Modern Art in Nazi Germany

Adolf Ziegler.  The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air.  Oil on canvas, before 1937.  Left to right: 67" by 33"; 67" by 75"; 63" by 30"

Adolf Ziegler.  The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air.  Oil on canvas, before 1937.  Left to right: 67″ by 33″; 67″ by 75″; 63″ by 30″

Shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power as chancellor in 1933, he commissioned construction of a Munich museum to exhibit what he considered ideal artwork.  Its debut exhibition in July 1937 was titled the “Great Germany Art Exhibition” and featured artwork primarily selected by the chancellor himself.

Prominent in this show was The Four Elements  (left) by Adolf Ziegler, Hitler’s favorite artist who was charged with expunging modern art from German museums.

His purge totaled some 20,000 pieces of modern art to be destroyed, sold, or hidden, and were featured in a government-sponsored exhibition titled “Entartete Kunst”, or “Degenerate Art”.  This show, which opened the day after the “Great Germany Art Exhibition”, was intended to demonstrate how modern art was polluting German culture.

Max Beckmann. Departure, 1932-35. Side panels 7' 3/4" x 39 1/4", center panel 7' 3/4" x 45 3/8".  Oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Max Beckmann. Departure, 1932-35. Side panels 7′ 3/4″ x 39 1/4″, center panel 7′ 3/4″ x 45 3/8″.  Oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

All styles of modern art – abstraction, Cubism, Dada, Expressionism, Surrealism – were castigated and deemed an affront to the Apollonian “classical” society Hitler envisioned.  In three years of traveling throughout Germany and Austria, the Degenerate Art exhibition was seen by an estimated three million people. Remarkably, Jews were held culpable for the threat that modern art posed to Germany – even though they represented only 6 of the 112 painters whose works were exhibited.

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” runs at New York’s Neue Galerie until June 30th, and is well worth enduring the queue.

Ziegler’s Four Elements, so beloved by Hitler that it hung over his fireplace, is exhibited alongside one of the most famous paintings by Max Beckmann, Departure. Famously reticent about the meaning behind his work, Max Beckmann quipped,

“If people cannot understand it of their own accord,… there is no sense in showing it.”

Although Departure is rich with enigma and personal meaning, it was created during a
horrific time in Germany and clearly alludes to these events.  The side panels convey the cruelty and brutality of life, with the men’s faces either hidden or averted in secrecy.  The center panel, which Max Beckmann referred to as The Homecoming, indisputably carries the iconography of freedom.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.  A Group of Artists: Painters of the Brucke. Oil on canvas, 1925-26. Museum Ludwig, Cologne.Beckmann described Homecoming by saying, The Queen carries the greatest treasure – Freedom – as the child in her lap.  Freedom is the one thing that matters – it is the departure, the new start.

Vasily Kandinsky.  Several Circles, 1926.  Oil on canvas, 55 1/4" by 55 3/8".  Guggenheim.

Vasily Kandinsky.  Several Circles, 1926.  Oil on canvas, 55 1/4″ by 55 3/8″.  Guggenheim.

The meaning of Beckmann’s triptych was clear enough – Germany’s Nationalist Party denounced Departure so viciously that Beckmann emigrated to the Netherlands.

The disdain shown to Max Beckmann, though, paled in comparison to the Nationalists’ dislike for the modern art painters of Die Brucke, founded by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Fritz Bleyl.  Started in 1905, Die Brucke (The Bridge) painters
envisioned themselves as the conduit (or bridge) between historic German art and modern art.

Their untraditional, dynamic brushwork and bold color diverged radically from prevalent style.

Not surprisingly, Kirchner’s A Group of Artists: Painters of the Brucke, was featured in the
Degenerate Art show (all told, 639 works by Kirchner were confiscated as “degenerate.”)

Although Kirchner depicts himself and his fellow artists as nonchalant and casual, ostracism took a toll: a year after painting A Group of Artists, Kirchner killed himself while in exile.

Max Beckmann.  Self-Portrait with Horn, 1938.  Oil on canvas, approximately 43" by 40".  Neue Galerie, New York.

Max Beckmann.  Self-Portrait with Horn, 1938.  Oil on canvas, approximately 43″ by 40″.  Neue Galerie, New York.

Other seemingly benign modern art paintings were also confiscated, like Several Circles (above) by Vasily Kandinsky. While it doesn’t have any discernible message critical of the Nationalists, it was guilty of being too modern.

Several Circles directly nods to 2014: it was sold by the German art dealer, Hildenbrand Gurlitt, whose son, Cornelius Gurlitt, is embroiled in an international controversy over the rightful ownership of allegedly family paintings.

By 1938, Hitler had grown increasingly vocal with threats of sterilizing and imprisoning degenerate artists, prompting Beckmann to flee to Amsterdam. He immediately painted Self-Portrait with Horn, one of over 80 Max Beckmann self-portraits.  His robe is reminiscent of prison garb, and he looks ready to blow his horn and sound an alarm – perhaps a clarion call. Underneath his signature is the letter “A”, which he added to all works painted from Amsterdam.

One of the jewels of “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” is a bulging ledger book with painstakingly typed lines detailing, line by line, all the degenerate art confiscated in 1937 and 1938.

Some paintings, still unaccounted for, are symbolized by missing frames hanging throughout the Neue Galerie; an “X” in the ledger denotes those known to have been destroyed.

The enormity of the ledger, on loan from the Victoria and Albert Gallery in London, steals the show.

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