The Hardships of Germany's Degenerate Art

June 12, 2014
Shirley M. Mueller, M.D.

What is known as Degenerate Art from World War II is found all throughout Germany, but it is a part of the country's painful past.

During our May 2014 trip to southern Germany, we saw paintings in the National German Museum in Nuremburg that relate importantly to the recent movie Monuments Men. It exhibited what the Nazi’s termed “Degenerate Art” and compared it to Aryan art, or the racial ideal of the Nazi National Socialist party.

This is timely since the Neue Galerie in New York City is now exhibiting “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” until Sept. 1, 2014. Cornelius Gurlitt (who just died on May 6, 2014) possessed a treasure trove of WWII Degenerate Art in his lodging in Munich in 2012. His death buttressed the winding down of the Monuments Men movie and the opening of the Neue Galerie exhibition.

From Wikipedia. Hitler, second from the left, and Adolf Ziegler in the bowtie, attend the opening of the House of German Art in Munich in 1937. It was Ziegler who purged WWII Germany of so called Degenerate Art.

German politician Adolf Ziegler (1892-1959), a painter himself, had been asked to oversee the elimination of Degenerate Art by Adolf Hitler. Ziegler was one of the Fuhrer’s preferred painters. Acceptable art was that consistent with racial purity. International modernism, on the other hand, was considered foreign and not in line with the ideals of Nazi promoted art that endorsed the preservation of the Aryan race. Therefore, it was called “degenerate.”

Adolf Ziegler. This painting demonstrates art acceptable to Hitler. It combines a contemporary woman and a classical pose. The German National Museum, Nuremburg.

From 1937 to 1944, Ziegler made decisions regarding an art exhibit held every year in Munich that displayed what was considered acceptable German art. Artists who were not considered to be within this category were not invited to these exhibits and their works of arts were removed from museums.

At least some of these pieces of Degenerate Art were purchased by Hildebrand Gurlitt, the art dealer father of Cornelius. Evidently, they were kept under wraps until found in Munich in 2012 by the District Prosecutor of Augsburg, Germany. These lost artworks were suspected of being illegally obtained during WWII. This issue is currently being resolved. Paintings that are found not to have been looted will be given to the Museum of Fine Arts Bern in Switzerland as directed by Cornelius before his death.

An example of Degenerate Art. The German National Museum, Nuremburg.

A surprising conclusion to this Degenerate Art story is a conversation I had with a German citizen about the NYC Neue Galerie Degenerate Art Exhibition. Amazingly, she didn’t believe Germany is ready for an exhibition with this particular focus.

What was known as Degenerate Art is certainly all over southern Germany if not the entire country. But, perhaps, contemporary Germans aren’t yet ready to acknowledge the issue directly as it is a painful part of their past.