The term Degenerate Art (German: Entarte Kunst), 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" artworks took place in cities including Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig. In addition to this ridicule, the Mazi's forbade artists branded with the term from exhibiting or holding teaching posts.

Paul Klee Gespenst eines Genies [Ghost of a Genius] 1922

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 didn’t 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.

Artists

Jankel Adler
1895 - 1949
Ernst Barlach
1870 - 1938
Max Beckmann
1884 - 1950
Otto Dix
1891 - 1969
Max Ernst
1891 - 1976
George Grosz
1893 - 1959
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
1880 - 1938
Paul Klee
1879 - 1940
Oskar Kokoschka
1886 - 1980
El Lissitzky
1890 - 1941
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
1895 - 1946
Piet Mondrian
1872 - 1944
Emil Nolde
1867 - 1956
Kurt Schwitters
1887 - 1948
Pablo Picasso
1881 - 1973

Glossary terms

  • A literary and artistic movement that sought to challenge conventions through the exploration of the subconscious mind, invoking the power of dreams and elements of chance. It is now regarded as one of the most radical movements of the 20th century.

  • A radical artistic and literary movement that was a reaction against the cultural climate that supported the First World War. The Dadaists took an anti-establishment attitude, questioning art's status and favouring performance and collage over traditional art techniques. Many Dadaists went on to become involved with Surrealism.

  • A style that made an impact in the arts in the 1920s, particularly in Germany. Expressionists abandoned realistic, accurate representations in favour of exaggerations and distortions of line and colour that were intended to carry far greater emotional impact.

  • A German art movement of the 1920s and early 1930s. It was partly a response to the experience of the First World War, with images containing elements of satire and social commentary. Stylistically it was sober and restrained, moving away from Expressionism to depictions based on close observation. Major figures associated with this style are George Grosz and Otto Dix.

  • A style of painting originated by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Instead of painting a figure or object from a fixed position they represented it from multiple viewpoints.