The Nazis' War on Modem Art

By Bolz, Diane M. | Moment, May 2014 | Go to article overview

The Nazis' War on Modem Art


Bolz, Diane M., Moment


In July 1937 Germany's National Socialist Party opened an exhibition in Munich it termed "Entartete Kunst," or "Degenerate Art." Intentionally housed in cramped, poorly lit conditions and awkwardly hung, the works on view were accompanied by inflammatory, denigrating labels. The exhibition was an open declaration of the Nazis' state-run war on modern art and the effort to impose their officially sanctioned conception of art through propaganda and force. This calculated attack on the freedom of artistic expression led to the stripping of museum collections, the destruction of modernism in Germany between the wars, and a tragic, irretrievable loss of art.

The exhibition, which toured Germany and Austria for three years, included masterpieces of Expressionist, Dada and Cubist art that the Nazis had confiscated from museums, studios and private collections. The main aim of the show was to mock and demonize these works. It is said that in Munich alone, some two million people attended the exhibition, which has been called the most popular traveling show of all time. As crowds lined up to see the display during its stint in Hamburg in 1938, Jews were being detained and carted off to concentration camps.

At the close of the exhibition tour, most of the works on display were sold, lost or presumed destroyed. Now the Neue Gal-erie in New York City has mounted the first major U.S. museum exhibition in more than 20 years to be devoted to the Nazis' infamous show. Organized by Neue Galer-ie board member and distinguished scholar Olaf Peters, 'Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937" will be on display through June 30, 2014. Highlights of the exhibition include a number of works shown in Munich in the summer of 1937, including such seminal paintings as Swiss German artist Paul Klee's The Twittering Machine and The Angler (pg. 23), and German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's The Painters of the Brucke (pg. 22), one of the icons of modern German art. Works by Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka, German Danish painter and printmaker Emil Nolde and German artists George Grosz and Max Beckmann, among others, are also on view.

Of the more than 400 works by Ko-koschka seized from German museums, nine paintings--along with drawings, a watercolor and a poster--were included in the Munich show. The drawings were hung next to work by a patient diagnosed with mental illness and a label inquiring which work was made by an "inmate of a lunatic asylum." Some dozen-plus paintings by Klee, including the two mentioned above, were also featured. The Nazis ridiculed them for their "confusion" and "primitive appearance." They viewed the subtlety and seeming simplicity of his style as naivete and equated his works with the untrained art of children and the mentally ill, thus establishing an implied connection between modern art and pathological conditions. …

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