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Degenerate Art... By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Updated: Jun 17, 2023

"Degenerate artists were forbidden to produce art."

"The Nazis promoted paintings that were traditional in manner."

"The Nazis combined their antisemitism with their drive to control the culture."



Modern art at the beginning of the 20th century denoted a revolutionary offshoot from traditional artistic values to ones based on the personal perceptions of the artists. During the 1920s, Germany emerged as a leading center of the avant-garde.


It was the birthplace of Expressionism in painting and sculpture. However, the Nazi Party in Germany, During the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, believed that classical Greece and the Middle Ages were the true sources of Aryan art.


The Nazi Party argued that only racially pure artists could produce healthy art which upheld timeless ideals of classical beauty, while racially mixed modern artists produced disordered artworks and monstrous depictions of the human form.


The Nazi Party showed examples of modern art next to photographs of people with deformities and diseases to reinforce the idea of modernism as a sickness.


German modernist art, including many works of internationally renowned artists, was banned in Nazi Germany on the grounds that such art was Freemasonic, Jewish, or Communist in nature.


The term Degenerate art was used by the Nazi Party to redefine modern art. By the late 19th century, The term degeneracy originated in Germany when the critic and author Max Nordau(Jewish key figure in the Zionist movement) developed a critique of modern art, explained as the work of those so corrupted and enfeebled by modern life that they have lost the self-control needed to produce coherent works.


Nordau praised traditional German culture while referring to Impressionism as a sign of a diseased visual cortex. Max Nordau's theory of artistic degeneracy would be seized upon by German Nazis during the Weimar Republic for antisemitic and racist demand for Aryan purity in art.


While modern styles of art were prohibited, the Nazis promoted paintings that were traditional in manner and that exalted the "blood and soil" values of racial purity, militarism, and obedience, and those identified as degenerate artists were subjected to sanctions that included being dismissed from teaching positions, being forbidden to exhibit or to sell their art, and in some cases being forbidden to produce art.


In 1937, Degenerate Art also was the title of an exhibition designed to inflame public opinion against modernism. The exhibition was held by the Nazis in Munich and several other cities in Germany and Austria. Avant-garde German artists were branded as a threat to German culture.

Degenerate art included Bauhaus, Cubism, Dada, Expressionism, Fauvism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, New Objectivity, and Surrealism. By propagating the theory of degeneracy, and considering what Nazi's called a corrupted art as a symptom of an inferior race. the Nazis combined their antisemitism with their drive to control the culture.



The Case Of Die Brücke

The group composed a carved-on-wood manifesto "who want freedom in our work and in our lives, independence from older, established forces."


In Dresden in 1905, four architecture students formed The Brücke (Bridge), a German expressionism art group. The founding members of the Brücke were Fritz Bleyl (1880–1966), Erich Heckel (1883–1970), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938), and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884–1976). The name "Brücke symbolized the bridge they would form between the art of the past and the present with the art of the future.


The Brücke aimed to go beyond the prevalent traditional academic style and find a new mode of artistic expression. They initially "isolated" themselves in a real bohemian studio, full of paintings lying all over the place, drawings, books, and artists' materials.


The Bridge studio was in a working-class neighborhood of Dresden, aiming thereby to reject their own bourgeois backgrounds.

The group's main interest was in primitivist art. The Bridge artists developed a common style based on vivid color, emotional tension, violent imagery, and expressing extreme emotion through high-keyed colors that were very often non-naturalistic, they employed a drawing technique that was crude and shared an antipathy to full abstraction.


The Brücke artists' represented emotionally agitated paintings of city streets and sexually charged events.


They composed a carved-on-wood manifesto "who want freedom in our work and in our lives, independence from older, established forces". The group came to an end around 1913. The Brücke Museum in Berlin was named after the group.


The Bridge group had a major impact on the evolution of modern art in the 20th century and the creation of expressionism.



Kirchner, Berlin Street Scene 1913
Kirchner, Berlin Street Scene 1913

Degenerate Art By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

"Kirchner's work was branded as "degenerate" by the Nazis."

"Van Gogh's fate might be Kirchner's as well."


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (6 May 1880 – 15 June 1938) was born in Aschaffenburg, Bavaria. In 1901, he began studying architecture at the Royal technical university of Dresden. The institution provided a wide range of studies in addition to architecture, such as freehand drawing, perspective drawing, and the historical study of art.


In 1905, Kirchner, along with three other architecture students founded a primitivism art group Die Brücke ("The Bridge"). From then on, Kirchner committed himself to art. In 1911, he moved to Berlin, where he founded a private art school, MIUM-Institut, with the aim of propagating primitivism's teaching of painting.


In 1913, his writing of the Brücke chronicle led to the ending of the group. During the next two years, Kirchner's artworks mainly were about street scenes representing the streets of Berlin, with primitive depictions of streetwalkers. At the onset of the First World War in September 1914, he volunteered for military service.


Kirchner was discharged after a mental breakdown, with a strong dependency on Veronal and alcoholism he struggled to put his mind into some kind of order and to preserve his spiritual balance, Van Gogh's fate might be Kirchner's as well.


Between 1933 and 1937, Kirchner's work was branded as "degenerate" by the Nazis, more than 600 of his works were sold or destroyed, and Kirchner was expelled from The Academy of Arts in Berlin.


Throughout 1938, Kirchner's situation became increasingly worsening as a degenerate artist. After Austria was annexed by Germany in the Anschluss, Kirchner became disturbed by the idea that Germany might invade Switzerland.


On 15 June 1938, Kirchner took his own life by gunshot in front of his home in Dresden. World War II came to an end with the Nazi Party in 1945, and the Nazis' trials to stop what they called Degenerate art had ended in a complete failure.


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