j u l y  19, 2012

It is common knowledge that things new are rarely welcomed by contemporaries immediately. More often than not it takes a lot of time and educational effort for one art trend or another to find social recognition and understanding. People just can’t catch up with a coterie of gifted trailblazers, or quickly abandon their usual views and ideas that took years to form, or instantaneously accept and go for the works of all those troublemakers of the type of Picasso, Matisse, Derain and so on. Understanding, acclaim and, finally, recognition come only much later. High art divides society into those who respond sensitively and empathize, on the one hand, and those who remain indifferent and unresponsive to artistic messages, on the other.

True artists are inherently unable to fall into line or to function in a totalitarian state. In twentieth-century history there was an appalling period when art was not only judged from the ideological point of view, but became an enemy of the political system. This happened in our country, when the best Soviet artists, writers, poets and composers were accused of formalism and frankly harassed, while other cultural figures suitable for the authorities kept flourishing. Though it employed methods of ideological struggle for the purity of the national spirit similar to those used in Germany, the Soviet regime did not encroach upon artworks per se, as happened in Nazi Germany.

In 1937, which was a turning point for the totalitarian regimes of Germany, the Soviet Union and Italy, the Nazi authorities were sure of their power and public support and attacked not only independent and free-spirited cultural figures, but also their artworks. Everybody is familiar with newsreels showing German city squares with bonfires of books written by Jewish writers reckoned among the Communists. These acts, however, were rather symbolic than aiming at destroying artworks.

Efforts to improve national culture originated in Germany in 1935, when Hitler expounded a new cultural program at the 6th Nazi Party Congress, directly linking the appearance of Cubism, Dadaism and Futurism in art with political and economic destruction in Germany after the Treaty of Versailles. He declared that Third Reich culture rejected the avant-garde spirit as a matter of principle. The general picture of German culture and art was utterly unrecognizable by late 1936.  In the three years of Nazi rule hundreds of progressive men of letters, architects, filmmakers, artists and musicians, including the renowned Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Marlene Dietrich, Oscar Kokoschka and George Grosz, had emigrated. The activity of the Bauhaus artists and architects was also classified as “degenerate art”. The Bauhaus School was shut down in 1933, after which Wassily Kandinsky was forced to emigrate to France, while his works in German museums had a tragic lot.

Under the circumstances the German avant-garde artists, of whom there were many and who became well-rooted in national culture, were nothing but the last obstacle to the dynamic process of national mutation. Starting from July 1937, the groundswell of persecution and lawlessness with respect to cultural figures went out of all proportions. Nazi functionaries had at their disposal a dozen of special decrees and resolutions enabling them to make differentiated use of the system to persecute unwanted artists. Bans on the display of works by well-known artists that had been purchased by museums were the most innocuous punishment. Such works were usually confiscated and transferred to special storage facilities in Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Leipzig and other major cities.

Subsequently, that same artist (avant-gardist more often than not) became the first in line to be expelled from the Academy or Chamber of Fine Arts and to be stripped of the right to exhibit in galleries and sell his/her works. This could be followed by a ban on professional activity as the worst punishment there could be. Only two large-scale actions – the burning of the confiscated works of “degenerate art” in Berlin on March 20, 1939, and the sale of their surviving specimens at an international auction to replenish government coffers – were formally outside the scope of Nazi legislation.

To obtain the status of an official artist, one had to join the Nazi Party and the Reich Culture Chamber (which had over 100,000 members by 1935) and to fully embrace the ruling ideology. However, even Nazi Party membership didn’t help Emil Nolde, whose 1,052 pictures were withdrawn from German museums. Attitude to Expressionism was not univocal in 1933-1934. Although Goebbels and some other Nazi government officials believed that brutal works of Emil Nolde, Ernst Barlach and Erich Heckel conveyed the Nordic spirit, they had eventually to agree with Hitler, who proclaimed that modernist experimentation had nothing to do in the Reich.


1 1024x892 Degenerate Art. 75th Anniversary of the Exhibition in Germany

Erich Hechel. Two Reclining Women. 1909


By 1937 the degeneracy concept had become firmly rooted in Nazi policy. On June 30, 1937, Goebbels appointed Adolf  Ziegler, president of the National Chamber of Fine Arts, to head a six-men commission authorized to withdraw any remaining pieces of modern, degenerate or subversive art from museums and art collections throughout the Reich. Those works were to be put on public view to terminally eradicate Jewish spirit that had infiltrated German culture.


3 Degenerate Art. 75th Anniversary of the Exhibition in Germany

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Alpine Shepherd (Martin Schmid). 1917

4 Degenerate Art. 75th Anniversary of the Exhibition in Germany

Emil Nolde. The Prophet. 1912


A total of 5,238 works were confiscated, including 1,052 works of Nolde, 759 of Heckel, 639 of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and 508 of  Max Beckmann, as well as works of Alexander Archipenko, Marc Chagall, James Ensor, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh. The exhibition had on show 730 pictures, sculpture, graphic works and books by 112 German artists from 32 German museums. Most of the exhibits were withdrawn from the National Gallery New Painting Department (the Kronprinzenpalais, Berlin), the Bavarian State Picture Gallery of Munich, the Art Museum of Dusseldorf, the Museum Volkwang of Essen, the Kunsthalle of Mannheim and the Landesgalerie, Hanover.

The exhibition opened in Munich on July 19, 1937, and lasted until November 30, after which it went on a two-year tour of eleven German and Austrian cities. Entrance to the exhibition was free of charge, and its illustrated catalogue cost 50 pfennigs.

34 233x300 Degenerate Art. 75th Anniversary of the Exhibition in Germany


35 300x219 Degenerate Art. 75th Anniversary of the Exhibition in Germany












The exhibition had been arranged in an unprecedentedly short period of two weeks. The opening ceremony took place at the Archaeology Institute of Munich University. The display was deliberately arranged in such a way as to stress the “degenerate” nature of the exhibits. To enter the exhibition, the visitors walked up a narrow staircase and were immediately confronted with a huge and inordinately theatrical sculpture of Christ. The poorly lit halls were filled chaotically with a large number of paintings, most of which lacked any frames and hung from plain cords.

In the first three halls the exposition was organized thematically – works on religious themes were displayed in the first hall, Jewish artists were grouped primarily in the second, and works insulting women, soldiers and farmers of Germany were in the third hall. The rest had no theme whatsoever. The walls were inscribed with insulting slogans. The exhibition propagated the idea that modernism united Jewish and Bolshevist artists who hated Germany, despite the fact that as few as six of the 112 artists were indeed Jewish.


36 Degenerate Art. 75th Anniversary of the Exhibition in Germany

38 Degenerate Art. 75th Anniversary of the Exhibition in Germany

39 Degenerate Art. 75th Anniversary of the Exhibition in Germany


Works had been selected for display in accordance with the following principles:

  1. Deliberate distortion of nature (E.L. Kirchner, O. Dix, W. Morgner),
  2. Derision of religion (E. Nolde, P. Klee),
  3. Bolshevist and anarchist implications (G. Grosz),
  4. Political indoctrination, including propaganda of Marxism and anti-war sabotage (J. Heartfield, O. Dix),
  5. Moral depravity and interest in prostitution under the guise of social criticism (O. Dix, E.L. Kirchner),
  6. Loss of national (racial) consciousness and interest in the exotics of primitive peoples (Die Brücke artists),
  7. Idiots, morons and paralytics presented as the human ideal (O. Kokoschka, Die Brücke artists),
  8. The desire to depict only Jewish nature (L. Meidner, O. Freundlich),
  9. Absence of common sense due to sickly imagination (J. Molzahn, W. Baumeister, K. Schwitters).


Well-known pictures, including fragments of E. Nolde’s famous polyptic The Life of Christ, the group portrait of Die Brücke artists by E.L. Kirchner, The Goldfish by P. Klee, The Portrait of a Rabbi by M. Chagall and The Tower of Blue Horses by F. Marc, were put up to be mocked.


2 Degenerate Art. 75th Anniversary of the Exhibition in Germany

Franz Marc. The Tower of Blue Horses. 1913

Next to the captions to those works was given the sum paid by one museum or another for them. Many of those works had been purchased in the period of hyperinflation of the early 1920s, so the sums paid looked astronomical.

A few weeks after the exhibition opening Goebbels ordered further withdrawals from the collections. As a result, a total of 16,558 works were withdrawn.

5 Degenerate Art. 75th Anniversary of the Exhibition in Germany

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Two Women. 1915.

6 Degenerate Art. 75th Anniversary of the Exhibition in Germany

Erich Heckel. Standing Nude. 1912

The “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich drew over two million people, that is, three times as many as attended the Great Exhibition of German Art at the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), where Arno Breker and Adolf Wissel, the favorites of the Nazi leaders, exhibited.

German avant-garde artists were called the enemies of the state and a threat to German culture. Many had to flee for their lives. Max Beckmann went to Amsterdam on the day of the exhibition opening. Max Ernst emigrated to America with the help of Peggy Guggenheim. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner left for Switzerland, where he committed suicide in 1938. Paul Klee died in Switzerland in 1940 without getting Swiss citizenship because of his status of a “degenerate” artist.

Others opted for internal exile. Otto Dix settled in the countryside and painted scrupulous landscapes in order not to provoke the government watchers. Edgar Ende and Emil Nolde were forbidden to buy brushes and paints. Those who remained in Germany were forbidden to teach at universities and were often visited by Gestapo officers to check if they complied with that ban. Nolde continued doing watercolors so as not to be betrayed by the odor of oil paints and solvents. Although officially no one was sentenced to death, many Jewish artists who did not leave the country perished in concentration camps or under the Action T4  euthanasia program, for example, the German artist Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler.

After the exhibition closed, works were sorted out for sale and auctioned in neutral Switzerland, where purchasing activity and prices were much higher. Three such international auctions took place in Lucerne on June 30 and August 26, 1939, and on June 28, 1941. Van Gogh’s Self-portrait (1888) was auctioned at the Galerie Fisher for 175,000 Swiss francs ($40,000), Picasso’s Soler Family (1903) for 36,000. Chagall’s Blue House (1920) for 3,300, August Macke’s Park Restaurant (1912) for 900 and G. Grosz’s Big City (1917) for 700. The auctions were not a commercial success: Europe was on the brink of war, and buyers were not eager to take the place of the earlier owners of those artworks. The three auctions yielded a total of 681,000 Reichsmarks. Goering appropriated 14 canvases – four Van Goghs, four Munchs, one Gauguin (Riders on the Beach. Tahiti), three F. Marcs (including The Tower of Blue Horses), one Cézanne and one Signac. As for the failed artist Hitler, he really did not like modern art and collected exclusively Old Masters – Titian, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.


37 Degenerate Art. 75th Anniversary of the Exhibition in Germany


The artworks which were not sold in Lucerne had a sorry lot. Those not involved in the “travelling exhibition” were brought for storage to Köpenicker Strasse, Berlin, and totaled, according to the surviving archives, 12,890 paintings, sculptures, watercolors and prints. An unknown number was taken outside the city to be sold to foreigners at an average price of $20 per masterpiece. In December 1938 Goebbels and Heinrich Hoffmann, the personal photographer and unofficial art adviser of Hitler, decided to burn the remaining artworks.

On March 20, 1939, 1,004 paintings and 3,825 watercolors, drawings and other types of graphic works, primarily by E. Nolde, K. Schmidt-Rottluff, E. Heckel, O. Dix, G. Grosz and K. Kollwitz, were put on fire in the yard of the Chief Fire Defense Department on Köpenicker Strasse, Berlin.

Special claims to the purity of the national mind were laid exclusively inside the country. The Nazi officials showed little concern for the morality of the conquered nations. Thus, in the occupied France, which, after its shameful capitulation in 1940, called a truce with Germany, paintings by forbidden artists continued to be auctioned. True, Vichy government representatives often displayed excessive zeal and staged show cultural actions to please the invaders.

Over 600 works of “degenerate” art by Picasso, Dali, Ernst, Klee, Léger and Miro were burnt in the early hours of July 27, 1942, in a bonfire on the terrace of the Tuileries Garden by the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, where artworks confiscated from Jewish collectors were stored between 1940 and 1944.

When the Soviet Army liberated Berlin in May 1945, some of the forbidden works of “degenerate” art were found in the basements of Berlin houses.

Curiously enough, when the Berlin subway was extended from Alexanderplatz to Brandenburg Gate in 2010, builders found eleven sculptures from the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in the basement of a private house. In the spring of 2012 they were exhibited in Berlin.

P.S. As ill luck would have it, Мax Nоrdau, a German writer and public figure of Jewish descent, introduced the term “degenerate art” in 1892 to denote distorted images in art.


Artists whose works were displayed at the “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937:

Art trends slated for purges:




Degenerate art

Yu.P. Markin. Iskusstvo tret’ego reikha (Art of the Third Reich), Moscow, RIP-holding Publishers, 2012

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac. Art of the Defeat. France 1940-1944. (translated from French). The Getty Research Institute publications program. Los Angeles. 2008.
New Sculptures of “Degenerate Art” Shown in Berlin
A Portion of the Collection Confiscated by the Nazis Returns to the German Museum

Degenerate Art” Found at a Berlin Construction Site