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Exhibition of Nazi-sanctioned art from 1940
Nazi art was largely mundaneImage: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, Photothek

Nazi Art

October 31, 2011

The art of the Third Reich was meant to be viewed as classic and superior in taste. But newly found photographs of art exhibitions show just how banal Nazi art really was.


The bizarre, the distorted and the abstract - that's what one might expect to find in an exhibition of art idealized by the Nazis.

No such luck: works by masters of modern art such as Otto Dix, Ernst Barlach, Franz Marc, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff or Oskar Schlemmer were denounced as "degenerate" and removed from museums shortly after the National Socialists came to power.

Ivo Saliger's 'Diana's Rest' and 'Judgement of Paris'
Unlike Hitler, artist Ivo Saliger was admitted to the Art Academy in ViennaImage: picture-alliance/ZB

As the notorious exhibition "Degenerate Art" opened in Munich in July 1937 - featuring these very artists -, the Haus der deutschen Kunst (House of German Art) premiered the first Grand German Art Exhibition, which according to the catalogue could only contain "the most accomplished, exquisite and best works that German art could possibly achieve."

Coincidental discovery

Up until 1944, art exhibitions produced by the National Socialists were photographically documented in exact detail. But the surviving collection of photographs fell into obscurity after the war and remained hidden for decades in the archives of Central Institute for Art History (ZIK) in Munich.

"Their existence was unknown, nobody thought it possible that photographic documentation of this sort could exist," said Christian Fuhrmeister from the ZIK. "It was only after 2004 that we rediscovered the albums."

Fuhrmeister and his colleagues quickly established that the photographs documented the "Grand German Art Exhibition" of 1937 and had the idea to begin a research project and archive the photographs on the Web.

The subject of how to deal with Nazi art has long been taboo in Germany, and the new online database is no exception.

"Whoever uses the database steps into the poison cabinet of art history containing toxic substances which come from the archives of the German Historical Museum and the Haus der Kunst," wrote one critic earlier this month in Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

But the new director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Okwui Enwezor, defended the project as a necessary part of dealing with Germany's difficult history. "We want to kick-start the process of correcting the view of Nazi art in order to see it for what it truly is - which, for the most part, is totally mundane," he said.

Adolf Wissel's
Adolf Wissel's "Kahlenberger Farmer Family" from 1939Image: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Heroes and still lifes

Even today, the pretentious sculptures of heroic men and women by Arno Breker are still classed as the epitome of the National Socialist aesthetic - along with many other paintings, drawings and prints which aggrandize Nazi ideology. After the beginning of the Second World War, visitors to the exhibition could also view pictures of marching or fighting soldiers, said Christian Fuhrmeister.

"Such works existed, but they were 10 to 30 pictures from 1800. Essentially, all genres were represented that would appeal to bourgeois and petit-bourgeois tastes which had dominated since the late 19th century," he explained. That included landscapes, still lifes or pictures of animals.

In addition, said Fuhrmeister, one could find in the vast exhibition rooms countless display cabinets containing applied arts and craft pieces, small figurines, porcelain models of children's heads and German shepherd dogs and other objects which are nowadays dismissed as knick-knacks or mere kitsch.

The exhibited works were also for sale, but not a lot was left over for the general public to buy. Elite officials bought the majority of works. Hitler himself was the biggest buyer, spending some seven million German marks to purchase contemporary works exhibited in the show.

It is not surprising that this type of art impressed Hitler so much - after all, it reflected his own limited self-conception of artistic ideals.

A crowded exhibition room in 1940
A crowded exhibition room in 1940Image: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, Photothek

Dealing with Nazi art

The albums documenting the "Grand German Art Exhibition" make one thing very clear: It was not the young German muscle-bound men or buxom blond women with blue eyes which dominated the art exhibition, but the countless grotesquely banal, even Biedermeier-style works.

Hitler's concept of "beautiful" art reveals itself to be regressive, petit-bourgeois and in bad taste.

At the same time, the newly published photographs of the exhibitions raise new questions for Christian Fuhrmeister in relation to the appraisal of Nazi art: Can a landscape painting be political? Or how can a cosy, homeland scene be distinguished from one depicting a Blood and Soil ideology?

The research project and online archive deliver the impetus to find new answers to these questions.

Author: Klaus Gehrke / Helen Whittle

Editor: Kate Bowen

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