To Flee or Not to Flee?

During the time of Nazi power, Hitlers distaste for modernist art led for him to target specific artists and  who did not conform to his beliefs of what art should look like or portray. Artists work had to be approved by the government and invited to join the Reich Chamber of Culture, but if their work was too satirical or modernist, they were prohibited from buying materials in order to paint, from teaching, and  from exhibiting any of their works. Other artists or designers who the Nazi party approved of were asked to work for them to further publicise their campaigns. If the government didn’t approve of the work that an artists was producing, they had only three options. Either accept that they had to conform the Nazi conditions, prepare for a life that did not involve producing any artwork, or flee the country. As you can imagine, all three of these options would be very difficult to succumb to. Many great artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and George Grosz fled to places such as Switzerland, Paris and America where their work continued to prove very influential to the modernist movement.

hitler art

A piece painted by Adolf Hitler that reflected his non-modernist  tastes.

Many people, myself included, have great respect for these artists. They gave up their whole lives, families, friends and homes in order to preserve their integrity and not bow down to Hitlers small-minded tastes. It is greatly inspirational that these artists, including many others, stood by what they believed in and managed to shake the grasp that the Nazi government held. Left with so few options, this must have proved one of the most difficult decisions to face. It makes you wonder, what if Hitler had allowed for these artists to continue their careers in Germany? How many works of artists did he suppress that could have proved extremely inspirational and important to future movements? And how different would history have been if Hitler had first succeeded as an artist himself?


Lectures By Donna Leishman


Nazi Power and Culture Control

Previous to becoming a politician, Adolf Hitlers dream was to be an artist. After being refused twice from art school for being too architectural in style, he turned to politics and when the Nazi party came into power after the first world war, no one could have expected what was to follow. The controlling nature of Hitler and his party seeped its way into culture and the arts as they tried to brainwash the public into appreciating only traditional and romantic art styles and disregarding all other new and modern art which they named ‘Degenerate’. In order to try to influence the publics opinion of these modern and abstract works, Hitler arranged for two exhibitions of artwork, one of what he perceived as ‘good’ art and one of ‘degenerate’ art. He was very disrespectful to the artists and work of the modern movements as he wanted to portray them as unprofessional. He did so by ordering them to be arranged badly on the wall and be accompanied by handwritten information signs. A room that consisted of only abstract art was named  “The Insanity Room”, amongst other suggestions of biased views. The summer before the exhibition, Hitler Stated “Works of art which cannot be understood in themselves but need some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence will never again find their way to the German people”.
The artworks that Hitler approved of were predominantly paintings that were seen as more traditional in subject and style. These were hung on the gallery walls professionally and neatly, to show that they should be respected and appreciated. This intention to culturally control the public backfired significantly when the ‘Degenerate’ art exhibition was far more popular than the one of classical art.

Queues that filled the streets for the 'Degenerate' art exhibition in 1937

Queues that filled the streets for the ‘Degenerate’ art exhibition in 1937

Throughout the years of 1937 and 1938, Hitlers attempts to culturally cleanse Germany continued when over 16,000 artworks of ‘Degenerate Art’ were removed from German Museums. Artworks were burned, sold for very little or kept to simply ridicule and ‘educate’ Germany as to what was commendable art and what wasn’t. Throughout years since then, many pieces that were seized or sold have been uncovered, the most recent, in Munich which were being hidden in the flat of Cornelius Gurlitt. Gurlitts father was an art collector for Hitler and had collected over 1,500 works by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Paul Klee. Cornelius Gurlitt, now an 80-year-old man, had kept this stash a secret for many years, and when he needed money, would sell some of the lesser known paintings in order to avoid publicity. Discoveries like this prove invaluable to current artists, art critics and art enthusiasts to further their understandings of some of the greatest works of the modernist movement. It is hopeful that more discoveries like this will occur in future years but it is unlikely that we will ever know if all paintings will be recovered.

picaassos Guernica

Replica of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ found in Munich Stash


Lectures by Donna Leishman