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‘Degenerate’ art

Adolf Hitler’s obsession with attaining Aryan purity for Germany included cleansing culture and art.

Written by Shombit Sengupta |
November 10, 2013 4:53:33 am

Adolf Hitler’s obsession with attaining Aryan purity for Germany included cleansing culture and art.

Shock waves rippled across Europe last week when 1,500 paintings the Nazis had plundered in 1930s-40s were discovered in Munich. This haul,valued at well over a billion Euros,has priceless works of Henri Matisse,Pablo Picasso,Paul Klee,Pierre-Auguste Renoir,Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,Max Beckmann,Ernst Ludwig Kirchner,Otto Dix and Marc Chagall among others.

Adolf Hitler’s obsession with attaining Aryan purity for Germany included cleansing culture and art. So the work of modern artists was denigrated as “degenerate art (entartete kunst)”. Very systematically,such artworks were stolen from museums,confiscated from Jewish art collectors,and sent to Nazi headquarters ostensibly for destruction. Last June I’d visited Rose Vallard’s home (,and written about how this brave Frenchwoman tried to prevent such theft.

Why Hitler was imposing his own taste in art becomes understandable when you learn that he was a failed painter. Suppose he’d been successful in his primary ambition to be an artist,can you imagine how world history would have panned out? Because he did not draw the human form,he failed the entrance test for the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna in 1907 and 1908. Very few of his hundreds of paintings on deserted places,buildings,and farmhouses were sold,and ironically mostly to Jews before World War I. The Americans carried his paintings away as war spoils,but never exhibited them. “I am an artist and not a politician. Once the Polish question is settled,I want to end my life as an artist,” Hitler is quoted to have told British ambassador Neville Henderson before World War II.

Seemingly,to take revenge on the evolving world of abstract and modern art that dismissed his realistic landscapes,Hitler put up two art exhibitions in Munich in 1937. The Great German Art Exhibition had works Hitler approved of — blonde nudes,idealised soldiers and landscapes. The other one,the Degenerate Art Exhibition,was coined to ridicule modern,abstract,non-representational art. He wanted to give “ordinary,decent” Germans the chance to mock “debased”,non-Aryan,Jew and Bolshevik avant garde culture. Encouraging viewers to see this as an evil anti-German people plot,he said,“Works of art which cannot be understood in themselves but need some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence will never again find their way to the German people.”

The “degenerate” art was exhibited in different rooms by category: blasphemous art,art by Jewish or communist artists,art which criticised German soldiers,art which offended the honour of German women,the insanity room of abstract paintings. Written in the exhibition handbook was,“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.” To get the message across,Nazis hired actors to mingle with the crowd and criticise the exhibits,which were deliberately hung crookedly and had negative graffiti scribbled around them. This exhibition eventually attracted over a million visitors,three times more than the officially sanctioned one. It also created history’s greatest artistic exodus — artists and Jews fled to neighbouring countries,Britain and the US.

Perhaps a part of this “degenerate” art is now creating “essentially a modern-day story of pirate treasure,” says The Washington Post. An 80-year old German,Cornelius Gurlitt,son of a Nazi collaborator art dealer,was en-route to Switzerland in 2010 when a routine customs check alerted authorities to probe further. Focus magazine leaked the story that though he had no job,he had a huge bank balance which led to a raid of his residence in 2011. That’s where a fortune of art was found,some dating to the 16th century. Shockingly,in his dirty apartment,food was strewn amidst the paintings. Some were framed,others unframed. Gurlitt had inherited them,but was apparently unaware of their value. He’d sell a painting whenever he needed money.

Families of former owners of Nazi-looted artworks continue to campaign for the return of such paintings and sculptures. Prominent among them is wealthy heiress Anne Sinclair,granddaughter of Paul Rosenburg,among the world’s most influential art dealers who represented Picasso,Georges Braque,Marie Laurencin,Max Weber and Matisse among several other European and American artists. Sinclair,now news editor at the French edition of The Huffington Post,had become famous for her scathing TV interviews where she met and married Dominique Strauss-Kahn,disgraced ex-IMF President. She is particularly in search of Portrait of a Lady by Matisse,but whether that’s in this collection is still not clear.

The Research Centre for Degenerate Art now has the responsibility of finding the entire list of pieces. People are eagerly awaiting that,but it may be complicated as several owners may have sold the paintings under duress. Art scholars and the public are questioning why the German government has kept this find under wraps for over two years. Anne Webber of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe is asking for transparency,“Germany was a signatory to the Washington Principles in 1998 and 1999,along with 44 other countries,making a commitment to identifying the looted works in their collections and publishing the results. You have to wonder what is behind the extreme reluctance to provide information.” Meanwhile,since Gurlitt’s detention for tax evasion,but before his art collection was seized,he sold Max Beckmann’s The Lion Tamer through a dealer for 840,000 Euros.

According to Focus,international warrants are out for at least 200 prized paintings. Perhaps Germany was silent about the 1,500 paintings because of diplomatic and legal complications that would stem from this ill-gotten “degenerate” art. What it all definitively proves is that art’s timeless command can totally engulf even a dictator like Hitler who’d designed most horrific third Reich programmes like “The Final Solution” to obliterate Jews to achieve Aryan supremacy. Fortunately,the Axis Powers could not win World War II,so what Hitler pilloried as “degenerate” art can be enjoyed fearlessly by everyone today.

Shombit Sengupta is an

international creative

business strategy

consultant to top

management. Reach him at

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