Neue Galerie’s Exhibit ‘Degenerate Art’: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937

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Max Beckmann‘s biblical and political triptych Departure (right) hangs on the same wall as his Four Elements triptych, which Hitler owned. Courtesy of Hulya Kolabas for Neue Galerie New York

Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Photo: © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner A Group of Artists (The Painters of the Brücke) 1925-26. Oil on canvas. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Photo: © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne

For NPRLloyd Schwartz writes: One of the most unsettling rooms in an important art exhibit at New York’s Neue Galerie is a room in which numerous empty frames are hanging, with guesses about which paintings might have been in them. The paintings themselves were all lost or destroyed by the Nazis. Encouraged by Hitler, most Nazis (Joseph Goebbels was the rare exception) considered everything but the most hidebound, traditionally realistic paintings and sculptures to be “degenerate,” a threat to the Aryan ideals of German culture. To bring this home, there was a series of “exhibitions of shame” designed toteach the German public to despise modernist art. This culminated in a major show in Munich in 1937, which later toured Germany and Austria. The public crowded to see it. That same summer in Munich, a counterexhibit called “The Great German Art Exhibition,” which included at least one work owned by Hitler, showed what the Nazis thought art should be. The Neue Galerie’s exhibit, called “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” includes some 80 works from both of these landmark shows.

[Originally broadcast on NPR’s Fresh Air – Download the audio]

The Nazis considered Jewish art collectors and dealers a major force behind the success of modernist art. Works depicting outsiders — Jews or blacks (jazz was also considered degenerate) or anyone unhealthy, neurotic or suffering — were also targets of their disapproval. So even though there were only six Jewish artists in the original exhibition, such non-Jews as the Bavarian Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (an innovative colorist), the Austrian master Oskar Kokoschka and the fanciful Swiss artist Paul Klee were also the objects of attack. Their art was removed from museums, and thousands of so-called degenerate works were destroyed. Kirchner committed suicide in 1938. The strangest case may be that of the German expressionist Emil Nolde, a card-carrying Nazi who was a favorite of Goebbels’. In spite of his high-placed connections, the Nazis turned against him, forbade him to show his work and destroyed many of his paintings. Read the rest of this entry »