Entartete Kunst (Degenerate art)


Shortly after Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933, a number of German municipalities (notably Karlsruhe, Mannheim, Nuremberg) staged exhibitions of ‘entartete Kunst’ in order to denigrate ‘modern’ art and the ‘isms’ of the previous two decades: Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism and the like, and to humiliate the directors of the museums who had bought such art for public display. Later, Josef Goebbels, the Minister for Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment, ordered that the nation’s museums and galleries be cleansed of such art in time for the opening in 1937 of the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung which was to demonstrate to the German public the art acceptable to the ruling National Socialists. By then the Nazis had removed as degenerate art over 17,000 works from public spaces. Many were by the most highly-regarded German artists, sculptors and printmakers. On 30 June 1939 many of these works were auctioned at the Theodor Fischer Gallery, Lucerne. Three months earlier 1004 ‘worthless’ paintings and 3825 watercolours, drawings and prints had been burned several months earlier in Berlin by the Berlin Fire Brigade. (Lehmann-Haupt, p. 82; see below)

The infamous 1937 ‘Entartete Kunst’ exhibition was organized in Munich by the Reichspropagandaleitung, Amtsleitung Kultur (Cultural Office of the Reich Propaganda directorate), to demonstrate a selection of these ‘degenerate’ paintings, sculptures, views of Bolsheviks, Jews, and other ‘undesireable elements’ in the German culture. The Entartete Kunst exhibition was displayed in the Archaeological Institute, opposite the new Haus der Deutschen Kunst, from 19 July to 30 November, then travelled throughout Germany and Austria (to April 1941) and was seen by over 2 million visitors. Works by the following were included: Willi Baumeister, Herbert Bayer, Max Burchartz, Walter Dexel, Gerhard Marcks, Johannes Molzahn, and Kurt Schwitters.

The exhibition of officially acceptable German art, the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung, opened in Munich the preceding day, 18 July, to inaugurate the Haus der Deutschen Kunst, the first official building erected by the National Socialists. Hitler’s speech at the opening can be found in Peter-Klaus Schuster (ed.), Nationalsozialismus und ‘Entartete Kunst’, Munich: Prestel, 1987, pp. 250-52, in English in David Britt (ed.), Art and Power. Europe under the Dictators 1930-45 (exh. cat.), London: Hayward Gallery, Oct. 1995-Jan. 1996, pp. 338-9 (tr: John Willett), and at kunstzitate.de/bildendekunst/manifeste/nationalsozialismus.hitler/entartete.

A counter-exhibition to the Entartete Kunst exhibition , ‘Twentieth Century German Art’, was held in London at the New Burlington Galleries, 5 Burlington Gardens, July 1938. Works shown included those by Willi Baumeister, Käthe Kollwitz, Gerhard Marcks, Kurt Schwitters, Walter Trier and Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart.

The Grosse Deutsche Ausstellung was held annually from 1937 to 1944.

Comprehensive references for the Entartete Kunst exhibition: Barron, 1991 (in English), and Rave, 1949 (in German); for the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung: Dresler, 1938 (see below).

Writings about

  • Entartete Kunst. Ausstellungsführer (1937: includes 9 quotations on art by Adolf Hitler), (repr. of the original guide for the touring exhibition: Cologne: König, 1988)
  • Dr Adolf Dresler, Deutsche Kunst und Entartete Kunst, Munich: Deutscher Volksverlag, 1938
  • ‘Kunst und entartete Kunst’, Deutscher Drucker, Jan. 1938, p. 161
  • Paul Ortwin Rave, Kunstdiktatur im Dritten Reich, Berlin/Hamburg: Gebr. Mann, 1949 (includes photos of the 1937 exh., list of artists and their works in the exh., ‘degenerate’ artworks confiscated in Berlin, list of ‘degenerate’ works confiscated from German museums, details of the Lucerne auction, 30 June 1939, at Galerie Fischer)
  • Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, Art under a dictatorship, New York: Oxford U.P., 1954
  • G.H. Hamilton, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880 to 1940, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967, pp. 327-9
  • Frank Nicolaus, ‘Künstler unterm Hakenkreuz’ (series), art (German journal), March 1982, pp. 84-100, 102, 104, April, pp. 78-84, May, pp. 58-68, June, pp. 70-79, July, pp. 54-62, August, pp. 76-85, Sept., pp. 66-73
  • Stephanie Barron (ed.), ‘Degenerate Art’. The fate of the avant-garde in Nazi Germany, Los Angeles: County Museum of Art (the exhibition travelled to the Art Institute of Chicago), and New York: Abrams, 1991.