Filth for Filth’s Sake

It is not the mission of art to wallow in filth for filth’s sake, to paint the human being only in a state of putrefaction, to draw cretins as symbols of motherhood, or to present deformed idiots as representatives of manly strength.

So declared Adolf Hitler in 1935, leaving no uncertainty over his views on much of modern art. Many German and Austrian artists at the time were trying to express their own views of the world and their anger and despair towards society following the horrors of the First World War, yet Hitler saw only intolerable statements undermining his vision of a perfect German society.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, A Group of Artists: Mueller, Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, c. 1926-1927. Oil on canvas, 168 x 126 cm. Museum Ludwig, Cologne.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, A Group of Artists: Mueller, Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, c. 1926-1927.
Oil on canvas, 168 x 126 cm.
Museum Ludwig, Cologne.

In 1937, the Degenerate Art show opened in Munich. The National Socialist regime had seized hundreds of artworks which they considered ‘filthy’ and put them all on display, aiming to exhibit for the public exactly the kind of art that they should be wary of. Whether they agreed with Hitler’s condemnations of modern art or not, the public visited in their hordes. Many of the artists displayed here, and all over Austria and Germany as the show travelled over the next three years, are today some of the nations’ best known and most well loved.  They include Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, Paul Klee, and Oskar Kokoschka.

Oskar Kokoschka, Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist, 1937. Oil on canvas, 110 x 85 cm. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.
Oskar Kokoschka, Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist, 1937.
Oil on canvas, 110 x 85 cm.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

The idea of art censorship is one that seems very black and white for us today. Of course, this particular example is an extreme one, but what do you think? Do you think there is ever reason for a government to ban certain art, or do you think people should be able to display whatever they want? The kind of art that Hitler preferred certainly gives us an idea of the mundane style that results from stomping down on creativity… this is a painting by Hitler’s favourite painter:

Adolf Ziegler, The Four Elements: Fire, Earth and Water, Air, 1937. Oil on canvas. Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich.
Adolf Ziegler, The Four Elements: Fire, Earth and Water, Air, 1937.
Oil on canvas.
Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich.

Though the Neue Galerie in New York is dedicated solely to German and Austrian art, this is the first time that it has created an exhibition dealing specifically with the Nazi period. Hurry along to see Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 until  30 June 2014. If you’d like to read more about some of the artists in the exhibition, check out Ashley Bassie’s Expressionism or Klaus Carl’s Kirchner.

G.A.

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