When the Nazis Declared War on Expressionist Art (1937)

The 1937 Nazi Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion dis­played the art of Paul Klee, Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky, Georg Grosz, and many more inter­na­tion­al­ly famous mod­ernists with max­i­mum prej­u­dice. Ripped from the walls of Ger­man muse­ums, the 740 paint­ings and sculp­tures were thrown togeth­er in dis­ar­ray and sur­round­ed by deroga­to­ry graf­fi­ti and hell-house effects. Right down the street was the respectable Great Ger­man Art Exhi­bi­tion, designed as coun­ter­pro­gram­ming “to show the works that Hitler approved of—depicting stat­uesque blonde nudes along with ide­al­ized sol­diers and land­scapes,” writes Lucy Burns at the BBC.

View­ers were sup­posed to sneer and recoil at the mod­ern art, and most did, but whether they were gawk­ers, Nazi sym­pa­thiz­ers, or art fans in mourn­ing, the exhib­it drew mas­sive crowds. Over a mil­lion peo­ple first attend­ed, three times more than saw the exhi­bi­tion of state-sanc­tioned art—or more specif­i­cal­ly, art sanc­tioned by Hitler the failed artist, who had endured watch­ing “the real­is­tic paint­ings of build­ings and land­scapes,” of stur­dy peas­ants and suf­fer­ing poets, “dis­missed by the art estab­lish­ment in favour of abstract and mod­ern styles.” The Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion “was his moment to get his revenge,” and he had it. Over a hun­dred artists were denounced as Bol­she­viks and Jews bent on cor­rupt­ing Ger­man puri­ty.

After­wards, thou­sands of works of art were destroyed or dis­ap­peared, as did many of their cre­ators. Many artists fled, many could not. Enraged by the eclipse of sen­ti­men­tal aca­d­e­m­ic styles and by his own igno­rance, Hitler railed against “works of art which can­not be under­stood in them­selves,” as he put it in a speech that sum­mer. These “will nev­er again find their way to the Ger­man peo­ple.” Many such quo­ta­tions sur­round­ed the offend­ing art. The 1993 doc­u­men­tary above, writ­ten, pro­duced, and direct­ed by David Gru­bin, tells the sto­ry of the exhi­bi­tion, which has in time proven Hitler’s great­est cul­ture war fol­ly. It accom­plished its imme­di­ate pur­pose, but as Jonathan Petropou­los, pro­fes­sor of Euro­pean His­to­ry at Clare­mont McKen­na Col­lege points out, “this art­work became more attrac­tive abroad…. I think that over the longer run it was good for mod­ern art to be viewed as some­thing that the Nazis detest­ed and hat­ed.”

Not every anti-Nazi crit­ic saw mod­ern art as sub­vert­ing fas­cism. Ten years after the Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion, philoso­pher Theodor Adorno, him­self a refugee from Nazism, called Expres­sion­ism “a naïve aspect of lib­er­al trust­ful­ness,” on a con­tin­u­um between fas­cist tools like Futur­ism and “the ide­ol­o­gy of the cin­e­ma.” Nonethe­less, it was Hitler who most bore out Adorno’s gen­er­al obser­va­tion: “Taste is the most accu­rate seis­mo­graph of his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence…. React­ing against itself, it rec­og­nizes its own lack of taste.” The hys­ter­i­cal per­for­mance of dis­gust sur­round­ing so-called “degen­er­ate art” turned the exhib­it into a sen­sa­tion, a block­buster that, if it did not prove the virtues of mod­ernism, showed many around the world that the Nazis were as crude, dim, and vicious as they alleged their sup­posed ene­mies to be.

In the doc­u­men­tary, you’ll see actu­al footage of the the­atri­cal exhi­bi­tion, jux­ta­posed with film of a 1992 Berlin exhi­bi­tion of much of that for­mer­ly degen­er­ate art. Restaged Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tions have become very pop­u­lar in the art word, bring­ing togeth­er artists who need no fur­ther expo­sure, in order to his­tor­i­cal­ly reen­act, in some fash­ion, the expe­ri­ence of see­ing them all togeth­er for the first time. From a recent his­tor­i­cal review at New York’s Neue Gal­lerie to the dig­i­tal exhib­it at MoMA.org, degen­er­ate art ret­ro­spec­tives show, as Adorno wrote, that indeed “taste is the most accu­rate seis­mo­graph of his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence.”

The orig­i­nal exhi­bi­tion “went on tour all over Ger­many,” writes Burns, “where it was seen by a mil­lion more peo­ple.” Thou­sands of ordi­nary Ger­mans who went to jeer at it were exposed to mod­ern art for the first time. Mil­lions more peo­ple have learned the names and styles of these artists by learn­ing about the his­to­ry of Nazism and its cult of pet­ti­ness and per­son­al revenge. Learn much more in the excel­lent doc­u­men­tary above and at our pre­vi­ous post on the Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion.

Degen­er­ate Art — 1993, The Nazis vs. Expres­sion­ism will be added to our list of Free Doc­u­men­taries, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Titan­ic: The Nazis Cre­ate a Mega-Bud­get Pro­pa­gan­da Film About the Ill-Fat­ed Ship … and Then Banned It (1943)

When Ger­man Per­for­mance Artist Ulay Stole Hitler’s Favorite Paint­ing & Hung it in the Liv­ing Room of a Turk­ish Immi­grant Fam­i­ly (1976)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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