Nazi Art in Museums?

A lecture by Gregory Maertz exploring the problematics of museumizing Nazi art and Nazi artistic conventions


Fields of Knowledge
  • Artistic legacies
  • Memory
  • Politics / Economics

Organizing Institutions



Jean-Michel Rabaté


Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania

Opens to public



4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104


25% Formal - 75% Informal

Slought is pleased to announce "Nazi Art in Museums? Canonization and Controversy," a lecture by Gregory Maertz on Friday, February 15, 2008 from 5:30-7:00pm at Slought.

Twenty years ago, a lively debate broke out in West Germany over the proper repository for the Nazi art (slightly more than 7,000 objects) recently repatriated at the time by the U.S. Army, and whether it was appropriate for collector Peter Ludwig to install sculptures commissioned from Arno Breker in the Museum Ludwig of Modern Art in Cologne. Highlights of the debate were published in the volume Nazi Kunst ins Museum? edited by Klaus Staeck (Steidl Verlag, 1988). In my presentation at Slought, I will revisit this debate and offer an update on where things stand today, so as to discuss the problematics of museumizing Nazi art and restoring objects with this provenance to cultural circulation. Moreover, I will explore what has happened since 1988 that makes an exhibition of Nazi art that I'm curating at the Zimmerli Art Museum (opening c. 2010) possible now.

How will this new exhibition that I am working on differ from previous exhibitions, including the recent Kunst und Propaganda im Streit der Nationen (Berlin, 2007) and Modernism: Designing a New World (London, 2006)? The definition of Nazi art that governed the debate in 1988 is on the verge of a radical transformation. Twenty years ago scholars knew the art of the Third Reich principally from Nazi-era photographs, from which it was impossible to judge the quality of the surfaces of paintings. Moreover, those few original objects known to scholars and the public from postwar exhibitions belonged to the smaller of the two collections of Nazi art created by American property control officers. These pictures had been confiscated—and thus preserved—because they closely adhered to Nazi aesthetic conventions. (Thousands of other pictures, especially those produced in the Modernist idiom, were released from U.S. custody to the artists.) And invariably images selected for each new exhibition were works that met expectations established by previous exhibitions.

Following my discovery of 10,000 virtually unknown works of art, which were seized by U.S. officials but not featured in exhibitions until now, the known canon of Nazi art will expand considerably (more than ten-fold). And, in stark contrast to conventional accounts by art historians, it is impossible to characterize this body of work as a) uniformly anti-Modernist in a second-rate Socialist Realism kind of way or b) primarily the work of Nazi Party hacks or untalented opportunists. In revisiting a memorable controversy that roiled the last days of a divided Germany, I offer evidence for an expanded and thoroughly revised understanding of Nazi artistic conventions.

In particular, my research has focused on a huge collection of works of art produced in Nazi Germany that was formed by the U.S. Army between 1946 and 1949. I picked up the trail of this collection, now broken up into three separate parts, photographed and catalogued the objects, and then I tracked down several archives related to these objects and photographed their contents, c. 50,000 documents. Few of these works have been seen by scholars or members of the public.

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Gregory Maertz is a Professor in the English Department at St. John's University in New York City. A cultural historian, critic, and independent curator, he teaches courses on Romanticism, the afterlife of Nazi art and culture, Modernism and Fascism, art and propaganda, criticism and theory. His discovery of thousands of works of art produced in Nazi Germany and the archives of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst was supported by membership at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and NEH, Gerda Henkel Stiftung, CASVA, Wolfsonian, Gilder-Lehrman, and DAAD fellowships. Prof. Maertz has published extensively on nineteenth-century English and German literature, and his research on Nazi art is being published in four volumes—The Invisible Museum: Unearthing the Lost Modernist Art of the Third Reich (forthcoming, Yale UP), House of Art: A Cultural History of Nazi Germany (under contract, Yale UP), Nazi Art: Images, Texts, and Documents (forthcoming, Palgrave Macmillan), and The Last Taboo: The Rehabilitation of Nazi Artists in Postwar Germany.

A preview of his discoveries will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Modernism/modernity. Prof. Maertz was a contributing curator ("Raumautor") for Kunst und Propaganda im Streit der Nationen at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin (2007). His exhibition, "Art of the Third Reich," the first comprehensive exhibition of Nazi art, opens at the Jane Vorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in 2010.

There are three categories of artists whose work was confiscated by U.S. Army Captain Gordon W. Gilkey:

1) "Degenerate Modernists" designates artists (painters and sculptors) who worked openly until 1937 at which point they were banned, entered internal emigration, or left the country. The term can also be applied to artists who, despite experiencing varying degrees of programmatic or improvised harassment, were nonetheless permitted to work after anti-Modernism had become official policy. Artists in these two categories include Max Beckmann, Rudolf Belling, Karl Caspar, Lovis Corinth, Xaver Fuhr, Werner Gilles, Erich Heckel, Karl Hofer, Max Kaus, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Georg Kolbe, Käthe Kollwitz, Gerhard Marcks, Johannes Molzahn, Georg Muche, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Emil Nolde, Wolf Panizza, Otto Pankok, Max Pechstein, Hans Purrmann, Christian Rohlfs, Oskar Schlemmer, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

2) "Court artists" exhibited in the House of German Art and benefited from the patronage of the regime leadership. Membership in this category was fluid rather than fixed, except for the caste of highly decorated favorites of the regime leadership. Both "degenerate" modernists and Nazi modernists moved in and out of this privileged group throughout the duration of the Great German Art Exhibitions. Similarly, the designation of "court artist" should not be seen as undermining an artist's importance, as in the case of Adolf Wissel.

3) Nazi Modernists: under this heading are artists who worked openly in the Modernist vernacular but who experienced no persecution or restrictions on their work. The artists in this group moved seamlessly between the boundaries of state-sanctioned taste and Nazi modernism.