One room at the Tate Modern in central London is temporarily devoted to artists condemned by Adolf Hitler’s Nazis as degenerate. On one wall blares the garish colours and brash angles of a portrait by expressionist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.
On another dance the swirled faces of Paul Klee’s painting Walpurgis Night (Witches’ Night). Some 700 Schmidt-Rottluff paintings were seized from German collections in the Nazi attack on modernist art.
Another 102 of Klee’s paintings suffered the same fate. Eduard Munch’s haunting figures and Oskar Kokoschka’s tangled splodges were also denounced by the Nazi regime.
It launched a campaign in which museums were purged, art teachers sacked, art criticism banned and artists prevented from working. The most visible sign of Nazi philistinism was the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition, intended as the last ever display of works by 112 artists.
Accompanied by a hysterical pamphlet that associated modernist art with the art of other “degenerates” — the mentally ill, “primitive” peoples and Bolsheviks — the Nazi exhibition crammed together 650 artifacts.
In this “chamber of horrors”, paintings jostled with medical photographs, and sculptures confronted ritual fetish objects. Artworks were condemned for their “barbarous methods of representation” as much as their immoral sullying of religion and preaching of political anarchy.
With their references to “Negro” and “Pacific” art, expressionist works “eradicated every trace of racial consciousness”. Reviled too was “art in which the human figure is deformed or idiotic”.
Worst of all though was “the art of total madness (abstraction and constructivism)”. Slogans hectored the audience from the walls—“Crazy at any price”, “The Ideal: Cretin and Whore”.
Extracts from Hitler’s writings dictated the audience’s response — “To draw attention to oneself by deliberate lunacies is not only a sign of artistic failure but of moral defect.”
The vilifying style assumed that the two million visitors assented to the general condemnation or understood themselves to be a part of the problem. Protests were few, and immediately led to arrests.
The works on display in the Tate Modern’s room are not works from the Degenerate Art exhibition. The Nazis destroyed many of these.
Others were sold off at auction and are strewn across the world. This is a budget show, curated by students from the Royal College of Art.
The force of the display comes in the shock that these paintings, so familiar to us as examples of modernist art with its distortions, bright colours and unsettling imagery, could be subjected to such extreme vilification.
The explanation board notes that modernist art was unacceptable because Hitler associated it with the Jews. Jews were seen as racially, and therefore morally, inferior.
According to the Nazis, they had contaminated German culture, which was now corrupted by “cultural Bolshevism”. The Tate Modern does not mention this, preferring to stick with the racial explanation.
However, for the Nazis, the worst excesses of modernism flowed from the challenge to social hierarchy embodied in Soviet Communism and the experimental art associated with it — Dadaism, Constructivism and Productivism.
A glance at what replaced the “degenerate works” reveals more. The favoured images of a “Great German Art” were neo-classical and realist in style, depicting Nordic beauties, soldiers and peasants, great moments in the Nazi Party’s history and its hierarchy.
The Nazis rejected modernist art because it was useless for producing simple propaganda images with unambiguous messages of glorification.
This was why even Nazi-friendly artists such as Emil Nolde or Ernst Barlach were ostracised. Nolde’s disquieting vistas and Barlach’s mournful figures contributed nothing to a “great” German art of illusion, where even the landscape must affirm Nazi ideology.
The Tate Modern’s room of degenerate art offers only a partial view. However a timeline of Nazi attitudes to art and some documents, including a letter from Russian-born “degenerate” artist Wassily Kandinsky, provide context and raise many questions about the relationship of art and politics.
Degenerate Art is at the Tate Modern, central London, until 30 October. Free entry. Go to www.tate.org.uk/modern
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