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Eighty Years Later, Two Exhibits Confront the “Degenerate Art” Purge

In 1937, the Nazis confiscated modernist art from museums and put it up for ridicule in an exhibit that still reverberates today

Joseph Goebbels viewing the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition. (Wikimedia Commons)
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On July 18, 1937, the Nazis put on what was to become an annual art show—the “Great German Art Exhibition,” in Munich’s Haus der Kunst. The images on display included classical and pastoral images, realistic portraits and still lifes, nudes, landscapes and images out of German mythology. The following day, a companion exhibition opened nearby. Called the “Degenerate Art” exhibition ("Entartete Kunst"), it was a collection of more than 650 paintings and artworks confiscated from German museums representing Impressionism, Dadaism, Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism and all the “modern” movements that defined 20th-century art; everything, essentially, that the Nazis deemed dangerous to the "Thousand-Year Reich."

The exhibit (in various iterations)​ traveled to a total of 13 German and Austrian cities between 1937 and 1941 before its paintings—masterpieces by Paul Klee, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Ernst and others—were destroyed or sold, along with more than 21,000 objects purged from state-owned museums.

Now, 80 years later, Henri Neuendorf at artnet News reports that two museums in Germany are opening exhibitions critiquing that most infamous of art shows. The first is a remembrance of the Degenerate Art show at the Haus der Kunst, which hosted the “Great German Art Exhibit” all those years ago. While the original artwork from the show is gone, the Museum is displaying photos, documents and films from those original art shows in its Archive Gallery.

A great irony of the Nazi’s modern art purge, reports Deutsche Welle, is that the “Degenerate Art” turned out to be the most-popular modern art show of all time, with over 2 million patrons visiting the exhibit on its multi-city tour. While the walls were covered in slogans making fun of and sneering at the works and some impassioned patrons spat at the paintings, many came not to gawk but rather to soak in the works for the final time, Ulrich Wilmes, head curator of the Haus der Kunst, tells DW.

Düsseldorf's Kunstpalast museum is also presenting an exhibit on the Degenerate show called "1937: Action Against ‘Degenerate Art’ in Düsseldorf." That museum was hit particularly hard by the modern art purge, with more than 1,000 paintings taken from its collection and many more sold or exchanged by the museum during the Nazi era. In 2013, for the first time, researchers began sorting out what was destroyed and sold, finding that only five paintings, three sculptures, and six works on paper survived from the once world-class collection. Those pieces, along with archival material about the purge, make up the core of the exhibit.

“We are showing an exhibition about a collection that no longer exists,” Kathin DuBois of the Kunstpalast tells DW. “It was downright eradicated. After 1945, not much could be recovered. Some works are still considered missing, such as the painting 'The Beautiful Gardener' by Max Ernst, which was on show at the 'Degenerate Art' exhibition. Many were destroyed, especially the paintings from local and then still unknown painters.”

Three Bathers
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 'Three Bathers," 1913. (Art Gallery NSW)

The star attraction of the exhibit is “Three Bathers” by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, which is on loan from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, and returns to Düsseldorf for the first time since the Nazi art purge.

While Germany has been the center of the modern art for the few decades, the legacy of erasure lingers. “German museums arguably had the greatest collections of modern art by the mid-1930s, and the purges ravaged these collections,” Jonathan Petropoulos, professor of European history at Claremont McKenna College, tells Neuendorf. “In the postwar period, many German museum officials made a concerted effort to rebuild the modern collections, and they made considerable progress, but the losses are still palpable.”

Researchers are still finding and recovering some of the lost art. For instance, in 2012, over 1,000 pieces of art including works by Matisse, Picasso and Chagall were found in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a modern art lover who became one of Hitler’s art dealers. Many of the pieces squirreled away by Gurlitt are believed to have been Nazi-looted art.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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