With London 1938 the Liebermann-Villa is marking the 80th anniversary of the London response to Nazi Germany’s infamous Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937. Curator Lucy Wasensteiner speaks about its relevance today.
In the summer of 1937 the National Socialist authorities in Germany organised the exhibition Degenerate Art in Munich, showing confiscated works with the aim of deriding the art and artists no longer welcome in the Third Reich. A year later, in 1938, a response titled Twentieth Century German Art took place in London’s New Burlington Galleries. It was the largest exhibition of German modernist painting to date. This month, Liebermann-Villa pays tribute to the bold riposte.
Can you talk a bit about the organisation and background of the 1938 London exhibition – essentially an anti-Nazi show in Soho, the artistic heart of London?
Degenerate Art in Munich was huge news all over Europe in the summer of 1937. Many different groups outside Germany started thinking how they could answer it in some way. The plans realised in London one year later started in September 1937, with art dealers, art critics and historians in London, Zurich and Paris. We know that at least 320 works were sent to Twentieth Century German Art: from Swiss museums, local collectors in Britain and Switzerland, dozens of German émigrés and from many of the “degenerate” artists themselves. Each of these contributors had their own specific reasons for lending to London. We want to explore these people and their motivations in our show.
How many of the original works from the original London exhibition are you showing at the Liebermann-Villa?
We have 30 of them. The selection is really wonderful, with Kandinsky, Nolde, Kirchner and Modersohn-Becker among others! We wanted to recreate the visual sense of the original exhibition, so we will be keeping some elements of the layout. Another aim is to explore how the show was organised, and of course to tell the stories of the lenders. So we will be using short wall texts setting out the provenance history and background of each picture. We were conscious of not overloading the visitor – this is an art exhibition first and foremost! Extra information will be included in our audio guide.
How did the Degenerate Art exhibition affect the artists and collectors across the art world and generally during the Nazi time?
National Socialism and the campaign against “degenerate art” had a huge impact on German artists, dealers and collectors. Many artists who were forced into exile – like Kurt Schwitters for example – had to restart their careers. They recognised Twentieth Century German Art as a good chance to promote themselves in exile. Émigré collectors clearly saw the show in a similar way – they could make an anti-Nazi statement while at the same time promoting themselves as wealthy collectors abroad. Hitler himself condemned the London show in a speech made in Munich in July 1938, which meant it was widely criticised in the Nazi press too. This really just shows that Twentieth Century German Art hit its mark politically. What does the show mean today? I think this exhibition is really relevant today. Rising nationalism, the mass-movement of people, this questioning of how different cultures can co-exist with and learn from each other – I feel that the circumstances of the 1930s were in many ways very similar to today. If people can come to our show, and see how cultural openness and exchange is always possible, even in difficult political circumstances, I would be very happy!
London 1938, Defending “Degenerate” German Art Oct 7-Jan 14 | Liebermann-Villa, Wannsee