When the fascists tried to tame the modern masters

The news of a €1bn hoard of paintings found in Munich is a reminder of Hitler's hatred of great art

Such are the problems and complexities of the issues surrounding the aftermath of the Nazi-era purging of so called "degenerate art" – which means art made, owned, or subject to the nefarious influence of the Jews, Jewishness and all that such labelling came to mean – that it is not at all surprising that it has taken nearly two years for the Bavarian authorities to make public the extraordinary seizure of almost 1,500 artworks from the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the 80-year-old son of a German art historian once in the pay of Joseph Goebbels.

The value of the cache seized from this filthy, overloaded apartment in Munich is said to be in the region of €1bn, yet that could easily be a wild underestimation, given the importance to the history of 20th-century art of some of the artists whose works have already been named and identified – Chagall, Kokoschka, Franz Marc, Kandinsky, Klee, Picasso, Emil Nolde, Beckmann, Matisse, Kirchner, Liebermann. It is a roll call of key figures.

Why was this art vilified by the Nazis anyway? Degenerate art was said by Hitler (who was himself a mediocre dauber of Romantic scenes) to be "anti-German". A key exhibition of this so called degenerate art was held in Munich in 1937, but this was only the latest among many; in fact, art was being stolen from Jewish owners, labelled as subject to the wicked and emasculating influence of the Jews, and exhibited as degenerate from 1933 onwards, the year that Hitler came to power.

In that same year the Bauhaus, which had been forced to re-locate from Dessau to Berlin, was forced to close because it was said to be a breeding ground for "cultural Bolshevism", and in 1934 Hitler thundered against degenerate art in a speech delivered at Nuremberg. In 1935, an official decree put all exhibitions, whether public or private, under the direction of the Reichskunstkammer. Hitler's speeches and the writings of Alfred Rosenberg made rabble-rousing, pseudo-academic links between artistic production, politics and crude racial theorising.

Much rhetoric was spilled about blood, soil and Nordic supremacy. Goebbels called for a "racially conscious" popular art, adding, also in 1935, these chilling words: "The freedom of artistic creation must keep within the limits prescribed, not by any artistic idea, but by the political idea." Artists and their works were threatened as never before by legal action at the behest of the state. There was nowhere that privacy, inwardness, the personal impulse, the right to dream, could hide their heads.

An official, state-directed, state- governed art came into being, as sterile, monumental and self-aggrandising as it was academic. Collectors were robbed or blackmailed, works burnt. Teachers such as Paul Klee were dismissed from their teaching posts. Entire movements – Modernism, Cubism, post-impressionism – were mocked and vilified.

Galleries and entire collections were stripped of their paintings – it is said that about 16,500 works were seized, many of which disappeared, never to re-appear. Some – as we see today – are still emerging from unexpected crannies. Yet others passed through the hands of auctioneers in Lucerne. Many went abroad. Heaps of them were burnt in Berlin. And, as the years passed by, the persecution of Jews – cultural and physical – gathered momentum, focus and ferocity. The moment of the destruction of mere canvases was succeeded by the wholesale destruction of their makers and their sympathisers. Savonarola was among us once again.

The mockery, denunciation and persecution reached their climax in 1937, when a show of "entartete kunst" went on display in the frivolous arcades of the Hofgarten in Munich. Simultaneously, and as if to teach artists and onlookers alike the correct way of doing things, an exhibition of the officially approved German art went on show at the new House of German Art in that same city.

What exactly did degenerate mean though? True German art was to be a celebration of bodily perfection and racial purity. It was an art around which society could come together. It was not complicated by subjectivity. It was not slippery in its meanings. By contrast, degenerate art was a hole-in-corner affair, mired in the personal and the morbidly introspective. It involved a modicum of tortured and unhealthy mirror-gazing. Bodily forms were often wildly distorted – it is almost as if these so called degenerate artists were bent on cocking a snook at the idea of bodily perfection.

By contrast, the new art would never pose a covert or overt threat to the new body politic because it would be the idealised embodiment of that body politic. And so an entire swathe of society was rubbed out, from curators to collectors. Dealers and other art professionals were threatened and dispossessed – or obliged to recant. Such a one was the father of Cornelius Gurlitt, who had once been a respectable art historian. But why did he still have so much in his possession for his son to hoard? Was he, after all, playing a dangerous double game?

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all