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, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness