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Degenerate Art

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Degenerate Art: 1937....Germany

Arguably the most horrific event in art history occurred in Germany during World War II. The Entartete Kunst, or Degenerate Art exhibition, was a nightmare for the artists that lived through it. This lowly decade for art began in 1927 when the National Socialist Society for German Culture was created to distribute one-sided information about the connection to artists race and the art those artists had created. From the groups perspective, there was a need to call out artists, mostly Jews and blacks, in order to reinvent German art production. This organization not only called out modern artists, but also jazz musicians, literary writers, play and movie script writers, and architects. They described these artists as "Jewish," "Degenerate," "Bolshevik,” and worse. The Nazis, motivated by their leader Adolf Hitler, hated all modern artists and the art they created. During this time, Hitler knew he needed a venue to promote proper art.

Art is a powerful communication tool, and knowing this, Hitler’s first building as Führer was the House of German Art (Haus der Deutschen Kunst) built in Munich as an art museum for the accepted artwork and art styles in Nazi Germany. When the doors opened on July 18, 1937, Hitler had hand selected all of the art in the museum‘s first exhibition, called “Great German Art Exhibition.” After that first exhibition the museum director Karl Kolb, photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, and Hitler himself selected the art that went into the exhibitions. Acceptable artists included Arno Breker, Ernst Liebermann, Adolf Ziegler, and Sepp Hilz. Much of their art has been lost or destroyed after Germany’s fall, however, the US military removed a lot of this art for preservation and storage in Washington, DC. This work includes portraits of Nazi leaders, Nazi party subjects, and art made by Hitler himself. Most of this art was returned to Germany through the 1980s.

This new museum opening worked in tandem with the opening of the Degenerate Art exhibition, that began on the second floor of the old Institute of Archaeology building in Munich on July 19, 1937. The intent was an overall re-education of the culture about art. The society was given examples of accepted Aryan art at the House of German Art and the unaccepted art at the Degenerate Art exhibition. Around 1937 Nazis stole 16,558 artworks from German museums and private homes that the party considered to be degenerate. Perhaps the most hard hit was the Berlin National Gallery that lost 136 paintings, twenty-eight sculptures, and 324 drawings. According to Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler’s closest associates, “Führer also wants no compensation paid to the owners. We will exchange a few of the works outside of Germany for real masterpieces.” Franz Hofmann, the director of fine art and art critic recommended to Goebbels that “the worthless, unsalable remainder be dumped in a trash heap and symbolically burned.” From those thousands stolen works, 650 artworks by 112 artists were placed in the Degenerate Art exhibition that opened in Munich and then traveled to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria. This so described, “instructional” exhibit was a mock to some of the greatest art and artists of the twentieth century. Some of the artists included in the exhibition were: Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc, Piet Mondrian, and Emil Nolde.

The Degenerate Art exhibition was a poorly hung show that was riddled with notes that mocked the artists and the artworks themselves. For example, Otto Dix’s art was called “defense-sabotage” and his anti-war paintings were "an insult to the German heroes of the great war," even though Dix was a volunteer in World War I for the Germans. The art was placed on temporary partitions that made the space feel overfilled. Pictures were intentionally packed onto the walls. The show also attached artists that were cubist, expressionist, dada, fauvist, impressionist, and surrealist. All art was organized into three categories: Art that was demeaning of religion; Jewish art; Art that insulted women, soldiers and farmers of Germany. Nearly three million people viewed this exhibition, two and a half times more then viewed the Great German Art Exhibition.

But why go to such lengths to ridicule art? To understand that we need to understand some of the back story. When Hitler founded the National Socialist Party, or Nazi Party, in 1933, the Party quickly began to take control of the German art scene. Any art that did not conform to Hitler’s standard was labeled as degenerate; this was any art that was seen as inferior or seen as mentally or morally weak. Artists that were labeled as degenerate faced a variety of consequences. Art teachers were fired, exhibiting artists were no longer allowed to display art, curators were replaced, and some were even banned from creating any art at all. The German artists had is worse than any other that were labeled degenerate. These German artists were an untrusted threat to other nations and rejected by their own country as well. But most wanted to exile themselves. Beckmann fled to Amsterdam, Ernst came to the United States, and Paul Klee went to Switzerland. But others like Ernst Kirchner had no means to leave Germany and his trauma from this rejection placed him in a deep depression that resulted in him committing suicide. Other like Emil Nolde remained in Germany even though he was told not to paint or buy any painting supplies. Painting was his life, so he kept on painting anyway. He secretly switched from oil to watercolor painting for fear of being placed into a concentration camp, even though there is no documentation of artists being placed in camps for their art creation alone.

Hitler saw himself as an artist. His opinion on art was the end-all be-all in the minds of the Nazis. There are three basic rational to his desire to change the face of art in Germany. First, he had some level of understanding of arts power to sway public opinion, views, and the whole culture. If people see him as a great leader and the Nazi was as the right way, he will have an easy time doing whatever he wanted to do. Secondly, his racist, anti-semite views may have influenced him. He was under the impression that the only art without Jewish influence was the art of the Greeks and Romans. So this classic art look must also be the look of his true Aryan art. This to me is a bit of a stretch of reality. Hitler was influenced by the ideas of architect and painter Paul Schultze-Naumburg, who first expressed this idea in his books like Art and Race. However, I feel that Hitler’s art background and rejection as a realist artist was the fuel that lit this hatred for the abstract. Third, and most powerful reason to change the face of German art, was his own personal passion and selfish desire to change art. Hitler own comments makes me think this, like when he made comments like, "Anybody who paints and sees a sky green and pastures blue ought to be sterilized." Hitler had desired to study art in Vienna, Austria beginning in 1909 after flunking out of high school. As an eighteen year old kid, all he wanted to do was be an artist. But he was unable to gain admittance into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts largely do to his inability to correctly draw human forms. He was living in poverty, but refused to change his thoughts on what art needed to look like and how it needed to be made. He was credited with creating some 2,500 works of art in his youth. There are four components that he generally has in all of his artworks: A billowy sky, this is an ideal that he took from one of his favorite artists Rudolf von Alt; Leaves on any plants are dabbed on and look unrealistic; He would paint architectural works with great detail to proportion, but the details within the work, like the people, will look way out of proportion and almost slopped in when compared to the rest of the work (the main reason he was not admitted into art school); The colors are often muddy and muted. Keeping all this in mind, I impartially think that Hitler had the potential to be a great artist. Although most people do not want to like an evil maggot like Adolf Hitler, I must admit that some of his artworks, some in part and some as a whole, are quite good. However, as an artist, as well as in the rest of his life I suppose, he lacked the focus to detail the whole of the artwork and not just zero in on the parts he liked most. Also, with his limited flexibility on what he liked, it would have been really difficult for him to be overly successful in art in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The style that he created in was an out dated style and his stubbornness world not have won over a lot of people in the art business. Also his sensitivity to rejection would have been a huge disadvantage to his, or anyone’s art career. Maybe with some developed skills, he could have been a decent architectural illustrator, or something like that. Most Hitler biographers jab him for his attempt at art. For example, Alan Bullock said "[Hitler] had the artist's temperament without either talent, training or creative energy." Although this may be true, people as a whole hate Hitler, and we love the fact that he failed at what he wanted to do in life. We are fixated on this rejection rather that the rejected attempt to follow a dream. This angrily make my feelings torn for him: I am sad when a person has a passion and a dream and that dream will never be realized, however, this person went on in life to be a ruthless dictator that tortured and killed over six million human beings. It is also a bit ironic to me that Hitler’s fall from power was largely due to the efforts of two world leaders that were also artists: Winston S. Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Although some would see, and I can see their point, the selling Hitler’s art is sick. If there is a market for mass murders like John Wayne Gasey, there is going to me a market for mass murders like Adolf Hitler. In today’s art market, a Hitler painting is worth anywhere between $5,000 and $25,000. This is largely depending on the subject and date painted. The potential buyers are limited because most European countries, including Germany, have laws against buying, selling, or owning any form of Nazi memorabilia.

Mr. Mike Burgher * PO Box 247 * Dallas Center, Iowa. 50063