Degenerate art: The art the Nazis hated

A new exhibition in New York puts some of the Third Reich’s despised ‘degenerate art’ on display. Alastair Sooke compares it with some works the Nazis loved.

One summer’s day in 1937, Hitler’s favourite artist, Adolf Ziegler, gave a speech in his role as president of the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts at the opening of the most shameful exhibition in the history of art. “You see around us monstrosities of madness, of impudence, of inability and degeneration,” he said, referring to around 600 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, which he had helped to select for the infamous ‘Entartete Kunst’, or ‘degenerate art’, exhibition that the Nazis staged in Munich. “What this show has to offer causes shock and disgust in all of us.”

Inside the dingy and claustrophobic plaster-cast galleries of the Institute of Archaeology in the city centre’s Hofgarten, visitors were invited to mock modernist artists including Kandinsky, Klee and Kirchner, whose work did not chime with the ideology of the National Socialist Party. There was no catalogue or guidebook but instead derisive slogans, many of them anti-Semitic, were painted on the walls.

Encouraged to ridicule the avant-garde, the German public thronged the venue. By the time the exhibition closed four months later, more than 2m people or nearly 24,000 visitors a day had supposedly visited it – although some historians now contest this figure, which was probably exaggerated by Nazi propagandists. Whatever the correct number, though, there is no doubt that the degenerate art exhibition was uproariously popular. After it closed in Munich, it toured various German cities, including Berlin, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Leipzig, as well as Salzburg and Vienna in Austria.

“By telling Germans what art is the right art and what art is subversive, the Nazis could move on to say what people are the right people, what religions are the right religions, and eventually who could live and who could die,” explains the American businessman and cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, president of the Neue Galerie New York. The museum’s major exhibition Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 opens later this month.

The curator of the exhibition, Olaf Peters, says it will shed new light on the subject. It shows that the Munich show was the brainchild not of Hitler, who visited it only once and stayed for less than 10 minutes, but of Joseph Goebbels, the Führer’s chief propagandist, who in private was surprisingly sympathetic to Expressionism. And it was assembled hastily, in little more than a month.

Today, the repercussions of this exhibition are still being felt. The year after the Munich show, a Nazi commission employed four art dealers, including Hildebrand Gurlitt of Hamburg, to raise money by selling confiscated works of art that had been branded degenerate. Last year it was revealed that German authorities had discovered hundreds of artworks looted by the Nazis in a decrepit apartment in Munich owned by Gurlitt’s son.

Rogues’ gallery

While the degenerate art exhibition remains notorious, the story of another Nazi-sponsored show that took place in Munich in 1937 is less well known. On 18 July, the day before Ziegler gave his bitter speech denouncing the modernist “pigs” whose work had been gathered in the Hofgarten, Hitler spoke at the opening ceremony of the first Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition, or GDK) in the nearby Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), a neoclassical pile fronted with a colonnade of imposing columns that was built to showcase art championed by the Third Reich. Between 1937 and 1944, the GDK would exhibit work by almost 2,500 Nazi-approved artists. If the degenerate art exhibition presented the objects of the Nazis’ hatred, then the GDK provided a platform for the art they loved.

What did it look like? “It was a weak mixture of 19th Century naturalism and neoclassicism, not very well painted, and more often than not executed to be reproduced in newspapers rather than to be experienced in the original,” says Peters. Hewill show several artworks included in the first GDK. One of these will be Ziegler’s monumentally kitsch triptych The Four Elements (1937), which belonged to Hitler, who hung it above his fireplace in the Führerbau in Munich for many years. In the three panels of this painting, which was frequently reproduced in Nazi Germany, four naked women represent fire, water, earth and air. Rendered with meticulous precision, they appear like academic nudes and are typical of the Nordic ideal of beauty beloved of Hitler.

“We have some of the ‘best’ Nazi works collected by Hitler or other Nazi leaders in our show,” says Peters, who does not believe that they are blessed with artistic merit. “There have been no relevant Nazi artists in the history of art. [The sculptor Arno] Breker, [the painter Adolf] Wissel, Ziegler: all are minor figures with some qualities, but irrelevant.”

During his speech at the inaugural GDK, Hitler said that with the construction of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst, the ground had been prepared “for a new and truly German art”. “With the opening of this exhibition, the end of the mockery of German art and thus of the cultural destruction of our people has begun. From now on, we will wage a pitiless, purifying war against the last elements of our cultural decay.” His chilling words would prove ironic. In the years that followed, the GDK was filled with thousands of timid daubers and conservative hacks who would never have thrived had their more talented modernist contemporaries not been so ruthlessly suppressed. In the end, it was within the Haus der Deutschen Kunst rather than the Hofgarten that the cultural decay of the Third Reich would truly fester and rot.

Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph.

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