What is degenerate art’?

Munich’s Haus der Kunst and Hitler’s art legacy

6 minute read
Munich's Haus der Kunst: Founded by Nazis, it now shows art they would have considered degenerate. (Photo by Richard Carreño)
Munich's Haus der Kunst: Founded by Nazis, it now shows art they would have considered degenerate. (Photo by Richard Carreño)

When the Haus der Kunst in Munich, then the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), opened in 1937, it was supposed to house Germany's latest popular art movement. Contemporary German art? Modern German art? Fine art, even?

Far from it. The museum, created and consecrated by the Third Reich's most prominent artist and art critic manqué, Adolf Hitler himself, and designed by Paul Ludwig Troost, whose over-the-top Leviathan buildings bested even well-known Nazi city planner Albert Speer for bold paranoia propaganda in granite, was to showcase Hitler's vision of great German art. The result is a building that's an architectural pastiche of clumsy white elephant-ism (think the Franklin Institute) and classical stolidness (30th Street Station, anyone?). In Nazi jargon, just like home. As for the art, the Volk was on you.

What the museum popularized was folk (Volk) art, or people's art, a kind of Romantic Realism that idealized racial purity, militarism, obedience to the Führer and Fatherland, combined with a National Socialist female variant of kinder, küche, kirche (children, kitchen, church). Imagine, if you will, the Philadelphia Museum of Art crammed with the works of Norman Rockwell and other practitioners in his vein. (Sorry, Norman.)

With the exception of such artists as Hubert Lanzinger (1880-1950) and Adolf Ziegler (1892-1959), do such Nazi favorites such as Sepp Hilz, Gisbert Palmié, Ivo Saliger, Udo Wendel, and Adolf Wissel ring a bell? No, I didn't think so.

Echoes of an ugly era

Not surprisingly, a lot has changed at the Haus der Kunst since the defeat of the Reich in 1945. For one thing, the museum no longer has a permanent collection. Among the featured artists when I was there recently were Ellen Gallagher and Abraham Cruzvillegas, both known for their outré modern works. Of course, Ellen is female. Also American. Also African-American. Cruzvillegas is a Latino from Mexico. (Arrghh! Do I hear Hitler having one of his signature vein-popping fits of apoplexy?)

Otherwise the mammoth two-story building is a Nazi time capsule. It's not hard to imagine the ghosts of Nazi brigands headed by Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister for Public Enlightment and Propaganda, attending in the great hall the inaugural show, the Great German Art Exhibit. The hall's polished marble floor still resonates with the clicking of winter boots. Massive wooden doors fitted with brightly polished brass fittings still clang when closed, reverberating with the kind of jailhouse finality that was always pleasing to Nazi eardrums.

What made the Haus der Kunst special was neither its size nor its mission. The Reich's largest art museum was slated for Lintz, Austria, the Führer's hometown. (A blip in Hitler's career path, his suicide at war's end in Berlin, meant that it never got built.) Nor, given that it was devoted to German art, was the Haus der Kunst ever going to be the Reich's most comprehensive art gallery. (Again, the Lintz venue — to be crammed with artworks purchased, confiscated and stolen from Jewish owners, or looted from museums, churches, and private estates from Italy to the Netherlands — was targeted for that).

What was special was its location: This Bavarian city of 1.5 million was Hitler's true home, albeit his adopted one. It was here that he reached his grand apex as a painter, designing and coloring postcards for tourists. Though his official office was in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, his personal residence, a four-story house (now a police station), wasn't far from the Haus der Kunst on Prinzregentenplatz. The house of his mistress, Eva Braun, was nearby. Moreover, in Nazi annals, Munich was the birthplace of National Socialism, including the revered site of the attempted 1923 putsch that kickstarted their brand of fascism. And who can forget “Peace in Our Time,” the sham Hitler-Chamberlain pact ironed out here? As important as these political touchstones were, though, Munich is the city that defined cultural aesthetics for the art-obsessed Nazi leadership.

Second only to Hitler as an art kleptomaniac was Hermann Goering, who systematically arranged to have stolen and looted art returned to the Reich to enrich himself and his cronies. In Nazi eyes, there were two forms of art — that which conformed to their sanctioned aesthetic, and everything else, which they categorized as “degenerate.” This art largely involved anything that was modernistic, expressionistic, or created by racially “impure” artists — most of whom, inevitably, were Jews. Today's giants — Picasso, Mondrian, Klee, Chagall, and Kandinsky (who was a member of the nascent Munich-based Blue Rider movement) were given the heave-ho.

But Goebbels, who regulated the country's art mores, and his henchmen were also practical. Any art they deemed unacceptable wasn't destroyed, but rather sold overseas through Swiss intermediaries.

"Thus Did Sick Minds View Nature"

As in many things, fantacism gripped the Nazi ethic. For example, to demonstrate the “debasing” quality of degenerate art, the Nazis staged an exhibit of non-sanctioned art that coincided with the opening of the Great German Art show at Haus der Kunst. The alternative exhibit was curated by the artist Adolf Ziegler, who served Hitler in a dual capacity. Labels attached to the purged art (“Thus Did Sick Minds View Nature”; “Peasants Depicted in the Yiddish Manner”) drove the point home. Another heavy-handed tactic: Pictures by mentally ill patients were shown in conjunction, implying that all paintings exhibited similar “degenerate” traits.

Ziegler got his comeuppance, however. Overall attendance at the alternative show was greater than that at the Haus der Kunst. Hitler was not pleased.

Even more than 75 years after the exhibit, the impact of the “degenerate” art show still resonates. In fact, given the discovery here late last year of a cache of stolen Nazi art, which ignited an international firestorm over Germany's commitment to its return to rightful owners, the timing couldn't be better. Coincidentally, the topic is now getting even greater worldwide attention thanks to The Monuments Men, a film in distribution currently.

In addition, the Neue Galerie in New York is recognizing the Nazis' failed purge in a show, Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937, that runs until June 30. Hitler's favorite painting, Ziegler's Four Elements (which hung in the library of his home), will be there, on loan from Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne. That world-class museum also houses Georges Braque, Max Beckmann, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Picasso, and scores of others on the Nazis' long, twisted enemies list who now live on forever. Fortunately, as fate would have it, Ziegler and Hitler, both possessed of delusional visions of a thousand-year Reich, only got twelve.

For Robert Zaller's review of the Degenerate Art exhibit, please click here.

(above right: Adolph Ziegler (German, 1892-1959). The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air (Die vier Elemente. Feuer, Wasser und Erde, Luft), before 1937. Oil on canvas. Three panels, left to right: 170.3 x 85.2 cm, 171 x 190.8 cm, and 161.3 x 76.7 cm. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Sammlung Moderner Kunst in der Pinakothek der Moderne)

What, When, Where

Haus der Kunst, Prinzregentenstraße 1, Munich, Germany.

Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937: Through June 30, 2104 at Neue Galerie New York, Museum for German and Austrian Art, 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028. 212-628-6200 or

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