An odd story came out of Germany this past week. The Miami Herald reported on Nov. 2, more than 250 artworks seized from Jewish collectors by the Nazis and held in a Hitler-era dealer’s home for the last 72 years, have gone on display for the first time anywhere, in a Bonn museum show entitled Nazi Art Theft and its Consequences. The oddity is that the paintings and sculpture amassed and held on to all this time had been condemned by the Fuhrer as “degenerate.”

Burning question

Not only was this cache of painting and sculpture scorned in the Third Reich, but several of the artists were Jewish, and we all know what this fascist regime thought of them.

Historian Henry Grossham quoted the Fuhrer in his 1983 book "Hitler and the Artists" saying, “The Jews have succeeded in condemning nearly everything that was healthy in art to junk and trash.” One wonders, then, why the Nazis held onto works that their leader deemed “junk.” Why didn’t they just toss it on a bonfire the way they did books he didn’t like? For that matter, why did the Fuhrer bother to mount an exhibit of said “junk” under the banner “Art of the ‘Degenerates,” which only served to call attention to it?

Likely answer

One possible answer may be that Hitler wanted everyone to feel as he did – “insulted” by the art in question. This is a good place to describe the works that he said; “destroys or confuses natural form.” Translation: The Nazi leader didn’t like modern art – not the abstract variety, mind you, but the recognizable kind that comes with some distortion.

Known today as Expressionism, this style was intended to convey the inner world of the heart and mind, which accounts for the exaggerated forms that made the Fuhrer so uncomfortable.

Mean streets

For example, the paintings of Max Beckmann (a Jew by the way), really ticked Hitler off. With tortured forms, he sought to express the abhorrent things he saw as a medical corpsman in WWI.

As he said, “I wanted to show in my work the idea which hides behind so-called reality.” Peter Seltz’s biography of Beckmann made the point that the artist was so traumatized by the anti-Semitism he suffered in Nazi Germany that even when he moved to the U.S., “panic seized him” when he saw a policeman.

Still asking

Camille Pissarro, who also was Jewish and whose work was likewise classed “degenerate” was an Impressionist who steered clear of emotions.

But, as he wrote to his son John, “We have to approach nature sincerely, with our own modern sensibilities.” Clearly, that was something Hitler couldn’t do. Instead, he restricted imagery to Arcadian views wiped clean of what he called “our rotting world.” Look who’s calling the world 'rotting.' All of which still leaves the question, why hold onto so-called degenerate art?