Art, along with architecture, music and films, was heavily shaped by Nazi ideology once Hitler gained power on January 30th 1933. Hitler considered himself to be very knowledgeable with regards to art and effectively decided that there were two forms of art – un-German degenerate art of the likes of Pablo Picasso and classical realistic art that represented all that was good about Nazi Germany and Germans.
Weimar Germany was famous for the artists that worked there. Various forms of art excelled in Weimar – expressionism, Dada, cubism and impressionism. The focal point in Germany of the art world’s attention was the Bauhaus where artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and George Grosz all worked.
Hitler had stated clearly in ‘Mein Kampf’ where his thoughts lay with regards to modern art as found in Dada and cubism:
“This art is the sick production of crazy people. Pity the people who are no longer able to control this sickness”
In his own mind, the new art forms all stemmed from the USSR and according to Hitler were even found for a very short time in the Bavarian Soviet Republic in the early days of the Weimar Republic.
Hitler preferred the romantic form of art. He stated that a finished picture should never display anguish, distress or pain. They had to be realistic and heroic. Hitler believed that good artists should use colour in their paintings that “was different to those perceived in Nature by the normal eye.” Hitler wanted paintings to display “the true German spirit” and he preferred the work of artists such as Franz von Defregger, an Austrian who specialised in painting scenes of traditional Austrian rural life.
Once he was made Chancellor, Hitler was in the perfect position to enforce his artistic values on the whole of Nazi Germany. The March 1933 Enabling Act gave him the legal basis to do this. Hitler created the Reich Chamber of Culture headed by Joseph Goebbels. This organisation was split into seven sections: fine arts, music, theatre, literature, press, radio and film. Each one of these was required to put Gleichschaltung into the way they operated – Hitler’s desired for coordination of the German population.
42,000 artists were given government approval but they were required to join the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts. The rules of the chamber were backed by law. Artists were not allowed to be “politically unreliable” and could be expelled from the chamber if they were. If they were expelled they were forbidden to paint, forbidden to teach and were deprived of the right to exhibit their work. Shops that sold paintings were given a list of approved artists and artists who had been banned for “political unreliability”. The Gestapo made surprise unannounced visits to art studios to ensure that they were doing all that was required of them – painting as the state required them to paint.
Many artists left Nazi Germany as they were unable to work under such conditions. Klee left for Switzerland, Kandinsky went to Paris, Kokoschka left for England while Grosz emigrated to the United States of America. They were all labelled as “purveyors of non-German art”.
Just months into his Chancellorship, Hitler ordered a display of “degenerate art” at Karlsruhe. It was to serve as a warning as to what was not acceptable. In 1936, Hitler created a tribunal made up of four Nazi-approved artists who were tasked with touring galleries and museums and removing “decadent art”. In total the four men removed 12,890 pieces of art including sculptures deemed degenerate or decadent. One of the men on the tribunal, Count von Baudissen made his views quite clear;
“The most perfect shape…it is the steel helmet.”
The removed art was put on display in Munich on March 31st 1936. The ‘degenerate art’ contained works by Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Nearby to the display was an exhibition of 900 pieces of approved art known as the Greater German Art Exhibition.
To encourage German artists to develop acceptable methods of painting, Hitler introduced several hundred art competitions with good financial rewards for the winners.
World War Two gave Hitler and other senior Nazis the opportunity to plunder art from the museums of countries under Nazi occupation. Over 5,000 works of art by the likes of Rubens, Goya and Rembrandt were sent back to Berlin.