Degenerate art

From Academic Kids

Die Magdeburger Ehrenmal (the ), by  was declared to be degenerate art due to the "deformity" and emaciation of the figures —corresponding to 's theorised connection between "mental and physical degeneration."
Die Magdeburger Ehrenmal (the Magdeburg cenotaph), by Ernst Barlach was declared to be degenerate art due to the "deformity" and emaciation of the figures —corresponding to Nordau's theorised connection between "mental and physical degeneration."

Degenerate art (from the German: entartete Kunst) was the official platform adopted by the Nazi regime for banning modern art in favor of Heroic Art. Based on Romantic realism, Heroic Art was meant to exemplify the German race in order to project a moral statement in a simpler, and more conventional style. Heroic Art symbolized racially pure art, free from distortion and corruption, while modern styles deviated from the prescribed norm of classical beauty. Racially pure artists produced racially pure art, and modern artists of an inferior racial strain produced works which were contorted. Ironically, the theory originated with the Jewish intellectual, Max Nordau. In the Nazi adaptation it was used to defend claims of a cultural decline and racist theory.

While the 1920s to 1940s are considered the heyday of modern art movements, there were conflicting nationalistic movements that resented abstract art, and Germany was no exception. In the United States, the artists Grant Wood and Robert Benson typified Social Realism, and in Russia, a similar trend toward a simpler, less unorthodox artistic expression occurred as well.


Theory of Degeneracy

The theory of degeneracy was conceived by the critic and author Max Nordau in his 1892 book, Degeneration, (German title: Entartung). According to Nordau, artists were victims of modern life and suffered from decayed brain centers. Nordau's inspiration was the criminologist Cesare Lombroso, author of The Criminal Man published in 1876. Lombroso attempted to prove that there were born criminals, which could be detected by scientific methods to determine atavistic personality traits by measuring abnormal physical characteristics. Nordau then used this as a pseudoscientific rationale and a critique of modern art. Based upon Lombroso's theory, Nordau asserted that modern artists also suffered from an atavistic degeneracy as Lombroso's born criminals. For Nordau, all forms of modern art, whether music, poetry, or visual contained symptoms of mental disorder and corruption. Modern artists suffered from both fatigue and nervous excitement. Therefore, all modern arts lacked discipline, and failed to make coherent connections. Nordau particularly focused his attacks on the Symbolist movement in French literature, Aestheticism in English literature, and Impressionism in painting, claiming that the mysticism of the Symbolists was a product of mental pathology, and that Impressionist painterliness was the sign of a diseased visual cortex.

Nordau's pseudoscientific theory of degeneration was seized upon by German National Socialists during the Weimar Republic as a rallying point for racial purity in art. Racially "pure" artists produced racially "pure" art, and modern artists of an "inferior racial strain" produced works which were contorted. Nordau's theory, then, was used to defend the National Socialist doctrine of the decline of culture due to the decadent influence of modernity. Romantic realism was an accurate representation of racially pure art, while modern art was a deviant from socially accepted norms of classical beauty.

Alfred Rosenberg was the first to use Nordau's theory in Myth of the Twentieth Century published in the 1920s, which became a best-seller in Germany. Another influential art critic, Paul Schulze-Naumberg wrote three books: Art and Race, The Fate of the German House, and The German Art. Schulze-Naumberg argued that modern artists unwittingly produced their own racial stereotypes in their artwork. To prove this, he utilized both Nordau's and that Lombroso's methodology by comparing examples of distortions of the human figure in modern art next to photographs with people with deformities and diseases. Schultze-Naumberg then compared healthy people with examples of the new,Heroic Art to prove that modern art was an indication of racial impurity.

The entartete Kunst exhibit

By 1937, this concept was firmly entrenched in Nazi policy, and authorities purged German museums of modern art now condemned as degenerate. The entartete Kunst exhibit premiered in Munich in March, 1937, and travelled to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria. The show was intended as an official condemnation of modern art, and included over 650 paintings, scuptures, prints, and books from the collections of thirty two German museums. Expressionism, which had its origins in Germany, contained the largest proportion of paintings represented.

The exhibit was held on the second floor of a building formerly occupied by the Institute of Archaeology. Viewers had to reach the exhibit by means of a narrow staircase. The first sculpture was an oversized, theatrical portrait of Jesus, which purposely intimidated viewers as they literally bumped into it in order to enter inside. The rooms were made of temporary partitions and deliberately chaotic and crowded. Pictures were crowded together, mostly without frames, and often hung by cord. The first three rooms were grouped thematically, by the demeaning of religion, Jewish artists in particular, and how modern artists attempted to portray the depravity of women. The rest of the exhibit had no particular theme.

There were slogans painted on the walls:

  • Insolent mockery of the Divine under Centrist rule
  • Revelation of the Jewish racial soul
  • An insult to German womanhood
  • The ideal - cretin and whore
  • Even museum bigwigs called this the 'art of the German people'

Speeches of Nazi party leaders contrasted with artist manifesto from various art movements, such as Dada and Surrealism. Next to many paintings were labels indicating how much money a museum spent to acquire the artwork. Many paintings were acquired during the radical post-war Weimar inflationary years in the 1920s, when a loaf of bread cost trillions of German marks, which drastically exaggerated the prices of the paintings. The entire exhibit was designed to promote the idea that modernism was a conspiracy by people who hated German decency.

It was considered the first blockbuster art exhibit of the twentieth century, with an estimated attendance of three million visitors.

The fate of the artists and their work

Avant-garde German artists, mostly Expressionists, were now branded both enemies of the state and a threat to the German nation. Many went into exile and lost both their reputations and credibility. Max Beckmann fled to Amsterdam on the opening day of the entarte Kunst exhibit. Max Ernst emigrated to America with the assistance of Peggy Guggenheim. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner committed suicide in Switzerland in 1938. Paul Klee spent his years in exile in Switzerland, yet was unable to obtain Swiss citizenship because of his status as a degenerate artist. Those who remained in Germany were forbidden to work at universities and were subject to surprise raids by the Gestapo in order to ensure that they were not violating the ban on producing artwork. Those of Jewish descent who did not escape from Germany in time were sent to concentration camps.

After the exhibit, paintings were sorted out for sale and sold in Switzerland at auction; some pieces were acquired by museums, others by private collectors. Nazi officials took many for their private use: for example, Herman Goering took fourteen valuable pieces, including a van Gogh and a Cezanne. In March, 1939, the German Fire Brigade burned many which had little value on the international market.

After the collapse of Nazi Germany when the Russian army was the first to invade Berlin, some artwork from the exhibit was found buried underground. It is unclear how many of these then reappeared in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg where they still remain. The story of how these paintings survived is not documented in public. They are simply listed at the Hermitage as: provenance unknown.

Partial listing of German artists in entarte Kunst

Artistic movements condemned as degenerate

See also Degeneracy.


  • Adam, Peter. Art of the Third Reich (1992). New York: Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 0810919125
  • Barron, Stephanie, ed. 'Degenerate Art:' The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany (1991). New York: Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 0810936534
  • Grosshans, Henry. Hitler and the Artists (1993). New York: Holmes & Meyer. ISBN 0810936534
  • Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut. Art Under a Dictatorship (1973). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Nordau, Max. Degeneration, introduction by George L. Mosse (1998). New York: Howard Fertig. ISBN 0803283679
  • Rose, Carol Washton Long. (1995) Documents from the End of the Wilhemine Empire to the Rise of National Socialism. San Francisco: University of California Press. ISBN 0520202643
  • Suslav, Vitaly. The State Hermitage: Masterpieces from the Museum's Collections vol. 2 Western European Art (1994). New York: Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 1873968035

External links

de:Entartete Kunst it:Arte degenerata nl:Entartete Kunst


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