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'Degenerate!' art exhibit explores Nazi Germany's impact on modern art

Audrey Nowakowski
The DEGENERATE! exhibit at Jewish Museum Milwaukee gives guests the opportunity to view modern art labeled as 'degenerate" by Hitler and the Nazis, plus learn how art was used as a tool of propaganda.

Under the control of the Nazi regime, works of art all across Europe were confiscated by the thousands. Some were destroyed or even sold to pay for the war, others were used as propaganda. This had a lasting impact on Modern Art and not just in Germany.

A new exhibition at Jewish Museum Milwaukee called DEGENERATE! Hitler’s War on Modern Art, explores the Third Reich’s use of modern art as a tool to sway public opinion for their gain.

After the end of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was in economical and social despair. The art from that era began to reflect the mindsets of many German people who were thinking outside of the box and questioning traditions according to Jewish Museum Milwaukee curator Molly Dubin. As this rise in modern German art coincided with the rise of the German Nazi Party, Nazis began to censor the art in the region to better fit their interests.

Dubin argues that Hitler, a failed artist, began associating his failure as a professional artist with the rise of the recent style and modern artistic approach. As a result, Hitler grew a disdain for modern art. "But he also sees modern art as free thinking. He doesn't want free thinking," she notes. "He is trying to unite, particularly the German people, behind a common cause — behind a common sensibility. And in his mind, there is a right form of art, and there is a wrong form of art."

The DEGENERATE! exhibit focuses on the massive purges of art committed by the Nazi regime, confiscating thousands of pieces and putting hundreds up for display to be mocked during a propaganda exhibit in 1937. Two years later, around 125 additional works were auctioned off for revenue. Dubin explains the current exhibition curates their featured works mainly through the efforts of a private collector with a particular interest in German expressionist art, along with contributions from UW-Milwaukee, UW-Whitewater, the Wright Museum of Art at Beloit College, the Haggerty Museum of Art atMarquette University, and the Milwaukee Art Museum.

While speaking on the importance of this exhibit and others like it, Dubin says, "In most instances, the case of of what is being banned or censored are minority voices or minority groups. We need to have their stories told, they need to have their voices heard."

DEGENERATE! Hitler’s War on Modern Art is open now through June 4th.

There will be a special event on Nazi art confiscation on April 20. Registration for that event is available here.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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