While focusing on a notorious exhibition which pre-dated the Cold War by a decade, Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 at the Neue Galerie in New York helps to contextualise the complex politics of art that arose after World War II.
Soon after the Nazi Party seized control in Germany, it launched a virulent attack on the visual arts. The drive to remove ‘subversive’ elements in German art culminated in the Denegerate Art (Entartete Kunst) exhibition, which displayed some 650 works of modern painting and sculpture that had been seized from the collections of fleeing citizens and removed from museums. The exhibition was originally held in Munich from 19 July to 30 November 1937, before it commenced a 3-year touring exhibition to 11 cities across Germany and Austria. Afterwards many works were destroyed or sold to fund the country’s military campaigns, an event which has ongoing implications for the art world due to frequent claims for restitution of stolen artworks.
The exhibition was intended to prove the Nazi’s thesis that modern art was a Jewish conspiracy intended to corrupt German society – despite the fact that only a small number of the featured artists were Jewish. However, whether there to ridicule the art, or mourn its removal from public view, in an awkward turn of events the exhibition welcomed over one million attendees in its first six weeks, vastly more than those who visited the concurrent Great German Art Exhibition in Munich, displaying art of which Hitler approved.
Under Stalin, the Soviet Union would pursue artistic policies and invoke anti-modernist language with striking similarities to Hitler’s campaign against ‘degenerate’ art. In an ironic twist, the art that the Nazis decried as ‘Bolshevik’ would also be rejected in the USSR and instead championed by its Cold War rivals.
Until 30 June 2014 the Neue Galerie exhibition reunites some 50 paintings and sculptures from the exhibition by modern masters such as George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde. 30 additional works on paper, together with posters, photographs and other memorabilia, tell the story of this infamous moment in art history.
Images: Top – Adolf Hitler at the Schreckenskammer (Chamber of Horrors) exhibition, a forerunner of Entartete Kunst in Dresden, 17 August 1935. Photo: Reuters; Bottom – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, A Group of Artists (The Painters of the Brücke), 1925–26. Oil on canvas. Museum Ludwig, Cologne.