The Nazi’s Philistine Grudge Against Abstract Art and The “Degenerate Art Exhibition” of 1937


Has any polit­i­cal par­ty in West­ern his­to­ry had as vexed a rela­tion­ship with art as the Ger­man Nation­al Social­ists? We’ve long known, of course, that their uses of and opin­ions on art con­sti­tut­ed the least of the Nazi par­ty’s prob­lems. Still, the artis­tic pro­cliv­i­ties of Hitler and com­pa­ny com­pel us, per­haps because they seem to promise a win­dow into the mind­set that result­ed in such ulti­mate inhu­man­i­ty. We can learn about the Nazis from the art they liked, but we can learn just as much (or more) from the art they dis­liked — or even that which they sup­pressed out­right.


Cur­rent events have brought these sub­jects back to mind; this week, accord­ing to The New York Times, “Ger­man author­i­ties described how they dis­cov­ered 1,400 or so works dur­ing a rou­tine tax inves­ti­ga­tion, includ­ing ones by Matisse, Cha­gall, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picas­so and a host of oth­er mas­ters,” most or all pre­vi­ous­ly unknown or pre­sumed lost amid all the flight from Nazi Ger­many. Hitler him­self, more a fan of racial­ly charged Utopi­an real­ism, would­n’t have approved of most of these new­ly redis­cov­ered paint­ings and draw­ings.


In fact, he may well have thrown them into 1937’s Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion. Four years after it came to pow­er,” writes the BBC’s Lucy Burns, “the Nazi par­ty put on two art exhi­bi­tions in Munich. The Great Ger­man Art Exhi­bi­tion [the Große Deutsche Kun­stausstel­lung] was designed to show works that Hitler approved of — depict­ing stat­uesque blonde nudes along with ide­alised sol­diers and land­scapes. The sec­ond exhi­bi­tion, just down the road, showed the oth­er side of Ger­man art — mod­ern, abstract, non-rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al — or as the Nazis saw it, ‘degen­er­ate.’ ” This Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion (Die Ausstel­lung “Entartete Kun­st”), the much more pop­u­lar of the two, fea­tured Paul Klee, Oskar Kokosch­ka, Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky, Max Beck­mann, Emil Nolde and George Grosz. There the Nazis quar­an­tined these con­fis­cat­ed abstract, expres­sion­is­tic, and often Jew­ish works of art, those that, accord­ing to the Führer, “insult Ger­man feel­ing, or destroy or con­fuse nat­ur­al form or sim­ply reveal an absence of ade­quate man­u­al and artis­tic skill” and “can­not be under­stood in them­selves but need some pre­ten­tious instruc­tion book to jus­ti­fy their exis­tence.” And if that sounds rigid, you should see how that Nazis dealt with jazz.

Note: For more on this sub­ject, you can watch the 1993 doc­u­men­tary Degen­er­ate Art.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

The Nazis’ 10 Con­trol-Freak Rules for Jazz Per­form­ers: A Strange List from World War II

Joseph Stal­in, a Life­long Edi­tor, Wield­ed a Big, Blue, Dan­ger­ous Pen­cil

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • Accord­ing to that same Times arti­cle, the “Degen­er­ate Art” exhi­bi­tion — as the pic­ture you pro­vide with this arti­cle sug­gests — was, for the Nazis, an embar­rass­ing­ly big hit. Not hard to imag­ine that the aver­age Fritz in the street would prick up his ears when told he could see some real degen­er­ate art up close. My guess is a lot of Ger­mans who’d oth­er­wise nev­er have both­ered vis­it­ing a muse­um of any kind stood patient­ly in line for this show.

  • pSi says:

    And, fun­ny enough, my brows­er does not dis­play the images of this par­tic­u­lar post?

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