Why weren't Hitler's paintings considered art?

Exhibition in Berlin: Why Hitler stole paintings - and was hidden under you

When it opened in 1919, the Kronprinzenpalais - the area for modern art in the Berlin National Gallery - couldn't have been more hip. At that point, everything indicated that the German capital would continue to be a hotbed for contemporary art. Hardly anyone could have suspected that their success would only be short-lived - just like with the Weimar Republic.

Adolf Hitler was a painter himself, but was rejected twice from the Vienna Art Academy. When the National Socialists seized power in 1933, he wanted to put an end to the genre of modern art that he despised. Artists either had to adapt or flee. And yet there are still many modern works of art from this era. And they all tell a story.

From Saturday (November 21st, 2015) more than 60 works of art will be shown in the "Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart" in Berlin. In the exhibition "The Black Years. Stories from a Collection. 1933 - 1945". The actual location of the collection, the Neue Nationalgalerie, is currently being renovated. "I think it is our museum's duty to exhibit the collections and to have an open discussion about them," said curator Dieter Scholz.

An artistic symbol against fascism

The title of the exhibition is intended on the one hand to recall destruction and mourning, but is also inspired by Karl Hofer's second version of the painting "The Black Rooms" (1943). Allied bombs destroyed the original from 1928. "This is a statement against fascism," said Scholz. "Hofer didn't accept that the painting had been destroyed because of the Nazis." The artist was the head of the Berlin Art Academy. Like many from his environment, he had to vacate his post after Hitler came to power.

Two almost identical self-portraits by Hofer can also be seen in the exhibition. The original picture from 1935 was confiscated by the Nazis because they considered it "degenerate" - a term that applied to all modern works of art - from expressionistic to surrealist. "Hitler hated any form of art that did not meet the traditional norm," says art historian Meike Hoffmann from the "Degenerate Art" research center at the Free University of Berlin.

The Nazis confiscated 16,000 works

The development of so many different styles during this period was a sign of individuality and democracy - two values ​​that contradicted the regime's conformist stance. The Hofer portrait was one of the 500 works of art that the Nazi regime confiscated from the National Gallery. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who ironically had previously written expressionist literature himself, was in charge of this.

Together with around 600 other works, the works formed an exhibition on "degenerate art" in Munich in 1937. Many of the two million visitors were probably forced to go to the museum at the time, says Dieter Scholz. Works by well-known 20th century artists such as Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinski and Marc Chagall were shown there. Beside it were boards with racist insults.

The National Socialists confiscated a total of 16,000 "degenerate" works of art. They auctioned off works that were considered valuable. They sold Hofer's original portrait to an American collector. The work only found its way back to the museum last year.

Landscapes replaced people

The 1999 Washington Conference focused on what should happen to the works of art confiscated by the Nazis. Museums were urged to search their collections for confiscated art. This discussion has moved German museums in recent years, said Scholz. Some works have still not been returned to their rightful heirs.

By the end of 1933, the museum had replaced most of the works of art that featured people with still lifes and landscapes. After the Weimar Republic, Otto Dix lost his fame of bygone days and became a permanent target of the regime. He sold landscape paintings during this time. At the same time he continued to paint on his controversial war paintings.

His work "Flanders" shows half-dead soldiers in a trench - exactly the kind of anti-patriotic art that was a thorn in the side of the Nazis. "This is not a picture of a heroic soldier in war," says Scholz. "In my opinion, this is direct criticism." In 1937 the museum stopped collecting art from living artists at all. That is why there were no portraits of Hitler in the exhibition. At least that's what people thought, until Scholz and his colleagues made a strange discovery.

Hitler appears under a layer of paint

Erwin Hahs was persecuted by the Nazis. One day I received the order to make a portrait of the Führer for a school in Stendal. Hahs painted Hitler in front of glowing red ruins - the authorities didn't like that at all. Later, Hahs simply used the canvas again. He painted a nude and called it "The Great Requiem". When the curators were preparing the exhibition, they found a reference to the hidden painting in the letter from the artist's widow. They examined the factory and found the hidden portrait of Hitler.

"Exhibitions with works from this period are very important because they raise questions about the past," says art historian Meike Hoffmann. "There is so much we don't know about the Third Reich. And we still have to do a lot of research so that the same thing doesn't happen again in the future."