2E Book

The Dresden ‘shaming’ exhibition of 1933 was just the start of what was to be the attempted wholesale destruction of German 20th century avant garde art. By 1937, the concept of ‘degeneracy’ was bureaucratically entrenched, and a six-man commission was authorised to confiscate from museums and art collections throughout Germany any remaining art considered modern, degenerate, or subversive.

The ‘Entartete Kunst’ exhibition (top) showed over 650 important paintings, sculptures, prints and books from the collections of 32 German museums. It opened in Munich in mid-July 1937 and remained on view until the end of November before travelling to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria. During its four months in Munich it attracted over 3 million visitors and over the next years, a million more.

Only a small portion of what was confiscated was used in the exhibition. Otto Dix’s ‘War Cripples’ (centre) shows veterans of WW1 in fully military dress marching along, each one of them crippled or
damaged. This painting, which lays the blame on the army for ruining a generation, was far less contentious than some of Dix’s other work. Nonetheless it was confiscated, labelled ‘slander against the German heroes of World War I’, and has never been seen again, presumed destroyed. Ernst Barlach’s bronze statue ‘Christus and Johannes’ (Christ and John) (centre left) was judged by the committee to be ‘a mockery of the divine’ and was described as ‘the portrayal of two monkeys in
nightshirts’. By the time the work was due to travel to Nurnberg it had disappeared. Fortunately, other castings survived.

After the defamation and distress caused by the Dresden exhibition and the confiscation of 40 of his works Felixmuller and his family fled to Berlin. The authorities continued to pursue him and six works, including ‘First Steps’ (top right), were in the Munich exhibition. A total of 151 of Felixmüller’s works were confiscated, many of them disappeared or were destroyed by the Nazis.

The exhibition catalogue had the exhibition title, with the word ‘Kunst’ (meaning art), in scare quotes superimposed on an image of Otto Freundlich’s primitive inspired sculpture ‘Der Neue Mensch’ (the new man). It cost 30 pfennigs, highly affordable, less than the price of a loaf of rye bread. Inside it was like a lively magazine with images of the artwork often at jaunty angles accompanied by derogatory catchphrases and defamatory text.

The rooms of the exhibition were made of temporary partitions and intentionally chaotic, with pictures crowded together, sometimes unframed. The first rooms were grouped according to themes: religion; Jewish artists, the vilification of women, the military etc. The remainder were a composite of subject and styles that were anathema to the Nazi’s. Slogans were painted on the walls. (bottom left and right) such as:

‘Insolent mockery of the Divine’

‘Revelation of the Jewish racial soul’

‘Madness becomes method’

‘Deliberate sabotage of national defense’

Next to some works were details of the original acquisition cost to a collection. Acquired during Weimar hyperinflation of the early 1920s (when the cost of a kilogram loaf of bread reached 23 billion German marks), the prices of the paintings were grossly exaggerated. It was all part of the propaganda that the work of these artists was a conspiracy against ‘German decency’. This was frequently identified as Jewish Bolshevist collusion, although only 6 of the 112 artists included in the exhibition were Jewish. At the same time as ‘Entartete Kunst’ the regime opened ‘Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung’ the (Great German art exhibition). Held at the grand Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art). It showed the work of officially approved artists. ‘Entartete Kunst attracted almost four times the number of visitors as its Nazi counterpart’.