Degenerate Art: Hitler's War on Modernism

Email a Friend

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."