Why was the Nazi art policy so against the aesthetic avant-garde? They claimed that modern artists were cosmopolitan, international, Jewish or Bolshevik, and that these faults were reflected in their art: gross, dirty, brutal, confused, incomplete and nihilistic. Deformed artworks were condemned for their “barbarous methods of representation” as much as their disgust for religion and preaching of political anarchy. So it was ironic that Expressionism thrived best in the German speaking countries, from 1910 on.
A group of sympathetic art critics in Britain and France, including Roland Penrose, stood up for modern European art. In Paris in 1935 Penrose had already began to discuss with other Britons and with Picasso how they might promote modern art back in Britain. Penrose returned to London, to form the group that organised the International Surrealist Exhibition held at the New Burlington Galleries London in 1936. Comprising 400 works by Dali, Duchamp, Ernst, Magritte, Miró, Picasso and British artists, this Surrealist Exhibition excited huge interest, both supportive and critical.
In Germany, the purges of modernist art were relentless. Joseph Goebbels ordered that once the purging of all of Germany’s public collections was done, the art that had been selected out for destruction would be shown to the German people for the last time. A special Exhibition of Entartete Kunst/Degenerate Art was planned for 1937 in Munich. Painter Adolf Ziegler, professor at Munich Academy of Fine Arts, became president of the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts under Joseph Goebbels. Ziegler confiscated works for the Entartete Kunst Exhibition and in two weeks, he chose 650 works by 112 artists, many being Jews or married to Jews. The show ran in Munich from July-Nov 1937.
After the Surrealist Show, the next display of German art in London, called Banned German Art, was organised to protest Munich’s 1937 Degenerate Art Show. But before the show opened, the name was changed to the less provocative title, C20th German Art, at the express command of the British Foreign Ministry. The show was held at the New Burlington Galleries London in 1938, and was well attended.
The Chairman of the Organising Committee was art critic Herbert Read. Read’s stated aim for the exhibition was to educate the British public on the worth of modern German art. But by the time the exhibition opened in 1938, the art world had become moved on. For the organisers, it became more about showing the programmes of cultural desecration practised by the Nazi regime, and supporting artists who had stood against Nazism. Funds raised would go to distressed exiled artists.
The 270 exhibits in the Burlington Galleries represented almost 40 years of German art, including Germans Max Beckmann, Karl Hofer, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc, Ernst Barlach, Kathe Kollwitz, Mueller, August Macke, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Lovis Corinth; Austrian Oskar Kokoschka; Czech Alfred Kubin; Russian Wassily Kandinsky; Swiss Paul Klee and Norwegian Edvard Munch. The Jews included Herwarth Walden/Georg Lewin (publisher-gallery owner), Max Liebermann, El Lissitzky, Lyonel Feininger, Lesser Ury, Yankel Adler and art historian Carl Einstein.
The London show did not include of Grosz’s or Dix’s most extreme, subversive works, due to diplomatic appeasement by the Foreign Ministry. Yet the photos show that Paul Robeson sang at the opening of the Exhibition, as a benefit for German artists banned by the Nazis. Robeson would have been a very provocative move by the organisers, as he was black and a communist.
The London Times wrote five articles on the Exhibition. It was described as an outstanding exhibition by art critics and although they didn’t sell much art, the show ran throughout July. Then due to its popularity, the dates were extended twice until the end of August. I now want to know if the London Exhibition succeeded, or not, in displaying the Nazi programme of artistic despoliation. I also want to know whether the British organisers DID support the artists who had suffered from Nazi purges, either morally or financially.