80 years on: Defending ‘degenerate’ art from Nazi Germany’s campaign

Hitler visiting the degenerate art exhibition in munich, 1937. (picture: The Wiener Library)

Hitler visiting the degenerate art exhibition in munich, 1937. (picture: The Wiener Library) - Credit: The Wiener Library

The Wiener Library explores Nazi Germany’s suppression of ‘degenerate’ artists and stories of displaced Jews arriving before the war.

max slevogt, der panther, 1931. (picture: The Wiener Library)

max slevogt, der panther, 1931. (picture: The Wiener Library) - Credit: The Wiener Library

Eighty years ago the Britain rejected Nazi Germany’s campaign against ‘degenerate’ art with a groundbreaking London exhibition. In 1938, the New Burlington Galleries displayed a selection of German modern art in its defence – a direct response to the degenerate art exhibition staged by the Nazis in Munich in 1937.

Although many of the artworks were innoffensive landscapes or abstract modern pieces, they were described as ‘sick’ and ‘insulting’ by the Nazis. The Munich exhibition displayed works by artists including Ernest Ludwig Kirchner, with labels such as “an insult to German womanhood” and “nature as seen by sick minds.”

To explore the topic, the Wiener Library is presenting a selection of archival items from its collections alongside artworks that featured in the original exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1938. The first half of the exhibition explores the history and context of the degenerate art campaign while the latter section features original painting and reproductions from the London 1938 exhibition.

“I think that this topic is important as it reveals the virtually unknown history of the largest international response to the Nazis’ suppression of so-called degenerate art. The exhibition in London at the New Burlington Galleries remains the largest ever display in this country of works of modern German art. It also illustrates the contributions that refugees and emigres made to British culture,” says Barbara Warnock, a curator at the Wiener Library exhibition.

The display also includes documents from its archives telling the stories of displaced Jews arriving in Britain before the war. For example, Ernst Nelkenstock, the lender of the Emil Nolde painting Young Academic to the 1938 London exhibition, was a German Jewish lawyer who fled and became a butcher in Swiss Cottage.

“I was fascinated by the catalogue of the Nazi’s degenerate art show, held in Munich in 1937 – we have a copy in our collections. It was put together in order to try and make the artworks look as disturbing and crude as possible. I also found a letter in our collections relating to the looting of art sent by Alfred Rosenberg – who was instrumental in promoting the idea of racially ‘degenerate’ art – to Hitler. Very illuminating,” Warnock adds.

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London 1938: Defending ‘Degenerate’ German Art is a free display at the Wiener Library in London, running 13 June – 14 September.

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