The Great Art The Nazis Deemed “Degenerate”

A new exhibition in New York looks back on the Nazis’ devastating attack on modern art, featuring now-famous works from the original group of so-called degenerates.

In Munich in 1937, the Nazis staged what they called the Degenerate Art Exhibition, which featured 650 artworks looted from museums around the country. Plastered on the walls and canvases were Nazi slogans like “Nature as seen by sick minds” and “Deliberate sabotage of national defense.” More than two million people attended the exhibition–far more than attended its counterpoint, the simultaneous Great German Art Exhibit, which showcased Nazi-approved works.


Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937, a new exhibition at New York City’s Neue Galerie, looks back on this Nazi-hosted exhibition, assembling artists that Hitler labeled “incompetents, cheats, and madmen.” Decades later, these so-called “degenerates” are considered modern visionaries–among them are Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Otto Dix, and Marc Chagall, many of whom have previously been honored by solo shows at the Neue Galerie. “The artists showcased the officially sanctioned Great German Art Exhibit, on the other hand, have been all but forgotten,” exhibition curator Dr. Olaf Peters tells Co.Design.

Hitler touring the Degenerate Art Exhibition, July 16, 1937.Courtesy of Neue Galerie

Virtually any art that was unrealistic, abstract, experimental, or otherwise difficult to understand was deemed entartet–“degenerate”–by the Third Reich. They condemned paintings that supposedly showed qualities like “decadence,” “weakness of character,” “racial impurity,” or “mental disease.” Such art, they thought, wasn’t just aesthetically displeasing but was actually a threat to national security–potentially polluting minds and inciting rebellion. In a speech introducing the 1937 exhibit, Hitler declared a “merciless war” on cultural disintegration. “German Volk, come and judge for yourselves!” exhibition planner Adolf Ziegler announced at the show’s opening–something the German Volk of the time were not remotely allowed to do.

What they did find acceptable was strict, wholesome realism in neoclassical style. “Above all, art had to be clear and easy to understand,” Peters says. To illustrate this contrast, Peters chose to directly juxtapose “degenerate” works with Nazi-approved pieces. Max Beckman’s dark, expressionistic “Beckmann’s Departure,” an allegory of hope in the face of political exile, hangs across from Adolf Ziegler’s kitschy, classicized triptych of buxom blond nudes, which once hung above Hitler’s mantelpiece.

After the traveling Degenerate Art Exhibit closed in 1941, most of the works were lost or destroyed. Peters chose to fill an entire room in the Neue show with ghostly empty frames, symbolizing the losses suffered at the hands of the Nazi campaign against modern art. In many cases, it wasn’t just physical work that was destroyed but the lives of the persecuted artists as well. Many were forced into exile, including Oskar Kokoschka, who painted the rebellious “Self-Portrait as Degenerate Artist, 1937” in Prague after he had fled Austria. He didn’t regain Austrian citizenship until 1970. “Kokoschka was proud that the Nazis called him degenerate,” Peters says. “For him, it was a sort of honor to be despised by them.” But other artists weren’t sustained by such proud defiance–after Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was forced to resign from teaching in 1933, the Nazis destroyed most of his work, and he committed suicide in 1938.

Ernst Barlach, The Berserker, 1910.Courtesy of Neue Galerie

“What I do hope is that the exhibition will enlighten people about the present, too, and inspire them to ask questions about where contemporary art is in danger today. Where do we have censorship?” Peters says. “While you can’t directly compare the situations, it does make you think about how iconoclasm in Islamic cultures is persecuted, or dissent in Russia and China,” he says. “Even technical things like how Amazon offers ‘recommended for you’ suggestions–when does that make you stop thinking for yourself?”

The Neue exhibition comes on the heels of the shocking discovery of the Gurlitt Trove: 1,500 missing pieces of Nazi-confiscated artworks stashed in the humble Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, an 80-year-old recluse. Also renewing interest in the Nazi attack on modern art is the George Clooney-directed film The Monuments Men, about a World War II platoon tasked with returning masterpieces stolen by Nazis to their rightful owners.


Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 is on view at the Neue Galerie until June 30.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.