Utopia Betrayed: Nazi Projections on Expressionist Art

 “Anyone who pursues the new for its own sake strays all too easily into the realm of folly. Of course, the more stupid a thing made from stone and materials, the more likely it is to be something really new, because earlier ages did not allow every fool to insult his contemporaries with the abortions of his sick brain.”

                                                - The Führer • Reich Party Congress 1933

From 1905 to 1914, a period of German expressionist paintings emerged from artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, and Franz Marc.  These works were instinctual and intuitive, characterized by exaggerated forms, loose, painterly brush strokes, vivid colors and personal content. These works were self-referential explorations of the subconscious. To the Expressionists, “truth” was to be found in the individual, and through evoking an emotional response to the work, the artist not only revealed his or her own inner truth, but that of the viewers.

In Kirchner’s Nudes Playing Under Tree (1910), as well as Love Scene (1908), a sense of freedom and beauty is evident in vivid colors, playful forms and unrestrained brushstrokes (figs.1 & 2). Franz Marc’s Blue Horses (1911) also portrays a leaning towards animal instinct and a return to the sensual and playful (fig.3). And Emil Nolde’s wild and uninhibited Candle Dancers (1912) reflects the nature of one’s inner urges and an elated state of ritual ecstasy(fig.4).

The Expressionists were searching for a return to the spiritual inner-core. Before WWI, Germany was undergoing rapid changes in industrialization and transportation. Life was moving faster, the world was in flux and the general viewpoint was one in which the German Citizen was merely a cog-in-the wheel.  Kirchner, and his newly formed group of young expressionist artists The Brücke, or  the “Bridge, believed art was the cipher of the soul. Among those included in the Brücke were Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Emil Nolde. These artists, and many other Expressionists, believed art could free society from the effects of industrialization, materialization and bourgeois notions of morality.

The general utopian belief that art could save us was, perhaps, naïve, yet the Expressionists were not the only proponents of this ideal. In 1937, Nazi officials purged German museums of works the Party considered to be degenerate. From the thousands of confiscated works 650 were chosen for a special exhibit of Entartete Kunst- “Degenerate Art.”. Over three million visitors attended, as Hitler’s Nazi party set about saving the people of Germany through art, by first saving them from it. 

Through obvious ignorance, misguided interpretation and blatant predjudice, they inadvertantly proved the expressionist “right” while introducing millions to modern art in the first ever “blockbuster” exhibition. That is, by condemning the work of expressionist artists, they in fact, acknowledged the power of art to affect and shape the minds of the public, and to present a doorway to the subconscious self. The truth of the individual revealed through the Expressionist’s inclusion in the Degenerate Art show was not that of the painter or artist, however, but the character and values of those who despised their work. The campaign against “Degenerate Art” reveals Hitler’s and his Nazi Party’s own twisted ideology and psychological “shadows” through their projections on Modern Art as a whole. Here, the Nazi’s true core can be seen, not in their embrace of the philosophies of the artist (which they did not understand or bother to learn) but in their rejection of these values- spontaneity, freedom, instinct, truth and trust in the self.

Ten years earlier, the National Socialist Society for German Culture had already set out to halt the "corruption of art" and inform the people about the relationship between race and art. By 1933, the terms "Jewish," "Degenerate," and "Bolshevik" were in common use to describe almost all modern art.[2]

When Entartete Kunst opened in Munich in 1937 the artists included were depicted as demented, deranged, and subhuman. Many works by Nolde, Kirchner, Marc and other now-recognized great masters, such as Klee, Dix and Kandinsky, were poorly hung and surrounded by graffiti and hand-written labels mocking the artists and their creations (fig.5).

The exhibition traveled to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria and was intended to show the public the insanity, atrocity, and depravity of the modern art movement. In retrospect, the insanity, atrocity and depravity of  Hitler’s own ideology is revealed through his rejection of his own psychological projections.[3]

The Nazi’s began their attack on “Degenerate Art” by first undermining the techniques of Modern Art in the show’s exhibition brochure, revealing their own misunderstanding of the artist’s intent and the values implicit in the process of its creation (fig.6 & 7).  In their eyes, this  “barbarism of representation …” was evidence of “the progressive collapse of sensitivity to form and color, the conscious disregard for the basis of technique that underlie fine art, the garish spattering of color, the deliberate distortion of drawing and the total stupidity.”

In fact, Expressionism is a style of art in which the intention is not to reproduce a subject accurately, but instead to portray it in such a way as to express the inner state of the artist.  Color is used to create a subjective expression of an object, not to denote its specific characteristics. Through strong contrasts between complementary colors, adjusting the depth of shade and the use of cold and/or warm colors, the Expressionists created and shaped “experience”.

This technique was laudable to the Nazi’s, however, and their rejection of the form’s technique reflects their own repression of instinct and intuitive sensibilities. In the Degenerate Exhibition, works were grouped into 9 areas, broken-down in the exhibition brochure with descriptions that were more telling of the curators’ own anti-social beliefs and neurotic obsessions than those of the artists.  For instance, where the artists’ supposedly twisted world-view is expressed through his “morally degenerate” work, the brochure description of this view, “…where the entire world is a brothel…” and the human race “exclusively composed of harlots and pimps.” more likely belies Hitler’s own sexual pathologies[4].

Works were accused of portraying “the negro as the racial ideal …” and the intellectual ideal of the artist’s as “..the idiot, the cretin and the cripple…”[5]

As symbols, these works presented archetypes upon which the undeveloped and/or damaged human psyche could safely project its own unconscious fears of inadequacy and incompleteness, perhaps a particularly welcome distraction, not only for Hitler, but for the crushed and disillusioned public of mid-30’s Germany.[6]

Another grouping was called a “shameless mockery of any religious idea” and the “horrific objects” inspired mental “ mumbo jumbo” rather than religious revelation.[7]

Many works in this grouping were by the expressionist painter Emil Nolde who was particularly crucified by the Nazi’s, despite his commitment to Party and shared ideologies. Nolde believed in purity and the power of art to transcend mortality. In 1911, Twentieth-Century Artists on Art quoted him,  “Art is exalted above religions and races. Not a single solitary soul these days believes in the religions of the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks. And their races are exhausted, crossbred and spoiled. Only their art, whenever it was beautiful, stands proud and exalted, rising above all time.”[8] His piece, Christas und die Kinder (Christ Among the Children, 1910) was just one of his many so-called “Degenerate” works (fig.8).

Whereas some of the works intention was rightly interpreted, the grouping descriptions in the exhibition’s catalog twists the artist’s intent to a negative purpose, in terms of Nazi ideology, claiming “… the viewer is meant to see the soldier either as a murderer or a victim, senselessly immolated for something known to the Bolshevik class struggle as ‘the capitalist world order.”[9]

Otto Dix was one of the artists represented in this grouping, and his expressionist painting, were, in fact, a product of his wartime experiences. Dix volunteered for the German Army in 1914 and was assigned to a field artillery regiment in Dresden. In 1915 he served as a non-commissioned officer with a machine-gun unit and was wounded several times. He nearly died on one occasion, when a shrapnel splinter hit him in the neck.

Disillusioned with war and angry about the way wounded and crippled ex-soldiers were treated in Germany, he developed left-wing views and his paintings and drawings became increasingly political. This was reflected in works such as Trench Warfare (1932) (fig.9), When the Nazis came to power, he was removed from his professorship at the Dresden Academy, with a dismissal letter that said that his work "threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves". Over 200 of his works were removed from museums in the Nazi confiscations, and more than 20 were exhibited in Entartete Kunst, including undated drawings from his time in the trenches such as Wounded Man, and Shock Troops Advance Under Gas (figs.10 &11).

An neurotic and obsessive addiction to control and power is further evidenced by the Fueher’s inclusion of works described as  “artistic anarchy ,“ used to convey “an incitement to political anarchy.”   While the inclusion of others and the grouping’s description reflected the Nazi’s own deeply-rooted psychological fear of “the systematic eradication of the last vestige of racial consciousness.”[10]

While some groupings served as “… examples of Jewish trash “ one section, they claimed, “could only be entitled ‘Sheer Insanity’..,” for it’s cross section of “…the abortions produced.” In Nazi perceptions, it was a “chamber of horrors” where “there is no telling what was in the sick brains of those who wielded the brush or pencil.”[11]

Wassily Kandinsky was also included in the exhibition, with Improvisation Nr. 10 (Improvisation no.10, 1910) as just one representation of his “artistic degeneracy” (fig.12).  Born in Moscow in 1866, Kandinsky played the piano and cello at an early age. The influence of music in his art was profound; many of his paintings had musical connotations:  "Improvisations," "Impressions," and "Compositions." He is considered to be one of the founders of abstract art.[12]

Also included here was the work of Franz Marc, who died before Hitler's rise to power. His work influenced and helped lay the foundations for the abstract art movement. His 1913 Eber and Sau (Boar and sow) was just one of many included in the “Degenerate” exhibition (fig.13). With Kandinsky, Marc founded the artist's group Der Blaue Reiter in 1911 and organized exhibitions with this name. The Blaue Reiter group exhibited a new art style based on exuberant color and on strong emotional and spiritual feelings. He volunteered for military service during W.W.I. and died near Verdun, France, on March 4, 1916.

Though some of these artist’s work were clearly political, much of it was clearly symbolic of altruistic motivations and values inherent to the artist and not directly threatening to the political agenda of the Third Reich. However, we can conclude that the Nazi’s attempt at eradication of Modern Art (and particularly the work of the Expressionists) was not only politically motivated, but a compulsive expression of Hitler’s own pathologies.

On March 20th, 1939, the Degenerate Art Commission ordered over one thousand paintings and almost four thousand watercolors and drawings burned in the courtyard of a fire station in Berlin. Other works were auctioned off to the highest bidder. “The final solution for artwork deemed unacceptable for public consumption was complete.” [13]


Barron, Stephanie. “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. Exh. cat. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art, 1991.

Cohen, Peter. The Architecture of Doom: The Nazi Philosophy of Beauty through Violence. Produced by Peter Cohen. USA,1993

Florida Center for Instructional Technology. A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust.

Floridia: College of Education, University of South Florida, 2001.

Online resource posted at http://fcit.coedu.usf.edu

Grubin, David. Degenerate Art. Produced by David Grubin Productions, Inc. in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Based on the exhibition: "Degenerate Art": The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 1993.

Langer, Walter C. A Psychological Analysis of Adolph Hitler: His Life and Legend. Washington, D.C: Office of Strategic Services.1968.

Online resource posted by The Nizkor Project- http://www.nizkor.org

Willett, John. Art and Politics in the Weimar Period: The New Sobriety 1917-1933. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

[1] Adolph Hitler as quoted in the Entartete Kunst brochure p.6, translated in S.Barron’s “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant Garde in Nazi Germany,” p.364

[2] A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust: http://fcit.coedu.usf.edu

Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,

College of Education, University of South Florida © 2001.

[3] In Walter C. Langer’s Psychological Analysis on Hitler, he writes: “In every utterance a speaker or writer unknowingly tells us a great deal about himself of which he is entirely unaware. The subjects he chooses for elaboration frequently reveal unconscious factors which make these seem more important to him than many other aspects which would be just as appropriate to the occasion. The examples he chooses for purposes of illustration almost always contain elements from his own earlier experiences which were instrumental in cultivating the view he is expounding. The figures of speech he employs reflect unconscious conflicts and linkages and the incidence of particular types or topics can almost be used as a measure of his preoccupation with problems related to them,”

[4]  Accorder to Langer’s psychological analysis of Hiter, he was estranged from his mother during her second pregnancy, resulting in an idealization of love  without a sexual component and the setting up of a barrier against intimate relationships with other people, particularly women. “He has cut himself off from the world in which love plays any part for fear of being hurt and what love he can experience is fixated on the abstract entity - Germany, a symbol of his ideal mother. This is a love relationship in which sex plays no direct part.”

[5] Description of Group 7 in Entartete Kunst brochure p.18, translated in S.Barron’s “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant Garde in Nazi Germany,” p.376

[6] In Walter C. Langer’s Psychological Analysis on Hitler, he writes: “From a scientific point of view we are forced to consider Hitler, the Fuehrer, not as a personal devil, wicked as his actions and philosophy may be, but as the expression of a state of mind existing in millions of people, not only in Germany but, to a smaller degree, in all civilized countries. The members of this group have been exposed to social influences, family patterns, methods of training and education, opportunities for development, etc., which are fairly homogeneous within a given culture or strata of a culture. The result is that the members of a given culture tend to act, think and feel more or less alike, at least in contrast to the members of a different cultural group.”

[7] Description of Group 2 in Entartete Kunst brochure p.8, translated in S.Barron’s “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant Garde in Nazi Germany,” p.366

[8] A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust: http://fcit.coedu.usf.edu

Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,

College of Education, University of South Florida © 2001.

[9] Description of Groups 3 and 4 in Entartete Kunst brochure p.10 and p.12, translated in S.Barron’s “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant Garde in Nazi Germany,” p.368 and p.370.

[10] Description of Groups 8 and 9 in Entartete Kunst brochure p.20 and p.22, translated in

S.Barron’s “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant Garde in Nazi Germany,” p.378 and p.380.

[11] Description of Groups 3 and 4 in Entartete Kunst brochure p.10 and p.12, translated in

S.Barron’s “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant Garde in Nazi Germany,” p.368 and p.370.

[12] A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust: http://fcit.coedu.usf.edu

Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,

College of Education, University of South Florida © 2001.

[13] A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust: http://fcit.coedu.usf.edu

Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,

College of Education, University of South Florida © 2001.

Source: http://www.robbynmcgill.com/#/word-gallery