Degenerate Art

Hitler and Goebbels visiting the 1937 exhibit, Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), in Munich
  • The lesson explores "degenerate art" (entartete kunst), the term used by the Nazis to describe virtually all modern art. Students learn about the art, the artists who created these works, and the Nazi response to art deemed inappropriate. Students also reflect on the reasons why modern and contemporary art are often misunderstood in their own time.

    Subject Areas

    Visual Arts, Social Studies


    Students Will:
    • Understand the ideas behind the Nazi labeling of contemporary art and artists as "degenerate".
    • Research artists shown in the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, and learn about their works.
    • Discuss why these works were labeled degenerate, and what happened to these artists and their art during the war.
    • Discuss the reasons why people often do not connect with the modern and contemporary art of their own time.
  • Part One: What is Degenerate Art?

    Hitler labeled works of art made in the modern styles of painting (from Impressionism and forward) as degenerate. Begin by looking up the word "degenerate." Shape a class conversation about its meaning. Speculate how the term is applied by Hitler and the Nazis to works made by modern artists.

    Follow the opening discussion with these three clips:
    • Hitler the Artist Defines "Degenerate Art"
    • Video goes here
    • Hitler the Artist Defines "Degenerate Art"
    • Video goes here
    • Hitler the Artist Defines "Degenerate Art"
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  • Questions for Discussion

    Based on the clips, what were some of the reasons Hitler developed anti-Semitic views towards Jews who were part of the art establishment of Vienna, Austria?

    Consider this comment by Fischer: "In a strange way you cannot blame Hitler because if you think about the taste of the establishment in democracies like Great Britain and America, the taste of the establishment was not dissimilar to Hitler."

    What does Fischer mean by this? What was the taste for art in this time period around the world? (While modern art was on the rise in this period, both the major art academies and the general public had tastes that were still set in the 19th century. In contrast to Impressionism, which was popular with collectors, many still believed that a work of art had to be an illusionistic, highly finished, representation of the natural world to be considered a good work of art. Works of art then, as well as today, are still often judged based on the skill with which they were created. Modern art, with its rough brushwork, arbitrary color and unfinished qualities was considered by many to be inferior to traditional academic painting.)

    Fischer says, "In the democracies they behaved in a democratic way, in the way that an opposition should be left alive - while in Nazi Germany and to some extent in fascist Italy the opposition was crushed politically and aesthetically."

    What does Fischer mean by this?

    Historian Jonathan Petropoulos states Hitler believed modern artists could not "see colors as they appear in nature, they could not see forms as they actually were, and that this was a sign of racial inferiority." What were the aims of modern artists in this time?

    Why did people view these works and the artists who made them as inferior? (For the most part the new art styles were shocking to people who did not understand the goals they were trying to achieve.)

    The clip from the documentary discusses works of "degenerate" art that were sold or burned. Speculate on what happened to the artists who made these works. (Jewish artists, like all Jews, were in danger. In some cases, artists were able to emigrate. Others attempted to hide. Some were sent to concentration camps and death camps, and some eventually perished. Artists deemed Germanic, but creating art in a modern style, were subject to ridicule. They were forbidden to buy canvas and art materials or to further create works of art.)

    How does Hitler‘s commitment to the "purification of art," align with his thoughts about the purification of race and culture? (Hitler and the Nazis used censorship to control ideas about art; their view of "Pure Art" paralleled their ideas of a pure race and the vision for the future of the Third Reich.)
  • Research Activity

    Share these facts:

    The Nazis removed over 16,000 works of modern art from museums in Germany.

    These pieces were deemed unacceptable to Nazi ideology. At the same time, 650 of these works, taken from over thirty museums, were selected for a public exhibit, Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art). The goal of the exhibit was to increase public revulsion for art that was presumably contaminating German culture. The exhibit was wildly popular and was seen by nearly three million viewers. The exhibit debuted in Munich and then traveled to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria.

    Assign each student an artist from the list below. These are artists who were included in the 1937 Entartete Kunst exhibition.

    Direct students to describe which elements of the artists‘ works were seen by the Nazis as "degenerate" and to explain why. Students should also conduct research about the artists‘ lives, their works, and what happened to them during and following World War II. Also ask students to see if they can find information about how their artists responded to the rise of the Third Reich, the censorship of modern art, and to events of the war.

    Following research, students will each present oral reports to the class and submit a written report. For the classroom presentations, instructors may opt to link to technology and media standards and have students create PowerPoint presentations.

    The following list is a sample of the artists exhibited in Entartete Kunst. The exhibition featured more than one hundred artists.
    • Jankel Adler
    • Ernst Barlach
    • Max Beckmann
    • Marc Chagall
    • Lovis Corinth
    • Otto Dix
    • Max Ernst
    • Lyonell Feininger
    • George Grosz
    • Erich Heckel
    • Karl Hofer
    • Johannes Itten
    • Alexej von Jawlensky
    • Wassily Kandinsky
    • Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
    • Paul Klee
    • Oskar Kokoschka
    • Wilhelm Lehmbruck
    • El Lissitsky
    • Franz Marc
    • Jean Metzinger
    • Constantin von Mitschke-Collande
    • Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
    • Piet Mondrian
    • Otto Mueller
    • Emil Nolde
    • Max Pechstein
    • Christian Rohlfs
    • Oskar Schlemmer
    • Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
    • Kurt Schwitters

    For Future Research
    In addition to visual art, direct students to explore the other art forms and media considered degenerate by the Nazis. Guide them to research the literature, music (particularly jazz), and films which were censored, banned, and physically destroyed by the Nazis.

    "Degenerate" Music, from A Teacher‘s Guide to the Holocaust
  • Part Two: Expressionism

    Assign students to research the Expressionist (or German Expressionist) art movement and have them report what they learn in a class discussion.
  • About Expressionism

    Expressionism developed around 1905 in Germany, spurred by a group of architects-turned-painters in Dresden who took the name Die Brucke (The Bridge). Expressionist artists intended to communicate a social message of human emotion and the spiritual condition using a vocabulary of new abstract forms, violent distortions of the real world, and color symbolism. Expressionist artists were interested in primitivism. They took inspiration from "primitive" art of Africa, Ancient America, Oceania, along with the work of children, folk artists, and the mentally ill.

    Assign students to research the Expressionist (or German Expressionist) art movement. Have them report back on what they learned in a class discussion or as a brief writing assignment.

    Questions for Discussion
    Discuss with students what they discovered about the Expressionist movement.
    In what cities did the movement develop?
    What were some of the reasons historically that it evolved?

    Define and discuss what is meant by Primitivism. What are the assumptions that come with such a term? (Primitivism implies that one culture is superior while another is crude or inferior, less evolved. As it is applied here, the term developed out of the colonial period when great empires held control in what were then far less industrially developed countries. Colonial powers brought back cultural objects from the colonies, which were then displayed in museums as supposedly "primitive" forms of art. Works of art and objects of cultural significance from Africa, the Ancient Americas, and Pacific Island nations were brought back to museums in Europe and the Americas. These works were a revelation to artists who sought new ways of seeing and depicting the world.)

    How do we view terms such as Primitivism in our world today? Is the term primitive still applied to people today? What words are used and why has this changed?

    How far off were critics such as Hitler and others, worldwide, who equated modern art with the insane if that is what modern artists were in fact taking inspiration from?

    What do you think the artists who sought inspiration from the art of the insane were addressing? Do you think it is appropriate for artists to take inspiration from people with diseases, physical problems, or mental issues? Why or why not?

    In 1929, the architect and head of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, was dismissed and replaced by Paul Schultze-Naumburg. Schultze-Naumburg was an architect and a racial theorist. The previous year he had published a book titled, Kunst and Rasse (Art and Race) and had published the images, seen below, of deformed and diseased people to suggest that they were models for the works of the German painters Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Otto Dix, and the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani. Schultze-Naumburg held that the art of the Expressionists was an inferior aspect of modern German culture.

    Juxtaposition of works of "degenerate" art by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Otto Dix, and Amedeo Modigliani and photographs of facial deformities, 1928.
    Stephanie Barron, ed. Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany.
    New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991, pp. 12-13

    How does the image presented above influence the perception of the paintings by Modern masters, Schmidt-Rottluff, Dix, and Modigliani?

    Adolf Ziegler organized the Entartete Kunst exhibition. He commented, "He who paints our youth as wasted idiots, and the German mother like a Neanderthal woman, has shown undeniable proof of his degenerate character, and he who submits a bad, mediocre of unfinished work to such a perfect House of Art [referring to the Museum of German Art], proves that he has not understood the cultural demands of our time."

    What does Ziegler‘s quote reveal about the intended role for art in Nazi Germany?

    What is the message that the Nazis wanted to convey about the works of "degenerate" artists?

    While these artists used distortion in the features of their models they did so for expressionistic effect. The images were meant to be jarring and not beautiful. They were intended to awaken people to new ways of seeing art and the world. These artists were not using the insane as models, but they were looking at art made by other cultures that incorporated distortions and exaggerations of different body and facial features. The Nazis distorted the way people looked at modern art with comparisons such as the one above.

    How did art serve to shape the way the German people saw and reacted to events taking place around them before and during World War II?
  • Part Three: Views of Modern Art Then and Now

    At roughly the same time as Hitler was rejected from the art academy in Vienna, the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art took place in New York City. It was better known as the "Armory Show," the site where the exhibit was held. The exhibit featured works by Expressionists, Cubists and all the major modern masters such as Matisse and Picasso. Newspaper reports about the exhibit described it as a presentation of the "degeneration of art." Established art schools and clubs of the time referred to some of the featured painters as "genuinely and unquestionably mad." One Boston art critic, in a 1939 review of modern German art, and aware of the cultural atrocities underway in Germany wrote, "There are probably many people-art lovers-in Boston, who will side with Hitler in this particular purge."

    Questions for Discussion
    What do these statements tell us about the view of modern art in the early part of the twentieth century? Why do you think people reacted so negatively to new ways of seeing art?

    How do we view the art made in our own time? Is it valued in the same way as art made in the past? Why or why not?

    Research the work of controversial British artist Damien Hirst. What is the message he is trying to communicate through his work? What are the media he uses to say it? What are some of the different controversial issues surrounding his work? As the art world buys his work, do you think the general public understands it? Why or why not?

    Damien Hirst The Dream Foal, 2008

    At the root of labeling modern art as degenerate, it is critical to realize that a large part of the label comes from misunderstanding. Up until the late nineteenth century, with few exceptions, art and aesthetic appreciation had centered on ideas of beauty and harmony. With rapid industrialization and technological advances in the mid-nineteenth century, and with mass international migration and the relocation of many people from rural to urban centers, a large group of people were increasingly pushed to the fringes of society. Socially conscious artists and writers began to examine these people in works that are now associated with the Realist Movement. Socially conscious art is intended to bring to light the ills of society in order to bring about change.

    In what way does Damien Hirst‘s work comment and reflect on society today?

    In what ways may it be viewed as out of step with society today?
  • Assessments

    Student assessment draws from an evaluation of student ability to conduct accurate research, meet the goals of the written assignment, demonstrate knowledge of the material during the oral presentation, and student performance in class participation.
  • Standards

    National Council of the Social Studies more info
    • I. Culture
    • VI. Power, Authority, and Governance
    • X. Civic Ideals and Practices

    Language Arts more info
    Viewing Standard 9. Understands the Characters and components of the media
    Level IV [Grade 9-12]
    1. Uses a range of strategies to interpret visual media (e.g., draws conclusions, makes generalizations, synthesizes materials viewed, refers to images or information in visual media to support point of view, deconstructs media to determine the main idea)
    5. Uses strategies to analyze stereotypes in visual media (e.g., recognizes stereotypes that serve the interests of some groups in society at the expense of others; identifies techniques used in visual media that perpetuate stereotypes)

    National Standards for Arts Education more info
    Content Standard 4: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
    Achievement Standard [grade 5-8]

    • Students describe and place a variety of art objects in historical and cultural contexts
    • Students analyze, describe, and demonstrate how factors of time and place (such as climate, resources, ideas, and technology) influence visual characteristics that give meaning and value to a work of art

    Achievement Standard [grade 9-12]
    Advanced: Students analyze and interpret artworks for relationships among form, context, purposes, and critical models, showing understanding of the work of critics, historians, aestheticians, and artists
  • The Greatest Theft in History: Lesson Links

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