Degenerate art is the English translation of the German entartete Kunst, a term adopted by the Nazi regime in Germany to describe virtually all modern art. Such art was banned on the grounds that it was "un-German" or "Jewish Bolshevist" in nature, and those identified as degenerate artists were subjected to sanctions, including dismissal from teaching positions. Others were prevented from exhibiting or selling their art; in some cases they were even forbidden from producing art.
Degenerate Art was also the title of an exhibition, mounted by the Nazis in Munich in 1937, consisting of modernist artworks chaotically hung and accompanied by text labels deriding the art. Designed to inflame public opinion against modernism, the exhibition subsequently traveled to several other cities in Germany and Austria.
While modern styles of art were prohibited, the Nazis promoted paintings and sculptures that were narrowly traditional in manner and that exalted the "blood and soil" values of racial purity, militarism, and obedience. They called this style of Romantic realism Heroic art. Similarly, music was expected to be tonal and free of jazz influence; films and plays were censored.
The early twentieth century was a period of wrenching changes in the arts. In the visual arts, such innovations as cubism, Dada, and surrealism, following hot on the heels of symbolism, post-Impressionism, and Fauvism, were not universally appreciated. The majority of people in Germany, as elsewhere, did not care for the new art which many resented as elitist, morally suspect and too often incomprehensible (Adam 1992, 29).
Germany had emerged as a leading center of the avant-garde, 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. Robert Wiene's film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang's Metropolis brought expressionism to cinema.
The Nazis viewed the culture of the Wiemar period with reactionary disgust. Their response stemmed partly from conservative aesthetic taste and partly from their determination to use culture as a propaganda tool (Adam 1992, 110). On both counts, a painting such as Otto Dix's War Cripples (1920) was anathema to them. It unsparingly depicts four badly disfigured veterans of the First World War, then a familiar sight on Berlin's streets, rendered in caricatured style. Featured in the Degenerate Art exhibition, it would hang next to a label accusing Dix, himself a volunteer in World War I, of "an insult to the German heroes of the great war" (Barron 1991, 54).
As dictator, Adolf Hitler gave his personal taste in art the force of law to a degree never before seen. Only in Stalin's Soviet Union, where Socialist realism was the mandatory style, had a state shown such concern with regulation of the arts (Barron 1991, 10). In the case of Germany, the model was to be classical Greek and Roman art, seen by Hitler as an art whose exterior form embodied an inner racial ideal (Grosshans 1983, 87).
The reason for this, as Henry Grosshans points out, is that Hitler "saw Greek and Roman art as uncontaminated by Jewish influences. Modern art was [seen as] an act of aesthetic violence by the Jews against the German spirit. Such was true to Hitler even though only Max Liebermann, Ludwig Meidner, Otto Freundlich, and Marc Chagall, among those who made significant contributions to the German modernist movement, were Jewish. But Hitler [...] took upon himself the responsibility of deciding who, in matters of culture, thought and acted like a Jew." (Grosshans 1983, 86).
The supposedly "Jewish" nature of all art that was indecipherable, distorted, or that represented "depraved" subject matter was explained through the concept of degeneracy, which held that distorted and corrupted art was a symptom of an inferior race. By propagating the theory of degeneracy, the Nazis combined their anti-semitism with their drive to control the culture, thus consolidating public support for both campaigns (Barron 1991, 83)
The term Entartung (or "degeneracy") had gained currency in Germany by the late nineteenth century when the critic and author Max Nordau devised the theory presented in his 1892 book, Entartung (Barron 1991, 26). Nordau drew upon the writings of the criminologist Cesare Lombroso, whose The Criminal Man, published in 1876, attempted to prove that there were "born criminals" whose atavistic personality traits could be detected by scientifically measuring abnormal physical characteristics, particularly facial features. Nordau developed from this premise a critique of modern art, explained as the work of those so corrupted and enfeebled by modern life that they have lost the self-control needed to produce coherent works. He attacked Aestheticism in English literature and described the mysticism of the Symbolist movement in French literature as a product of mental pathology. Explaining the painterliness of Impressionism as the sign of a diseased visual cortex, he decried modern degeneracy while praising traditional German culture. Despite the fact that Nordau was Jewish (as was Lombroso), his pseudoscientific theory of artistic degeneracy would be seized upon by German National Socialists during the Weimar Republic as a rallying point for their anti-semitic and racist demand for Aryan purity in art.
Belief in a Germanic spirit—defined as mystical, rural, moral, bearing ancient wisdom, noble in the face of a tragic destiny—existed long before the rise of the Nazis; the chauvinism of Richard Wagner exemplifies the Nordic myth (Adam 1992, 23-24). Beginning before World War I the well-known German architect and painter Paul Schultze-Naumburg's influential writings, which invoked racial theories in condemning modern art and architecture, supplied much of the basis for Adolf Hitler's belief that classical Greece and the Middle Ages were the true sources of Aryan art (Adam 1992, 29-32). Schultze-Naumburg subsequently wrote such books as Die Kunst der Deutschen. Ihr Wesen und ihre Werke (The art of the Germans. Their nature and their factories) and Kunst und Rasse (Art and Race), the latter published in 1928, in which he argued that only "racially pure" artists could produce a healthy art which upheld timeless ideals of classical beauty, while racially "mixed" modern artists produced disordered artworks and monstrous depictions of the human form. By reproducing examples of modern art next to photographs of people with deformities and diseases, he graphically reinforced the idea of modernism as a sickness (Grosshans 1983, 9). Alfred Rosenberg developed this theory in Der Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts (Myth of the Twentieth Century), published in 1933, which became a best-seller in Germany and made Rosenberg the Party's leading ideological spokesman (Adam 1992, 33).
Hitler's rise to power on January 31, 1933 was quickly followed by actions intended to cleanse the culture of degeneracy: book burnings were organized, artists and musicians were dismissed from teaching positions, and curators who had shown a partiality to modern art were replaced by Party members (Adam 1992, 52). In September 1933 the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Culture Chamber) was established, with Josef Goebbels, Hitler's Reichminister für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda (Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda) in charge. Subchambers within the Culture Chamber, representing the individual arts (music, film, literature, architecture, and the visual arts) were created; these were membership groups consisting of "racially pure" artists supportive of the Party, or willing to be compliant. Goebbels made it clear: "In future only those who are members of a chamber are allowed to be productive in our cultural life. Membership is open only to those who fulfill the entrance condition. In this way all unwanted and damaging elements have been excluded" (Adam 1992, 53). By 1935 the Reich Culture Chamber had 100,000 members (Adam 1992, 53).
Nonetheless there was, during the period 1933-1934, some confusion within the Party on the question of Expressionism. Goebbels and some others believed that the forceful works of such artists as Emil Nolde, Ernst Barlach and Erich Heckel represented the "Nordic spirit," and Goebbels even tried—unsuccessfully—to persuade the half-Jewish director Fritz Lang to head the Culture Chamber for Film. Goebbels explained, "We National Socialists are not unmodern; we are the carrier of a new modernity, not only in politics and in social matters, but also in art and intellectual matters" (Adam 1992, 56). However, a faction led by Rosenberg despised the Expressionists, leading to a bitter ideological dispute which was settled only in September 1934, when Hitler declared that there would be no place for modernist experimentation in the Reich (Grosshans 1983, 73-74).
By 1937, the concept of degeneracy was firmly entrenched in Nazi policy. On June 30 of that year Goebbels put Adolf Ziegler, the head of the Reichskammer dur Bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of Visual Art), in charge of a six-man commission authorized to confiscate from museums and art collections throughout the Reich, any remaining art deemed modern, degenerate, or subversive. These works were then to be presented to the public in an exhibit intended to incite further revulsion against the "perverse Jewish spirit" penetrating German culture (Adam 1992, 123)
Over 5,000 works were seized, including 1,052 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, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh (Adam 1992, 121-122). The Entartete Kunst exhibit, featuring over 650 paintings, sculptures, prints, and books from the collections of 32 German museums, premiered in Munich on July 19, 1937 and remained on view until November 30 before travelling to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria.
The exhibit was held on the second floor of a building formerly occupied by the Institute of Archaeology. Viewers had to reach the exhibit by means of a narrow staircase. The first sculpture was an oversized, theatrical portrait of Jesus, which purposely intimidated viewers as they literally bumped into it in order to enter. The rooms were made of temporary partitions and deliberately chaotic and overfilled. Pictures were crowded together, sometimes unframed, usually hung by cord.
The first three rooms were grouped thematically. The first room contained works allegedly demeaning of religion; the second featured works by Jewish artists in particular; the third contained works considered insulting to the women, soldiers and farmers of Germany. The rest of the exhibit had no particular theme.
There were slogans painted on the walls:
Speeches of Nazi party leaders contrasted with artist manifestos from various art movements, such as Dada and Surrealism. Next to many paintings were labels indicating how much money a museum spent to acquire the artwork. In the case of paintings acquired during the post-war Weimar hyperinflation of the early 1920s, when a loaf of bread cost trillions of German marks, the prices of the paintings were of course greatly exaggerated. The entire exhibit was designed to promote the idea that modernism was a conspiracy by people who hated German decency, frequently identified as "Jewish-Bolshevist," although only six of the 112 artists included in the exhibition were in fact Jewish (Barron 1991, 9).
A few weeks after the opening of the exhibition, Goebbels ordered a second and more thorough scouring of German art collections; inventory lists indicate that the artworks seized in this second round, combined with those gathered prior to the exhibition, amounted to some 16,558 works (Barron 1991, 47-48).
Coinciding with the Entartete Kunst exhibition, the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German art exhibition) made its premiere amid much pageantry. This exhibition, held at the palatial Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), displayed the work of officially approved artists such as Arno Breker and Adolf Wissel. At the end of four months Entartete Kunst had attracted over two million visitors, nearly three and a half times the number that visited the nearby Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Adam 1992, 124-125).
Avant-garde German artists were now branded both enemies of the state and a threat to German culture. Many went into exile. Max Beckmann fled to Amsterdam on the opening day of the entartete Kunst exhibit (Schulz-Hoffmann and Weiss 1984, 461). Max Ernst emigrated to America with the assistance of Peggy Guggenheim. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner committed suicide in Switzerland in 1938. Paul Klee spent his years in exile in Switzerland, yet was unable to obtain Swiss citizenship because of his status as a degenerate artist.
Other artists remained in internal exile. Otto Dix retreated to the countryside to paint unpeopled landscapes in a meticulous style that would not provoke the authorities (Karcher 1988, 206). The Reichskulturkammer 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; Nolde secretly carried on painting, but using only watercolors (so as not to be betrayed by the telltale odor of oil paint). Those of Jewish descent who did not escape from Germany in time were sent to concentration camps.
After the exhibit, paintings were sorted out for sale and sold in Switzerland at auction; some pieces were acquired by museums, others by private collectors. Nazi officials took many for their private use: for example, Herman Goering took 14 valuable pieces, including a van Gogh and a Cezanne. In March 1939, the Berlin Fire Brigade burned approximately 4000 works which had little value on the international market (Grosshans 1983, 113).
After the collapse of Nazi Germany when the Red Army was the first to invade Berlin, some artwork from the exhibit was found buried underground. It is unclear how many of these then reappeared in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg where they still remain. The story of how these paintings survived is not documented in public. They are simply listed at the Hermitage as: provenance unknown.
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