Before Hitler started killing people, he tried to kill modern art. In the first decades of the 20th century, radical new art flourished in Germany; established museums collected and exhibited contemporary works of notable artists, such as Paul Klee, Henry Matisse, Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and other modern masters.
The Nazi-sponsored “Degenerate Art Exhibition (Entartete Kunst)” that took place in Munich in 1937 showed approximately 700 of those modern works, seized from German museums and art galleries. This exhibition purported to demonstrate that modernist tendencies, such as abstraction and expressionism, are the result of genetic inferiority and society’s moral decline.
Explicit parallels were drawn between modernism and mental illness. Paintings by Jews were juxtaposed to large photographs of people with mental diseases. All artworks were exhibited in this defamatory show in order to “educate” the German public in the “art of decay,” according to Nazi aesthetics.
An exhibition with the not so subtle title “Great German Art” ran parallel as a counterpoint to the “Degenerate” one. Inaugurated by the Fuehrer himself, its sole objective was exalting Germany, Germans and their values of Aryan racial purity, militarism and love of country. Open only to German artists, the themes required “classic” 19th century-type art that Hitler liked so much, including landscapes, tall, blonde, blue-eyed military personnel, and to a lesser extent, animals and still lifes. Both exhibitions attracted 2.5 million visitors — 2 million to the “Degenerate” and half a million to the “Great German.”
Hitler was not the first to censor the arts. History gives previous examples of such action. For example, the Spanish painter Goya’s (1746-1828) depiction of “The Nude Maja” (oil on canvas, c.1800) — a large painting of a naked woman, pubic hair and all, in bed — was considered obscene, and was confiscated by the Spanish Inquisition in 1813. (His other, identical version of the painting, plus clothes, “The Clothed Maja” (c.1803) was also confiscated, just in case.) Some art critics accused the French Impressionists of producing immoral art — without explaining why that was the case — when they first exhibited their work in late 19th-century Paris. And the list goes on.
In the case of the “Degenerate” exhibition, it is clear that a painting such as “The Rabbi” (1912) by Marc Chagall (Jewish, Russian 1887-1985) would have been considered strongly “un-German” in that period of time. In the painting, a Rabbi is looking directly at the viewer, prayer book in Hebrew open on a table in front of him and a pennant with the Star of David in the background. Granted, it doesn’t get more Semitic than that.
Then again, it is much more difficult to comprehend — from a non-Nazi perspective — why “Composition with Blue,” a geometric abstract painting by Piet Mondrian (Protestant, Dutch, 1872-1944) could lead, as Hitler himself declared, “to the subversion of the culture of a country.” After all, this painting is nothing more than two blue lines, one vertical another horizontal, intersecting in the lower right of a white canvas. Does it look like it’s subversive in any way? No, it doesn’t, outside the Nazi aesthetic rules.
The fact is that censorship has its own logic that logic itself cannot explain. It might make sense to a group of people — the Nazis or prudish Catholic clergy brass during the Spanish Inquisition — but only during a certain period of time. When fanaticism for a cause fades away, so does the need to censor it.
Censorship of the arts impairs the free creativity of artists, minimizing their aesthetic freedom to create art with social or religious implications, or just “art for art’s sake.” The “Degenerate” exhibition serves as a warning against all prejudice and bigotry in art. A few retrospective shows have been dedicated to it during the past years (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991; the Neue Gallery, New York, 2014) — warning of the censorship menace to art in particular and freedom in general.
Now, New York’s Museum of Modern Art — in a curatorial coup — maintains an abridged virtual “Degenerate” exhibition on an ongoing basis, making it possible to be seen anytime from anywhere, and keeping in the process, the flame of artistic freedom and anti-censorship always ignited.
To see it, go online to the MoMA website, www.moma.org.