Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany

Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany exhibition at the Neue Galerie

Last weekend I had a chance to attend the Neue gallery in New York City to see their latest exhibition. The museum which resides on the corner of 86th and fifth avenue is a relatively new museum devoted to German and Austrian art. It’s small size and divine Viennese cafe makes this little New York gem a must see in New York City.

My husband groaned when I insisted we had to go to the exhibition, but knowing he is a World War two buff, I drew him in with promises of rich European history and neither one of us were disappointed.

History of  The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany

Under Nazi regime, modern art also came under attack and hundreds of artworks were rounded up and deemed unacceptable under the perverse Nazi standards.  Although only about 6 of the over 100 artists declared “degenerate” were actually Jewish, the Jews were blamed for the contagion in the society. Art was seized by the government out of galleries and museums and some artists, such as Emil Nolde, were forbidden to paint.

Germans attending the “Degenerate Art”
Still from the silent footage of the “Degenerate Art” 
exhibition in Munich, taken in 1937 by the American 
filmmaker Julien Bryan. The excerpt, part of a longer film, 
is featured at the Neue Galerie.

No such thing as negative publicity

The art in this exhibition was part of the traveling show that the Nazis had put together to ridicule the art. Whether derided or not, this art show was the most popular of its day and attracted millions  of visitors. Little is known of the public reaction to the art since the public record were wiped clean of anti-government sentiments. However, one wonders if perhaps the “negative” publicity given to this art show actually increased the popularity of the abstract expressionists work and developed a taste for this art that may not have preciously existed.


German versus Degenerate art | Neue Gallerie exhibit
“German” versus “degenerate” art  

Adolf Hitler opened the “Great German Art Exhibition” 
in Munich on July 18, 1937. The Third Reich was presenting 
its official art in a new building constructed for that purpose, 
which was referred to as the “Temple of Art”.  At the Neue
Gallerie, the curators constrasted the official German triptych
with a triptych from the Degenrate art show.

Art deemed acceptable by Hitler

In addition to the art that was part of the “degenerate Art” of 1937, the Neue gallery also shows us an example of art revered by Hitler.  Adolf Ziegler’s triptych The Four Elements: Fire, Earth and Water, Air (1937) was part of Hitler’s personal collection and depicts aryan classical beauty in the form of four naked German woman. Ziegler was also known as the master of German pubic hair for his neoclassical and realistic attention to these parts. In addition to mounting the “Degenerate Art” show, the Germans also curated a show of “German Art” which was poorly attended.


Oriental Poppies, watercolor by Emil Nolde 1930's
Oriental Poppies, watercolor by Emil Nolde 1930’s

Secret Watercolors

Emil Nolde, although initially a Nazi sympathizer, was not immune to their attack on modern art. Working in the abstract expressionist style, Nolde was forbidden to paint during this time and the affect on his career was devastating. In order to paint in secret, he switched from the fragrant oil paints to scentless watercolors and made small watercolors which he later developed into large scale works after the war. These watercolors were amongst my favorites in the exhibition.


watercolor by Emil Nolde
watercolor by Emil Nolde

Nolde Watercolors

As usual, as I write this blog post I am cursing myself for not buying a book of Nolde watercolors from the gift shop. Naively, I thought I could just download the pictures I want for this blog thinking that I could find my favorites online. However, art is so subjective, that you quickly learn that your favorites are not everyone else’s. So, although I have found some examples of great Nolde watercolors to present here, they may not necessarily be the ones included in the exhibition. By the way, photography is forbidden in this gallery and the matronly guard had already reprimanded me for carrying around an oversized “purse” which was not really a purse, but my art journal book and camera shoved in a bag and then shoved in my purse.

Exhibition Installation: "Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937" at the Neue Gallerie
Lost paintings, lost lives

The gallery hung empty frames and “ghosts” where paintings 
belong to symbolize paintings lost and destroyed during the war.

Sober Reminders

Lest we forget the evils of this period, a large photo mural of Jewish people arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 is mounted in the gallery’s narrow hallway. For although many of the paintings and the reputations are recovered, the lost lives can never be…




Want to see this show? 

Neue Galerie New York is located at 1048 Fifth Avenue (at 86th Street). The museum is open every day except Tuesday and Wednesday. Although the regular admission is $20, you can take advantage of free Fridays from 6-8 on the first Friday of each month. This exhibit closes on September 1, 2014. Don’t forget to visit the Cafe Sabarsky while you are there for desserts from the masters.

If you are in the New York area this summer, you should also check out my blog post on 6 FREE NYC Summer Art Adventures

1 thought on “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany”

  1. This exhibition sounds wonderful. A cultural vehicle for exploring that deplorable period of history. It's so fascinating that the 'banned' art received a larger audience at the time. If there wasn't an ocean between me and New York I would be right there! Thank you for sharing this, and the cafe sounds mouth-wateringly good!


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I’m Miriam Schulman, your curator of inspiration.

I inspire art-lovers to reconnect with their creativity and profit from their art. Whether you paint simply for the joy of it or you’re serious about selling your work, and you’re ready to stop putting yourself on the back burner...You're in the right place. I've done it and I can inspire YOU how to do it too.

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