Cornelia Feye dances her laser pointer around a slide of German expressionist Emil Nolde’s “The Last Supper.” The art historian explains what Adolf Hitler hated about the 1909 painting.
“The crime (Nolde) was accused of was insolent mockery of the divine,” Feye tells a packed Athenaeum Music & Arts Library house of 60 on Oct. 24.
The theme of the third of four lectures in Feye’s series, “German Art of the 20th Century,” sounds like fodder for a Mel Brooks movie scene. Why would anyone care what paintings Adolf Hitler hated? But it’s actually a thing. Called “degenerate art” — Hitler’s phrase — it’s been taught for decades in art history classes. And it has deep relevance to the horrors of the Holocaust because Nazism was largely a product of Adolf Hitler’s aesthetic sensibility.
The Aryan ideal was heavily predicated on a look Hitler wanted his nation to achieve, one celebrated by his favorite painter, Adolf Ziegler, in his paintings of muscular nudes in the classical Greek tradition; a look that, ironically, Hitler didn’t possess himself.
“When Hitler came to power, he immediately started championing art that was important to him,” Feye said before the lecture. “He built a house of art in Munich and he had a large model of the Fuhrer Museum he wanted to build in his hometown. He kept that model with him until the bunker. That’s how important art was to him.”
Hitler hated any art that was non-white (including, of course, Jewish), pro-communist, or that lacked realism. (“Sheer insanity” was his label for abstract art.)
“He hated pretty much everything except a very, very tiny group of art that he cultivated around himself,” Feye said, “anything that didn’t completely conform to his narrow margins.”
In 1937, Hitler commanded Ziegler to rip around 5,000 of the most offensive examples off the walls of art museums all around Germany, then display 650 of them in Munich to stoke public scorn. But the Degenerate Art Exhibition had quite the opposite effect. Four times as many Germans attended it than the Hitler-sponsored Great German Art Exhibit across the street — two million in four months.
“People were astounded at the quality of the work,” Feye said. “It was basically a who’s who of modern art — Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky — hardly any great art was exempted.”
Most of tonight’s attendees interviewed by La Jolla Light say they came to all three of Feye’s lectures because they love anything to do with art history.
“I learned a lot tonight,” says Kirby Kendrick of Mission Hills, who is an artist herself. “I thought the Degenerate Art Exhibition was put on by the artists themselves, as a rebellion thing like the Salon des Refuses in Paris.”
But some came because of the Hitler connection.
“We have to pay attention to history — that’s the main message,” said La Jolla resident Judy Newman. “I think of what’s happening today, with people following egotistical, self-centered leaders who have charisma.”
Many attendees professed not knowing that Hitler was an aspiring painter. He applied to the Fine Art Academy in Vienna, according to Feye, and got rejected twice. (The director wrote that he was unfit for painting and might want to study architecture instead. Hitler couldn’t, because he didn’t finish high school.)
“There is a theory that if Hitler had been accepted at the art academy, maybe the world would have been spared a lot of suffering,” Feye said. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to go too far and say it explains the Holocaust.”
Although none were murdered by the Nazis, artists fingered as degenerate were forbidden to produce their art, fired from their day jobs and threatened with arrest. Many of their confiscated paintings subsequently went missing; some still are.
A decade or so ago, when Feye worked at the San Diego Museum of Art, she said she was part of a team tasked with determining the provenance of all art the museum purchased from 1933 to 1945. “They wanted to make sure none of it was stolen,” Feye said. “They would ask me to translate some of the source material and witness reports of the Jewish art collectors.”
Feye said the team flagged one painting for return, a Peter Paul Rubens she said “had been obtained under questionable circumstances.”
Feye’s interest in German art of the Nazi era is intensely personal. The Point Loma resident is German and grew up in the shadows of the atrocities. Her father and grandfather were soldiers in the German army.
“There was no choice,” she said. “What were they going to do? My father was a good person and he was not in the SS. He was just an infantry cavalry man, and he couldn’t refuse.
“When I was growing up, it was hard to be proud to be a German,” Feye added. “It’s still a national karma.”