Art

Revisiting Britain’s Response to the Nazi “Degenerate Art” Show

London 1938: Defending “Degenerate” German Art tells the story of a monumental British exhibition of artists persecuted by the Nazis.

Oskar Kokoschka, “Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist” (1937) (All images courtesy Liebermann Villa)

BERLIN — In January 1933, the Nazis celebrated their first General Election victory with an elaborate parade down the streets of Berlin. After watching them march triumphantly through the Brandenburg Gate, the famous painter and printmaker Max Liebermann was said to have proclaimed, “I want to throw up.”

Though he would not live to see the systematic genocide of Europe’s Jewish population, the end of Liebermann’s life was indelibly marked by Nazi policies as they veered ever closer towards the so-called “Final Solution.”

Throughout the Weimar period, prior to the Nazis taking power, Liebermann had been a celebrated German-born Jewish painter, one of the leading proponents of impressionism in Germany well before it had become fashionable. In 1920, he took up the post of President at the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts; in 1932, the Nazis forced him to resign from this position. He died in 1935.

Three years later, 22 of Liebermann’s paintings were shown in a historic exhibition in London, titled Twentieth Century German Art. Featuring 300 works by modern artists who were facing persecution in Germany, the exhibition was the largest foreign response to the Nazis’ censure of so-called “degenerate art.”

The Liebermann Villa in Berlin

A new exhibition in Berlin, titled London 1938: Defending “Degenerate” German Art, marks the 80th anniversary of Twentieth Century German Art. On view at the Liebermann Villa, which served as Liebermann’s summer residence for many years, the show illustrates the cultural climate and ideologies that led to National Socialists’ persecution of modern artist, and delves into the context and the impact of the 1938 exhibition within Britain and Germany. Among the featured works are paintings from the original London show, including Max Slevogt’s “The Panther” (1931) and Emil Nolde’s “The Young Academic” (1918). (Ironically, Nolde supported the Nazi party and was not Jewish, but his expressionist work still earned him the “degenerate” label.)

The Nazis adopted the concept of degenerate art (“entartete kunst”) in the 1920s, influenced by Austro-Hungarian physician and critic Max Nordau, whose 1892-93 book Entartung (“Degeneration”) suggested that ideal beauty could be corrupted by art and aesthetics. “Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists and pronounced lunatics; they are often authors and artists,” Nordau wrote.

The Nazis came to view modernism as a perverted style that went against their concept of ethnically pure beauty; Hitler believed this type of art was dangerous because it was celebrated by Jews and communists, whom he believed would contaminate Aryan identity.

Paul Klee, “Gift” (1932)

In July 1937, the Nazis staged their infamous Degenerate Art exhibition at the Haus der Deutsche Kunst (known today as the Haus der Kunst) in Munich. It featured about 650 works of modern art seized by Adolf Ziegler, whom Hitler had tasked with purging German museums of art deemed antithetical to Nazi ideology. Works by the likes of Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Oskar Kokoschka were hung in a haphazard and chaotic manner. Some of the wall texts read “madness becomes method” or “revelation of the Jewish racial soul.”

Degenerate Art came to be one of the most attended exhibitions in recorded history: over the course of five months, it attracted more than two million visitors. Ironically, in their attempts to purge modern art, the Nazis effectively canonized it, helping to draw the world’s attention to an entire generation of artists who had been adversely affected by persecution.

Soon after the Degenerate Art exhibition, the British art dealer Noel “Peter” Norton and her colleagues began making plans to stage a response to it. At the same time, Zurich-based art dealer Irmgard Burchard was arranging a show of many of the émigré German artists persecuted by the Nazis. The two women agreed to combine their efforts. With the help of German-Jewish art critic Paul Westheim, they selected works to feature in what became the 1938 Twentieth Century German Art exhibition in London.

Original poster for Twentieth Century German Art (1938)

In little over nine months, the group secured over 90 lenders for the London exhibition. However, from the original group of three organizers, only Burchard was named in the catalogue as an “honorary organizer.” Westheim had stepped down after learning that the exhibition’s title would be changed from Banned Art to Twentieth Century German Art, which he believed de-politicized the exhibition’s significance.

Nevertheless, the opening night of the London exhibition saw many cultural luminaries from far and wide in attendance, including then-director of the National Gallery, Sir Kenneth Clark, Virginia Woolf, Pablo Picasso, and Le Corbusier. Although the exhibition’s title and accompanying catalogue essay attempted to downplay its political significance, the high-profile guests in attendance sent a clear and powerful message that “degenerate art” was now the toast of European high art.

Wassily Kandinsky, “Unnamed Improvisation II” (1914)

80 years later, the Liebermann Villa, in conjunction with the Wiener Library in London, has organized a show that tells the remarkable story of this momentous exhibition. It juxtaposes samples of the original London artworks with documentary information regarding their lenders and the reasons for their loans. Noteworthy works featured include a landscape painting of Murnau by Wassily Kandinsky, 13 of whose works were originally included in Twentieth Century German Art, as well as “Poison” (1932), by Paul Klee.

Amid a disturbing resurgence of far-right ideologies throughout Europe and the US, London 1938 — Defending “Degenerate” German Art attests to the importance of cultural freedom and international exchange as a means of countering fascist propaganda. It reminds us that #MuseumsAreNotNeutral; they actively shape public values. They have power. A power that can act as a catalyst for social change, or a power that can generate hate and putrefaction — a point that is as important to remember today as it was in 1938.

London 1938 — Defending “Degenerate” German Art is on view from October 7, 2018 until January 14 2019 at Liebermann Villa (Colomierstraße 3 14109 Berlin, Germany). The exhibition is co-curated by Christine Schmidt and Barbara Warnock.

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