‘Degenerate' German Art and the Russian Connection

Dr Peter Lowe examines the real and fabricated cross-cultural dialogue behind the art banned by the Nazis

Pictures at the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich, 1937

Pictures at the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich, 1937

Names and labels are important. The Wiener Library reminds us of this in its current exhibition remembering the display of 20th-century German art that was held in London over the summer months of 1938. With more than 300 works included, this was an opportunity for British visitors to engage with developments in the European art world. The greater significance of the exhibition, though, lies in the fact that the artists whose work was admired in London were those cited by the Nazi regime as examples of ‘degeneracy’. Their works had been removed from German museums and in some cases destroyed while they were subjected to personal attacks resulting, in several cases, in the decision to leave the country to avoid further humiliation or danger. By proudly showcasing the work of 62 artists that had been labeled ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, the 1938 London exhibition deserves to be remembered as a stand against prejudice and persecution.  

To put the London exhibition in context, as the Wiener’s display so usefully does, we must go back to the summer of 1937 when the state-sponsored exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’ opened in Munich. This allowed the Nazi regime to display the works that it judged unfit for the public in such a way as to foreground their offensive nature and lead visitors to concur with the state’s assessment of their faults. The exhibition, which later toured other German cities, was free to enter (no one could be asked to pay for such an experience, the Nazis argued) and designed to be seen alongside the inaugural exhibition of ‘official’ German art that was taking place in the vast galleries of Munich’s new neoclassical House of German Art.

Once inside the ‘degenerate’ exhibition, held in the cramped rooms of the University’s Archaeological Institute, visitors were encouraged to marvel at the ‘insanity’ both of those who would produce such artworks and those who could be duped into praising them. In a case of manipulation worthy of our own ‘alternative fact’-based media, artworks were often displayed with their price-tags showing values in the hyper-inflated Weimar-era currency in order to secure maximum outrage from the German public at the money that museums had ‘wasted’ on such things.

By outlining the Nazi cultural policies that formulated the state’s twisted ideas of order and style the Wiener Library enables the visitor to see why the bold experiments of artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emile Nolde, and Max Liebermann were judged ‘unacceptable’. This was not, however, a purely artistic assessment. The application of the term ‘degenerate’ enabled the Nazis to suggest a direct link between artistic work and the artist’s social and ethnic suitability for a place in the German state.

From there, it was a short step to connect the artists and their work with a network of museum directors, critics, and dealers who could be seen as subversive elements in the German community. Tragically, the fact that many practitioners and patrons in the German art world were of Jewish origin enabled the Nazis to argue that modern art was a fraud perpetrated on the German people by ‘alien’ elements. It was a cosmopolitan conspiracy, made and sold everywhere from Paris to Moscow and, as such, it owed nothing to the twisted ideas of racial, nationalist culture the Nazi regime wished to promote.


"The inclusion of works by Kandinsky attests to a process of exchange dating back before the First World War"


Although the two may seem to have little in common, Nazi propaganda made sure that Communism was seen as a correlative to artistic ‘degeneracy’. Thus, when faced with a London exhibition that attracted praise for the works on show, the Nazi-run Völkischer Beobachter saw this as proof that the British had been duped by “Judaism and Moscow” into aesthetic judgments that had no place in the German Reich. The inclusion of ‘Moscow’ here reminds us that by this point Nazi art criticism was not only positioned against the ‘Jewish’ artistic community but needed to see that community as being in league with the other tangible threat from which it was claimed that Germany needed defending – the ‘Bolshevist’ menace in the East. Using the convenient catch-all term Kulturbolschewismus (‘Cultural Bolshevism’), Nazi art critics saw modern art as a plot hatched on two fronts, both designed to undermine Germany’s racial and political purity.

Like the many lies of Nazi propaganda, the linking of Judaism and Bolshevism enabled the regime to see coordinated threats everywhere while relying on a conditioned populace not to think at length about whether the link was real. Had they probed more deeply into the Soviet artistic sphere they would have found that by the late-1930s the state’s policy was firmly behind the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’ that renounced ‘formalist’ experimentation in favour of a monumental depiction of ‘reality’ as it was in the USSR, or as the Party believed it would soon be. A regime that was prioritising monumental images of collective farm workers, factory personnel, and the cadres of its senior leadership all depicted with the emphasis on their being ‘life-like’ had no more time for the innovations of modern art than the Nazi Reich did. German attempts to link modern art with Moscow were by 1938 founded less in reality than in a desire to focus prejudices on perceived ‘threats’ to future German greatness.

The irony is that there had been a time when German artists had enjoyed creative dialogue with their Russian peers, and the evidence of some of those interactions was to be found in the works singled out for attack in the late-1930s. The inclusion of eight works by Wassily Kandinsky in the London exhibition attests to a process of exchange dating back before the First World War, when the young Russian had made his home in Munich and, working with Franz Marc and others in the ‘Blue Rider’ group, forged a new visual language for the new century.

Blue Horses , 1911, by Franz Marc (1880-1916)

Blue Horses, 1911, by Franz Marc (1880-1916)

Marc’s 1911 painting Blue Horses, which shows the influence of Kandinsky’s experiments with colour, provided the 1938 exhibition with its poster image. Three of the eight works by which Kandinsky was represented in the London exhibition were pre-1914 compositions, capturing on canvas the thrilling process by which he turned his borrowings from Russian folk art into the material for new experiments in colour and form. The outbreak of war had sent Kandinsky back to Russia, but after a spell teaching and working for the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment he had returned to Germany in the 1920s, teaching for some time at the Bauhaus, that creative laboratory for German modernism, before finally leaving for France in 1933.

Kandinsky’s cross-border career was by no means unique. El Lissitzky had exhibited his work in Berlin in 1923, showcasing the architectural designs he had originally proposed while at the People’s Art School in Vitebsk, and his former colleague Kasimir Malevich had visited the Bauhaus in the course of a highly successful exhibition tour of his Suprematist work in Germany in 1926-7. In the early 1920s, with relatively open borders making travel between Berlin and Moscow possible, cultural dialogue had been a defining feature of Russo-German life. In 1937, however, 57 of Kandinsky’s works were seized by the Nazis as part of their purge of German galleries, with 14 of them displayed in the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition that year.

Untitled Improvisation III , 1914, by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Untitled Improvisation III, 1914, by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Sadly, the high point of Russo-German cultural exchange had passed long before the Nazi regime decided that ‘Bolshevism’ was the enemy. Modern art fell from favour in the USSR as swiftly as in Germany, although whereas Hitler’s regime promoted its imperial pretensions through a revived classicism indebted to Greece and Rome, the Stalinist state reverted to a monumentalised version of the 19th century Realist tradition. In both cases, though, the bold Expressionist colours and abstractions of early-20th century art could only be seen as threatening in their exuberance and presented only as the ‘tricks’ that the state’s enemies wished to play on the populace. In suggesting that these ‘degenerate’ works had backing in Moscow the Nazis further deceived a populace already overwhelmed by years of manipulation, for they would have been no more welcome there than they had received in Munich. Happily, they were able to find an audience in London, and in doing so could rebut the lies spread about their ‘degeneracy’ and that of their creators.  

The Wiener Library’s excellent exhibition reminds us that there was indeed a Russian element in the world of Modern German Art, but it was not the state-sponsored subversion against which the German public was warned to be on guard. Rather, it was something mutually loathed by both the Nazi and Soviet regimes – a process of cultural exchange, not ideological confrontation. Fittingly, then, the London exhibition of 1938, as this thoughtful display shows, highlighted not the ‘degeneracy’ of the art but the innovation and daring that neither fascism nor communism could wholly subdue.

‘London 1938: Defending Degenerate German Art’ is at the Wiener Library, Russell Square, until 14th September. For more information, see www.wienerlibrary.co.uk/London-1938


Dr Peter Lowe teaches classes in English Literature at the Bader International Study Centre, East Sussex. His interests are in the culture and history of the early 20th century in Russia and in western Europe, and he is currently researching the nature and uses of 'nostalgia' in the early Soviet period

Pushkin House Team