Recently it was revealed that a huge stash of modern art had been found in a flat in Munich. Many of the paintings were considered “degenerate” by the Nazis, who staged an exhibition especially to ridicule them. (1)
In July 1937, four years after it came to power, the Nazi party put on two art exhibitions in Munich. The Great German Art Exhibition was designed to show works that Hitler approved of – depicting statuesque blonde nudes along with idealised soldiers and landscapes. The second exhibition, just down the road, showed the other side of German art – modern, abstract, non-representational – or as the Nazis saw it, “degenerate”.
The Degenerate Art Exhibition included works by some of the great international names – Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky – along with famous German artists of the time such Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde and Georg Grosz. The exhibition handbook explained that the aim of the show was to “reveal the philosophical, political, racial and moral goals and intentions behind this movement, and the driving forces of corruption which follow them”.
Works were included “if they were abstract or expressionistic, but also in certain cases if the work was by a Jewish artist,” says Jonathan Petropoulos, professor of European History at Claremont McKenna College and author of several books on art and politics in the Third Reich. He says the exhibition was laid out with the deliberate intention of encouraging a negative reaction. “The pictures were hung askew, there was graffiti on the walls, which insulted the art and the artists, and made claims that made this art seem outlandish, ridiculous”. The art was divided into different rooms by category – art that was blasphemous, art by Jewish or communist artists, art that criticized German soldiers, art that offended the honour of German women.
One room featured entirely abstract paintings, and was labelled “the insanity room”. “In the paintings and drawings of this chamber of horrors there is no telling what was in the sick brains of those who wielded the brush or the pencil,” reads the entry in the exhibition handbook.
Art is NOT to be understood you fool! Art is to be admired!
Like life, art is irrational! And that is why we like it! Without knowing why, some chords are touched by otherwise meaningless paintings or sculptures.
As Kierkergor said, only the irrational is real…