Degenerate Art — The Iconoclasm 25 Years Ago

EXHIBITION 25.10.1962 – 16.12.1962

The exhibition commemorates the defamatory "Degenerate Art" exhibition, which was ordered by Adolf Hitler and took place at the same time as the lavish launch of the "House of German Art" in 1937. While Hitler's highly-esteemed National Socialist art – based on "classical" ideals and racial purity – was on view in the National Socialists' first propaganda building, the exhibition in Munich's Hofgarten Palace on Galeriestraße presented "degenerate" art created since the turn of the century.

The exhibition, which was on view in 1962 in Haus der Kunst, was based on the "iconoclasm" that had occurred 25 years before, in which thousands of Cubist, Expressionist, Surrealist, and Dadaist works were confiscated from German museums on the orders of Adolf Ziegler, president of the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts. Under propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's post-1933 art policy constituted a "spiritual influence on the nation" in the sense of its totalitarian political objective. For Hitler, whose understanding of art was characterized by his own failure as an artist, the exhibition served to defame modernity as "cultural Bolshevism" and "a Jewish subversion" and the works of modern artists as "figments of madness, degeneration, and the impudence of the talentless." The scholar Jürgen Claus, director of the 1962 exhibition, emphasized in his historical documentation of the 1937 exhibition that the "National Socialists' rejection of modern art was not based on insignificant differences of aesthetic judgment, but, rather, represented a challenge of the highest artistic quality." He declared that the task of the commemorative exhibition was to "reexamine and rehabilitate in 1962 that which was ostracized in 1937."

Based on 150 paintings and sculptures as well as around 250 graphic works, the 1962 exhibition "Degenerate Art. The Iconoclasm 25 Years Later" conveyed a clear idea of what the Nazis presented in the 1937 "Degenerate Art" exhibition after looting German museums. The former pride of many collections, 600-odd works by avant-garde artists were relinquished to a confined space, accompanied by abusive texts and prices reflecting Weimar-era hyperinflation; all of them were subjected to the ridicule of their audience. Twenty-five years later, paintings borrowed from collections all over the world were grouped around a core of international pioneers of twentieth-century art, including Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico, and Paul Gauguin. With exotic designs and bold brushwork, as evident in works like "Rider on the Beach" (1902), these artists saw themselves as arbiters of artistic freedom. The highlight of both the 1937 and 1962 exhibitions was Wilhelm Lehmbruck's sculpture "Kneeling Woman" (1911), which – similar to the sculptures by Alexander Archipenko, Ernst Barlach, and Rudolf Belling – demonstrated a break with academic tradition and revealed a new understanding of sculpture as a sublimated form. Painters affected were pioneers of Expressionism, members of the artist group "Die Brücke", Max Pechstein, Erich Heckel, Otto Mueller, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff ("Resting Woman", 1912), who, with their nudes painted in nature, dreamed of a union between man and nature. On the other end of the spectrum was Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who focused on the nervous exaltation of city life in his "Berlin Street Scene" (1913). Max Beckmann, who had left Germany immediately after Hitler's speech at the opening of the "House of German Art", found himself vilified with "Shrove Tuesday Paris" (1930) because he "attacked art's ability to shroud truth and core human values in beautiful appearances," as his fellow artist Picasso attested to. Despite his letter of protest to Goebbels, Oskar Schlemmer's "Concentric Group" (1925) was unable to escape the ostracism that befell the work of his Bauhaus colleagues Lyonel Feininger and Paul Klee. The Nazis also remained unimpressed by Emil Nolde's glowing landscapes, flower paintings, and nine-part altar "Life of Christ" (1911/12): "His work and his imagination are sick and therefore unsuitable for German Art," which was all the truer of the socially critical paintings of George Grosz and Otto Dix. Despite the international recognition that the Munich-based artist group "Der Blaue Reiter" had long enjoyed, the same verdict was also passed on Wassily Kandinsky, who had paved the way for abstract painting and already emigrated to Russia, as it was on the painters August Macke ("In Front of the Hat Shop", 1913) and Franz Marc ("The Red Horses", 1911), both of whom had died for the Fatherland in the First World War.

After the end of the vilifying exhibition, which traveled to additional German cities, the regime sold a portion of the confiscated modernist works at a spectacular auction in Lucerne in 1939 in order to acquire foreign currency. By selling such outstanding art – works included Picasso's "Family Soler" (1903) and van Gogh's "Self Portrait" – at rock-bottom prices, many pieces could thus evade destruction, despite the dubious role of individual art dealers, and were sold for several times these prices on the art market after the war. Unfortunately unsalable works, like books by defamed authors in 1933, landed on the stake.

The 450-page catalogue contains 160 black-and-white and nine color illustrations. The preface was written by the museum's working committee, the documentation by Jürgen Claus as a scholarly editor. The catalogue contains 150 artists presented in alphabetical order, with brief biographies, photos, technical details, and work descriptions, as well graphic works with a list of works with 250 entries and 20 photographs.

photo credit Franz Marc: Fotoarchiv Marburg

Entartete Kunst. Bildersturm vor 25 Jahren [Degenerate Art. Iconoclasm 25 Years Ago], installation view, Haus der Kunst, photo Archiv Künstlerverbund im Haus der Kunst München e.V. (former Ausstellungsleitung e.V.)
Entartete Kunst. Bildersturm vor 25 Jahren [Degenerate Art. Iconoclasm 25 Years Ago], installation view, Haus der Kunst, photo Archiv Künstlerverbund im Haus der Kunst München e.V. (former Ausstellungsleitung e.V.)
Max Beckmann, Scheveningen at 5 o'clock in the Morning, 1928, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 1962 / bpk Bildagentur
Max Beckmann, Scheveningen at 5 o'clock in the Morning, 1928, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 1962 / bpk Bildagentur
Franz Marc, Red Deers, 1912, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich © Fotoarchiv Marburg
Franz Marc, Red Deers, 1912, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich © Fotoarchiv Marburg
Carl Hofer, Big Carnival, 1928, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich © bpk Bildagentur
Carl Hofer, Big Carnival, 1928, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich © bpk Bildagentur
Lovis Corinth, Luzern Lake in the Afternoon, 1924, Hamburger Kunsthalle © Bridgeman Images
Lovis Corinth, Luzern Lake in the Afternoon, 1924, Hamburger Kunsthalle © Bridgeman Images
Max Liebermann, Polo Player, 1902/03, Landesmuseum Mainz © bpk Bildagentur
Max Liebermann, Polo Player, 1902/03, Landesmuseum Mainz © bpk Bildagentur

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