The art scene during the Weimar Republic was one that was flourishing. Many engaged in the radical Modernist culture which was exploring the limits of art. When Adolf Hitler came into power, however, he launched an essentially immediate assault on what the Nazi party deemed “degenerate art.” What constituted as degenerate art included a number of racial, ideological, political, and philosophical reasoning. For example, Jewish artists were a natural target. The only approved art was work that pushed Nazi propaganda. Artists that were a threat were exiled, forbidden from creating work, or sent to camps; left to die.
“For the Nazis, modernism was not just an inferior or distasteful style. It wasn’t even just non-Aryan. Modernism was a swindle – a dangerous lie perpetrated by Jews, communists, and even the insane to contaminate the body of German society.”
– Jason Farago, The Guardian
The most famous example of this was the 1937 Munich exhibition, which was created solely to publicly shame any art that had fallen under this category. This was of course not the first or only shame event, but it had an enormous attendance. During this exhibition, the artworks were accompanied by Nazi slogans ridiculing them. One of the most famous quotes included Hitler’s description of Modernist works as “filth for filth’s sake.” The setting did everything to bring about a dislike to the art: hanging it unevenly against graffitied walls, covered in insults directed at the works. Creating connotations to that of a freak show.
Surrealists, Dadaists, Cubists, Expressionists, and so on, were targets. To name just some of the artists that had their works stolen and shamed included that of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Salvador Dalí (1904, 1989), and those part of the German Expressionist group Die Brücke (The Bridge), such as Emil Nolde (1867-1956). The effect of Nazi rule on many artists’ lives is a tragedy. Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) was marked as a “degenerate,” his works taken from museums and displayed in Degenerate Exhibitions. He committed suicide in 1938. Avante-garde artist Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler (1899-1940), was forcibly sterilized and then murdered under the Nazi euthanasia program. Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944) documented his fear of living under Nazi rule within his works. He was sent to Auschwitz and murdered.
Is it important to remember this act of destruction during Nazi Germany, because not only did this destroy the artworks itself, it destroyed lives. This art was part of the livelihood and heritage of so many people. By stealing, destroying, and humiliating these works, the Nazi party aimed to systematically erase the very memory and ideas of so many individuals.
Above: Works by artists that were considered “degenerate.” The Blue Window, 1913, by Henri Matisse l Self Portrait, c. 1930, by Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler l The Burial, 1915, by Emil Nolde l Descent from the Cross, 1917, by Max Beckmann l Street, Berlin, 1913, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner l The Dance of the Skeletons, 1944, by Felix Nussbaum