top of page
  • Writer's pictureRossella BLUE Mocerino

Art under Nazism and Why Art Matters

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

This recent cover of the the New Yorker clearly depicts people at an art opening too involved in talking to each other about the shocking state of our country to pay any attention to the artist and art displayed on the walls. Many people think of art as superfluous anyway, a luxury to be enjoyed by the well to do, a flourish but not relevant to our lives. And yet art matters. Art matters deeply. I want to talk today about what happened to art, artists and art collectors during Nazism. I hope you will afterwards look at art differently and see that there is a lot more to a painting than just a pretty picture.

cover of The New Yorker Magazine Mar. 13, 2017
Cover of The New Yorker Mar. 13, 2017

We all know Hitler went after Jews and other " undesirables" but you may not know that he also declared war on modern art. What he set in place was so massive in scope that today we are still coping with the aftermath of the Nazis unprecedented theft of art in Europe. Practically any artist who was anybody in the art world was labeled degenerate and their works were removed from museums. Artists themselves were forbidden to work and exhibit their work. Of course if you were an artist and Jewish, the consequences were much more severe. At the same time these works of art were publicly mocked, the Nazis went about looting from Germany and all the other occupied countries. Jewish collectors were specifically targeted for their collections. What followed was a human tragedy of immense proportions.

painting by Otto Dix
Otto Dix, Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons

Avant-garde German artists were branded by the Nazis as both enemies of the state and a threat to German culture. Many went into exile. Other artists remained in internal exile. Otto Dix retreated to the countryside to paint unpeopled landscapes in a meticulous style that would not provoke the authorities.

painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Girl with Striped Dress

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a German expressionist painter and printmaker. In 1933, his work was branded as "degenerate" by the Nazis and in 1937, over 600 of his works were sold or destroyed. In 1938, he committed suicide by gunshot.

painting by Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky, Color Study, Squares with Concentric Circles

Russian born artist Wassily Kandinsky was scorned by both the Soviet and Nazi regimes. He left Germany when the Nazis closed down the school where he taught. He died in Paris. He is now known as the father of abstract painting.

painting by Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait with Trumpet

Max Beckmann left Germany after hundreds of his works were confiscated by the Nazis. This self portrait was painted in exile in Amsterdam. Holland Cotter describes this painting : "Max Beckmann . . . dressed in a red robe striped like a prison uniform and grimly eyeing a trumpet he holds in his hand as if wondering whether to sound it." Beckmann eventually emigrated to New York.

painting by Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall, The Cellist

Although the German press had once praised Marc Chagall's work, the Nazis now made a mockery of Chagall's art, describing it as "green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air ... representing an assault on Western civilization" In fact, very few of the artists who made significant contributions to the German modernist movement were Jewish.

watercolor by Emil Nolde
Watercolor by Emil Nolde

The Nazis forbade artists such as Emil Nolde from purchasing painting materials. Nolde secretly carried on painting, but using only watercolors (so as not to be betrayed by the telltale odor of oils). Despite these strictures, Nolde was a Nazi sympathizer and tried to become a member of the Nazi Party. It did not do him any good. 1,052 of his works were removed from museums, more than those of any other artist.

Art  Matters button
Art Matters button

On July 18,1937, Adolf Hitler opened the first annual Great German Art Exhibition in Munich. Hardly anybody showed up. One day later, another exhibition opened down the block. The show was entitled Degenerate Art. The show included hundreds of Modernist artworks confiscated from German museums at Hitler's request. Over the next four months, more than two million people crowded into the exhibition. #greatgermanartexhibition1937 #munich #DegenerateArt1937

painting by Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt, The Woman in Gold

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer painted by Gustav Klimt was confiscated by the Nazis during WWII. Klimt originally titled the painting as Adele Bloch-Bauer. Nazi soldiers seized the painting from the Bloch-Bauer home as its owners were sent to concentration camps. It was displayed in the early 1940s, removing the name and instead calling it The Woman in Gold so that it could be displayed without referencing a prominent Jewish family.

photo by thea Sternheim of Alfred Flechtheim
Alfred Flechtheim Photo: Thea Sternheim

Alfred Flechtheim was a prominent art dealer, with galleries in Berlin and Dusseldorf, who supported avant-garde artists. He was targeted by the Nazis as a Jew and a promoter of what they considered "Degenerate Art". He fled Germany in May 1933. Died penniless in London four years later at the age of 59.

Painting by Zoran Music
painting by Zoran Music

Zoran Music was a Slovene painter. In 1944, he was arrested by the Nazi forces and a month later was sent to Dachau concentration camp where he made more than 100 sketches of life in the camp, some under extremely difficult circumstances. Liberated by the Americans. He died in Venice at the age of 96. I was lucky enough to see a show of his paintings in Venice. In his paintings, his figures are just a shadow of what they used to be. They are more gone then alive.

Felix Nussbaum,Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card

Felix Nussbaum was a German Jewish painter. From 1940 - 1944 he and his wife lived in hiding. They were arrested, sent to the Mechelen transit camp and given the numbers XXVI/284 and XXVI/285. On August 2 they arrived at Auschwitz, and a week later Felix was murdered at the age of 39. Within one year, the entire Nussbaum family had been murdered. Shown here is a section of a painting. He portrays himself wearing a Jewish star and carrying a Jewish Identity card. His fear is palpable and his existence is outside of normalcy as portrayed by his being separated by a wall from streets with trees and houses.

Peggy Guggenheim with painting
Peggy Guggenheim

The Nazis declared war on Modern Art. Peggy Guggenheim, a Jew, was not afraid. Before leaving Paris, she started buying art directly from the artists. Each day she bought a painting. She then smuggled these 50 paintings out of France by crating them and putting household items such as casseroles, sheets and blankets on top. She herself left Paris two days before Hitler marched into Paris.

painting by Elfriede Lohse-Wachtler
Elfriede Lohse-Wachtler, A female patient. Woman with landscape.

Artist Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler suffered from mental illness throughout her life. On July 31, 1940 she was murdered along with the majority of the other residents at the psychiatric institution Pirna-Sonnenstein as part of the Nazi "euthanasia" program, Action T4. #elfriedelohsewachtler #pirnasonnenstein #nazieuthanasiaprogram #ActionT4

sculpture by Michelangelo. Church of Our Ladt in Bruges
Michelangelo, Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. It was stolen by the Nazis from the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium, in 1944, and stored in the Altaussee salt mine in Austria, where the Monuments Men discovered it. They later returned it to the Church of Our Lady.

painting by Rembrandt, The Night Watch
Rembrandt, The Night Watch

The Night Watch by Rembrandt was removed from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in 1939, at the start of World War II, and stored by the Nazis in a Dutch mountainside tunnel at Maastricht, which served as a Nazi repository. It was discovered by Monuments Man George Stout in 1945, and was eventually returned to the Rijksmuseum.

painting by Max Liebermann
Max Liebermann, Two Riders on a Beach

Since the discovery of the hidden Cornelius Gurlitt art collection, the rightful owners of just five of the works have been found. Depicted here is Two Riders on a Beach by Max Liebermann. It was returned to the heirs of the German-Jewish industrialist and art collector David Friedmann and sold at an auction in June 2015.

So next time someone tells you art is frivolous, you can answer: "My dear friend, art is anything but frivolous."


bottom of page