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.
The opposing faction, however, which was centered in the Nazi League for German Students and especially its Berlin branch, believed that the dark intensity and primitivism of German expressionism provided just the kind of art Hitler’s reborn Germany needed. They predictably excluded not only the fiercely satirical George Grosz and the powerful social realist Otto Dix, but also Klee and Kandinsky. Yet Expressionists associated with the Brücke movement, such as Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and particularly Ernst Barlach and Emil Nolde (who flirted with Nazism in 1933 and 1934), were regarded by the young right-wing idealists and radicals as artists who should be part of Germany’s future. Even if the connections never became as close—and certainly never as official—as those between the Futurists and the early Italian Fascists, the dream of an alliance between the “Norse” mysticism of German Expressionism and the political radicalism of Nazism fascinated some German conservative intellectuals between 1933 and 1935. Deeply opposed to cosmopolitan European civilization and enlightenment rationalism, embittered by their experience with Weimar Germany, they believed that a reborn German culture could embrace such antirational modern forms as Expressionism.
To give only one example of this rift within conservative ideology, Alois Schardt, a museum curator in Halle with some sympathy for the new Germany, became the director of the most important collection of modern art in the country, the National Gallery in Berlin, for four months in the summer of 1933. On October 10, 1933, he gave a widely discussed public lecture entitled “What is German Art?” It was evidently intended as a defense—and it was a very courageous one—of the beleaguered German modernist movement against the attacks of Rosenberg and the Combat League for German Culture. Today Schardt’s arguments sound rather abstruse and mystical. German art, he said, is ecstatic and prophetic. Its essential character is to be found both in the ornaments of the Bronze Age and in the paintings of the Expressionists, of Nolde, Schmidt-Rottluff, and Otto Feininger. For this admirer of eternal expressionism, the decline of German art began as early as the fifteenth century, when the influence of Dutch realism, particularly the work of Jan van Eyck, first made itself felt. Most of the German art that followed had only historical significance and was fundamentally un-German. (The book burning that took place in the German universities five months before Schardt’s lecture was likewise called an “Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist“—an “action against the un-German spirit.”)
Schardt, the members of the Berlin branch of the Nazi League of German Students, and a considerable number of others, including the distinguished art historian Wilhelm Pinder, believed they could persuade the misguided Nazis that the future of the new Germany lay not with reactionary artists who had remained behind the times, but with the powerful “Norse” qualities of Expressionism and with a peculiarly German form of modernism. Members of the Nazi League of German Students at the University of Halle sent a telegram to their comrades in Berlin defending Expressionist art: “The fight of the Nazi Storm Trooper on the street cannot be allowed to be betrayed in the field of culture. Long live the complete Nazi revolution!” The youthful hope that the Nazi leaders could be persuaded to embrace Expressionism—or, in other words, to recognize something akin to their own hysterical program in the ecstasies of Expressionist art—soon proved to be an illusion, but it was an illusion that accounts for the conflict between the hostility toward most avant-garde art and a more favorable attitude toward artists who were seen as expressing a modern German irrationalism.
The Nazi supporters of German modernism eventually lost out because of the inflexible convictions of Hitler himself. Between 1933 and 1935, he rarely intervened directly in the arguments about the new German art, but he used his official speeches at the annual party rallies in Nuremberg to make his position more clear. In September 1933 he said: “Nazism must harshly oppose the egregious efforts to sell us the pseudo-ecstasies of recent decades as our revolutionaries.” This was clearly aimed at the Nazi League of German Students, whose members had come under attack the previous summer when they organized a much-discussed exhibition in Berlin, “Thirty German Artists” showing works of Schmidt Rottluff, Nolde, Barlach, and other Expressionists. It was closed after three days by order of the same Nazi minister who had been active in Thuringia three years before, and who posted SS guards at the doors of the exhibition.
In the fall of 1933, another Nazi minister issued an order forbidding the reopening of the modern section of the National Gallery in Berlin. Reorganized by Schardt, it still included works by Nolde, Barlach, Lehmbruck, Feininger, and members of the Blaue Reiter group of German Expressionists, including Franz Marc. Schardt was dismissed with twenty-four hours notice as director of the gallery, but continued to fight for his admired Expressionism. (In 1936, at the opening of an exhibition he had organized of the work of Franz Marc, he was arrested by the Gestapo and soon afterward escaped to the United States, where he taught at Marymount College in Los Angeles.)
In 1934 the pressures against modern art in Germany increased. On January 24, Hitler appointed Rosenberg to take charge of the spiritual and ideological indoctrination of the Nazi Party. It was a fateful appointment, though Rosenberg’s power was limited by the more cunning Dr. Goebbels, who, as minister of propaganda and president of the Reich’s Chamber of Culture, had thus far carefully avoided taking sides in the quarrel over the future of German art. Rumors had circulated about Goebbels’s secret sympathies with the Expressionists, especially Nolde, and he never officially contradicted them. Still, by strengthening the position of Rosenberg, Hitler had made his own position clear. At the 1935 party rally, where the Nuremberg racial laws were passed, he proclaimed in his enraged manner “that the driveling Dadaist, Cubist and Futuristic ‘experience’mongers and ‘objectivity’-mongers would never under any circumstances be allowed any part in our cultural rebirth.” That kind of “cultural decadence,” he said, “lies behind us.”
The opposition lingered on for a year or so, but the tone for the great purge of 1937 had been set. Hitler would tolerate no compromise, either in politics or in culture. The last desperate efforts to keep at least some works of German modern art publicly visible were nowhere more stubborn and brave than at the National Gallery in Berlin, as Annegret Janda’s contribution to the “Degenerate Art” catalog shows. After Schardt’s dismissal as curator, the opponents of Hitler’s policy managed to get Eberhard Hanfstaengel appointed as the new director in November 1933. As surprising as it must have seemed at first, the nomination of Hanfstaengel was a shrewd maneuver, even a stroke of genius. He had previously been the conservative director of Munich’s fairly unimportant city gallery. He had no credentials in the field of modern art, so he was not compromised in the eyes of the Nazis. He was known as a man of great integrity, but above all he came from a distinguished Munich family with a longstanding personal connection to Hitler. Hanfstaengel’s cousin Ernst—better known as “Putzi”—was still one of the Führer’s intimates in 1933 (before he escaped in 1934 to the United States). Thus the opponents of Hitler’s policies must have thought that Hanfstaengel—if anyone—would be able to save the modern art department of the National Gallery. In trying to do so, he made compromises and withdrew many “degenerate” works from the galleries, though he still bravely showed Barlach, Lehmbruck, Kirchner, and Beckmann. But in April 1936, The Black Corps, a particularly aggressive newspaper edited by the SS, attacked Hanfstaengel as
lacking almost all understanding of the cultural aims of the new Reich…. under the guise of aesthetics the very things are still being propagated that [we must] eradicate root and branch.
The paintings Hanfstaengel hung in the National Gallery were left there during the summer of 1936 for the benefit of foreign visitors to the Olympics; on October 30 Goebbels ordered it closed. By then the opening of the House of German Art in Munich, intended to express Hitler’s aesthetic preferences, was approaching.
The 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition was hastily put together by people who had no professional experience of art or real interest in the aesthetic intentions and techniques of modern art. There was no catalog, only a pamphlet, which was intended less to inform the visitors than to denounce the works on view. The catalog of the 1991 exhibition publishes a facsimile of this brochure and translates its murky and vituperative text.
It immediately becomes clear that the Nazis’ “Degenerate Art” exhibition was organized to show how modern art violated the sacred values of the nation: religion, morals, patriotism, and mental health. Religion was the subject of the first room, where artists were accused of blasphemy. Expressionist religious paintings such as Beckmann’s Descent from the Cross, Nolde’s Crucifixion, and a Christ by Schmidt-Rottluff were shown beside a caption reading: “Under the rule of the ‘Zentrum’ insolent mockery of the experience of God.” In order to grasp the duplicity of this text, one must know that until 1933, the “Zentrum” had been the leading Catholic party in Germany and had taken part in several governments in the Weimar Republic. By 1937 the Nazis were openly attacking Christianity. They persecuted priests and forced civil servants to quit the church. Now they accused the “Zentrum,” which had been a rather stuffy party with no interests in modern art whatsoever, of tolerating and even promoting blasphemy in paintings by degenerate artists. The prices listed—for example, Nolde’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery at 25,000 marks—were intended to reinforce the accusation of blasphemy: with the complicity of Catholic politicians, public money had been spent to mock religion!
More sinister than these political attacks on Weimar society was the primitive visual argument used to denounce the passionately serious religious paintings by Beckmann and Nolde as scandalous examples of blasphemy. In any distortion of form or ambitious use of color, the organizers of “Degenerate Art” saw a distortion of content and an attack on traditional values. The pamphlet distributed to the visitors announced: “The exhibition wants to demonstrate the common root of political and cultural anarchy,” and the threat of the subversion of German society through aesthetic experiment was one of the recurring motifs of the show. “To be German means to be straightforward,” Hitler had declared in his address at the opening of the Great German Art Exhibition. The “degenerate” artists were denounced as cultural anarchists who threatened the social order and the mental health of Germany; they therefore had to be discredited and eradicated. The debate about “Degenerate Art” in Nazi Germany was a political one, and left no room for any autonomy of aesthetic vision.
Immorality was another charge leveled against the “degenerate” artists. One wall of the third room bore the title “Degradation of the German Woman,” a sure way to arouse the indignation of middle-class visitors without much experience of modern art. The paintings on this wall included a lightly clothed modern dancer by Kirchner and Duet in the North Café, a portrait of two prostitutes in the manner of Rouault, by a little-known painter named Kleinschmidt, a Jew. Complaints about the decline of morals caused by modern dance, fashion, theater, films, and café society were widespread in Weimar Germany around 1930 and by no means limited to members of the Nazi Party, so the editors of the pamphlet could count upon the sympathies of many visitors when they wrote:
This section of the exhibition affords a survey of the moral aspect of degeneracy of art. To those “artists” whom it presents, the entire world is clearly no more or less than a brothel and the human race is exclusively composed of harlots and pimps. Among these works of painted and drawn pornography there are some that can no longer be displayed, even in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition, in view of the fact that women will be among the visitors.
The organizers thus played successfully on the sexual prejudices of a prudish public. As usual, any deviation from literal representation was interpreted moralistically, in this case as an affront to German women. A few hundred yards away in the new temple of German art, one could admire dozens of paintings of stolid female nudes, representing the ideals the new Germany reserved for the German woman: submissiveness and Nordic cleanliness. In his opening address Hitler declared:
Steeled by sport, by competition, and by mock combat, millions of young bodies now appear to us in a form and a condition that have not been seen and have scarcely been imagined for perhaps a thousand years.
The denunciation of the degenerate artists, who were said to have degraded the German woman, was part of a widespread and not unpopular program of moral renewal.
Another wall of the third room showed the War Cripples by Dix from 1920, as well as The Trench from 1920–1923 (exhibited in 1937 as The War), one of his most famous and provocative paintings, along with a wall text saying they had both been acquired in 1928 by the city museum of Dresden for 10,000 marks, of which 5,000 came from city funds. The text denounced the paintings as “deliberate sabotage of National Defense,” and called them “an insult to the German heroes of the Great War.” The pamphlet accompanying the exhibition was even more explicit. “This section too,” it said, “has a marked political tendency. Here, ‘art’ enters the service of Marxist draft-dodging…. Above all, the people are to be deprived of their profound reverence for all the military virtues: valor, fortitude, and readiness for combat.”
In their paintings and prints of around 1920, Dix and other German artists had expressed their horror at the cruelty of the Great War by showing German soldiers as victims—cripples and corpses—and not as fighting heroes. This was an honest reaction to the defeat of 1918, to the senselessness of more than two million deaths and the misery of the neglected, sick, and maimed soldiers in the early postwar years. Dix’s Trench became the centerpiece of a pacifist exhibition, “Never Again War,” which traveled throughout Germany in the 1920s.
But such statements made Dix and other artists the target of the most vehement obsession of the German right in the postwar period. The defeat of 1918, the dissolution of the German Imperial Army, and above all the insurrection of disobedient soldiers who attacked and mocked their officers and pulled decorations and signs of rank off their uniforms, had deeply injured the sense of honor of the old ruling class. This humiliation was the strongest source of their fear of anarchy and subversion during the Weimar years and even after World War II. In these circles, paintings like Dix’s Trench and War Cripples were not regarded as expressions of compassion, but as attacks on the honor of the German soldier. Even such a moderate conservative as Konrad Adenauer had, as Lord Mayor of Cologne in 1925, prevented the city’s gallery from acquiring Trench because he was afraid it might insult patriotic feelings. Thus the organizers of the 1937 exhibition were on well-prepared ground when they accused “degenerate artists” like Dix of mocking the memory of the German soldier. In the nearby House of German Art, the visitors could see how the German war hero was to be represented in the new Germany: he should be seen as fighting on until the end, like the grim soldier portrayed in a frequently reproduced painting by the artist Elk Eber (“Elk Wild Boar”) bearing the melodramatic title The Last Hand Grenade.
In general, the “Degenerate Art” show was not aimed principally at the aesthetics of avant-garde art at all. Each of its sections, in addressing the hidden fears of its visitors, attempted to evoke and inflame all the pathological hatreds that by 1937 had seized hold of Germany. Yet as shocking as sections on blasphemy, pornography, and the sabotage of national defense may have looked to the visitors of 1937, the most threatening category of modern degeneration would have been the alleged subversion of the racial and mental health of the German people by the destructive influence of “degenerate” art. In art as in life, the Nazis imposed their idea of racial eugenics on a population that had little or no experience of other societies, was fearful of contact with alien cultures, and was susceptible to xenophobia.1
The pamphlet told the intimidated public: “Here we are presented with the negro and the South Sea islander as the evident racial ideal of ‘modern art.’ ” The most telling example of all was a painting by Otto Müller showing several Gypsies around a tent. The wall label said: “The Jewish longing for the wilderness reveals itself—in Germany the negro becomes the racial ideal of a degenerate art.” The confusion here was total. In the fanatical blindness of the racial hygienists, Negroes, Jews, and Gypsies were all the same. In the temple of German art across the street, one could see the healthy purity of the New Race. Apart from a bust of Mussolini, only Germans were portrayed: political leaders, peasants, soldiers, mothers, a few industrial workers, but no intellectuals.
The section denouncing the alleged connection between degenerate art and mental illness proved to be the most frightening part of the exhibition. The pamphlet’s text on this section began: “This section of the exhibition reveals that, alongside the negro as the racial ideal of what was then ‘modern art,’ there was a highly specific intellectual ideal, namely the idiot, the cretin, and the cripple.” Expressionist sculptures by Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, and others were reproduced as examples on the next page, where the text continued: “even where artists have portrayed themselves, or each other, the resulting faces and figures are markedly cretinous.” The artists who produced the images of idiots, cretins, and paralytics were thus held to be portraying themselves as insane, which was taken as proof that their art was an expression of mental illness.
This suggestion was repeated in other parts of the exhibition. Of the walls displaying abstract paintings, the pamphlet said: “This section can only be entitled ‘Sheer Insanity.’…In the case of most of the paintings and drawings in this particular chamber of horrors there is no telling what was in the sick brains of those who wielded the brush or the pencil.” The examples were works of Molzahn, Metzinger, and Schwitters; Kandinsky’s abstract compositions were denounced as “crazy at any price.” The pamphlet reproduced Klee’s The Saint of the Inner Light from 1921, which had been acquired by the city museum of Cologne, and Eugen Hoffmann’s Girl with Blue Hair, bought by the city museum of Dresden in 1919, on the same pages with a painting by an institutionalized schizophrenic and a sculpture by an incurable psychopath.
Here the exhibition posed a terrifying new possibility: what I would call “aesthetic eugenics.” The relationship between genius and madness, art and disease, had been a central preoccupation of modern art. In 1922 Hans Prinzhorn, an art historian and psychiatrist in the circle of Karl Jaspers, had published a widely discussed book, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken: Ein Beitrag zur Psychologie und Psychopathologie der Gestaltung (“Art of the Insane: A Contribution to the Psychology and Psychopathology of Artistic Creation”), in which he had written of the creative possibilities of psychological turmoil.2 The aesthetic eugenicists took this hypothesis with deadly seriousness and turned it upside-down, claiming that the mental illness of art had to be cured—if necessary, by purge and extermination. In his opening address at the Great German Art exhibition, Hitler had this to say about degenerate artists:
Either these so-called artists really see things this way and therefore believe in what they represent, in which case we would simply have to investigate whether their visual defects spring from a mechanical or a congenital cause. If the former, this would be a matter for deep regret on behalf of these unfortunates themselves; if the latter, then it would be a matter for the Reich Ministry of the Interior, which would make it its business at least to forestall any further hereditary transmission of such appalling visual defects.
To most foreign listeners, this must have sounded simply grotesque. But when Hitler made this speech in 1937, the sterilization of the incurably insane was legally practiced in Nazi Germany. Less than two years later, Hitler gave the order for euthanasia, and in 1940 many insane people in German asylums were quietly killed. Could similar measures not also be applied to “degenerate” artists? “Degenerate Art” was thus a menacing exhibition, haunted not only by anxieties but also by threats of state violence.
The rest of the story is quickly told. During the late summer of 1937, a second purge of the German museums took place, and another five thousand paintings and sculptures and twelve thousand prints, drawings, and water-colors were confiscated and stored in a warehouse in Berlin. Goebbels formed a “commission to make use of the products of degenerate art” and noted contemptuously in his diary: “We hope at least to make some money off this garbage.” Sales to foreign museums and collections then began, of which the most spectacular was an auction at the Fischer Gallery in Lucerne on June 30, 1939. One hundred and twenty-five paintings and sculptures confiscated from German museums were auctioned off, including works by Picasso, Braque, Chagall, Derain, Gauguin, and van Gogh, as well as by the German artists in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition. Those works deemed not marketable were destroyed. On March 20, 1939, five thousand works of “degenerate art” were burned in the courtyard of Berlin’s central fire station. The purge was not limited to the visual arts. On May 24, 1938, an exhibition entitled “Degenerate Music” opened in Düsseldorf with displays of the work of banned composers such as Berg, Bloch, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern, and Weill. The cover of the exhibition guide showed a black man playing a saxophone and wearing a Star of David, a conflation of racial hatred and xenophobia that is familiar from the imagery of “Degenerate Art.”
The catalog of the Los Angeles exhibition gives a very detailed and reliable reconstruction of the events leading up to the 1937 “Degenerate Art” show in Munich, as well as of the exhibition itself. The results of recent research on the Nazi purge of art, undertaken for the most part by younger German scholars, are made clear and accessible to an American public. But with the exception of George L. Mosse’s brilliant essay “Beauty without Sensuality,” the catalog fails to consider the sources and character of the ideology underlying the program of “aesthetic eugenics.” I will take up these questions in another article, reviewing The Art of the Third Reich by Peter Adam and Artists Under Vichy: A Case of Prejudice and Persecution by Michele C. Cone.
April 7, 1994
The hundreds of incidents of violence against foreigners in Germany during 1993 show that this is still the case today. Only a few years ago the Bavarian minister of the interior warned against the danger of racially mixed society (“durchrasse Gesellschaft“). ↩
See Rosemary Dinnage’s review of Maurice Tuchman and Carol S. Eliel, Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art (LACMA/Princeton University Press, 1992) and Walter Morgenthaler, Madness and Art: The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli (University of Nebraska Press, 1992), in The New York Review, April 8, 1993, pp. 33–36. ↩