German Expressionism and Degenerate Art

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David Gariff, senior lecturer, National Gallery of Art. Germany around 1900 was a volatile contradiction—modernizing rapidly, yet deeply conservative in values. This was fertile ground for the birth of German expressionism represented by the paintings and sculptures of Ernst Barlach, Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc, Otto Müller, Emil Nolde, and others. With the rise of national socialism in the 1930s in Germany, many of these avant-garde artists and the movements of which they were a part came to be labeled “degenerate.” The recent gift of the Arnold and Joan Saltzman collection of German expressionist art has transformed the Gallery’s holdings of modern art in this area. In this lecture presented on May 4, 2018, at the National Gallery of Art, senior lecturer David Gariff explores the nature of German expressionist art against the backdrop of two important exhibitions mounted by the Nazis in 1937: The Great German Art Exhibition, on July 18, and the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition, on July 19. Through these two exhibitions and their related documents and propaganda, the Nazis sought to establish and support the reputation of the approved art of the Third Reich, while at the same time to unleash a destructive “tornado” (as Hitler referred to it) against modern art.

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