‘It is not the mission of art to wallow in filth for filth’s sake, to paint the human being only in a state of putrefaction… or to present deformed idiots as representatives of manly strength.’ So declared Adolf Hitler in a speech in September 1935, two years before seizing hundreds of pieces of artwork belonging to a number of esteemed artists in Germany at the time, on the grounds that they were ‘degenerate.’ These artworks were displayed in an exhibition entitled Entartete Kunst, or ‘Degenerate Art,’ before being confiscated altogether by the Nazis. Here, we take a look at some of these abstract and expressionist pieces that Hitler found so objectionable and the artists behind them.
German painter Otto Dix used his paintings to convey his disillusionment regarding the horrors of war. In 1933, he was dismissed from his academic post as a teacher at Dresden Academy, and his artwork was declared degenerate. He was forced to join the Nazi government’s Reich Chamber of Fine Arts and had to promise to paint only inoffensive landscapes. In 1939 Dix was arrested on a charge of being involved in a plot against Hitler but was released shortly afterward.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner suffered a mental breakdown during World War One, and sporadic health problems from that point onward, as is reflected in the increasingly abstract nature of his artwork in the time leading up to his death. Following the removal of 639 of his paintings from museums in 1937, and the display of 25 of them in the Degenerate Art Exhibition, Kirchner took his own life by gunshot in June 1938. Along with Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Kirchner was a founding member of Die Brücke, or ‘The Bridge’ – a group of German Expressionist artists formed in 1905, who eventually had a museum named after them, housing a collection of their biggest artworks.
Although he died long before either of the World Wars, Van Gogh’s famous Post-Impressionist paintings inspired many painters who came after him, especially Emil Nolde [see below], and they were therefore among the paintings seized during the Degenerate Art era. His self-portrait, shown here, was sold at a Degenerate Art auction for US $40,000.
Like Van Gogh, Franz Marc also died years before the Nazis came into power; he was killed during World War I. A painter by trade before the outbreak of the Great War, Marc initially enlisted as a cavalryman. However, shortly afterward, he was commissioned to paint military camouflage canvas covers, intended to hide artillery from aerial observation. One of his most famous paintings today is The Fate of Animals, shown here. Marc actually painted this in 1913, before the outbreak of the war; once mobilized in war, Marc said in a letter to his wife that the chaos depicted in this painting was ‘like a premonition of this war – horrible and shattering. I can hardly conceive that I painted it.’ This certainly may help to explain why this particular work was among those seized by the Nazis years later and classed as Degenerate Art.
Ernst Barlach is an artist and sculptor mostly remembered today for his works protesting against the war; looking at his World War Two-era works, it is little wonder that most of them were confiscated by the Nazi Party as Degenerate Art. His experiences during World War transformed him from an enthusiastic pro-war supporter, to an active anti-war protester, and he used the horrors he experienced during the Great War as inspiration for his works. For instance, his Magdeburger Ehrenmal sculpture of 1929, shown here, was commissioned to be a memorial of World War I. Instead, based on his own experiences of being mobilized in the war, Barlach sculpted a number of figures – including three German soldiers, a fresh recruit, a young officer and a civilian – all bearing the marks of the pain, horror, and desperation of war. This caused a great deal of controversy, and the attacks on Barlach in response to this work continued right through until his death in 1938.
In 1917, only three years after painting his first pure abstract, Paul Klee was already being dubbed as the best of the new German artists. His works were particularly noteworthy for their sophisticated technique; Klee was heavily influenced by the Cubist art movement and by modern theories of color, meaning that his works always featured a rich texture of brightly colored triangular and circular patterns. In 1921, Klee began a successful career teaching art and ‘Form’ in the esteemed German academies Bauhaus and the Dusseldorf Academy, respectively. It was this success that brought him to the attention of the Nazis, who raided his home and ensured he was dismissed from his teaching post. Klee lost 102 of his paintings seized to the Nazis, 17 of which were featured in the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition.
Emil Nolde was actually a supporter of the Nazi Party from 1920 onward and openly expressed negative views about Jewish artists. Unfortunately for Nolde, he considered Expressionism to be a distinctively Germanic style, and his paintings reflected this. On this view, he and Hitler differed; Hitler was strongly opposed to all forms of modernism, and over 1000 of Nolde’s works were removed from museums – despite the fact that, until this time, Nolde had been greatly esteemed within Germany. The heavy use of flowers and floral imagery throughout his works also reflects his continued interest with the works of Vincent Van Gogh – a fellow ‘degenerate’ artist. However, Nolde was not allowed to paint – even in private – after 1941.
Edvard Munch is best known for his painting The Scream (1893-1910), one of the most recognizable paintings in the history of art. From the beginning of his career right through into his seventies, Munch unwaveringly took as the subject of his paintings the emotional and psychological state of his painted figures, using bright, clashing colors and abstract patterns to create chaotic and tumultuous feelings – everything that Hitler hated in art. 82 of his works were labelled degenerate and removed from museums.
Following World War One, as Expressionism was officially recognized in Germany, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff had artistic honors bestowed upon him for his contributions to the movement. However, these were removed with the rise of the Nazis; Schmidt-Rottluff was dismissed from the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1933, only two years after his admission, and had 608 of his pieces seized as Degenerate Art. From 1941, he was forbidden to paint. Along with Erich Heckel and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff was also a founding member of Die Brücke.
Like Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann was another Degenerate Artist who greatly admired Van Gogh – an admiration that became apparent particularly in his later years. Following his experiences as a medical orderly in World War One, his painting style significantly transformed, from academically correct depictions to hugely distorted figures and objects, introducing into his work the kind of radical Modernism that Hitler was so intent on suppressing. Beckmann went from enjoying huge success and honors, such as the Honorary Empire Prize for German Art in the mid 1920s, to living in self-imposed exile in Amsterdam for ten years after the rise of the Nazis and the introduction of the Degenerate Art movement. More than 500 of his works were seized by the Nazis from German museums.
Otto Mueller was considered one of the most liberal artists of the Expressionist movement; he took as his main subject matter the unity between humans and nature and consequently is well-known for his paintings of nude and gypsy women. Despite having passed away before the Degenerate Art movement was even a notion, it is perhaps no surprise that the Nazis seized 350 of his paintings from German museums in 1937.
Max Liebermann was a highly celebrated German artist prior to the rise of the Nazi party. At the turn of the 20th Century, he was considered a leader for the artistic community, strongly and publicly advocating the necessity for the separation of art and politics. On his 50th birthday, he was honored with a solo exhibition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. Unfortunately for Liebermann, he was a Jew, and he made no secret of this in his Semitic subject matter within his artwork. In 1933, he resigned from his presidential post at the Prussian Academy of Arts after they decided to no longer display work by Jewish artists. On the event of his death in 1935, there was no media coverage on him whatsoever, and no representatives of the Academy present at his funeral.
As a founding member of Die Brücke, along with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel tended to adopt the role of business manager, allowing the group to network with other upcoming artists at the time. Heckel himself was a highly prolific printmaker, producing 465 woodprints and 400 lithographs. Unfortunately, by 1944 all of his existing woodcuts and print plates had been destroyed. More than 700 pieces of work were confiscated, and he was forbidden from showing his work in public.