London 1938

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Reich minister Goebbels at the exhibition 'Degenerate Art'

“We will from now on lead an unrelenting war of purification...against the last elements which have displaced our Art.” With these words mirroring his views on race, Adolf Hitler opened his exhibition Entartete Kunst or Degenerate Art in Munich in 1937. This was the centrepiece of his campaign against modernism, a movement which he loathed and regarded as undermining the Aryan values central to Nazi ideology.

The following year, in response, New Burlington Galleries in central London defended and celebrated German modernism with an exhibition, 20th century German Art, which remains the largest of its kind ever shown in the UK.

The Wiener Library in Russell Square has put on a small exhibition which contains a wealth of information, images and documents from the time. There are only a handful of paintings and drawings, including Kandinsky, Grosz and Max Liebermann, but there’s more than enough to whet your appetite to find out more about these two major events from 80 years ago.

Hitler seized around 16,000 works of art by a huge range of modernist painters and sculptors from German galleries. This included work by leading artists such as Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky, Nolde and Marc. These artworks were later to be auctioned off, the money going straight into Nazi coffers. It seems German galleries are yet to recover from this severe depletion.

From this removal, work by 112 artists was selected for Degenerate Art and displayed in a manner intended to provoke ridicule and contempt from the viewing public. Paintings were presented slapdash, unframed and crowded together with graffiti on the walls deriding them, for example, “Nature as seen by sick minds” and “An insult to German womanhood”.

Although Jews were perceived to be at the heart of the modernist project, only six of the 112 artists were Jewish. But no matter, for Hitler and Goebbels, the terms Jewish, Bolshevik and insane were interchangeable in their application to modernism.

Emil Nolde, a leading expressionist painter, regarded himself as the very embodiment of true German art. A virulent antisemite who shared the Nazi blood and soil ideology, he joined the party in 1921 and remained a loyal fascist. His reward was to be the most prominently displayed “degenerate”, forbidden ever to paint in oils again.

At the same time as Degenerate Art, Hitler organised an exhibition nearby which celebrated “great German art” in all its cold, monumental glory. Intended to show the German people the true path, it attracted less than a third of the visitors of its twin.

The Wiener Library rightly focuses on the New Burlington exhibition in 1938, which was the largest international response to Degenerate Art. Over 300 works by more than 60 artists featured in a fantastically popular exhibition which had to be extended three times.

You get a clear idea of the huge amount of collaborative work, particularly among the exiled and emigre Jewish community, needed to put on the exhibition at all. It provoked fury among the Nazis. A headline in the German press said “Progress in Bolshevik Art — Degenerate Exhibition in London — half of them of course Jews and emigrants”.

This small free exhibition rewards even a quick visit. Pop in while you’re at Marxism Festival. It is a testimony to the power of art.