Hitler and His Hatred of 'Degenerate' Art; BOOKS under the Nazi Regime, Works from Many Artists of the Modern Era Were Publicly Derided. Richard Edmonds Reviews a New Book Highlighting This Art Attack

Article excerpt

WHEN the Dada group was formed, it offered artistic radicalism in no uncertain terms. The Dadaists stood for nihilism, blasphemy, mass liberation and, above all else, for social non-conformity.

It was the brand name for formlessness in art and life, it represented a movement where there were no rules, no conventions - nothing at all in fact. The very word 'Dada' meant different things in different countries. In Romania, it meant 'yes-yes', in France it was a nursery word for 'rocking horse'.

When Dadaist performers entered the world of German cabaret, renowned for its snide send-up of moral values among the bourgeois, they sang songs like 'Morfin' which endorsed the virtues of drug enhanced creative states.

When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, these were unfortunate attitudes for artists living under the Third Reich. Everything the Dadaists preached, everything they saw as relevant came under the Nazi jackboot as gutter art, repulsive, decadent and degenerate. If the artist was a Jew - then so much the worse.

The rest of Europe saw the Dadaists, Surrealists, Fauvists, Cubists etc along with the artists, Magritte, Picasso (in his more violent paintings) Salvador Dali, Klee and Kokoshka, Miro and others of the same Modernist group, as men and women who were taking art into the 20th century. They were important and their work was hugely significant.

Not so Hitler. 'Degenerate art' was a term concocted by the Fuhrer's spin-doctor Joseph Goebbels. It was a sweeping condemnation of everything in modern art which failed to express praise for the new National Socialist policies in a Hitler-dominated Germany, and it mirrored the same dismissal of everything which failed to support the ideals of Communism in 1930s Stalin-controlled Russia.

In this fluent and beautifully presented book, Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art In Nazi Germany 1937, rich in illustrations and carefully debated prose, you get a disturbing overview of political bullying. Many of these beautiful masterpieces were branded as 'degenerate' by the Nazi party, many of whom were semi-literate thugs and political opportunists, happy to go along with the filth of the extermination camps, as long as their positions in the Nazi hierarchy were protected.

They spoke derisively of the paintings as simply 'kitsch' or 'talentless sham'.

At a Reich party conference in Nuremberg, Hitler spoke through laughter, of the "artistic and cultural stutterings of Cubists, Futurists and Dadaists, and so on..."

These pictures were shown to the public in a three-year travelling exhibition that criss-crossed Germany and Austria in the mid-30s. They were brutally seized almost overnight from respectable civic art galleries, museums and private collections and hung like hostages on public display where the German populace was encouraged to sneer and revile masterworks by, among many others, Matisse, Egon Schiele, Emil Nolde, or Ernst Barlach. …