The Concept of Decadence

    The concept of decadence can be used in a merely subjective, arbitrary manner to condemn whatever elements an individual or a group happens to dislike.

    For example, the concept of decadence was firmly entrenched in Nazi policy. On June 30, 1937 Goebbels put Adolf Ziegler, the head of the Reichskammer der Bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of Visual Art), in charge of a six-man commission authorized to confiscate from museums and art collections throughout the Reich, any remaining art deemed modern, degenerate, or subversive. These works were then to be presented to the public in an exhibit titled Entartete Kunst, Decadent Art.

      Over 5,000 works were seized, including 1,052 by Nolde, 759 by Heckel, 639 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and 508 by Max Beckmann, as well as smaller numbers of works by such artists as Alexander Archipenko, Marc Chagall, James Ensor, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh. The Entartete Kunst exhibit, featuring over 650 paintings, sculptures, prints, and books from the collections of thirty two German museums, premiered in Munich on July 19, 1937 and remained on view until November 30 before travelling to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria.

      The exhibit was held on the second floor of a building formerly occupied by the Institute of Archaeology. Viewers had to reach the exhibit by means of a narrow staircase. The first sculpture was an oversized, theatrical portrait of Jesus, which purposely intimidated viewers as they literally bumped into it in order to enter. The rooms were made of temporary partitions and deliberately chaotic and overfilled. Pictures were crowded together, sometimes unframed, usually hung by cord, intended to incite further revulsion against the "perverse Jewish spirit" penetrating German culture.

      Coinciding with the Entartete Kunst exhibition, the Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German art exhibition) made its premiere amid much pageantry. This exhibition, held at the palatial Haus der deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), displayed the work of officially approved artists such as Arno

Breker and Adolf Wissel. At the end of four months Entartete Kunst had attracted over two million visitors--including the Great Leader himself--nearly three and a half times the number that visited the nearby Entartete Kunst exhibit.

          Entartete Kunst                                              Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung
      Impure and Decadent                                                           Nazi Purity

     

In the Haus der deutschen Kunst enhibit, the Nazis presented a display of art which it considered "pure."

      Modern styles of art were prohibited, the Nazis promoting paintings and sculptures that were narrowly traditional in treatment and that exalted the "blood and soil" values of racial purity, militarism, and obedience. As you can see, the "art" the Nazis saw as "pure" was equally decadent to that of the art they ridiculed.

Decadent Music      Similarly, Nazi-approved music was expected to be tonal and free of jazz influence, while films and plays were closely censored. Avant-garde German artists were now branded both enemies of the state and a threat to German culture. Many went into exile. Max Beckmann fled to Amsterdam on the opening day of the entartete Kunst exhibit. Max Ernst emigrated to America with the assistance of Peggy Guggenheim. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner committed suicide in Switzerland in 1938. Paul Klee spent his years in exile in Switzerland, yet was unable to obtain Swiss citizenship because of his status as a degenerate artist.