Before I came to Munich, the only thing I really knew about the city was that Hitler had really liked the place and he staged two art exhibitions there in July 1937.
These exhibitions were called the Degenerate art exhibition, which featured modern art, and the Great German art exhibition, which featured Nazi approved ‘pure’ art. The Degenerate Art exhibition featured work by artists who are still popular today including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and even Nazi supporter Emil Nolde.
Image taken from the GHDI.
Hitler did not like most modern art. He thought it was ugly, subversive and impure, and he used the exhibition to try and defame and mock it. He thought art should be pleasant to look at and have an ‘uplifting’, Nazi supportive message. Art should be pro-German propaganda which celebrated the Fatherland and didn’t criticize his regime. Art should be pretty. It shouldn’t make you think.
He wasn’t alone in this either, a lot of people didn’t like modern art at the time and the term ‘degenerate’ used to describe wasn’t exactly new, nor was it first used by the Nazis.
The Great German art exhibition, which took place in a large columned building commissioned by and built for the Nazis, included a load of landscapes, nudes, and Nazi propaganda. The Art was very idyllic, rural and ‘pleasant’, and was meant to inspire the German people and show them their ‘roots’.
The Nazi party had big plans for this show, and the subsequent great German art shows that continued until the war made them impossible. They wanted to be the cultural pinnacle of the world, and amongst other areas wanted to assert their supposed superiority in the art world.
Image taken from the GHDI.
The cultural side of Nazism is perhaps understandably sidelined and forgotten in light of their atrocities, but it was a matter of great importance to them and to Hitler personally. It was so important, in fact, that he personally selected the art that was shown in the exhibition and, with other Nazi party members, bought quite a lot of the art himself.
Most people know Hitler tried and failed to be an artist when he was young, and you may have even seen some of his pictures, but the full extent of how important art was to the Third Reich is less well known, and whilst it is just one part of a very big and nasty stain on human history, it’s quite interesting that these mass murderers also wanted to be remembered for their ‘refined’ and ‘idyllic’ culture.
They wanted their art to take the place of the Romans and the Greeks, they wanted future generations to remember them as an enlightened and talented people. In short, they wanted Germany to be the new cultural hub of the world.
Unfortunately for the Nazis, the great German art just wasn’t that good.
Image taken from the GHDI.
It wasn’t bad, it was just slightly boring and uninspired. You can’t really blame the artists, of course, it’s quite hard to be inspired when you’re scared of being seen as subversive or going against Nazi ideals in any way, but although pleasant to look at most of the art simply lacked substance and originality.
Most of it was just rather bland. It was stuff you’ve seen a hundred times before. It had no substance, no character. Hitler actually had a mini freak out before the exhibition and nearly called the whole thing off, realizing it didn’t fit his expectations.
Needless to say, the Nazis didn’t impress the cultural world with their ‘superior’ art, and in fact the U.K and the U.S focused instead on the comparative ‘success’ of the Degenerate art show and used it as a way to poke fun at the Nazis; that the art they were demonising was so much more popular than their own contributions.
London even staged their own ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition in 1938 as a way to show their support for the artists featured in the exhibition, and for modern art in general.
I know all this because my university dissertation was on the Great German Art and Degenerate art exhibitions. I spent several long and slightly lazy months researching and writing about these shows, and at the end had to write a 10,000-word mini-book on the subject. I was by no means a hard working student, but I did find the topic interesting and I’m sure you’ll all be ecstatic to know I got a pretty good grade.
So when I actually went to Munich, I wanted to see the Degenerate Art and Great German Art Buildings. This is actually why I went to Munich in the first place., in the fact, that’s mostly why I wanted to see Munich in particular. I didn’t find the Degenerate art building, and I’m not even sure if it still exists, but I did find the Great German art exhibition, which is now known as Haus Der Kunst (House of Art).
The outside of the building is covered in photos of accusing eyes, eyes which are meant to pose the question “what would you have done?”
Haus Der Kunst is the best modern art gallery I have ever been to.
I’m not normally the biggest fan of modern art (anyone can paint a blue screen or assemble some furniture and the supposed meaning behind it never really impresses me) but because I know the history of Haus Der Kunst, all the art held so much more meaning and connotations than it normally would. When you pay and walk in (entry was about €12, so expensive but worth it) you are greeted by a very friendly screen and a mop.
The screen tells you it’s very happy you’ve arrived, that the guy behind the front desk likes you and you should kiss him, and keeps telling you that it’s been busy cleaning the floor with its mop.
The symbol of the mop and cleaning away the museums past is quite powerful, and I thought it was really impressive that rather than pretend the building doesn’t have the history that it does, they make it the first thing you see. They don’t hide from their past, they confront it. They acknowledge it. They condemn it.
This is something I’ve come to admire Germany for. It’s something I wish we could do in the U.K
This installation was made by artist Laure Prouvost and I believe the video is called ‘we would be floating away from the dirty past’.
It was by far my favorite art piece in the gallery, partly because of how kooky and strange some of her concepts were, but mostly because it was powerful art with real meaning and managed to show the museums attitude and outlook in a subtle yet obvious way.
The rest of the museum was really impressive as well.
Haus Der Kunst is not what Hitler had in mind for this building at all. In fact, it totally subverts everything that building was meant to stand for. And it’s brilliant.
Haus Der Kunst features African art, Chinese art, abstract art and strange art.It had art depicting BDSM and homosexuality, and lots of political and often anti-government and messages of peace and unity. It is everything the Nazi’s thought was degenerate, and yet these are the messages Germany is now most proud of.
Some of the art was beautiful, some of it was shocking, some of it was hard to look at, but all of it was a proper “f*** you” message to the Nazis, and it was fantastic.
I highly recommend Haus Der Kunst to anyone who is even thinking about visiting Munich. Whether you’re interested in art, history or German culture or not, it is bound to leave a lasting impression on you.