Degenerate art

Why do I hear from so many more of you when I write about “life bloopers” than about art? I’m glad you find my personal adventures so amusing…  If you’re wondering …  the washing machine is working just fine but I am still sleeping on bags of cement  🙂

I was watching a video recently: The Rape of Europa. It is about the staggering amount of art that was looted by the Nazis during the war. I will tell you about this later, but I realized that I hadn’t told you about an exhibit I saw last May in New York, called Degenerate Art:  the attack on modern art in Nazi Germany.

While some 19th Century psychiatrists (like Prinzhorn) took a particular interest in the art of their patients, others like Lombroso, declared the art of his patients indicated a return to an earlier stage of human development. British psychiatrist Hyslop declared the “non-art” of the mentally ill as pathological, having a degenerate influence. The most extreme act of blocking the so-called degenerative influence of art took place during the Nazi regime, when there was a move to remove modern artists and curators from their positions in the art world. All degenerate and decadent art was removed from galleries and museums; many modern artists disappeared and were presumed to have been exterminated. Thousands of artworks were destroyed and interest in new and alternative art forms was squashed.

A “degenerative art exhibition”, put together by the Nazis in 1937, displayed the work of modern artists (like Picasso) and Prinzhorn’s collection of work by his psychiatric patients. Degenerate art was deemed to be deplorable because it did not represent all that was good about Germans and Nazi Germany. Side-by-side with the degenerate works were examples of “good art”, that is art that complied with the Nazi agenda, such as the example above. It shows pure women, perfect examples of the Aryan race.

The exhibit in New York brought together some examples from the 1937 Nazi exhibit. During that regime, art was intended to strengthen the Third Reich and purify the nation.  Artistic expression was yet another way to further political aims: art was propaganda to shape the German population’s attitude about what was right and pure.  According to Hitler, the purpose of art was to glorify the perfection of the Aryan race. European modern art had absolutely no place in the German art world.

9331_NOLDE_MA_034_NTake Nolde, for example. He supported the Nazi party from the 1920s and his artwork was greatly admired by many Germans, including Goebbels. When Hitler declared all forms of modern art as “degenerate”, the Nazi party officially condemned Nolde’s work. Over 1,000 of his paintings were removed from museums (more than any other artist) and his work was included in the 1937 Nazi Degenerate Art exhibit. His appeal to the Nazi regime was dismissed. He was prohibited from painting, even in private. (He did, however, paint some watercolours, which he hid.)

The New York exhibit was both fascinating and repugnant. Those we have come to know as the  masters of modern art were once denigrated and despised. What I didn’t see on exhibit were the works of art brut (outsider) artists. I know that such works were also exhibited as the work of “insane” artists, along with examples of modern art. The point was this: “modern artists are as crazy as patients from psychiatric institutions”.

Ever the curious (and intrepid) art tourist, I tracked down a curator and asked about the omission. The curator confessed to having no knowledge of the work of art brut artists being on display at the original Nazi exhibit in 1937. Too bad. The New  York exhibit would have been sensational if it had told the full story.