Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany
Stephanie Barron, the editor of the monumental catalog Degenerate Art, closes her introductory essay on an anxious note. After describing the Nazi attempt to degrade and denounce modern art in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937 held in Munich, she writes:
Perhaps after a serious look at events that unfolded over half a century ago in Germany, we may apply what we learn to our own predicament, in which for the first time in the postwar era the arts and freedom of artistic expression in America are facing a serious challenge.
The same concerns, accompanied by references to congressional criticisms of the works of Robert Mapplethorpe, were expressed by the commentators on the “Degenerate Art” exhibition organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1991, when it was shown there and later that year at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. Before examining contemporary challenges to artistic freedom in light of what happened in Nazi Germany, however, it may be useful to describe the specific and, in my view, unique conditions in which that terrifyingly successful defamation of modern art and thought took place.
On July 19, 1937, Hitler opened the first official Great German Art exhibition in Munich. More than six hundred paintings and sculptures by German artists were displayed in a new building resembling a temple, whose neoclassical style was seen as an architectural symbol of the rebirth of an uncorrupted German culture. In his opening address, Hitler proclaimed the birth of a new form of art, not international but German, not modern but “eternal,” and went on to say:
In this hour I affirm my unalterable resolve here, as in the realm of political confusion, to clear out [or purge, aufräumen] all the claptrap from artistic life in Germany. “Works of art” that are not capable of being understood in themselves but need some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence—until at long last they find someone sufficiently browbeaten to endure such stupid or impudent twaddle with patience—will never again find their way to the German people!…. From now on we are going to wage a merciless war of destruction against the last remaining elements of cultural disintegration.
The idea of a “purge”—a forceful purification or cleansing—was Hitler’s most destructive obsession. By spring 1933, he had purged the German civil service, firing nearly all Jewish employees. The concentration camps set up around this time were another, more brutal form of purge: the Jews, left-wing intellectuals, Gypsies, priests, and homosexuals confined in them were treated far more harshly than ordinary criminals. By 1937 the regime was preparing another purge: the extermination, euphemistically called euthanasia, of the insane in German asylums. Next it was the turn of German art to be purged of its pathological symptoms.
The “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich, which opened the day after the Great German Art exhibition, was intended to display the kind of pathological works that were to be eliminated. Hitler had privately viewed the “Degenerate Art” exhibition himself on July 17, but mentioned it only briefly and contemptuously in his opening address, saying he hoped that it might serve as a lesson to the German people. Adolf Ziegler, the president of the Reich’s Chamber for the Visual Arts, had been asked by Goebbels to head a commission of six members that would select examples of “degenerate art” from public collections throughout Germany. In less than ten days, they visited museums in Berlin, Frankfurt, Essen, Hamburg, Mannheim, and many other places, and chose over 650 “degenerate” paintings, sculptures, prints, and books by German artists from thirtytwo collections. Prominent among their choices were works by Max Ernst, Klee, Kandinsky, Kokoschka; German Expressionists such as Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; and the social realist Otto Dix.
In a postwar memoir, Kunstdiktatur im Dritten Reich (“Art Dictatorship in the Third Reich”), Paul Ortwin Rave, then a member of the staff of the National Gallery in Berlin, recalled the commission’s visit to the museum on July 7. When he asked the commission members to take care not to damage the works selected, he was told that they would be maintained in suitable condition to be burned in Munich. The museums were required to submit the dates on which the “degenerate” objects had been acquired, the prices paid for them, and the names of the museum directors responsible for purchasing them. The confiscated works were quickly shipped to Munich.
Public exhibitions were invented in the eighteenth century to encourage public discussion of the arts among critical, reasoning citizens. “Degenerate Art” was an obscurantist perversion of this enlightened concept, transforming the exhibition hall into a kind of pillory or whipping post and seeking to provoke hatred on the part of the visitors. The exhibition, held in a small building a few hundred yards from Hitler’s pompous new House of German Art, was designed to appear shabby and unpleasant. Paintings and sculptures were crammed together. Labels on the walls mocked the artists and accused them of undermining German morals. President Ziegler closed his opening address with the invitation: “I herewith turn over the exhibition of Degenerate Art to the public. Come, German people, and judge for yourselves!”
The exhibition was a tremendous success. Between July 20 and November 30, more than two million visitors came to see it in Munich; some had to stand in line for an hour to get in. During the following two years, it toured a number of other German cities and, after the Anschluss in March 1938, Austrian cities as well. By the time it closed on August 26, 1939, a few days before the outbreak of World War II, more than three million people had seen “Degenerate Art,” making it one of the most popular art exhibitions held anywhere in the world up to that time. By July 24, Goebbels was writing triumphantly in his diary that the “exhibition is a huge success and a severe blow…. It will also come to Berlin in the fall…. This is how it must be done. Awaken the people’s interest by means of great actions.” In his 1949 memoir, Paul Ortwin Rave wrote: “One cannot doubt that the propagandistic aim to strike a deadly blow against modern art had been largely attained.” This assumes, no doubt correctly, that most of the visitors accepted the regime’s propaganda, although more than a few of the visitors may have been interested in the art on view or gone simply out of curiosity.
Nineteen-thirty-seven was also the year of the Paris World’s Fair, in which the German and Russian pavilions melodramatically symbolized the conflict between communism and fascism. It was also the year in which an exhibition intended to discredit the works of the Russian avant-garde was installed at the Tretiakov Gallery on Moscow—a counterpart to the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich. Meanwhile, the Spanish pavilion at the Paris fair exhibited Picasso’s Guernica. In the tense and threatening atmosphere of 1937, art was becoming more and more entangled in politics.
In Germany, the campaign against modern art had been gathering strength since the last four or five years of the Weimar Republic. A group called the Combat League for German Culture began meeting in 1927, and publicly announced its aims early in 1929. Although the league had been convened by Alfred Rosenberg, one of the leading ideologists of the Nazi Party, it never officially presented itself as a Nazi organization. It recruited its members from the conservative establishment, including such highly respected university professors as the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, author of the famous Principles of Art History, as well as Wagnerites and a large number of anti-modern architects, artists, and writers. The brotherhood’s spokesmen denounced virtually all forms of avant-garde culture: the architecture of the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier (“the Lenin of architecture”), jazz and atonal music, Futurism and Cubism, and the theater of Piscator. These were regarded as symptoms of a serious crisis and the alarming rise of “Cultural Bolshevism,” the catchall phrase intended to associate anything modern with communism and the Russian revolution. The conservatives who joined the Combat League saw themselves as an elite defending German culture. As early as spring 1931, the organization announced: “A great firestorm of iconoclasm will soon sweep through Germany.” Clearly Hitler was only the most brutal of the avant-garde’s many enemies.
The “great storm of iconoclasm” began before Hitler came to power in 1933. The Nazis took over a local government for the first time in January 1930 in Thuringia, a particularly reactionary province of the Weimar Republic. In April, Wilhelm Frick, Thuringia’s new Nazi minister of the interior, issued a decree with the characteristic title “Against Negro Culture, for German Folkways” (Wider die Negerkultur für deutsches Volkstum). After some introductory denunciations of jazz, the decree ordered strict state censorship of theaters and the promotion of German art through complete reform of the school of architecture, arts, and crafts at Weimar, where the Bauhaus had been founded in 1919. The school was quickly turned into a stronghold of anti-modern architecture.
A few months later Frick purged the castle museum in Weimar of some seventy paintings by modern artists, including Kandinsky, Klee, Kokoschka, and many others. The museum’s director, Wilhelm Koehler, left for the United States and became a distinguished professor of art history at Harvard. In 1930, the liberal press of the Weimar Republic could still make fun of these events in Thuringia, which seemed utterly, provincial and even grotesque. Three years later it became clear that much worse was to come.
In his contribution to the catalog of LACMA’s “Degenerate Art” exhibition, Christoph Zuschlag lists no fewer than eleven exhibitions defaming avant-garde art throughout Germany between April 1933 and the opening of the Munich “Degenerate Art” exhibition in July 1937. Among their titles were: “Images of Cultural Bolshevism,” “Chamber of Horrors,” “Art that did not spring from our soul,” and “Art in the service of subversion.” Only three months after the Nazis came to power in January 1933, such exhibitions took place in Mannheim, Karlsruhe, and Nuremberg. They were organized locally, often by conservative artists who resented having been neglected during the “corrupt” years of the Weimar Republic. In more than one case the exhibitions were declared to be “for adults only,” in order to suggest the dangerously immoral character of the works. The prices paid by German museums to acquire the pictures were often listed in order to arouse the indignation of taxpayers.
In spite of these sinister events—to which one might add many others, including the burning of “un-German” books on May 10, 1933, and the dismissal of nearly all modern artists from their teaching positions in the same year—there was still hope at the beginning of the Nazi era for the survival of some modern art under the new political conditions. Until 1935, opposing factions in the Nazi Party fought passionately over the role and the significance of the avant-garde and especially of German expressionism. Rosenberg and his Combat League for German Culture, along with resentful artists and traditionalist writers allied with them, wanted uncompromising repression of any form of modern art.