist distortion with luminous colors and realistic attention to detail, he also focused on postwar decadence, depicting crippled veterans, war profiteers and prostitutes. In 1933, Dix was stripped of his honors and teaching position by the Nazis, who seized 260 works from public collections, 26 of which appeared in the Munich extravaganza. After 1945, his paintings focused on postwar suffering or religious allegories, and he received many honors.
Dix is often linked to another “degenerate,” George Grosz, who combined a violent Expressionism with graphic precision in unsparingly realistic images about the evils of German militarism, capitalist corruption and fascism. Traumatized by combat experiences in World War I, he created biting, satirical works depicting urban life as a rat race fueled by stupidity. Grosz joined the German Communist Party, was prominent in the Berlin Dada movement, emigrated to the United States in the 1930s and became an American citizen. Declared by the Nazis an “enemy of the state,” his works were confiscated and shown in the “Degenerate Art” show.
Another prime target for the Nazis, Max Beckmann (1884–1950), witnessed the carnage of World War I as a medic, and took up Expressionism to “reproach God for his errors.” His best-known works explore the tumultuous political and social landscape of pre-1939 Germany in emotionally charged compositions filled with dark outlines, exaggerated color and distorted, angular forms.
Stripped of his teaching position by the Nazis, who seized 600 of his works, Beckmann’s 10 paintings and 12 prints made him the most heavily represented artist in the infamous Munich exhibition. The day after it opened, Beckmann fled to Amsterdam and eventually the United States.
Another prime target for defamation, Oskar Schlemmer (1888–1943) was an innovative German painter, sculptor, stage designer, art theorist and influential teacher at the Bauhaus. A major figure in the German art world until the Nazis came to power, he was dismissed from his teaching position, his works in public institutions were either removed or destroyed, and he retreated to the countryside. Five of his works were included in the “Degenerate Art” show, including two abstract sculptures and a painting of typically stylized females. Regaining favor after the war, Schlemmer’s varied artistic oeuvre is once more admired.
Among the foreign-born artists labeled as degenerate, two standouts are Schlemmer’s colleagues at the Bauhaus: American-born Lyonel Feininger (1871–1856) and Swiss native Paul Klee (1879–1940). Born and raised in New York, Feininger moved as a teenager to Germany, where he became a leading practitioner of German Expressionism and later an instructor at the Bauhaus. His distinctive, prismatic style featured faceted planes, overlapping architectural forms and multidimensional pictorial structures.
He was hounded by the Nazis, and 410 of his works were removed from public collections, 22 of which were displayed in the “Entartete Kunst” exhibition. Feininger fled to the United States, where he taught and his art eventually gained both public and critical recognition.
His Bauhaus compatriot Klee divided his time between Switzerland and Germany, developing a highly individual style that was childlike yet deeply meditative. Working both in watercolor and oil, often employing unusual color schemes, he depicted fishermen, suspended fish, moon faces, eyes and arrows. At the end of 1933, the National Socialists sacked him from a professorial post, commandeered 102 of his artworks in public collections and exhibited 16 in the Munich show.
Sculptors condemned by the Nazis included Ernst Barlach (1870–1938), who denounced Hitler’s artistic repression and heroically created moving antiwar sculptures; Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881–1919), a German Jew who exhibited two elongated female nudes at the Armory Show of 1913; and Rudolf Belling (1886–1972), a pioneering abstractionist, who fled to Turkey in the face of Nazi denunciations.
While efforts of the now-celebrated Monuments Men and fair-minded museums and dealers has resulted in the return of some “degenerate” works to their owners, many continue to be in dispute or missing. This is a final chapter in the shameful Nazi plot to eradicate Modern art, a horrific episode effectively showcased in this revelatory exhibition.
The 320-page catalog is lavishly illustrated and contains comprehensive insights into the evolution of the dastardly Nazi plan. Published by Prestel Verlag, it sells for $60, hardcover,
Neue Galerie is at 1048 Fifth Avenue. For information, www.neuegalerie.org or 212-628-6200.