Art, freedom and creativity will change society faster than politics. – Victor Pinchuk
Perhaps not many are aware that Adolf Hitler was an artist. He started painting at a young age and created over one hundred (some estimate anywhere between 400 and 600) works of art throughout his life, including during World War I in which he served.
He spoke of Greco Roman classicism and the Italian Renaissance as some of the movements that influenced his style, and his life goal was to study art in Vienna. Unfortunately, Hitler was rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna not once, but two years in a row as a struggling young artist. Many art critics of that day and now have commented that he was technically skilled but lacked imagination and innovation. According to his biographer Volker Ullrich in Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, his artworks were largely derivative and his drawing skills were “unsatisfactory” for the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. He was described as a “grim painter.”
What more people might not be aware of is that Adolf Hitler was, from the rise of his power to the height of his dictatorship, also a ruthless censor of art.
Art Censorship in Nazi Germany
The censorship wasn’t limited to any one form of art. Literature, visual arts, music — nothing survived or could be produced if Hitler didn’t approve of it. Starting in 1933 with the first Nazi book-burning event, the idea of degeneracy and un-German artforms was born and exponentially grew through the ranks.
Hitler divided art, particularly visual arts, between that which was “pure” and promoted the German spirit and that which was supposedly offensive, immoral, lacked any real artistic value, and couldn’t be understood. In 1935, Hitler declared, “We shall discover and encourage artists who are able to impress upon the German people the cultural stamp of the German race.”
According to him, the only true form of art was a more classical style that included idealized pastoral scenes, heroic soldiers, and beautiful female nudes, as well as works that glorified war. Everything else — Surrealism, Dada, Expressionism, Cubism, New Objectivity, Fauvism and all that we know as Modernist art — was considered degenerate art. Hitler could not understand it — could not appreciate it — and thus, it couldn’t exist.
The Degenerate Art Exhibition
The peak of this fight against degenerate artwork was the organization of the infamous “Degenerate Art” Exhibition (Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst”) in July of 1937, held at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hofgarten. 650 works — paintings, sculptures, and prints — were confiscated by Nazis from museums all over Germany and staged in a carefully chosen building that added clear political agenda to the entire event. These artworks were mostly by German and Jewish artists, such as Emile Nolde, Franz Marc, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, Georg Kolbe, Kurt Schwitters, Willi Baumeister, and others, but also included some prominent foreign artists. This is how works of Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, and Piet Mondrian found themselves in the exhibit as well.
All of this “art of decay” was displayed in such a way that emphasized its lesser artistic value to be ridiculed. The works were hung askew, with derogatory graffiti over the walls and slogans that encouraged the visitors to be disgusted by the art they were seeing. Hitler’s main arguments were that this type of art, modern art, was a reflection of racial impurity, mental illness, and moral decline. For the several following years between 1937 and 1939, some staggering 21,000 works of art were purged from the dozens of German state collections.
The defamatory Degenerate Art Exhibition was also a counterpoint to the “Great German Art” Exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich in July of 1937, that was held at the same time to exemplify both artistic currents. The latter was home to the artwork that ticked all the right boxes with Hitler, Nazi-friendly and idealized classical representations.
Art Censorship as a Propaganda Tool
Of course, the purpose of such extreme art censorship was not only to stroke Hitler’s ego. He was a broken man, insecure and riddled with anger. He was likely also consumed with revenge after his dreams of being a professional artist were crushed in his adolescence. His pride was hurt, but he used that hurt to add a layer of cunning to all of the inhumane atrocities during his power.
The art theft and systematic art destruction by the Nazi Party during World War II was also a powerful propaganda tool to glorify the government of Nazi Germany. It served to promote Hitler’s views of purity and socialist ideology, and how one race is superior to all others.
An impressionable young Jewish man, Fritz Lustig, had the opportunity to see the Degenerate Art Exhibition. He was inexperienced and, up until then, unfamiliar with the concept of modern art movements. To him, the dark, gritty staging of the artwork helped shape his views on it and convince him that what he was seeing was indeed the product of depraved minds.
After Lustig fled to the UK, as he matured, experienced more art, and developed his thoughts and tastes, he realized that what was considered degenerate by the Nazi Party wasn’t degenerate at all. It was just avant-garde, new, and different. Unexpected, and modern.
What Hitler attempted to do – and succeeded for a brief time – was to silence voices who could fuel the fires of revolt. The Degenerate Art Exhibition ended up attracting more than one million visitors – three times more than the official show, Great German Art Exhibition.
The Power of Art
Art is not practical. It doesn’t provide food or shelter. It is not utilitarian.
And yet, can you imagine a life without music, literature, dance, drawing, sculpture, or any other form of a creative medium?
As Auguste Rodin once said, the primary purpose of art is “to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.” Art is deeply embedded in who we are as human beings. It helps us understand ourselves — define ourselves and the world around us. It offers us an escape when we need one, comfort and solace that we’re not alone in our suffering, a hope that something better is coming, and strength when we need to persevere.
That is precisely what Hitler attempted to stifle. New art brings new ideas and hope. Different art sparks thinking. Thinking might lead to questioning, and questioning ultimately can cause rebellion.
The artists whose exhibited in the Degenerate Art Exhibition and who were deemed a threat culture mostly fled the country. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was so profoundly affected that he committed suicide a year after hundreds of his paintings were removed from public collections. Others retreated and did their best to by creating art that was Nazi party-approved.
However, there is no doubt that the Degenerate Art Exhibition featured what are now considered some of the greatest works of modern masterpieces. Some of the undestroyed artworks were later sold through art dealers working for the German government. Those surviving works finally made their way to different museums abroad.
Museums all over the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, are dedicated to locating these “degenerate” pieces and identifying the ownership history and provenance for their collection. Art that was once labeled as abnormal, perverse, deserving of nothing but ridicule and scorn, now serves to raise awareness on the futility of censorship and redress the power of creativity. These artworks were intended to strike terror and disdain into artists, only to become the ultimate symbol of why one must continue making art without hesitation or fear, even in the darkest of times.
Because in the end, art, in all of its forms, is unstoppable.