By Janice Childers, Senior Editor
International Bibliography of Art/ARTbibliographies Modern
The years between World Wars I and II were not easy ones. Europe struggled with reconstruction and redrawn boundaries, the Great Depression brought misery to the United States and affected the world economy, extremist political groups rose to power in Italy and Germany, while the Sino-Japanese War signaled further disaster in the East. Migration increased as people sought to escape famine as well as political and cultural changes that resulted in perilous conditions.
All of these impacted the art produced in the years before and during the Second World War, but one of the most notable contrasts is between the art and culture of the Weimar Republic and that of the Third Reich that followed.
Before Hitler's rise to power in 1933, German culture held scientists, innovators, intellectuals and artists in high regard. The Dada movement, which began during the First World War as a rejection of war propaganda, flourished. Artists throughout Europe including Jean Arp, George Grosz, Marcel Duchamp, and Kurt Schwitters depicted contemporary technology with a giddy mix of pop-culture, wit, and multi-media. The Bauhaus school, founded by Walter Gropius, and the Deutscher Werkbund association popularized a modern blend of craftsmanship and industrial design.
When the Weimar Republic gave way to the Third Reich, however, Hitler decreed his personal artistic aesthetics as law. Many artists, including Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Otto Dix, Paul Klee, and Max Beckmann found their work labeled "Entartete Kunst" (degenerate art), a moniker Hitler used to describe his racial purist philosophy of aesthetic violence perpetrated by Jews. The Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937 may be one of the best-known outcomes of this policy. Despite the fact that it was intended to elucidate the dangers of corrupt thought and culture for the German public, it drew in many more visitors than the official German art exhibition (Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung), which showcased art in a more traditional mode intended to exalt the pillars of Nazi philosophy: racial purity, militarism, and nationalism.
The sanctioned disdain of art outside these narrow parameters led to the mass spoliation of such works across Germany and Europe, including a bonfire which destroyed numerous works by Dalí, Picasso, Ernst, Klee, Léger, and Míro in 1942. Meanwhile, many artworks -- both "acceptable" and "degenerate" -- were stolen (often from Jewish collectors) and taken back to Germany or its occupied territories for storage or sale, where unscrupulous art dealers such as Hildebrand Gurlitt benefited from the systematic looting.
The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck (1432), also known as the "Mystic Lamb," holds the distinction of being one of the most stolen pieces of art in history. Having been stolen and retrieved several times already, in 1934 thieves made off with the lower left panel, while the rest of the altarpiece was stolen a last time on the orders of Nazi General Hermann Goering. It was found after the war among thousands of other artworks in an Austrian salt mine, minus the lower panel, which has never been recovered.
Nazi looting was so widespread that the Allied forces formed the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program in 1943 to find and return stolen works. These "Monuments Men" (and women) were tasked with searching for an estimated five million artworks and cultural effects hidden away in salt mines, castles, and private or museum collections around the world. Seventy years later, many thousands of pieces remain missing and suspected stolen art continues to turn up in prestigious museum collections, including Great Britain's National Gallery, and in private collections such as the cache of over 1,000 artworks discovered after Cornelius Gurlitt's death.
The ripple of war's effect on art extended to the United States, in the form of artists fleeing death and persecution in Nazi-occupied Europe. While American artists such as Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Jacob Lawrence steadily imprinted their personal styles on works chronicling city, rural, and African-American experiences respectively, European artists were generally given preference in American museums in the pre-war era. It wasn't until after the war that these now-iconic artists gained wider credence and public appeal. After World War II, the center of Modern art shifted to embrace innovative American artists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning as Abstract Expressionism took hold.
Researchers can explore art, artists, and design from the World War II era with ProQuest's International Bibliography of Art, ARTbibliographies Modern, Design and Applied Arts Index, and Art and Architecture Archive, or study legislation on the "Monuments Men" and related subjects in the ProQuest Congressional publications.
[Photo credit: American GI with looted art at Schlosskirche Ellingen, Bavaria, April 1945. Photograph No. 11-SC-204899; "Troops find loot hidden in church," April 24, 1945; Signal Corps Photographs of American Military Activity; Record Group 111; Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860-1985; National Archives and Records Administration.]
Boyer, G. (2013). Éditorial : Gurlitt et l'affaire des tableaux spoliés. Connaissance Des Arts, 5.
Decker, Andrew. "A Worldwide Treasure Hunt." ARTnews 90, no. 6 (1991): 130-6, 138
Guillaume, Florelle. "Art & Polar : Les Folles Tribulations De l'Agneau Mystique." Beaux Arts Magazine (2013): 66-71.
Michalska, Julia. "Museums Hunt for Jewish Dealer's Art." Art Newspaper 22, no. 249 (2013): 7.
U.S. House, 'Second Deficiency Appropriation Bill for 1944', Hearing, June 6-9, 1944 (Hearing ID HRG-1944-HAP-0022). Washington: Government Printing Office, 1944.
U.S Senate, 'Temporary Retention in the U.S. of Certain German Paintings', Hearing, Mar.4, Apr.16, 1948 (Hearing ID HRG-1949-SAS-0005). Washington: Government Printing Office, 1948.