‘Degenerate! Hitler’s war on modern art’ | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

‘Degenerate! Hitler’s war on modern art’

It may sound like something out of a dystopian speculative fiction novel, but it happened.  

“Degenerate Art” was the name of a Nazi-sponsored art show, held in Munich in 1937, with hundreds of works on display to “educate” the public on the “art of decay.” Text labels with the pieces derided the art. 

In the years before the Holocaust, the Nazis increasingly turned against art, in particular targeting modern art. Art that was abstract, for example, was linked by the Nazis to genetic inferiority and moral decline. The Nazis removed more than 20,000 artworks from state-owned museums, according to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  

This dark corner of history, a cautionary tale, is to be remembered in Milwaukee thanks to several sources, including one local collector, Kevin Kinney. A Jewish Museum Milwaukee exhibit opening later this month, “Degenerate! Hitler’s war on modern art,” will make use of Kinney’s items, among others. The opening preview is Feb. 23. Visit JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org for more information. 

The exhibit tells the harrowing story of art under siege in Germany, with examples from artists whose work was attacked.  

“Before Hitler came to power, Germany was this epicenter of avant-garde and modernist art movements and thinking,” said Jewish Museum Milwaukee Curator Molly Dubin.  

You didn’t have to be Jewish to be targeted as an artist by the Nazis. “There were hundreds, if not thousands of artists who were impacted. Every artist in Germany was impacted,” Dubin said.  

Hitler’s own background may have played into the Nazi disdain for non-realist art.  “He applied and was denied entry twice into the Austria School of Art, and he held a great deal of anger about that,” Dubin noted. 

Kinney, an attorney in Milwaukee, loaned some art to Jewish Museum Milwaukee for the exhibition.  

“What happened with this German art is that the first time that I saw it, I was astounded by the intensity of this work. It wasn’t just a pretty picture. It was societal; there was depth far beyond just the picture,” he said. 

Kinney also collects other forms of art, which is more “enjoyable to look at,” he said. The kind of art that’s been selected for the show can be important to remember but “hard to look at,” he said, because of the “personal struggles that a lot of these artists were going through.” 

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How to go 

Opening preview 

What: Opening Preview: ‘Degenerate! Hitler’s war on modern art.’ Featured Talk: ‘Weimar Culture: Promise and Precariousness’ with Peter Staudenmaier, Associate Professor of Modern German History at Marquette University. 

When: Thursday, Feb. 23, 7 p.m. 

Where: Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, is at 1360 N. Prospect Ave.  


More information: 414-390-5730. JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org.