Hitler had aspired to be a painter, twice rejected for a place at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, and held vociferous views on art and its role in society. All modern art was considered ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, with Expressionism and ‘Die Brücke’ group particularly singled out. They used the phrase ‘Entartete Kunst’, for which the English translation is ‘degenerate art’. This view of art as dangerous was not new. The idea that artists could have clinical conditions, that their art could be not just bad, but mad and also contagious had been widely argued in the late 19th century.
Visual symbolism was central to the Nazi world view,and they devoted significant resources to promoting their views through art. From January 1933 Nazi agencies began to dismantle the progressive collecting policy of German museums, which held some of the finest examples of European 20th century art. In the years that followed the Nazis removed over 20,000 artworks from state-owned museums.
In Dresden, January 1933, the leader of the regional branch of the Nazi Party Martin Mutschmann was appointed the leader of Saxony in a power grab. He was assiduous in following orders and courting favour with the regime.
The first exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’, known as the ‘Schandausstellung’ (shame exhibition), was encouraged by Mutschmann and curated at short notice by the artist Richard Müller (bottom left), the director of the Dresden Art Academy. It plundered the city’s art museums and opened in the inner courtyard of the City Hall Dresden (centre left) on 23rd September 1933. It included works by Felixmüller, as well as work by all the great artists of German Expressionism from the Dresden collections. Otto Dix’s painting ‘The Trench’ was shown in the Dresden exhibition (top left, in a still taken from a brief film of the event). It was one of eight works by Dix later included in the Degenerate
Art Exhibition in Munich in 1937. In the catalogue for the exhibition it was named ‘painted military sabotage of the painter Otto Dix’. Dix was an art student in Dresden before WW1. Conscripted in 1915, he served as a machine gunner on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. He returned to study at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts and was a founder, together with his mentor Felixmüller, of the Dresden Secession group. His horrendous experiences in the trenches inspired the anti-war art he created after 1920, including ‘The Trench’. From 1929 to 1932 he painted a triptych, entitled ‘The War’ (centre right), the central panel of which reworks themes from ‘The Trench’. The status of the Trench painting was known until March 1939, but its destination and fate are unknown. It remains lost, and may have been destroyed in WWII.
The triptych of ‘The War’ with its distinctive panels was hidden by Dix, survived and has since 1968, well before German unification, hung in the Galeries Neues Meister in Dresden.
Felixmüller’s 1925 woodcut ‘Portrait of Carl Sternheim’ (top right,and in the Leicester collection) was amongst the more than 40 works by him in the Dresden City Hall exhibition. Here the work was contentious not only in terms of style but also subject matter. Sternheim was best known as a playwright but also as an art collector and contributor to the magazine ‘Die Aktion’ which is how he met and became friends with the artist. Felixmuller portrays him with a library of his controversial plays behind him.