By the end of this month, the V&A Museum in London is set to publish the complete German 1941-1942 list of “Degenerate Art” (or “Entartete Kunst”) on its website. The derogatory term was used by the propaganda ministry of the Nazi regime to refer to artworks in a 1937 exhibition that focused on works cast as an “insult" to Germany.
Artworks by mentally ill patients as well as many paintings that looked remotely “modernist” were among those curated as “Jewish-Bolshevist” threats to German “decency.” A painting by the legendary Picasso was also included in the exhibit.
How did this text end up at the V&A Museum? Apparently the widow of Austrian-born art dealer Heinrich Robert Fischer donated the inventory to the museum in 1996. It is unclear how Fischer came to possess the list but may have acquired it sometime during the late 1960s.
Images of these original pages have never been published anywhere, so this key piece to the Nazi regime’s cultural propaganda finally being made public is quite significant. Many of the artworks in the document have not been seen for years. The access to the information in the list will be critical to researchers in both art and political history.
We also can now see the coding of how each artwork was disposed of, for example whether it was returned (R), exchanged (T), or destroyed (X), among other categories:
Giving open access to important objects like this is precisely one of the most important roles that museums have today. The exhibition was one of the myriad ways the Nazis set the cultural tone for their future crimes against humanity, and the extremity of the subject makes anything from this part of history extremely necessary to share as widely as possible. The “Degenerate Art” exhibit by the Nazis remains one of the most—if not the most—heinous acts of cultural assaults in history, therefore complete transparency of all of the building blocks is a crucial element to continue acknowledging its crime. The permanence of online documentation also checks our own current societies for future reference in cultural matters.
It is difficult to find a realistic silver lining in terms of the Nazi context. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out how German society regrouped after WWII and created documenta 1— a large scale art international exhibition in 1955 that included works Hitler would never have allowed. Intent to show their disassociation with the Nazi mentality, ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to use art as a symbol of progressiveness and change. Documenta continues every five years in Kassel, Germany as one of the most respected large scale international contemporary art exhibitions today.