Monday, 31 March 2014




My post this fine Museum Monday is inspired by the social media buzz I have encountered this past week regarding an exciting new exhibition that opened March 13 at New York's Neue Galerie: Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937. According to the Neue Galerie's website, "This will be the first major U.S. museum exhibition devoted to the infamous display of modern art by the Nazis since the 1991 presentation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art."

Neue Galerie museum for Austrian and German art,
New York City, New York

Entartete Kunst, or, "Degenerate Art," was originally a 1937 propagandist exhibition organized by Adolf Ziegler (a German painter favoured by Hitler) and the Nazi party at the Archaeological Institute in Munich. This exhibition featured art which Hitler deemed "Jewish," "Bolshevist,"or just plain un-German, and thus unworthy of any sort of appreciation by the art world or the German public. This primarily referred to all modern and/or abstract art, which was blossoming in Germany at the time.

Any Expressionist, Impressionist, Surrealist, Dadaist works, along with anything related to or inspired by these genres and movements was not only considered degenerate, but was also confiscated by Hitler from public art institutions and usually sold off at auctions (with all proceeds of course going to the benefit of the Nazi party). Entartete Kunst would go on to become one of the most famous exhibitions in history, with a total of about 3 million visitors. It also traveled throughout Germany and Austria for four years after its opening.

Promotional poster for the Entartete Kunst exhibit, ca. 1937.
Exhibition promotional poster, ca. 1937.

The works and, consequently, the artists featured in the 1937 exhibit were meant to be laughed at, despised, ridiculed, and ultimately dismissed by the public. 112 artists - both Jewish and non-Jewish, even some who were members of the Nazi party themselves - had been singled out as "degenerate." Such artists included Kandinsky, Picasso, Chagall, Kokoschka, and many, many others. These artists were dismissed from their jobs, banned from exhibiting or selling their works, and often forbidden outright to produce art all together. Below are examples of works featured in the exhibition:

‘Poster with Self-Portrait for Der Sturm magazine’
 Oskar Kokoschk, 1910.

"Self Portrait as a Soldier," Ernst Kirchner, 1915.

"Eternal Wanderers," Lasar Segall, 1919.

To encourage an attitude of disgust toward these works from the public,  Entartete Kunst artworks were very strategically organized. Or perhaps, unorganized is a better way to put it. Paintings were hung crooked, without frames, upside down, sculptures were crammed into tight spaces, blocking walkways to create a claustrophobic feeling in the gallery, and there was graffiti plastered all over any exposed walls behind the artworks with ridiculing messages about the works. One element I find particularly interesting about this exhibit is that the prices the state museum paid for the degenerate artworks were also exhibited beside them - "The point being to demonstrate how the Jewish art world bilked German taxpayers at a time of widespread suffering."

Inside Entartete Kunst, 1937.

Check out this footage from the opening of Entartete Kunst in 1937 below (start at about 2:24 for inside the actual exhibit):

Entartete Kunst was also conveniently located across the street from Hitler's highly prized national Haus der Kunst ("House of Art"), which also opened in 1937. In this museum, Hitler displayed works which he selected as representative of "proper" German culture. This generally included Classical masterpieces highlighting perfection of the human form, works that glorified the military, as well as values such as obedience and loyalty.

Hitler favoured anything which portrayed man and nature exactly "as it was" in reality, or rather, how he believed it should be in an ideal reality. Of course, Hitler had a very specific reason for choosing the particular locations of the Haus der Kunst and the Entartete Kunst exhibit. He wanted to blatantly juxtapose the "good" and the "evil" of the art world so that there was no mistaking where peoples' artistic values -and thus, larger sociocultural values- should lie.

Haus der Kunst, Munich, ca. 1937.

Hitler admiring "proper" culturally German artworks
inside the Haus der Kunst, ca. 1937.

Curator Olaf Peters is the man in charge of the 2013 revisiting of Entartete Kunst in New York's Neue Galerie. The overarching idea Peters hopes to address with his Degenerate Art exhibition is what exactly was degenerate art? According to a recent article about the new exhibit, "Peters has reunited a bouquet of rarely seen painting and sculpture from the 1937 traveling exhibition, intermingling them with postcards, photos of the original installations, and films. He has also judiciously included the kind of kitsch that the Nazis favoured."

"The Four Elements" triptych, Adolf Ziegler, 1937.
A Nazi-approved artwork which Hitler displayed in Munich's Haus der Kunst.
Currently on display in the Neue Galerie's Degenerate Art exhibit.

 It will be interesting to see how people react to Peters' juxtaposition of Nazi ideal art with the Nazi degenerate art in the same exhibition. Perhaps a throw back to Hitler's juxtaposition of the national Haus der Kunst with the original Entartete Kunst exhibit? I think that by showing these two "types" of works together, Peters creates a really provoking context for interpretation.

Finally, I would just like to conclude by saying that I retrieved most of the background information regarding the original Entartete Kunst exhibition from the documentary below, created in 1993 by David Grubin. If you have the time, I highly recommend checking it out. Fascinating stuff.

One of the moments in the documentary I found most striking, and perhaps a little emotional, was during an interview with a German gentleman who was an art student in Munich in 1937. He describes how he and many of his colleagues rushed out to see Entartete Kunst, as they knew that this was likely the last time they would ever get to study and appreciate the modernist artworks they loved before the works were auctioned off or brutally destroyed by the Nazis. I wonder how many others of the exhibition's 3 million visitors had similar motivations?


  1. the image of Haus der Deutschen Kunst is taken from

    1. Thank-you Peter. The source information has been updated.