Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Entartete Kunst by Chris Hall

Program for the "Degenerate Art" Exhibition in 1937.

The Entartete Kunst exhibition has held between 19 July to 30 November 1937 in Munich, Germany.  It was organized by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, as part of their culture programming.  The exhibit was meant to educate the public as to what kind of art would be approved, or in this case, not approved in Nazi Germany.  Also in Munich, coinciding with Entartete Kunst, was The Great German Art Exhibition.  It was a showcase for art approved by the Reich.

Images from Entartete Kunst.  Click image for more more information.

Of the 5,238 works confiscated from German museums, 650 were selected for the Entartete Kunst exhibit.  The work was specially selected to reflect what the Nazis thought were works demonstrating decadence, weakness of character, mental disease, and racial impurity.  The day before the exhibit opened Hitler delivered a speech where he declared “merciless war” on cultural disintegration.  Over two million people visited Entartete Kunst, an average of 20,000 people a day, making the exhibit the world’s first blockbuster art show.  For whatever its worth, The Great German Art Exhibition proved to be less popular with the public, if attendance is a factor.

Nazi approved art from the Great German Art Exhibition.  Click to enlarge.

112 artists were chosen for Entartete Kunst, including works by Marc Chagall, Georg Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, and Emil Nolde.  After the exhibition, more art was confiscated.  Many of these works were sold off to foreign collectors, while as many as 5,000 works of art were burned on 20 March, 1939.  

Nazis burning art and literature.

Kirchner and Nolde by Chris Hall

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self Portrait as Soldier, 1917

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a founding member of the German Expressionist group Die Brucke (The Bridge).  Kirchner and many of his compatriots sensed the tension in air of pre World War One Germany, and they reflected it in their work.  When war broke out, Kirchner, fearing being drafted into infantry, decided to enlist as an artillery driver.  During the war he suffered a nervous breakdown and was put into a hospital.  The post war years were likewise unkind to him, and he became depressed with the growth of Nazism and the condemnation of his work.  639 works of his was confiscated from German museums and galleries.  Many were shown in the Entartete Kunst exhibit of 1937 and were subsequently sold off or destroyed.  In 1938 Kirchner shot himself in a cabin outside Davos.  

More work by Kirchner.  Click to enlarge.

Emil Nolde

Emil Nolde, Still Life With Carved Wooden Figure, 1911

Emil Nolde, another Die Brucke painter, had a better fate.  He managed to sit out World War One and his work met with success in the 1920’s.  Nolde joined the Nazi Party in 1920, shortly after Hitler.  Despite his support of the party, from 1935 on his work began to be confiscated from German museums, with 1,052 works removed in 1937 alone.  Nolde’s work was featured prominently in the Entartete Kunst exhibit, with 29 pieces, more than any other artist in the show.  In 1941 Nolde was told he was not allowed to paint anymore, even in private.  Despite the order, Nolde continued to paint in private, mostly watercolors on scrap pieces of paper.  He called these works his “Unpainted Pictures.”

More work by Emil Nolde.  Click to enlarge.

I was heavily influenced by both of these artists early on.  I liked their use of color and their championing of subjective expression.  I also empathized with their stories.  In Kirchner’s case, I related to his sensitivity to the environment, and in Nolde’s case, I liked that he felt compelled to paint, despite the risks involved in defying the Nazi government.