As with many other things during the 1930s, the Nazi effort to bring the arts under their control was hamstrung by the turf wars that various state and party organs fought and a lack of agreement on the part of state actors on what constituted good Nazi art. Aside from those areas in which Hitler took a personal interest–painting, opera, and architecture–Nazi policy in the arts tended to drift into aimlessness, with few clear guidelines on what exactly an artist could do to avoid attracting the attention of the Gestapo.
Certainly art was important to the Third Reich’s leadership. Many of its top members were failed artists of one kind or another. Goebbels had been a poet, playwright, and novelist. Rosenberg had made his living as an anti-semitic newspaper columnist and fancied himself an aesthete and philosopher. Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach was a poet. And of course Hitler had failed to qualify for art school as a youth and spent his early years drifting, painting watercolors of Viennese landmarks, and (at one point) trying to compose an opera based on an idea plucked from Richard Wagner’s wastebasket.
Still, aside from antisemitism, there wasn’t much to bind Nazis into any kind of coherent view of what acceptable art was. Art theorist Paul Schultze-Naumburg was among the Third Reich’s best credentialed critics. (He had been an architect before modernist style passed him by and left him bitter.) He argued that Germany needed a cultural war to purify its art so that it would serve as, I’m paraphrasing, a model reflecting the longing of the German people for racial fulfillment. Essentially, what he was calling for was a return to classicist interpretations of the human form, discarding modern art. This view ran counter to Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, whose views of art were more sympathetic to modernists, and into Emil Nolde, a well regarded pro-Nazi modernist painter.
Emil Nolde was one of the first expressionist artists, and he considered the style to be fundamentally Teutonic. He often expressed staunch German nationalism and antisemitism, and he’d supported the Nazis publicly since the 1920s. Goebbels initially supported him, but that support withered quickly in the face of his master, Adolf Hitler, who declared Expressionism out of bounds in 1934.
Hitler’s interest in art and culture was limited to certain fields: visual art (paintings and sculpture), architecture, and opera. His views on painting were particularly strong and fixed because of his background as a watercolor artist. Almost thirty years earlier, the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna had rejected Hitler, now, as Reich’s Chancellor, he was in the position to do the rejecting. Expressionists were Hitler’s enemy. They had to go.
In 1937, there were two major art exhibitions in Munich, one across the street from the other. The first was the Great German Art Exhibition, held in P.L. Troost’s new House of German Art. If you follow this link to the 1937 show’s web page, you’ll see sculptures of muscular, but not especially sexual figures alongside paintings of alpine and country scenes, all throwbacks to the Bismarck era and the classical era, all pre-modernist.
What didn’t get in was anything by Emil Nolde. His paintings ended up in the other exhibition, the one for “Degenerate Art”:
Entry into this exhibit was free. The paintings–mainly cubist, surrealist, and expressionist–were hung higgledy-piggeldy throughout the exhibition hall as a show of contempt, with caption cards to explain how paintings like these were ruining German culture and corrupting the minds of the people.
Many artists, like Max Beckmann, took this as their cue to leave Germany, but Nolde stayed. The Reich’s Culture Chamber issued a ruling forbidding him from buying painting supplies, but he continued in secret nevertheless, working in watercolors so that the smell of oil paint wouldn’t give him away and lead to a raid by the Gestapo. Nolde survived the war, but many of his paintings, which were ripped from museum walls, were destroyed.
(Here, by the way, is an article on the Degenerate Art Exposition called “‘Judge For Yourselves’ the ‘Degenerate Art’ Exhibition as Political Spectacle”. It’s a trenchant analysis of the exhibition as a propaganda tool.)
Nolde’s fate is the opposite of that of Arno Breker, who served, along with Josef Thorak, as the Third Reich’s leading sculptor.
Arno Breker studied sculpture in Dusseldorf in the 1920s before moving to Paris in 1927. He seemed intent on staying away from Germany, but in 1934 he returned on the advice of his friend, famed Jewish artist Max Liebermann. Breker’s works had, at first, been attacked in the Nazi press by the official Nazi Philosopher (and head of the Defense Guild of German Culture), Alfred Rosenberg. But, just as Goebbel’s admiration did little to aid Emil Nolde, Rosenberg’s criticism did little to hinder Arno Breker, because Adolf Hitler admired his sculpture. (Indeed, Hitler so admired Breker that, when Breker finally joined the NSDAP in 1937, Hitler arranged for him to have a low party number, which made him eligible for no end of perks.) You can see Breker’s contributions to the 1937 Great German Art Exhibit in Munich here. In addition, Breker’s sculptures, which often exceeded 90 feet in height, were on display at the Reich’s Chancellery building, the German Olympic Stadium, at the German World’s Fair Pavilion, and elsewhere. In addition, he sculpted busts of major party figures, including most notably his frequent collaborator, Albert Speer, and of course, Adolf Hitler.
Breker’s commissions made him a very wealthy man. Hitler intended for him to get a salary of a million marks per year tax free. This was not to be, however, since, unfortunately for Breker but fortunately for the rest of the world, the Nazis lost the war.
Breker went on trial at Nuremberg and was declared a fellow traveler of the Nazis, which meant that, after he paid a fine, he could resume his career. He continued to receive commissions for his sculptures. His last, which was never completed, was to have been a monumental sculpture of Alexander the Great for Greece.
Such were the divergent fates of artists during the Third Reich. Because there was no internally consistent aesthetic guidance to determine what was and wasn’t acceptable to the Nazis in art, success or ruin all came down to whose work best conformed to the cramped, petty bourgeois tastes of Adolf Hitler. His was the only voice in these matters that counted.