Degenerate Art
Guide to the Nazi Exhibition/Purge of Entartete Kunst.
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Portrait Of The Journalist Sylvia
Von Harden (1926) by Otto Dix.
Labelled "entartete kunst"
by the Nazis.

Degenerate Art (1933-45)

The term "degenerate art" derives from the German phrase "entartete kunst", which was coined by the Nazis to describe works of contemporary art which did not accord with their ideology and cultural outlook. This type of fine art, which embraced most avant-garde painting, notably all abstract art and most examples of German Expressionism, was banned and suppressed by the Nazi Party for almost the entire period of Hitler's rule (1933-45). In addition to having their work seized and destroyed, "degenerate artists" could not exhibit their painting or sculpture (ausstellungsverbot), and sometimes were even deprived of the right to paint/sculp (malverbot). Those employed in teaching or other art institutions might also be sacked from their posts (lehrverbot). Among those works deemed to be "degenerate art" were some of the greatest paintings of the 20th century. Similar art purges have been conducted by several other totalitarian regimes: Stalinist Russia (1928-53) obliged its artists to conform to the Socialist Realism style, while Mao's Cultural Revolution (1966-70) imposed a similar aesthetic straitjacket on Chinese artists.

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How Many Artworks and Artists Were Considered To Be Degenerate?

The Nazi campaign against entartete kunst was directed by cultural and propaganda spokesmen like Alfred Rosenberg and Joseph Goebbels, plus officials from the Reich Chamber of Culture (Reichskulturkammer). A total of about 16,000 works (mostly confiscated from the best art museums and galleries in Germany, such as the National Gallery in Berlin and the Kunsthalle in Hamburg) were officially deemed degenerate, involving several hundred artists, mainly from Germany.

Note: For styles of art and architecture approved by the Nazis, please see: Nazi Art (1933-45).

When Did the Campaign Against Degenerate Art Happen?

The purge opened in Karlsruhe, in 1933, with an exhibition attacking decadent modern artists and their works of art. This was followed by the closure of the Bauhaus Design School, many of whose teachers had Jewish or Russian (ie. communist) connections, and the closing down of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation). In 1934, at a Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, Hitler himself spoke out against degenerate art. The campaign climaxed in July 1937, with a major exhibition (entitled "Entartete Kunst") of about 700 works, held in the Hofgartenarkaden in Munich, shortly after the opening of an exhibition of officially approved art in a building nearby. Most of the condemned artworks were taken from German museums, and ridiculed by being juxtaposed with other works by the inmates of German lunatic asylums, grouped in categories like "Pictures criticizing German Women" and so on.

Exhibition Visitors

More than 2 million visitors came to see the exhibition "Entartete Kunst" in Munich, and equally large turnouts were witnessed when it toured to other cities in Germany, making it the most popular show of modern art ever staged. Thus, inadvertently, the Nazi authorities did more for the promotion of modern painting than any government before or since.

Who Were Labelled Degenerate Artists?

Painters, sculptors and printmakers labelled as degenerate, included numerous highly distinguished Expressionist painters, and Cubist painters from Germany, Austria, Russia, France and Holland. As well as exponents of modern styles like Jugendstil, they included sculptors like Ernst Barlach (1870-1938), as well as painters like Lovis Corinth (1858-1925), Edvard Munch (1863-1944), the pioneer of expressionism, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), the leader of Die Brucke (The Bridge) - a Dresden expressionist group - plus other members like Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976), and Erich Heckel (1883-1970); Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), a founder member of the New Artists Association of Munich (Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen) and the leader of the Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) expressionist group, also based in Munich - plus other members including the Russian Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), the German Franz Marc (1880-1916) and the Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940); Otto Dix (1891-1969) and George Grosz (1893-1959), leaders of the 1920s expressionist group called Die Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), plus other members like Max Beckmann (1884-1950). Degenerate Austrian painters included Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918), while banned artists from the Paris School (Ecole de Paris) included Georges Rouault (1871-1958), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Modigliani (1884-1920), the Jewish-Russian painters Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944).

One of the most ironic inclusions on the list of degenerate artists was the pensioner Emil Nolde (1867-1956), who was banned from exhibiting and had more than 1,000 works confiscated, despite being a racially-pure aryan and a member of the Nazi Party.

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