Freeman's
What was the Degenerate Art Exhibition?

Department Specialist


David Weiss
Senior Vice President | Department Head

267.414.1214

Email

Read Biography

Published: 9 June 2017

Inside the Degenerate Art Exhibition

It might be hard to see the depravity in such a delicate watercolor depicting dusk on a small north-German farm, but in 1937 Emil Nolde’s work was marked for its corrupt nature by the Nazi Party and labeled “degenerate”. Subsequently, Nolde joined the ranks of other great modern German Artists who were banned from painting during World War II.

“Degenerate” art refers to an exhibition hosted by the Nazi party after its rise to power, showcasing works of art that challenged the idea of traditional beauty. This largely included works of modern, abstract or expressionistic art.

According to The Degenerate Art Exhibition’s handbook, the show was designed to underscore the immorality of the modern art movement and its toxic effect on the German community. 

“…[To] Reveal the philosophical, political and moral goals and intentions behind this movement, and the driving forces of corruption which follow them.

What constituted “degenerate” art during World War Two was based on one thing; Adolf Hitler’s opinion.

Perhaps it was Hitler’s two failed attempts in securing a seat at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna that sullied his taste for modern art. Or maybe it was that the art world had shifted during the turn of the century to favor the abstract; where Hitler’s talents were exhibited in realistic paintings, in various mediums, of buildings and landscapes.

“It is not the mission of art to wallow in filth for filth’s sake,” the politician said in 1935, “To paint the human being only in a state of putrefaction, to draw cretins as symbols of motherhood, or to present deformed idiots as representatives of manly strength.”

The Degenerate Art Exhibition World War II

Whatever it was that sparked his vendetta against modern art, between 1927-1937 thousands of pieces of art were confiscated from museums around Germany. Out of those works, only 650 pieces were used for The Degenerate Art Exhibit.

Concurrently, The Great German Art Exhibition opened just a few days prior to demonstrate what constituted appropriate art. The show consisted of 900 works ranging from still lives and landscapes to aryan nudes and mythological scenes. Upon its opening, Hitler took another opportunity to explain why modern art was unacceptable.

“These windbags have tried to make their works more palatable by representing them as expressions of a new age; but they need to be told that art does not create a new age, that it is the general life of peoples which fashions itself anew and therefore often seeks to express itself anew.”

The scandal associated with The Degenerate Exhibition, intermingled with the suspicion that the artwork could be destroyed upon closing, resulted in over a million visitors throughout the show’s run in Munich. After the exhibition went on tour, the total number of visitors soared far beyond three times the amount of visits the official government-sanctioned, Great German Art Exhibition received.

The ramifications after being labeled a “degenerate” effected more than work flow. Many fled; Like Paul Klee and Max Beckmann. Otto Dox was labeled and then drafted into the Nazi army, after which he was captured by the French. Rudolf Bauer was imprisoned. Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler was murdered under Action T4, a forced euthanasia program in Nazi Germany.

Emil Nolde Modern Artist

Although Emil Nolde supported the Nazi party in the early 1920s, his expressionistic work was still deemed “degenerate”. 1,052 of his paintings were confiscated throughout Germany, more than any other artist. Despite being banned from painting in 1941, Nolde managed to produce over 1,000 small watercolors known as his ‘ungemalte bilder’ or “Unfinished Paintings”.

“There is silver blue, sky blue and thunder blue,” Nolde said of his passion. “Every color holds within it a soul, which makes me happy or repels me, and which acts as a stimulus.”

Now through June 12, a quintessential example of Nolde’s work entitled, “Evening Landscape in North Friesland” is on preview at Freeman’s for the European and Old Masters sale. The piece is a quintessential example of his watercolor work, arguably for which the artist is best known.

“To a person who has no art in him,” Nolde continued, “Colors are colors, tones tones...and that is all. All their consequences for the human spirit, which range between heaven to hell, just go unnoticed.”

See more from the European and Old Masters sale 

Get the best stories from Freeman's straight to your inbox


Left Frame border
iPad and iPhone showing FLT App

A World of Art at your Fingertips

Catalogue App now available for iPad and iPhone

Download the FLT App via the app store
Right Frame border
^