It's an eye-catching work, simply because of its size: The three-part painting "Four Elements" by Adolf Ziegler depicts four naked blonde women, who are said to embody the four elements of fire, water, desire and earth. It hangs in the newly curated permanent exhibition at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, one of Germany's major art museums.
Now, German artist Georg Baselitz has written a letter speaking out against hanging the painting and calling for it to be removed from public display. "The triptych is insulting to its surroundings!" said Baselitz, one of the world's most influential living artists. The letter was first reported qon by German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
"It is shocking that Nazi propaganda is possible in this grubby way in a Munich museum," Baselitz wrote to the general director of the Bavarian State Painting Collections, Bernhard Maaz, and to Bavaria's art minister, Markus Blume. The 84-year-old artist said it was "unbearable" that works by artists who were persecuted by the Nazis hang next to the work of an artist responsible for their persecution.
Who was Adolf Ziegler?
According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the triptych in the museum is identified as one of the "best-known works of National Socialist art production."
Adolf Ziegler was an important Nazi functionary. From 1936 to 1943, he served as president of the Reich Chamber of Culture. His task was to bring art in Germany into line: Jewish artists and those who created art that did not please the Nazis were banned from working. Their works were labeled "degenerate" and were confiscated or destroyed.
According to Jürgen Kaumkötter, director of the Center for Persecuted Arts in Solingen, it was Adolf Ziegler who organized the major Nazi exhibition "Degenerate Art." Kaumkötter describes the Nazi functionary as one of the main perpetrators in persecuting so-called "degenerate artists."
What was so-called 'degenerate art'?
Adolf Hitler declared art a top priority, having been a painter himself for several years. He liked works of Romanticism with their bucolic depictions of German landscapes. He detested Modern art, on the other hand, including works of surrealism, expressionism and even cubism by the likes of Pablo Picasso.
For the "Degenerate Art" exhibition, which was first shown in Munich in 1937, Ziegler and the National Socialists exhibited 650 modern paintings, graphic works and sculptures confiscated from 32 museums, including the work of important artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Emil Nolde, Lyonel Feininger, Ernst Barlach and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. They exhibited them mockingly and had slogans and derisive comments painted on the walls.
"We see around us these spawns of madness, insolence, incompetence and degeneracy," Adolf Ziegler apparently said at the time. The show, which toured in another 12 cities, was a hit with the public: More than two million people saw the traveling exhibition. It was the most successful show of modern art to date — and marked a turning point in Nazi art policy.
How the Nazis destroyed modern art
Starting in August 1937, the Nazis began to systematically destroy art that did not align with their principles. In total, around 20,000 works by some 1,400 artists were confiscated, stored in a Berlin depot, burned, or auctioned abroad.
Many works works were lost — and remain so today. "Young artists who were just starting their careers are now completely forgotten, unlike the painters who were already well-known at the time," Meike Hoffmann of Freie Universität Berlin told DW in 2017.
How to deal with Nazi art in Germany today?
Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne is the only museum in Germany to show a piece of Nazi art in its permanent exhibition. Yet Kaumkötter stresses that Nazi art should not simply be locked away.
"But the picture must be contextualized very clearly. The visitor must be able to recognize immediately that the work is part of the ideological context of a criminal regime," explained the director of the Center for Persecuted Arts in Solingen. A mere panel with explanatory text is not enough for this, he said.
In his letter, Georg Baselitz, on the other hand, asks why the curators have given the work a place in the permanent exhibition again in the first place.
The museum was recently reorganized under the motto "Mix'n'Match" to highlight content "that is of increasing relevance to 21st century society — such as social cohesion, migration movements, new forms of work, or environmental issues," as the museum's website says.
Baselitz cannot understand to what extent this applies to Adolf Ziegler. "Ziegler destroyed art and artists. He does not belong in the room of his victims," Baselitz wrote, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
The Pinakothek reacts
Collection director Bernhard Maaz and curator Oliver Kase rejected the accusation of the propagandistic effect of the painting, although it was a popular motif on postcards during the Nazi era and Adolf Hitler had hung the painting in his party's headquarters in Munich.
Critically examining Nazi art is an important task of art museums, they told German news agency dpa. They argued for a "historically objective engagement with Nazi art beyond moralizing accusations." Yet they did not explain to dpa how presenting the artwork in the permanent exhibition would enable a critical analysis or what an "objective engagement" with the work would look like in concrete terms.
Art expert Jürgen Kaumkötter voiced clear criticism in an interview with the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung newspaper: "I think this is highly problematic. You can't make such art acceptable."
This article was translated from German.