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Banned Art

The 80th Anniversary of Degenerate Art

BY Richard Aronowitz
author and head of restitution at Sotheby's, Europe


Adolf Hitler at the Degenerate Art Exhibition, Munich, 1937 with Karl Hofer's Sitzender Weiblicher Akt (Seated Female Nude) (1927), second from right. Image courtesy the author

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Degenerate Art Exhibition (Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst”) in Munich. Conceived as an inflammatory freak show of the type of art that the National Socialists vilified and wanted to expunge from the canon, the exhibition was staged rather tellingly at the Institute of Archaeology in the Hofgarten from July to November 1937.

Above and beneath the works, which were arranged haphazardly in a dense and deliberately diminishing salon-style hang, were painted slogans pouring vitriol and scorn on them, such as “An insult to German womanhood”, “Nature as seen by sick minds” and “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul”.

More than two million people attended the exhibition, which went on to tour Germany for almost two years, including Berlin, Leipzig, Weimar, Halle and Düsseldorf. It later travelled to Vienna and Salzburg after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria, in March 1938. A further million or so people saw the touring exhibition, which was augmented with works by modern artists from countries other than Germany.

Joseph Goebbels at the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Berlin, 1938. Photo credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

The works in the initial exhibition had either been taken from German museums during the Degenerate Art Action (Entartete-Kunst-Aktion—the stripping-out of Germany’s museums of the “degenerate” art that they owned—that began in 1937), or seized from private citizens. The painters and sculptors featured in the Degenerate Art Exhibition included such major 20th-century figures as Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and his fellow Die Brücke artists; Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and their colleagues in Der Blaue Reiter; and Oskar Kokoschka, El Lissitzky, Max Ernst—the list of modern greats whose works were purposefully ridiculed is long and illustrious.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Straßenbild vor dem Friseurladen (Straßenszene)
(1926), Albertinum/Galerie Neue Meister © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo credit: Estel/Klut

Very occasionally, a work from the Degenerate Art Exhibition appears on the art market. Some works were destroyed after the 1937 exhibition, others went missing and remain so today, and still others entered museum collections. One of the most notable, not necessarily because of its artistic or commercial impact but because of its extraordinary history, is Karl Hofer’s Sitzender weiblicher Akt (1927). This painting of a seated female nude belonged to the prominent Breslau lawyer and art collector Dr. Ismar Littmann until his suicide following Nazi persecution in 1934.

Karl Hofer, Sitzender Weiblicher Akt (Seated Female Nude) (1927). Private collection © 2017 Karl Johannes Christian Hofer/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Germany

His widow, Käthe, was left with only Littmann’s collection as collateral to raise money to survive on as a Jew living in Nazi Germany. She offered the collection to Max Perl’s auction house in Berlin in 1935, but during the pre-sale view a group of works including the Hofer painting were seized by the Gestapo and confiscated as “degenerate” art that should not be on public sale.

The majority of the items taken were subsequently destroyed or went missing, but the Hofer emerged in the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition. After the Second World War, it became part of the collection of the National Gallery in Berlin. It was restituted to the Littmann heirs in the early 2000s and sold at Sotheby’s in 2002 for £105,000 (estimate: £100,000-150,000).

While not necessarily adding a premium to the final selling price of a work, inclusion in the Degenerate Art Exhibition certainly adds weight to a picture’s history.

Alexej von Jawlensky, Sizilianerin mit Grünem Shawl (Sicilian Woman with Green Shawl) (1912), which was exhibited at the Degenerate Art Exhibition, Munich, 1937

The Degenerate Art Exhibition had as its counterpoint in the House of German Art (Das Haus der Deutschen Kunst), purpose-built for the occasion down the road on the Prinzregentenstrasse. This was the first of eight iterations of the Great German Art Exhibition (“Die Grosse Deutsche Kunstaustellung”), which showed the type of art—much of it for sale—of which the National Socialists approved. There had been an open submission process, and many thousands of works were entered. Think of traditional, 19th-century landscapes, of Alpine maidens feeding goats, of shepherds carrying lambs on their shoulders—think of London’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition without any new, modern, abstract or challenging work and you will get the picture.

Nazi tastes in most art were stridently black-and-white, with no allowances for anything experimental or radical. Subsequently, most of the artists featured in the Great German Art exhibitions have been largely forgotten and few of them are known on the international art market today. Perhaps only the sculptor Georg Kolbe (1877-1947) and the landscape painter Heinrich von Zügel (1850-1941) stand out as artists whose works still have an eager buying public.

Why did the Nazi elite hate most modern art? Where did their mania against the new come from? This impulse had its roots in their hatred of non-Aryan races, of non-western cultures and of leftist politics—all of which of course had key influences on modern art, both stylistically and thematically.

History tells us, of course, that the Nazis failed in their attempts to banish modern art. It triumphed, while the art that they espoused failed to leave any meaningful legacy. And far more people visited the Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937 than the Great German Art Exhibition down the road.

Richard Aronowitz’s latest novel, An American Decade, is out now in paperback. 



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