New artistic movements have often been met with derision and disgust by contemporaries. The Impressionists, for example, whose work is beloved the world over, struggled to find recognition (or buyers) in their lifetimes.
‘Modern’ art, which exploded in the early decades of the 20th century, fuelled by a rapidly-changing world and the onset of war, met with plenty of criticism in its time: abstraction, avant-garde use of colour and bleak, contemporary subject matter were all met with suspicion and distaste.
As the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s, they spearheaded a conservative reaction to these modernist art, labelling it and its makers as degenerates for their avant-garde nature and perceived attacks on and critiques of German people and society. This campaign against ‘degenerate’ modernism culminated in the 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition, where hundreds of works were displayed as examples of un-German art that would not be tolerated by the Nazi regime.
Changing artistic styles
The start of the 20th century saw a whole new world of artistic expression open up across Europe. Artists began experimenting in new mediums, drawing inspiration from the increasingly urban and technological world around them and using colour and shape in new, abstract and innovative ways.
Unsurprisingly, many were unsure of these radical new styles: huge debates on the nature and purpose of art began to open up as a result.
As a young man, Adolf Hitler was a keen artist, painting landscapes and houses in watercolour. Twice rejected from the Vienna School of Fine Arts in the years prior to World War One, he maintained a keen interest in the arts throughout his life.
The pseudoscience of ‘degenerate’ art
As the Nazi Party rose to power, Hitler used his newfound political clout to begin to regulate the arts in a way that has rarely been emulated. Stalin’s control of the arts in the 1930s is perhaps the only meaningful comparison.
The Nazis based many of their ideas on the work of fascist architect Paul Schultz-Naumburg, who argued that the ‘racial science‘ of the 1920s and 1930s (later debunked) meant that only those who had mental or physical defects would produce poor quality, ‘degenerate’ art, whilst those who were fine specimens of health would produce beautiful art which celebrated and furthered society.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Jewish art collectors and dealers were labelled as a corrupting influence, supposedly encouraging Germans to spend their money on ‘degenerate art’ as a means of sabotaging the German race. Whilst there was no truth in these racial hatred fuelled fantasies, the state’s control of art allowed Nazi ideologies to creep into every facet of life.
Condemnation exhibitions, or ‘schandausstellungen’, began to pop up across Germany in the 1930s as a means of denouncing art which was seen as degenerate, both in form and content. Anything which could be perceived as an attack against the German people, or showing Germany in anything that was not a positive light was vulnerable to being seized and displayed in such a show.
Otto Dix, a Weimar-era artist whose work depicted the harsh realities of post-war life in Germany, found his work under particular scrutiny: the Nazis accused him of attacking the honour and memory of German soldiers by displaying their life after the war in all its grim reality.
Various exhibitions were hosted across Germany in the 1930s, culminating in the opening of Entartete Kunst in Munich in 1937. The exhibition was curated by Albert Ziegler. With a commission, he went through 32 collections in 23 cities to select works of art that supposedly ‘attacked’ Germany. In contrast, the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art) was opened close by.
The 1937 condemnation exhibition was hugely popular and thousands flocked to see it in its 4-month run. A copy of the exhibition catalogue is held by the V&A today.
Ziegler and his commission spent late 1937 and 1938 combing through museums and cities to confiscate any remaining ‘degenerate art’: by the time they had finished they’d taken over 16,000 pieces. Around 5,000 of these were burnt in Berlin by the Propaganda Ministry, but the rest were indexed and ‘liquidated’.
Several art dealers were employed to try and sell as much as possible to willing buyers across Europe, with the aim of raising cash for the Nazi regime. Some works were swapped with those deemed acceptable for public display by the Nazis.
Some dealers used the opportunity to enrich themselves in the process, as did some senior Nazis. Despite the label of ‘degenerate’, there were plenty willing to overlook this association in order to amass modern artists for their collection, including men like Göring and Goebbels, who amassed some of the most spectacular collections in the Third Reich.
One of Hitler’s inner circle, Hermann Göring amassed a huge art collection over the 1930s and 1940s. By 1945, he had over 1,300 paintings in his possession, as well as assorted other works of art including sculptures, tapestries and furniture.
Göring made use of his high-ranking position to offer favours in return for gifts of art. He also employed dealers and experts to advise him on confiscated art and to buy pieces cheaply for his collection. His organisation, the Devisenschutzkommando, would confiscate art on his behalf.
He displayed much of his collection in his converted hunting lodge, the Waldhof Carinhall. His meticulous records, now known as the Göring catalogue, provided details including the date of receipt, title of the painting, the painter, a description, the collection of origin and the work’s intended destination, all of which proved invaluable after the war for those tasked with finding and returning precious works of art.