The Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937

Goebbels views the Degenerate Art exhibition. Image Source: German Federal Archives

Goebbels views the Degenerate Art exhibition. Image Source: German Federal Archives

On July 19, 1937, the Degenerate Art Exhibition (German: Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst”) was opened in the Institute of Archeology in the Munich Hofgarten. The exhibition presented 650 works of art, confiscated from German museums, and was staged in counterpoint to the concurrent Great German Art Exhibition. The exhibition included works of Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, and Emil Nolde.

As Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933, his party was quickly intending to ‘clean’ the country’s culture of degeneracy. Next to the numerous book burnings that were organized all over, many artists and musicians were released from their teaching positions and curators of most museums were replaced by members of the Nazi Party. The Reich Culture Chamber was established and administered by Joseph Goebbels. Hitler started denouncing modern art and its practitioners as “incompetents, cheats and madmen” in 1934. It is believed that in 1937, when the Great German Art Exhibition was planned, a jury partly selected by Goebbels began deciding on which of the 15000 submitted works should be added to the exhibition. However, Hitler did not approve these works and appointed his personal photographer to make a new selection. Then, Goebbels began to plan another exhibition including works from the Weimar era in order to point out these works’ weaknesses compared to the Great German Art Exhibition. Hitler authorized the ‘Degenerate Art Exhibition’ at the end of June 1937 and the works were collected from earlier raids on museums and ‘clearly’ showed “decadence”, “weakness of character”,”mental disease”, and “racial impurity”.

The controversial exhibition was hosted at the Institute of Archeology in the Hofgarten and most of the 650 works were displayed without frames. The art pieced included sculptured, paintings as well as prints by Marc Chagall, Georg Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Georg Kolbe, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Franz Marc, Emil Nolde and others. As the exhibition focused on German works, the confiscated pieces by Pablo Picasso, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes and Piet Mondrian were not displayed. The event lasted until 30 November 1937 and more than 2 million people came to visit.

The concurrent Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung was intended to show the more classical and “racially pure” type of art advocated by the Nazi regime. It was located near the Hofgarten and attracted only about half the numbers of the Degenerate Art one. Another Degenerate Art Exhibition was hosted a few months later in Berlin, and later in Leipzig, Düsseldorf, Weimar, Halle, Vienna and Salzburg, to be seen by another million or so people. 300 of the exhibited works were apparently stolen by art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt who reported them destroyed by bombardments. They were seized from his son’s apartment in 2012.

In 2014 the Neue Galerie New York staged Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, an exhibition bringing together paintings and sculptures from the 1937 exhibition along with films and photos of the original installations, promotional and propaganda materials and some surviving Nazi-approved art from the official exhibition set up to contrast with the modernist and avant-garde works the Nazis considered “degenerate”.

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