While the term “degenerate art” did not originate with the Nazi regime, it was appropriated by the Nazis for nefarious purposes: to rid German museums of considered Bolshevik, unaesthetic, anti-nationalist, and a stain on the so-called pure Aryan nation. The Nazi Party, under the direction of Joseph Goebbels acting on authority from Hitler, emptied the museums as well as some private collections of more than 5,000 works. Many of them were sold in auction houses outside of Germany in order to collect foreign currency. The exhibition then traveled throughout Germany until 1939.
In 1937 the original exhibition, Entartete Kunst, opened in Munich. By this time Goebbels had designed the show to include an antisemitic theme of Jewish conspiracy to contaminate Germany through subversive art. In addition to the excellent color reproductions of some of the confiscated works by such well-known artists as Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Marc Chagall, photos of the original exhibition and other archival items such as posters and newspaper illustrations are included in the book.
The essays of Degenerate Art deal with different aspects of the politics of the art world that led to the designation of “degenerate” and its pre- and post-Nazi history. “From Nordau to Hitler” by the organizing curator, Olaf Peters, identifies the year 1910 as the year the Nazis chose as the cut-off date for the confiscation of works from German museums, the year when avant-garde artists of the period of “isms” (Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, Dadaism) were being acquired and frequently receiving harsh reviews. They targeted the renowned Bauhaus school of architecture and design as well.
“Crazy at Any Price” traces the “pathologizing” of Modernism. Max Nordau, whose 1892 two-volume Entartung (Degeneration) was in its third printing in the 1930s and had influenced psychiatrists and eugenicists, postulated that art could manifest the mental illnesses of artists. The chapter on the screen depictions of Degenerate Art describes films such as the infamous Der ewige Jude (The Wandering Jew) and Jud Suss that aim to convince Germans that Jews were polluting German society. The films use images that allude to primitive and sub-human characteristics to depict Jews.
The rehabilitation of “degenerate art,” discussed in “Narrowed Modernism” by Ruth Heftig, is particularly interesting since the subject is ongoing. Identifying and recovering missing works of art,the reconstruction of museum collections in light of post-war divided Germany, and changed perceptions of modern art are all complicated issues that continue to intrigue scholars and art historians as well as impact international law.
A beautifully produced book, Degenerate Art is recommended for an understanding of how the Third Reich methodically manipulated the German public to accept and endorse their malevolent policies. Checklist of plates, bibliography, index.