Summer, 1937. “You see around us monstrosities of madness, of impudence, of inability and degeneration.” These are the words of Adolf Ziegler, Hitler’s favorite artist and President of the Reich Chamber of Fine Art. Ziegler is referring to the 600 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, that had been selected for the notorious “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) exhibition the Nazis held in Munich. “What this show has to offer,” continued Adolph Ziegler, “causes shock and disgust in all of us.”
The Degenerate Art exhibit was staged at the Institute of Archeology in Munich’s Hofgarten district. There was no catalogue or guidebook. Derisive slogans were painted on the walls, many of which were anti-Semitic, and the German public was encouraged to mock and ridicule the avant-garde –works of art by “modernist pigs” (Ziegler’s phrase) that didn’t correspond with the ideology of the National Socialist Party. The exhibition ran for four months, and more than 2 million people visited; however, that number (which is about 24,000 people per day) is believed to have been exaggerated by Nazi propagandists. After the Degenerate Art exhibition closed in Munich, it toured Berlin, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Hamburg, and Leipzig, as well as cities in Austria.
“By telling Germans what art is the right art and what art is subversive, the Nazis could move on to say what people are the right people, what religions are the right religions, and eventually who could live and who could die,” explains Ronald Lauder, president of the Neue Galerie in New York. The museum’s exhibition: “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi German, 1937” runs March 13, 2014 to June 30, and it is the first major U.S. museum exhibition devoted to the infamous display of modern art by the Nazis since 1991.
In the opening ceremony speech at the Grosse Deutscge Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition), Hitler said the ground had been prepared for a “new and truly German art.” “With the opening of this exhibition, the end of the mockery of German art and thus of the cultural destruction of our people has begun. From now on, we will wage a pitiless, purifying war against the last elements of our cultural decay.” The Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich is clearly part of the pitiless, purifying war. What artists did the Nazis believe contributed to Germany’s cultural decay? Here are 9 artists the Nazis labeled “degenerate.”
9. Max Beckmann
While frequently associated with German Expressionism, Beckmann’s style is difficult to categorize. A painter, etcher and sculptor, Beckmann rejected the stark emotionalism of Expressionism in favor of realism, or as he later outlined in “My Theory of Painting” (1941), a realism fortified with symbolism. Max Beckmann’s work, which encompasses portraiture, still life, landscape, mythology, and the fantastic, reflects an era of change in art and history. From the decadence of the Weimar Republic to mythologized references to Nazi brutality, themes of terror, redemption and alienation course through his paintings. The day after the Nazi party classified Beckmann’s work degenerate and banned from public display, he went into voluntary exile in Amsterdam. He waited 10 years for a visa to the United States, and never returned to Germany. Noted works include The Dream, Departure, and Journey of Fish.
8. Emile Nolde
A painter and printmaker, Emile Nolde was one of the most powerful exponents of Expressionism, an evocative and vigorous style of painting that emerged in Munich, Dresden, and Paris in the 1900s. Expressionism used vivid colors, exaggerated lines and forms, and grotesque distortions to convey intense emotion; the style is a direct rejection of the aesthetic concerns of Impressionism, which focused on light and the replication of nature. Ironically, despite being an Aryan and a member of the Nazi Party, Emile Nolde was banned from exhibiting and had more than 1,000 of his works confiscated. Why? The Nazis believed that Expressionism made a mockery of German art. Emil Nolde’s most famous paintings include Young Men from Papua, Red Poppies, and The Last Supper.
7. Paul Klee
Paul Klee described his art as “taking a line for a walk,” and it’s a succinct account of the whimsical, semi-abstract, and playful images the Swiss-born painter is best known for. Endlessly experimental, Klee dabbled in color theory and many of his playful, simplified images look like cave paintings or ancient hieroglyphics. Paul Klee was admired by both Picasso and the surrealists. When the Nazi’s labeled his work degenerate, Klee was at the end of his career. He died in Switzerland in 1940. Klee’s masterpieces include The Golden Fish, Ad Parnassum, and Revolution of the Viaduct.
6. Otto Dix
Otto Dix was a representative of the second wave of German Expressionism. He was part of a group of painters who embraced a brutal, post-war satirical style. Dix’s most highly regarded works target the horrors of war and the decadent depravities of the Weimar Republic. Whether portrait art or genre painting, Dix’s work highlights life’s ugliness -the grotesque distortions, caricatures, and acidic colors create a sort of swirling cabaret of human folly. Today, Otto Dix is considered one of the best genre painters in the anti-war tradition. Dix’s best paintings include the Match Seller, Portrait of the Journalist Slyia Von Harden, and Pimp with Prostitutes.
5. Piet Mondrian
Nazis disliked “abstract art” as much as they despised Expressionism. Piet Modrian is considered one of the founders of the Dutch movement De Stijl, or Neo-Plasticism. Modrian said, “I wish to approach truth as closely as is possible, and therefore I abstract everything until I arrive at the fundamental quality of objects.” Moreover, he sought to simplify the elements of painting in order to reflect the spiritual order in the visible world. While intellectually influential in his lifetime, Modrian’s geometric paintings weren’t commercially successful. In 1938, Modrian moved to London; when Paris fell to the Third Reich, he fled to America and spent his remaining years in New York. Modrian’s most well known paintings include Composition in Red and Blue and Tableau No. IV with Red, Blue, Yellow and Black.
4. Oskar Kokoschka
An Austrian-born painter, printmaker and writer, Oscar Kokoschka was an integral part of Vienna’s avant-garde community. In 1908, he exhibited his work at the Kunstschau exhibition, which was organized by Gustav Klimt. Kokoschka was influenced by German and Austrian versions of Art Nouveau, but he soon shifted his style from a Klimt-like linearism to a bold and intense form of Expressionism. While much of his portraiture is characterized by a “morbidity of color,” Kokoschka still worked within the framework of Renaissance conventions, especially when it came to size and scale. Oscar Kokoschka was bitterly opposed to the Nazis, and in 1934 he moved to Prague. When he heard that his paintings had been labeled degenerate art, Kokoschka painted an ironic self-portrait of himself as a “degenerate artist.”
3. Egon Schiele
Austrian artist Egon Schiele is considered one of the best portrait artists of the modern era, not to mention one of the most distinct. Schiele specialized in figure painting; however, the twisted shapes, erotic undertones, and animalistic intensity of his images have more in common with artists like Edvard Munch or Francis Bacon than traditional figure painters. At times shocking, violent, pornographic, and disturbing, Schiele’s images have a uniquely contemporary edge. Schiele studied under Gustave Klimt (The Kiss, The Tree of Life) and was part of the Vienna Secession movement. Egon Schiele’s best known works include Pregnant Women and Death, Girl with Black Hair, Mourning Woman, as well as several Self-Portraits.
2. Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall was a Russian and Jewish artist who specialized in numerous mediums including painting, illustration, ceramics, and stained glass. Art critic Robert Hughes (“The Shock of the New”) called Chagall the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century. Drawing on Eastern and Western culture, the Bible, the Russian Revolution, mysticism, symbolism, and traditional Jewish art and folklore, there’s a fairytale dream-like quality in much of Chagall’s work. Despite being associated with many artistic styles and movements, his work is idiosyncratic and distinct. When Chagall’s painting were labeled degenerate art, he responded with Solitude, a painting that expresses the despair experienced by Jews amidst the rise of Nazism.
1. Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso is ranked among the top painters of the 20th century. Along with Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp, the Spanish painter is regarded as one of the artists who defined the revolutionary developments in art. Picasso’s work is divisive and polarizing. His paintings encompass a number of different styles and periods (Blue, Rose) before he and Georges Braque began experimenting with new pictorial ways to represent form and space. Cubism was developed between 1907 and 1911, and it quickly became the cutting edge movement in modern art.
Picasso was a prolific artist. It’s estimated that he completed over 50,000 artworks in his lifetime. At auction, Picasso’s paintings rank as some of the most expensive in the world. In 2004, Garcon a la Pipe sold for $104 million at Sotheby’s, setting a record at the time. Nude, Green Leaves and Bust sold at Christies in 2010 for $106.5 million. Picasso’s masterpieces include Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, Guernica, and Weeping Woman.