Degenerate Art Exhibit

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When it opened on 19 July 1937 under the auspices of Joseph Goebbels's Propaganda Ministry, the Degenerate Art Exhibit (Entartete Kunstausstellung) marked a major escalation of the campaign the National Socialists had been waging against modern art since the 1920s. In his political tract Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) had condemned the "Art Bolshevism" of his age represented in cubism, dadaism, futurism, and the "hallucinations" of "insane and degenerate men." Founded in 1927 by Alfred Rosenberg, editor of the Nazi Party organ Völkischer Beobachter, the Combat League for German Culture (Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur) agitated against modernism, "non-Aryan art," and the politically engaged art of the Left and instead promoted art in a traditional representational style that extolled the völkisch values of "German blood and soil," pre-industrial lifestyles, and "healthy" German racial consciousness. Within months of Hitler's appointment as chancellor, the National Socialists acted on their anti-modernist rhetoric. In accordance with the law for Restoration of Professional Civil Service enacted in April 1933, Jews and other individuals who lacked "political suitability" were purged from positions at public art institutions. Officials applied the same racial and ideological criteria to determine eligibility for the Reich Chamber of Culture, the compulsory professional organization established by law in September 1933, whose seven chambers encompassed all sectors of cultural activity, including journalism. As the Culture Chamber processed new applications and reviewed its membership rolls over the next four years, it systematically denied Jews, communists, socialists, and "undesirables" the right to participate in any area of artistic expression in the "new Germany."

Acting on Goebbels's directive, Adolf Ziegler, president of the Visual Arts Chamber within the Culture Chamber, assembled the Degenerate Art Exhibit from 730 paintings, sculptures, prints, and books of graphic art removed from thirty-two public collections as part of a comprehensive operation that culminated in the seizure of more than sixteen thousand artworks from museums and galleries throughout Germany by 1938. The 112 artists featured in the exhibit were the most prominent representatives of modernist art movements ranging from impressionism, cubism, expressionism, Dada, to new objectivity and the Bauhaus: Oskar Kokoschka, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinksy, and Ernst Barlach, the exiles George Grosz and John Heartfield, as well as the foreign artists Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. Ziegler targeted members of the expressionist group Die Brücke (the Bridge) especially, exhibiting over fifty pieces by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, followed by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (thirty-two), Emil Nolde (thirty), and Otto Mueller (thirty-two). Although the exhibit's rhetoric emphasized the link between Jews and "Art Bolshevism," only six of the featured artists were actually Jewish; and only four women artists were included, with just one work each.

By restricting admission to adults, the exhibit organizers underscored the "offensive" nature of the objects, which were crowded together in nine rooms carrying such labels as "barbarism of representation," "mockery of the German woman," and disrespect for the military and "racial consciousness." In the excess of commentary accompanying the artworks, quotes by Hitler and other proponents of völkisch art equated expressionism with mental illness and associated Jews, bolshevism, and modernism with the "decadent culture" of the Weimar Republic. Frequently the artists' own revolutionary manifestos were used to incite a negative response. Captions also indicated artists who had held faculty positions at state academies until 1933, such as Dix and Paul Klee, and highlighted artworks that collections had either commissioned or purchased with taxpayers' money.

The Degenerate Art Exhibit opened in Munich's Archeological Institute across from the House of German Art (Haus der Deutschen Kunst) and was conceived as the negative counterpart to the six hundred examples of German paintings and sculptures in the approved, neoclassical, völkisch style that comprised the first Great German Art Exhibit (Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung), which Hitler himself had inaugurated the previous day, on 18 July 1937. To the great astonishment of its organizers, the sensationalist Degenerate Art Exhibit attracted five times as many visitors as the Great German Art Exhibit and set a record for a modern art exhibit, with over two million visitors attending its four-month start in Munich. Between 1938 and 1941, the exhibit traveled with slight modifications in its makeup to Berlin and eleven other cities in Greater Germany, with more than one million additional visitors.

In 1991 the Los Angeles County Museum re-created the Degenerate Art Exhibit with 172 of the artworks from the Munich opening and featured a lecture series and photographs of the original exhibit to provide the historical context. The re-created Degenerate Art Exhibit traveled to the Chicago Art Institute and even inspired a cabaret production by the Irondale Ensemble Project in 1998.

See alsoBeckmann, Max; Chagall, Marc; Dix, Otto; Grosz, George; Nazism; Picasso, Pablo.


Barron, Stephanie, ed. "Degenerate Art:" The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. Los Angeles and New York, 1991.

Cuomo, Glenn R., ed. National Socialist Cultural Policy. New York, 1995.

Petropoulos, Jonathon. Art as Politics in the Third Reich. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996.

Glenn R. Cuomo