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NOVEMBER 10, 2010 3:22PM

"Degenerate art" on display again in Berlin after 69 years

Rate: 24 Flag

 Naum Slutzky
Damaged but still expressive:
"Degenerate art" from the Berlin exhibit
(Source: Die Welt)


WE TYPICALLY ASSOCIATE BURIED treasure with desert islands and remote monasteries, but sometimes it’s lying right beneath your nose. That’s what Berlin workers discovered earlier this year when they came across a lost trove of so-called degenerate art that had been eliminated from the city’s collections during the Third Reich.


“Degenerate art,” of course, was the Nazi term for any kind of modern non-representational or else all-too realistic painting or sculpture that did not fit into the regime’s conception of a heroic Aryan future. As Hitler stated in 1935: 


It is not the task of art to rummage in filth for the sake of filth, only to paint Man in a state of decay, to draw cretins as a symbol of motherhood, and to present crooked idiots as representatives of masculine strength.



Adolph Ziegler 
Alongside classics like Dürer and Rembrandt,
the Nazis preferred such wholesome works as
Adolph Ziegler's "The Four Elements," part
of the Führer's private collection
(Click to enlarge)


Museums and private galleries were forced to rid themselves of works by Picasso, Barlach, Franz Marc and many others, although many museum directors were more than willing to comply with the New Order in the arts. In 1937, the Nazi Party organized a notorious exhibit of particularly scorned objects in Munich’s Haus der Kunst, which later toured the country until 1941.


Degenerate Art 
Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels visiting
the original Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1937
(Source: wiki)


What became of these hated works? Some were sold abroad for needed currency, many were deliberately destroyed (including thousands of paintings in the infamous “painting burning” of 1939), and still more were burned and looted in the war. And some were simply lost – including the cache of sculptures concealed beneath the foundations of a long-vanished house at Königstrasse (which is today called Rathausstrasse) no. 50 near Berlin’s TV tower.


A visitor examines one of the

recovered and restored works
(Source: Die Welt)


It appears that the artworks, which date from between 1917 and around 1931 and which had been part of the original Degenerate Art roadshow, were being stored at the house when it was struck by incendiary bombs in 1944. As the house burned around them, the floor gave way and the artworks fell into the basement. When the ruins were later removed, the entire area was paved over and new high rise apartments were constructed nearby. How the objects ended up in the house in the first place remains uncertain. It is possible they were being held there in preparation of an overseas sale, or perhaps they were being kept for safekeeping in hope of a future where they would once more be appreciated. One of the building's tenants at the time, the lawyer Erhard Oewerdieck, was later honored by the Israeli government along with his wife for rescuing Jews.


In early 2010 one of the construction workers involved in the extension of the U5 subway line from Alexanderplatz to the Brandenburg Gate stumbled upon the artworks and immediately recognized their significance. They have since been restored, and starting this week visitors can view them in the Greek Courtyard of Berlin’s New Museum, which itself arose from the ruins and was reopened last autumn after a hiatus of seventy years (I already wrote about the reopening here).


Edwin Scharff, "Portrait of the Actress Anni Mewes"
(Source: Die Welt)


The eleven works in the exhibition are by such more or less well-known Weimar era artists as Otto Baum, Otto Freundlich, Karl Knappe, Marg Moll, Emy Roeder, Edwin Scharff, Gustav Heinrich Wolff, Naum Slutzky, and three unknown artists. Some of the artists took the same dismal path as their works: extermination and oblivion. The Jewish sculptor Otto Freundlich, for example, escaped to France, but was later captured there by the French police and deported to the Lublin-Maidanek extermination camp. He never returned. His sculpture of a human head had been on display in a museum in Hamburg when the regime confiscated it in 1937 and actually used it as a prop in the movie Venus on Trial in 1941 as an example of “degeneracy.”


Otto Freundlich 
What's left of Otto Freundlich's "degenerate" sculpture
(Source: Berliner Zeitung)



Marg Moll 
Marg Moll, "Dancer"
Berliner Morgenpost)


Excavation site 
Archaeologists suspect their may be more
outwork buried beneath the house's foundation
Berliner Zeitung)


As archeological discoveries, the objects officially belong to the federal state of Berlin. However, the exhibition’s organizers hope that at least some of the pieces can eventually make their way back to the museums from which they had originally been confiscated.


The exhibit is on display indefinitely at the Neues Museum.

Neues Museum 
The exhibit
(Source: Die Welt)

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Alan, I always appreciate your posts, and your view of a side of Europe most of us don't get a chance to see. This is a fascinating and sad piece of history. Thanks so much for letting us see it.
Thanks, it's exciting to imagine what else might lie beneath the pavement here (aside from thousands of unexploded Allied bombs).
I'd love to see Goebbels take a tour of MOMA. (In handcuffs of course.)
Not my cup of tea, but then I have philisting tastes, and that was certainly a scary sign of when the Nazis did that, like a canary in the coal mine.
I saw a blurb about this but they didn't have any photos. Great stuff.
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A very informative and engaging read. I hadn't heard about this, and am glad to see photos of the artwork in question. Degenerate, indeed.
Thanks for this post. I appreciated having the accompanying photos.
Very interesting and sad. I was also struck by the perspicacity of the construction worker who found the works and recognized their significance.
Very cool. Degenerate art seems to resemble regular art; how weird!