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.
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.
Lectures by Donna Leishman