The Degenerate Art is for me a fascinating chapter in history. In my adolescence years, while I still lived in Brazil, I learned about theosophy in school. As an art enthusiast, I’m pretty interested in the influence on modern artists, especially expressionists.
The birth of Expressionism
Being curious as I am, I did a lot of research to familiarize myself with their ideas and works. That brought me to German artists and the Third Reich art. I must admit that I was baffled when I first read about Degenerate art years ago.
Living in Munich helped me learn more about this period, its artists and their works. Only then was I able to fully understand the politics’ influence on the cultural scene.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a new modernist movement in painting and sculpture originated in Germany- Expressionism. The expressionists presented the world from their subjective perspective. They distorted it entirely for emotional effect with the aim of evoking ideas or moods.
They strove to express the meaning of emotional experience and not the physical reality of that time.
Theosophy, as a spiritual movement, had a huge influence on expressionists. They believed that, according to theosophy, colors had a vibrating spiritual property that could awake the dormant spirituality within humans.
With their works, they tried to portray their ideas and emotions. They used bright colors, simplified shapes, and gestural brushstrokes or marks.
Two main groups of expressionists emerged in Germany. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner started Die Brücke (the bridge) in Dresden in 1905. Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc started Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich in 1909.
Die Brücke (The Bridge)
The first group, Die Brücke (The Bridge), developed a radical anti-traditional style. Its characteristics were vivid non-naturalistic colors and emotional tension. They wanted to achieve freedom of life and action.
Their art was a blend of old German art and African and South Pacific tribal art. They also added elements of Fauvism and post-Impressionism, to make it more modern. They sought a direct relationship with nature and because of that, many paintings portray nude people in the lakes.
Some of the main artists in this group include Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Heckel, Otto Müller, and Emil Nolde.
Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue River)
Der Blaue Reiter in Munich joined names like: Franz Marc, August Macke, and Gabriele Münter. Some Russian emigrants joined as well: Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlensky, and Marianne von Werefkin.
They sought to express spiritual truths through their art, promoting an intuitive, spontaneous approach to painting. Their art is abstract, non-objective per definition. It separated color and form into discrete elements within a painting and applied non-naturalistic colors to recognizable objects.
Both of these groups were a milestone for German expressionism. It would spread across the country after the First World War and continue to thrive until Adolf Hitler’s rise.
It was not just a style, but rather a mindset with a social, political, and a cultural aspect.
The rise of Adolf Hitler’s power in Germany brought hardships to many modern artists. Being an artist himself, Adolf Hitler was a fan of Classical Greek and Roman art. He believed their exterior forms embodied an inner racial ideal, and it was more comprehensible to an average man.
The Nazis viewed modern art, Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Symbolism and Post-Impressionism, with disgust. It was not heroic or romantic, nor did it promote their values. Not only the Nazis but the majority of people in Germany as well did not care about modern art.
It was so because many weren’t able to understand it due to their lack of education. Some of the strongest followers of the Nazi ideology were even unable to read. That’s why they saw modern art as elitist, morally suspect, and incomprehensible.
One of the main reasons why the Nazis rejected modern art was because they couldn’t use it for their propaganda. For example, Otto Dix’s painting War Cripples (1920) depicts four severely deformed veterans of the First World War. And that was the opposite of what they wanted to achieve.
Adolf Hitler and the Nazis wanted to use art to promote values of racial purity, obedience, and militarism. Such values are in the basic structure of Classical Greek and Roman art only.
The Jew Question
They believed that Jews ‘’contaminated’’ modern art, made it an act of aesthetic violence against the German spirit. What they meant by the German spirit was mystical, moral, rural, noble, and bearing ancient wisdom. But when we look at the list of modern artists, we see that not many of them were actually Jews.
Only a few of them, including Liebermann, Freundlich, Meidner, and Marc Chagall were Jewish.
The Nazis marked modern art as degenerate because of its depraved subject matter. For them, that was a sign of an inferior race.
Aside from their Anti-Semitism propaganda, homophobic sentiment also affected their choice of art. The Nazis saw many paintings of this period as the ones promoting homosexuality. As such, they were also consequently considered degenerate.
Cleansing the culture of degeneracy
In September 1933, the Nazis established the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Culture Chamber). Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Reichminister für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda (Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda) was in charge. They also established sub-chambers within Reichskulturkammer.
These were the groups for racially pure members- artists who supported Hitler. Only they were able to be productive in German cultural life.
The key men in the Ministry of Propaganda included Professor Adolf Ziegler, Schweitzer-Mjolnir, and Wolf Willrich. They were artists whose works fitted the Nazi’s ideal.
Ziegler,Schweitzer-Mjolnir, and Willrich ordered removing of all the paintings and sculptures regarded as degenerate.
The galleries all over the Reich had to remove the works of some of the greatest artists of today. These included: Cézannes, Matisse, Picassos, Gauguins, Van Goghs, Pissarro’s, Braques, Hofer, Pechstein, Otto Muller, Barlach, Feininger, and many others. The Nazis burned and destroyed many of these works cause their possible effect on society. Other works were saved for an exhibition.
The Two Exhibitions
On July 19, 1937, Munich opened the Entartete Kunst (“Degenerate Art”) exhibition with over 650 of these works of art. Some of them were unframed and hung by a cord, others were crowded in rooms with painted slogans over them. I’ll name just a few: Nature as seen by sick minds, The ideal—cretin and whore, Deliberate sabotage of national defense.
Some works were grouped thematically. First, one room contained only Jewish artists’ works. Another exhibited works considered insulting to the German soldiers, women, and farmers. The third room held works considered demeaning of religion.
Around the same time as the Entartete Kunst, the Nazis opened another exhibition. At the palatial Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German art exhibition) premiered. It displayed the works of Arno Breker and Adolf Wissel and other artists who met the regime’s art requirements.
What was most interesting for me is the number of people who visited these exhibitions. The Entartete Kunst had more than 2 million visitors. This was almost three times more than the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung cause it’s originality.
The political goals and the aftermath
Exhibiting these works had some political goals. Entartete Kunst exhibition was to mock and show how much money museums had spent on acquiring these artworks. It was too much money in a period when even bread was too expensive for many families.
On the other hand, the goal of the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung exhibit was to promote the German spirit. It only exhibited the racially pure type of art, the art that stands for all German values.
Degenerate Art exhibitions also took place in other cities as well, Berlin, Leipzig, Düsseldorf, Weimar, Halle, Vienna, and Salzburg.
After exhibitions, the Nazis sold some of these artworks. There weren’t many interested buyers. Despite the drastic drop in prices. The artworks were marked as rubbish. The money earned covered war expenses and after the war for the purchase of art.
The key art dealing figures of this period were Gurlitt, Buchholz, Moeller, and finally Boehmer. During my research, I could not find the exact number of artworks that they kept for themselves. It is believed that they sold them in the USA and other countries for personal gain.
If you visit Munich, willing to learn more about Degenerate art and the expressionist works of art, contact me. I’ll be more than happy to accompany and guide you on that journey.