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Nazi’s Modern Art Purge
On July 18, 1937, the Nazis put on what was to become an annual art show—the ”Great German Art Exhibition,” in Munich’s Haus der Kunst. The images on display included classical and pastoral images, realistic portraits and still lifes, nudes, landscapes and images out of German mythology. The following day, a companion exhibition opened nearby. Called the ”Degenerate art” exhibition, it was a collection of more than 650 paintings and artworks confiscated from German museums representing Impressionism, Dadaism, Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism and all the ”Modern” movements that defined 20th-century art; everything, essentially, that the Nazis deemed dangerous to the ”Thousand-Year Reich” and the mental health of the German people.
The exhibit (in various iterations) traveled to a total of 13 German and Austrian cities between 1937 and 1941 before its paintings—masterpieces by Paul Klee, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Ernst and others—were destroyed or sold, along with more than 21,000 objects purged from state-owned museums.
Whereas it was forbidden to export ”Degenerate art” to Germany, it was still possible to buy and sell artworks of ”degenerate artists” in occupied France. The Nazis were not concerned about Frenchmen’s mental health. As a consequence, many works made by these artists were sold at the main French auction house during the occupation. However, a large amount of ”Degenerate art” by Picasso, Dalí, Ernst, Klee, Léger and Miró was destroyed in a bonfire on the night of July 27, 1942, in the gardens of the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris.
While the destruction of ”Degenerate art” had a massive impact to modernism, perhaps no other artist was as shattered as German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. His carnal, vivid work where nudity and harsh lines were a defining theme drew the Nazi ire and around 600 pieces of his were destroyed. In 1938, Kirchner killed himself.
July 27, 1942
Outside in the gardens of the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, a young man stood behind a tree across from a massive pile of 12 foot long crossed logs, five feet high that glowed with blue flames shooting skyward. He watched as men hurled painting after painting into the crackling flames. There were no speeches nor explanation for the destruction of the art like that of the great joyous ceremonies that included live music, singing, and incantations that took place in Berlin at the height of the burning of banned books. The inconspicuous labor of these men looked as if they were doing was nothing more than burning trash.