Historical Background of “Degenerate Art”

1930s Germany

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Lisa Barr’s debut novel, FUGITIVE COLORS, is a suspenseful thriller based on a fictional character, artist Julian Klein. The story of Klein and his friends’ artistic endeavors in the 1930s, is actually based on the harrowing and little-known history of the official Nazi exhibition of Entartete Kunst or Degenerate Art which opened in Munich on July 19, 1937, one day after the first “Great German Art Exhibition” premiered.

Entartete Kunst portrayed the eclipse of an age of “decadence and chaos,” while the Great German Art exhibition heralded the dawn of a new epoch of governmental control of the arts: sanitized, uninspired, and devoid of dissent. In 1937 alone, more than 16,000 works of modern art were confiscated and labeled ‘degenerate’ by a committee headed by Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945.

As Hitler’s second-in-command, Goebbels was one of Adolf Hitler’s closest associates and most devout followers, and was known for his zealous oratory and anti-Semitism. A culmination of Hitler and Goebbels’ purge of all remaining modern art held in both public and private collections in the Reich, the Degenerate Art exhibition was designed to ridicule and denigrate creative works not upholding “correct” National Socialist virtues.

The Nazis showcase of Degenerate Art, which included more than 650 important paintings, sculptures and prints, as well as books and musical notations, became the most widely seen exhibition of modern art. In Munich alone, 2 million visitors came to this exhibition, and when it toured Germany and Austria for a further three years, an additional one million people viewed this exhibit.

The Degenerate Art exhibition was organized by such subject matter as “Insult to German Womanhood” and “Mockery of God” — it drew upon sensationalism to incite controversy and public furor. Minors were barred from the show, the pretext being that decent German youth needed to be shielded from the depth of the artworks’ obscenity, lest the future of the Reich be corrupted.

On March 20th, 1939, the Degenerate Art Commission ordered over 1,000 paintings and almost 4,000 watercolors and drawings burned in the courtyard of a fire station in Berlin. Other works were auctioned off to the highest bidder including Van Gogh’s ‘Self Portrait,’ which was sold to the winning bidder for US $40,000 at an auction house in Lucerne, Switzerland. The proceeds of this painting and hundreds of others were directly deposited into the Reich’s bank account. The Nazis’ unstoppable quest to rape Europe of its modern art and use the money to benefit the Reich was a grandiose master plan that nearly succeeded. Many of these “degenerate works,” sold illegally, are still hanging in prominent museums and in private collections worldwide.