Tuesday, April 26, 2005


After a full English breakfast at Brixton's The Lounge on Sunday, we headed off in the glorious sunshine to the Tate Modern, where the fascinating story of the treatment of modern art in Nazi Germany is being displayed.
"Our patience with all those who have not been able to fall in line is at an end. What you are seeing here are the crippled products of madness, impertinence, and lack of talent. I would need several freight trains to clear our galleries of this rubbish. This will happen soon."

Thus spake Adolf Zieglar, president of the Reich Culture Chamber, in 1937 at the beginning of the Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich, during which some 650 paintings, sculptures, prints and books from the collections of 32 German museums were displayed by the Nazis as examples of "degenerate art".

Artists included Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Emil Nolde (ironically a Nazi), Franz Marc and Pablo Picasso (a major opponent of Fascism). Artistic movements included Dadaism, Cubism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Impressionism and Surrealism. Eventually, the concept of degeneracy led to the confiscation of over 20,000 works of art by over 200 artists.

German artists were branded enemies of the state and many were forced into exile, for example Beckmann to Amsterdam, Ernst to the US, Klee to Switzerland. In 1938, Kirchner committed suicide in Switzerland. Those who remained in Germany had to endure a ban on producing work or working in universities. Many of Jewish descent, of course, eventually ended up in concentration camps.

"Degeneracy" had its roots in the views of such pseudoscientific theorists as Max Nordau, whose 1892 book, Entartung (Degeneration), proclaimed that artists suffered from decayed brains, and that modern art -- from paintings to poetry -- was the product of mental pathology. Impressionism's "painterliness", for example, was the product of a diseased visual cortex.

These writings became the rallying point for the Nazi's theories on the racial purity of art. For the Nazis, only racially "pure" artists could produce racially "pure" art such as Romantic realism. Modern art, with its primitivism and abstractness, was all the more abhorrent because of its racially "impure" creators, and such impure work apparently had a decadent, destablising influence on German society.

At the Entartete Kunst exhibition, examples of degenerate art were crammed onto the walls and surrounded by emblazoned slogans such as "Insolent mockery of the Divine under Centrist rule", "Revelation of the Jewish racial soul", "The ideal - cretin and whore" and "Even museum bigwigs called this the 'art of the German people'".

The show is considered to be the twentieth century's first blockbuster art exhibit, with an estimated attendance of 3 million visitors. It ironically exposed many people to their first viewing of prime examples of modern art.

This tiny exhibition at the Tate is well worth a visit. Afterwards, we relaxed in the member's lounge upstairs and tried to read the Sunday papers in the midst of bickering couples and playful children, before taking a boat back along the choppy Thames to Pimlico.

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