The term Degenerate Art ('Entarte Kunst' in German), was coined in the 1930s by the Nazis to ridicule modern art that did not fit with Hitler’s vision'. Confiscated by the German government, exhibitions of 'Degenerate' art took place in cities including Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig. In addition to this ridicule, the Nazi's banned artists branded with the term from exhibiting or holding teaching posts.
Degenerate Art: A Ruthless Campaign
In 1937, Adolf Hitler committed one of the worst atrocities in the history of western art, aiming to purge so called ‘degenerate’ art from Germany by removing all traces of any art deemed undesirable by the Fascists. Between 1937 and 1939 around 21,000 art objects were removed from German state collections, including masterpieces by many of the world’s most important artists and a series of defamatory exhibitions were staged, humiliating and rejecting artists who did not adhere to a set of strict criteria.
Degenerate Art Exhibitions
Not long after Hitler’s accession in 1933 he began a campaign to destroy Germany’s burgeoning avant-garde art. Initially he organised a series of private ‘Schandausstellungen’ or ‘shame exhibitions’, to humiliate modern artists whose work did not fit with the ideals of National Socialism; their work was displayed alongside that of psychotic patients and subjected to vicious ridicule by the press. Otto Dix featured regularly and his war cripples and brutally honest women were deemed ‘insufficiently patriotic’. Cruel sanctions were put in place in an attempt to forbid the creation of art not approved by the Nazi party and the Jewish race was linked with a so-called ‘decline’ in modern art.
In 1937 the Third Reich displayed two exhibitions in order to dictate to the German public the difference between ‘degenerate’ and ‘great’ art. The Great German Art exhibition was staged at Hitler’s purpose-built gallery, Haus der Deutsche Kunst in Munich on the 18 July 1937. Degenerate Art was held at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hofgarten the following day, showcasing the Nazi’s stolen artworks, arranged in an ad hoc display along with derogatory titles such as ‘madness becomes method’ and ‘revelation of the Jewish racial soul.’ After its display in Munich, the exhibition toured to other cities across Germany.
Which artworks were confiscated?
Hitler’s campaign against German avant-garde art included the confiscation of masterpieces in Expressionism, Surrealism, Dada, Cubism, New Objectivity and Fauvism, which were removed from German art institutions or stolen from private collections to be burned or sold abroad. Such artworks included paintings and sculptures by many of the greatest masters in modern art, including Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, Edvard Munch, Oskar Kokoschka, Paul Klee, Ernst Barlach and Emil Nolde.
All of Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka’s artworks were removed from German institutions and he was later forced to flee from Germany to London. His intense, psychological portraits include his defiant Self Portrait of a Degenerate Artist, 1937. Nearly 400 of the German sculptor Ernst Barlach’s sculptures were removed from German museums and he titled his sculpture Das Schlimme Jahr (the Terrible Year), 1937, in direct response to Hitler’s Degenerate Art exhibition.
What happened to the stolen artworks?
Many of the artworks that were stolen were destroyed or will never be retrieved. Some were auctioned in Switzerland in 1939, while other works were sold to private dealers to finance the Nazi party. It is thought around 5,000 works were secretly burned in Berlin in around 1939.