Degenerate Art

Under the Nazis, certain artists were not just banned and censored but sent to concentration camps; many died there. The desgination “Entartete Kunst” or “Degenerate Art” was applied to virtually all modern art including abstract art and a-tonal music, to all works produced by Jewish artists (living or dead), to contemporary American popular art, to art that was thought to undermine German or Aryan cultural ideals, to art that did not support the war effort. In addition to a large number of Jewish musicians, painters, writers, and others imprisoned in the camps, some of the most universally-loved and greatest works of art by Jewish artists were banned.

Listen to this excerpt of a rehearsal of Felix Mendelssohn’s violin concerto played by Joshua Bell with a student orchestra at the Instituto Baccarelli** last year.  All of Mendelssohn’s music, including this concerto, was banned by the Nazi’s. Ask yourself these questions:

What must you believe to consider this to be degenerate music? How does someone come to believe that the kind of thing that is happening here, that playing this music, could be dangerous or damaging to these students, to the violinist, and to others who might hear this music? How does a society develop in such a way that music like this is banned, that a performance like this would have been forbidden?

“From the moment they came to power, the Nazis launched a vicious campaign against art they designated ‘degenerate,’ a category that included all modernist art, especially abstract, Cubist, Expressionist, and Surrealist art. Thus Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Kandinsky, Kirchner, and even nineteenth-century Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists including Renoir, Degas, Cézanne and Van Gogh, were reviled as exponents of avant-garde art movements that were considered intellectual, elitist, foreign, and socialist-influenced. Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall were, of course, singled out for special condemnation. The Nazi government promoted a ‘true’ German art, continuing in the tradition of German nineteenth-century realistic genre painting, that upheld ‘respectable’ moral values and was easy to understand. Hitler’s inner circle also treasured certain Old Masters whom they regarded as expressing the true Aryan spirit, in particular Rembrandt, Cranach, and Vermeer. Museum directors and curators who refused to cooperate with the new anti-modernist collecting policies were dismissed.

“In 1937, in order to purge German museums of their holdings of “degenerate” art, Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, charged a commission headed by Adolf Ziegler, one of Hitler’s favorite artists, with the seizure of works of German “degenerate” art created since 1910 owned by German state, provincial and municipal museums. Although the primary focus was on German art, the Ziegler commission’s reach soon expanded to encompass non-German artists such as the Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian. The confiscated art was gathered in a huge exhibition in Munich to educate the German people about the “evils” of modern art, and especially its alleged Jewish/Bolshevist influences. Marc Chagall’s Purim, confiscated from the Museum Folkwang in Essen, was one of the paintings selected for this infamous exhibition, entitled “Degenerate Art” (Entartete Kunst), which opened in Munich on July 19, 1937. Exhibition organizers surrounded the paintings and sculpture with mocking graffiti and quotations from Hitler’s speeches, designed to inflame public opinion against this “decadent” avant-garde art. Ironically, the exhibition attracted five times as many visitors (36,000 on one Sunday alone) as the equally large “Great German Art Exhibition” of Nazi-approved art that opened in Munich at the same time….” Philadelphia Museum of Art .

Purim by Marc Chagall.

Read more about the Entartete Kunst and Arts in the Shoah.

**Read more about this remarkable performance wth Josua Bell.