The first quarter of the 20th century is marked by the greatness of German art. Even before the outbreak of the First World War, Expressionism was born in Germany, with its main notion of a subjective and emotional approach to reality expressed in works of art full of high formal tension. The chaos of the interwar period and Hitler’s ascent to power, however, turned avant-garde artists into a major enemy of supporters of the Nazi vision of art, pure in terms of race and culture. That hostility resulted in a 1937 propaganda exhibition entitled Degenerate Art.

In the early 20th century, Berlin eclipsed Paris, which had previously been the centre of European artistic life, becoming a new dynamic centre of modern art. The art-focused periodical Der Sturm was published and exhibitions organised featuring German artists setting new trends in visual arts as well as Italian Futurists or French Cubists. The first quarter of the 20th century was when German Expressionism was born, a current in art, literature and the cinema which was the most emotional manifestation of the unrest of the day. The atmosphere of decadence accompanying the turn of the centuries was soon to morph into a sense of a civilisation in crisis and anxiety related to the unstable political situation which was ultimately to lead to the First World War. As a result of such a great transformation, artists began to create in a much more expressive fashion – hence the current’s name – more intimately and directly. In 1905, a group called The Bridge (Die Brücke) was founded in Dresden with such members as Erich Heckel and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the leading representatives of German Expressionism in painting. A few years later, in 1911, a group called The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) was formed in the Munich milieu around Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc.

Joseph Goebbels under vandreutstillingen «Entartete Kunst»
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H02648 .
Lisens: CC BY SA 3.0

Both championed art renewal and radically rejected the ‘too correct’ bourgeois aesthetics. According to the Expressionists, the form of the work was not meant to please the beholder but shake them and awake deep emotions. The Expressionist painting is not a representation of reality but its subjective vision filtered through the artist’s sensitivity.

From the world and one’s environment, one should highlight what is most true and important, thus instead of polishing the contours of reality the Expressionists applied thick, dynamic lines, replaced mild transitions between light and shadow with intensive, contrasting hues, and idealisation with brutal deformation.

The more the work of art struck with rattling colour compositions and the ugliness of glaring forms, the better it reflected the strength and suggestive nature of the creator, which mattered most. The thematic spectrum of Expressionist works was broad, from explosive energetic outdoor nudes by Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff, through dark portraits of Berlin streets painted by Kirchner to Kandinsky’s landscapes and vedute full of tension. The liberation of line and colour gave a new expressive face to the reality of the early 20th century.

Still, the avant-garde creations of the Expressionists failed to meet with much approval by the public. Quite the opposite, in the Weimar Republic torn by crisis and mounting political tensions, it found many critics, including the leaders of the National Socialist Party. Once Hitler came to power in 1933, Expressionism was already openly branded as an art hostile to the nation, opposing the Nazi notion of pure race and too far removed from the style of Neoclassicism considered a form of perfection (e.g. Arno Breker’s sculptures). Consequently, Expressionism was seen as a distorted art, thus joining other avant-garde currents condemned by the Nazis for deforming reality and destroying classic models of beauty. The ‘black list’ of the authorities also featured Dadaism, Fauvism, Cubism and certain variations of Futurism.

The first attempts at fighting with the experimenting artists had already taken place in Germany in 1927 when the Militant Association for German Culture (Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur) was set up in Munich headed by Alfred Rozenberg, the leading ideologue of the NSDAP. However, the height of the Nazis’ hatred towards modern art came a decade later. In 1937, also in Munich, a propaganda exhibition was staged as ordered by Joseph Goebbels, revealingly entitled Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst), featuring works by over a hundred modern artists, mainly of Jewish origin and leftist views. The showing of their art in such an unambiguous context was intended as a means of humiliation and a branding of avant-garde artists as well as manipulating society by fanning anti-Semitic sentiments and aggression towards the groups responsible for the ‘decomposition of German culture.’ The organisational committee led by Adolf Ziegler, Hitler’s favourite painter, confiscated over 17,000 works of art from public collections, only a small percentage of which were ultimately reinstated, with the rest destroyed or sold off abroad. That was a planned action by the authorities aimed at ‘purifying’ German museums of degenerate art. The artists were persecuted and had no right to exhibit or even create and were threatened with serious consequences.

Interestingly, in parallel with that 1937 exhibition, another one was staged in Munich, called The First Great Exhibition of German Art, intended as a manifestation of the superiority of Nazi art over the unnatural avant-garde creations. Yet it was Degenerate Art that drew a much larger audience and after its closure some of the exhibits were shown in several other German and Austrian towns (it remained in circulation until 1941). The action of the Nazi authorities paradoxically increased the visibility of Expressionism and other modern currents they condemned. After 1945, artistic avant-garde regained the place it deserves in art history as well as in German museums.