Written by Ash Tomkins
Adolf Hitler, who ruled Germany as dictator from 1933 to 1945 and became one of the most infamous, notorious names in history, was previously an unsuccessful artist. In the early 1900s he lived in Vienna, then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He made two unsuccessful attempts to be admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts but was rejected for his subpar drawing skills, as it was deemed that the work he had produced was of ‘no artistic value’.
Hitler’s rise to power coincided with the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933 and the entrenchment of Nazism in Germany. The Weimar Republic emerged in the interwar years, establishing Germany as a federal republic for the first time in history. Its tumultuous fourteen years of existence, marred by hyperinflation and economic crises, resulted in a political environment that would facilitate the rise of Fascism in Nazi Germany. Despite the Weimar Republic’s disastrous demise, however, the interwar years marked the rise of a cultural republic. Musically, there was the notable popularisation of jazz and cabaret, meanwhile visual art from the Weimar Republic marked a break in German art history.
The end of censorship saw a preference for a new style of realism in painting, sculpture, and film. Many practitioners embraced this Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and represented historically taboo scenes–from prostitutes and war veterans to depictions of seemingly meaningless urban landscapes. Famous artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, one of the founders of the artist group Die Brücke (The Bridge), contributed to the foundations of Expressionism. This new objectivity and approach to realism coincided with the origins of Modernism. Modernism as an art term encompasses a plethora of styles, genres, and aesthetics. Modernism considers a rejection of conservative values and is associated with a post-World War I vision of humanity and society, emerging from the traumas of conflict.
From 19 July to 30 November 1937, the show Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) premiered in Munich, Germany. This title was used by Hitler and the Nazi party to establish ‘art of decay’, a method of propaganda that excluded Modernist work. German Modernist art—including some pieces created by international artists–were removed from German state museums and banned, on the basis that they were an ‘insult to German feeling’, representing ideals that were deemed ‘racially impure’, ‘decadent’, symbolic of ‘mental disease’, Freemasonic, Jewish, Communist, or simply ‘un-German’ in nature. Within two weeks of appointing painter and politician Adolf Ziegler to purge works and produce the show, over 5,000 artworks were seized and deemed ‘degenerate’. This ‘degenerate’ art was repurposed and used to demonstrate that techniques such as abstraction were the product of ‘genetic inferiority’ and evidence of society’s moral decline.
Over two million visitors attended the show in Munich. Featuring over seven hundred artworks by one hundred and twenty artists, viewers were actively encouraged to mock the pieces. Each work had labels that deliberately disparaged the titles they referred to as well as the artists who had created them. Kirchner was one of the artists branded ‘degenerate’, and by the show’s premiere in 1937, over six hundred of his paintings were destroyed.
While the Entartete Kunst exhibition focused on German art, the Nazis’ assault on fine art within Modernism progressed beyond the walls of the exhibition. Over one thousand artists were banned from German galleries, including Henri Matisse, whose 1913 painting The Blue Window was removed from its place at the Museum Folkwang in Essen. While some artworks were later acquired by art patrons who began assembling their collections, the whereabouts of some works, including Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s sculpture Kneeling Woman, remains a mystery. Artists who produced powerful works that deconstructed notions of life and broke down barriers for the contemporary art of today were dismissed and ridiculed; during the Nazi regime, their work was altered and obstructed from the historical narrative. For example, the Nazis described the work of Bauhaus teacher and artist Paul Klee as ‘insane childish scrawling’.
Serving as a counter exhibition, the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition) opened on 18 July 1937, at the purpose-built Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich, and was displayed eight times until 1944. Now known as the Haus der Kunst, the building was fundamentally built on Nazi notions of ‘good’ art. The change of name during the post-war period has been powerfully discussed by Okwi Enweazor as a rejection of Nazi cultural and architectural propaganda. For Hitler, Enweazor argues, the Haus der Deutschen Kunst was a ‘temple’ of German art, conceived, designed, and constructed for the purity of ‘Germany’s national aesthetic spirit’.
Hitler’s own art, though it was claimed to have been destroyed, has been uncovered at numerous auctions and hidden in houses in recent years. In 2015, fourteen paintings and drawings including a watercolour of the castle Neuschwanstein sold for £71,500. The total for his fourteen works was estimated at £280,000. In Nuremberg, the auction house argued that the paintings were of historical importance, defending the controversial auction. More recently, during a police raid on the grounds of suspected forgery in 2019, three watercolours were recovered from Kloss Auction House.
This poses the question: can you separate art from the artist? Hitler’s work, deemed worthless, is now valued at hundreds of thousands of pounds, less than a hundred years after his militant regime. This raises important questions about how to value works of art. Artwork that before Hitler’s political career was worthless now in retrospect suddenly has value, indicating that the dynamics of aesthetics and taste are of little importance compared to the significance of the artist and his political actions. In this case, the monetisation of history and the history of art inadvertently glorify violence and fascism. Understanding history through art requires understanding the implications of works, their histories, memories, and lives. In the contemporary world, art needs to resist commodification to allow history to remain accessible and open to the curious.
The rise of a ‘fascist realism’ serves as a painful reminder for us to question galleries and museums and how they represent the past. By studying the images mentioned in this article, we can better understand the visual power of seeing, the same power that Hitler utilised in his relentless antisemitic, racist propaganda. Today, with the existence of a multitude of aesthetics, retrospectively analysing the Nazis’ perspective of ‘degenerate’ art not only contextualises that period of history but also encourages us to rethink notions of taste, artistic skill, and freedom of expression.
Groys, Boris. Art Power / Boris Groys. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008.
Okwui Enwezor, “The Judgement of Art: Postwar and Artistic Worldliness,” Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965, Okwui Enwezor, Katy Siegel, Ulrich Wilmes, eds., London, Munich: Prestel, Haus der Kunst, 2016: 20-41.