Degenerate Art

A successful unit on art includes the subjects, goals, and messages of the works that are studied.

By Daniella Garran


To understand the concept of “degenerate art” students must have some background knowledge of Nazi Germany. This period of time was characterized by fear and oppression. Not only was this the case for members of groups such as the Jews, the Gypsies and the Poles, but also artists, writers and musicians. The Nazis forbade the display of art that they deemed “degenerate.” In fact, they removed over 16,000 works of art from European museums because they were considered anathema to Nazi ideology.

More than 600 of these works were assembled into a traveling exhibition which, after a debut in Munich, traveled to eleven other German and Austrian cities as the Nazis tried to stir up anti-Expressionist sentiment and convey a sense of “revulsion” among viewers. The "Entartete Kunst" exhibition of 1937 was viewed by millions of Europeans.

It is critical that students have a basic understanding of modern art in terms of its subjects, goals and messages prior to exploring why the Nazis declared certain art “degenerate.” It is interesting to note that in 1913, a great deal of modern art was displayed in what was informally called the Armory Show, but was formally referred to as The International Exhibition of Modern Art. There was a great deal of public outrage at what some considered the “death” of art precipitated by uncouth subject matter and style.

One way to introduce students to the concepts of modern art is to recreate the 1913 Armory Show. The teacher can place color images of the most famous paintings and sculptures and have a gallery talk. This can help students explore the specific artists and paintings featured in this particular exhibition. Teachers could also recreate the "Entartete Kunst" exhibition in the same way.

Another engaging activity to help explain degenerate art is to create a “Celebration of the Arts” where you "invite" all of the artists who were considered degenerate. You can assign students to play the roles of these artists including Otto Dix, Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, George Grosz and Wassily Kandinsky. Ask students to choose a work of art by the artist they are portraying which they will share with the class. Students should give their presentation in character and explain their inspiration for the work, as well as why it was considered degenerate. Here are some other excellent lessons that deal with degenerate art.

Degenerate Art Lesson Plans:

The Real Spirit Within: Expressionistic Portraits

This lesson from the Cincinnati Art Museum focuses on the painting "The Clown" by Georges Rouault. Because of its religious overtones, this painting was classified by the Nazis as “degenerate.” Students examine the historic aspect of the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937 and then they create a self-portrait in the expressionist style of Rouault.

Self-Portraits: A Sign of Their Times

This corresponding lesson from the Cincinnati Art Museum continues looking at self-portraits and what the Nazis perceived as “degenerate.” The lesson focuses on Oskar Kokoschka’s work "Duchess of Montesquiu-Ferenzac." Students continue analyzing Expressionism and how it was perceived by the Nazis. Students create another self-portrait in the style of Kokoschka.

Hitler's War Against Artists

Students examine the Nazis’ censorship of art and the art that they embraced and used as propaganda. Students will analyze Berlin street scenes painted by Albert Birkle, George Grosz and Bruno Voigt to determine what the Nazis found offensive about art that they deemed “degenerate.” Students will also explore the conditions under which artists worked in Nazi-era Germany.