Degenerate Art: Hitler's War on Modernism

Friday, January 17, 2014

An upcoming museum exhibition and film remind us that German dictator Adolf Hitler declared a war on modern art, branding it as "degenerate," seizing it from private owners, and often selling it to help finance the Third Reich.

In the summer of 1937 Hitler organized an infamous art show in Munich — “Degenerate Art” — that brought together more than 600 works by Cubists, Surrealists and other modern artists, says WNYC's art critic Deborah Solomon. Hitler hated Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and just about every artist who experimented with abstract painting.

Hitler went on to sell those works, and to this day they are still popping up in private homes, and even at the German Parliament.

Solomon said the new movie The Monuments Men, featuring George Clooney, and an upcoming exhibit at the Neue Gallery bring back to the table the issue of Hitler's deep impact in the arts. Not his taste, she said, so much as the way he elevated the power of the state and forbid free expression. Solomon said Hitler himself was a frustrated artist, who applied to art school in Vienna and was turned down. "It's often said that history would have been very different had he been accepted to school."


Deborah Solomon

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Comments [4]

Scott Gutterman from New York

This story, as related by Deborah Solomon, is extremely compelling. One important correction, though: the museum name is spelled Neue Galerie, not Neue Gallery. Can this be corrected? Many thanks.

Jan. 17 2014 10:43 AM
Rachel Klein from nyc

Hi Deborah,
I think for the portion of the public not aware of this aspect of WWII, seeing both the collection of Hitler and the art he deemed degenerate may be educational. Even those aware of this dark period will find it relevant.
And just an aside - with regard to WWII and stolen art, there is collective blame that extends the boundaries of Germany including the United States in which art dealers knowingly sold plundered art.

Jan. 17 2014 08:06 AM
Andrew Campbell from Putnam County, NY

Selling the art to finance the Third Reich is less hypocritical than saying Hitler's taste in art is not relevant because we don't have the same taste. There is a lot of relevance to art beyond aesthetics--it is elemental (and central and very important) in human experience. I think Hitler's taste and personality are very important to us--we have lived beyond the 20th Century but not beyond the results and implications inherent in it.

Jan. 17 2014 08:03 AM
Erik from Scarsdale

Your "art critic" won't even look at hitlers art?!? She's more closed minded than... Than... Hitler?!?

Jan. 17 2014 07:53 AM

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