Even ‘Degenerate Art’ Can Tempt: The 1937 Entartete Kunst Exhibitions

In July 1937, in Munich, the Nazi Party mounted the Entartete Kunst exhibitions of ‘Degenerate Art.’.  The exhibit featured over six hundred paintings, sculptures, prints, and books, a collection put together by a six-man commission that had confiscated–from the collections of thirty-two German museums–art deemed ‘modern, degenerate, or subversive.’ The exhibition remained in Munich till November–and was then staged in eleven cities in Germany and Austria. (Paul Schultze-Naumburg’s condemnation of modern art and architecture, suggesting pure-race artists produced art infused with classical ideals of beauty while mixed-race artists produced monstrosities, had already underwritten Hitler’s views on the relationship between classical Greek and Middle-Ages art and Aryan art. Schultze-Naumburg, by juxtaposing samples of modern art with photographs of people with deformities and diseases, had even suggested modernism was a malignancy.)

The Entartete Kunst exhibition, roughly organized into themes, was staged in shabby, crowded, cramped rooms–presumably, the chaos of the curated organization meant to amplify and provoke the supposedly inchoate visions on display–and surrounded by polemical paraphernalia to hammer home associated propaganda points (such as the exaggerated prices paid by the museums that originally housed the art works).

I have always been intrigued by the Nazi decision to display the ‘degenerate’ art as opposed to destroying the art pieces (perhaps accompanied with a printed reproduction of an image of the artwork destroyed). While the Nazi exhibit was meant to show the art as ugly and to hold it up for ridicule, derision, and eventual rejection, they did mount a comprehensive exhibition of potentially subversive art, collected and put up for display in one venue, available to the population at large. Indeed, by mounting a parallel exhibit of German art that met with the Nazi Party’s approval the risk they took was great; they were able to provide for comparison samples of ‘classical’ art and ‘modern’ art, and ask those who visited the exhibits to ‘make up their mind’ about what they found offensive, ugly, timid, or revolutionary. While the Nazi propaganda  pointed accusatory fingers at the art works, the potential for the art to stake its own claims was never lost.  Viewed from an alternate, subversive perspective, the Nazis provided a great service; they put together a collection panel that traveled the German nation, collected its best modern art and put it on display in major German cities: a large, state-sponsored exhibition of art that most modern nations would be happy to put together.

The artists and art ‘featured’ in the Entartete Kunst exhibitions suffered; artists met the fates of exile, imprisonment, bans, death; art was condemned and destroyed. But even if framed by ridicule and condemnation, the artists and their art met the minds and sensibilities of Germans; their art was talked about, discussed, and possibly subverted a mind or two. The Nazis intended for ‘Degenerate Art’ to serve as a bad example, one to be avoided in the future; but in picking the tactic of prominent, curated, collective display they also took the risk art could have served the exact opposite function.

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