The years 1927-37 were critical for artists in Germany. In 1927, the National Socialist Society for German Culture was formed. The aim of this organization was to halt the "corruption of art" and inform the people about the relationship between race and art. By 1933, the terms "Jewish," "Degenerate," and "Bolshevik" were in common use to describe almost all modern art.
In 1937, Nazi officials purged German museums of works the Party considered to be degenerate. From the thousands of works removed, 650 were chosen for a special exhibit of Entartete Kunst. The exhibit opened in Munich and then traveled to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria. In each installation, the works were poorly hung and surrounded by graffiti and hand written labels mocking the artists and their creations. Over three million visitors attended making it the first "blockbuster" exhibition.
Short clip of people viewing the Entartete Kunst exhibit.
This excerpt from the exhibition catalog for "Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany" describes the historical roots of degenerate art.
Complete list of artists included in the Entartete Kunst exhibition.
Many of the artists included in the Entartete Kunst exhibition are now considered masters of the twentieth century. The following are some of the better known artists whose works were ridiculed in the exhibit.
Marc Chagall was born in Russia in 1887. His life was deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and religion. His paintings are filled with a child-like glee, using crayon colors and joyous renderings, which appear to be seen through the eyes of a child. He believed that the spirituality of Art had to be universal and timeless. "It always seemed to me, and it still does, that the Bible is the greatest source of poetry that has ever existed. Since that time, I have been seeking to express this philosophy in life and art."
View ten of Marc Chagall's paintings.
The German painter-poet Max Ernst was a member of the dada movement and a founder of surrealism. He was a self-taught artist. He pioneered a method called frottage, in which a sheet of paper is placed on the surface of an object and then penciled over until the texture of the surface is transferred. In 1925, he showed his work at the first surrealist painting exhibition in Paris.
View six of Max Ernst's artworks.
Born in Moscow in 1866, Wassily Kandinsky played the piano and cello at an early age. The influence of music in his art was profound; many of his paintings had musical connotations: "Improvisations," "Impressions," and "Compositions." In 1895 Kandinsky attended a French Impressionist exhibition where he saw Monet's "Haystacks at Giverny." He was upset he had not recognized it as a haystack, and also thought the painter had no right to paint in such an vague way. Yet he was intrigued by the picture. A short time later he left Moscow for Germany to study sketching and drawing. He is considered to be one of the founders of abstract art.
Eighteen of Kandinsky's paintings are on display at the WebMuseum, Paris.
Paul Klee is ranked as one of the most original masters of contemporary art. He was born in Bern, Switzerland and lived for many years in Germany. He was one of the instructors at the Bauhaus. In 1931 he began teaching at Dusseldorf Academy, but he was dismissed by the Nazis, who termed his work "degenerate." In 1933, Klee went back to his native Switzerland. He died on June 29, 1940.
A collection of Klee's work can be viewed at the WebMuseum, Paris.
The Brücke, or the "Bridge," was a very important group of young artists who worked together in Germany during the years 1905-1912. Among those included in the Brücke were Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Emil Nolde. These artists produced an intense body of work that was to drastically alter the direction of twentieth-century art.
Background information on Die Brücke.
During World War I Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a volunteer in the army, but he could not stand the discipline and constant subordination. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was moved to a sanatorium, where he became dependent on Veronal (sleeping pills), morphine and alcohol. The addictions did not hinder him from painting. He slowly recovered, and worked on paintings and woodcuts. His art was exhibited in Switzerland and Germany. The Germans banned his work, and he became increasingly depressed. On June 15, 1938, he took his own life.
View Kirchner's Winter Landscape in Moonlight.
View Kirchner's Self-Portrait with Model.
View Kirchner's Self-Portrait.
Emile Nolde was an expressionist painter and graphic artist known for his religious works. His distortion and violent use of color attracted the attention of Die Brücke resulting in an invitation in 1906 to join the group. Nolde's temperament was not suited for collective work and he left Die Brücke in 1907 after learning the technique of woodcut. Nolde was able to remain in Germany during the Nazi regime, but over one thousand of his works were confiscated.
Visit the Nolde-Museum.
View ten examples of Nolde's work.
Franz Marc died before Hitler's rise to power, but his work influenced and helped lay the foundations for the abstract art movement. With Kandinsky, he founded the artist's group Der Blaue Reiter in 1911 and organized exhibitions with this name. The Blaue Reiter group exhibited a new art style based on exuberant color and on strong emotional and spiritual feelings. He volunteered for military service during W.W.I. and died near Verdun, France, on March 4, 1916.
View Franz Marc's The Little Blue Horses.
Edvard Munch is probably best known for his painting The Scream. His preoccupation with the more sorrowful aspects of life was perhaps a result of loosing both parents, a brother, and a sister when he was young. Munch was a painter and printmaker.
A selection of Munch's work can be viewed at the Web Museum, Paris.
Max Beckman was influenced by Edvard Munch. Beckman served in the medical corps during World War I, an experience that led to extreme pessimism in his artwork. Many of his paintings were sold by the Third Reich after the Entartete Kunst exhibition. Beckman was able to escape to Amsterdam and then eventually made his way to the United States.
View Max Beckmann's Strand.
Otto Dix was another expressionist painter whose work was influenced by the experience of World War I. He was appointed professor at the Dresden State Academy, but was dismissed in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. Two hundred sixty of Dix's paintings were removed from German museums in 1937. Many of these were burnt on Goebbels's order. Dix survived on a remote farm until 1945 when he was drafted by the Nazis and then captured by the French and made a prisoner of war. After the war, Dix returned to teaching.
Encyclopedia of the Holocaust article on Otto Dix.
Not every artist considered by the Nazis to be degenerate was included in the Entarte Kunst exhibit. One such artist was Käthe Kollwitz whose paintings, drawings, and sculptures were commentaries on social conditions. She was much loved by the German people, with streets and parks being named after her. Käthe Kollwitz became the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Art in Berlin. But because her work was critical of the Nazi regime, she became persona non grata, and she was expelled from the academy in 1933.
Where do all the women who have watched so carefully over their loved ones get the heroism to send them to face the cannon? I toy with the thought (of) . . . mothers standing in a circle defending their children, as a sculpture in the round. --Kollwitz
Kollwitz believed that art should reflect social conditions in one's time. The Nazis forbade her work to be displayed, and banished her work to the cellar of the Crown Prince Palace, declaring "In the Third Reich mothers have no need to defend their children. The State does that."
An enlarged version of Käthe Kollwitz's Mother with Dead Son was done by Harald Haake and stands in the middle of the "Neue Wache" in Berlin.
View Käthe Kollwitz' sculpture, Two Waiting Soldiers' Women, 1943.
View Paul Fuhrmann's Kriegsgewinnler (War Profiteer), an oil painting from 1932. Two of Fuhrmann's works were included in the Entartete Kunst exhibition.
Julius (Julo) Levin was considered a degenerate artist by the Nazis. He was arrested and died in Auschwitz.
Fortunately, many prominent artists were able to escape German-controlled Europe thanks to Varian Fry. Fry was an American who went to France on behalf of the Emergency Rescue Committee with the mission of rescuing artists, writers, academics, and others at risk. Fry and his co-workers were able to rescue 4,000 at-risk persons including artists Max Ernst and Marc Chagall. The Emergency Rescue Committee (now known as the International Rescue Committee) still provides relief, protection, and resettlement services for refugees and victims of oppression or violent conflict.
More on Varian Fry including photographs and two video clips from a BBC production.
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