How do we value German art from the 1930s and 1940s?
Are these works unethical, worthless kitsch? Are they inconsistent, politically incorrect trash? ‘Non-art’?
Or can they from a pure aesthetic or art-historical point of view be beautiful? Citizens of modern Western democratic systems are able to decide for themselves what they like or dislike and they have a clear understanding that a large proportion of this art was used for propaganda purposes.
Transparency: Zeigen, nicht Verschweigen
This type of art has been hidden for more than 70 years, but times change. We welcome the increasing transparency in this area. The Great German Art Exhibitions were put online by GDK Research in 2011, the Texas Tech University has put online the German works of art in the possession of the U.S. Army Center of Military History and online databases were created by the German Historical Museum and the Pinakotheken. Along with these encouraging initiatives, there have been more then 25 recent expositions in museums in Austria, France, Germany, Norway, The Netherlands and the USA of German art from the 1930s and 1940s. Several German museums have already included art produced in the Third Reich in their permanent exhibitions: among them the German Historical Museum, Kunstmuseum Moritzburg, Stadtmuseum Munich, the Pinakothek der Moderne and the Bundeswehr Museum of Military History in Dresden. These exhibitions also help citizens to get a better understanding of the art and of this troubled, dark and tragic period in European history.
Destruction and scarcity
The prices of the art in our gallery are a reflection of its scarcity. Based on the Potsdam Agreement of 2 August 1945, subparagraph 3, Part III, Section A and OMGUS, Title 18, more than 95% of this type of art was destroyed, along with numerous German monuments, after the end of World War II. The rest was shipped away during a systematic looting of art in 1945 and 1946 by the American, British and Russian forces (2,5 million works of art were stolen by Russia). This looting included the plundering of German medieval and ancient art of invaluable historical importance from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, the Saxon State Library and the Berlin Nationalgalerie.
Nowadays most of what is left of the German art from the 1930s and 1940s is in the possession of three public institutions: the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington D.C., the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin and the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen (Die Pinakotheken).
What determines the current prices of Third Reich art?
During the first five decades after World War II, art produced during the Third Reich was more or less worthless. It was intensely associated with dictatorship and one of the most tragic periods in human history. The commercial value was mostly determined by the taboo on this art.
Over the next ten years, however, the past will fade into history, -which is defined as the period before the lifetime of those now living. It is only a matter of time before the taboo evaporates and there is more of an inclination to asses this art from a purely historical perspective. For example, art from periods such as Hellenistic Greece, the Roman Empire, the Viking Age, and the reign of Charles the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte, which all involved dictators and human rights violations, is today regarded from a historical perspective. As a result of the Potsdam Agreement, Third Reich art was destructed on a massive scale and the supply today is therefore limited. Expectations are that only a small increase in demand will trigger strong price increases.
Within the category Third Reich Art, prices today can vary widely. The value is especially determined by an artwork’s historical significance, that is by the meaning and role of the work in the Third Reich. The depiction of farmers, workers, soldiers, mothers and female nudes was especially popular. As the National Socialists were meritocrats; skills, drive and commitment towards their politics were far more important than lineage, titles and social position. This was the same in the art world: the specific depiction of the art work was often more important than the name of the artist. To determine whether Third Reich artwork is ‘iconic’, and is accordingly priced at the higher end of the spectrum, the following criteria can be used (in order of importance):
1. depicted theme;
2. in which museum was it displayed?
3. name of the artist;
4. was it published in newspapers or magazines?
5. who bought it and for what price?
There is a special category of Third Reich artworks depicting German soldiers, battlefields and military- and political leaders. It goes without saying that most of the works in this category were destroyed, according to the Potsdam Agreement. The US Army Center of Military History (Library of Congress) owns some dozens of these iconic works, a few of which were displayed at the Great German Art Exhibitions, but in the private market such works are extremely rare.
With regard to the morality of German artists during the Third Reich, one could argue that around eight out of ten artists were ‘Mittlaufer’. Many of these often young artists were passive followers, who had fought in the trenches of World War I, which influenced their view of life. After WWI, revolution followed, and then the decade of the ‘Weimar Republic chaos’. When the National Socialists came to power, this generation of artists, these Mittlaufer, finally had their chance to build up a life. But after 1945 the careers of this Lost Generation of German Artists from the first half of the 20th century, ended abruptly.
Assumably one or two out of ten artists were politically on the wrong side. This raises the question of whether we can assess these works in the same historical perspective, and if some of these works from a pure esthetical point of view can still be judged as beautiful? And does it make a difference if an artist is on the extreme right or on the extreme left of the political spectrum? Difficult, complicated discussions. Anyhow, The Royal Academy of Arts offers a clear example of how not to do this: in 2017 it staged the exhibition ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932’ without any reference to the million deaths, and without any contextual explanation.
Scope of German Art Gallery
The works in our art collection were made between 1900 and 1945 with an emphasis on the ‘30s and ‘40s. Due to the extreme scarcity of the art produced in the 1930s and 1940s, we have included in our gallery the works of artists -popular in the ’30s and ’40s- that were made before and after this period. For example, there are paintings depicting scenes of World War I from Fritz Erler, Albert Reich, and Claus Bergen, as well as sculptures from Arno Breker that were cast after World War II.
Art made during this period was often used as propaganda by the National Socialist party. A small section of our gallery contains art with images of political leaders of that time and/or National Socialist symbols. We think it is important that we alert our visitors to the fact that some items might be upsetting. In order to comply with legislation, especially in Germany and in The Netherlands, visitors who wish to enter this part of our gallery must first register.
German Art Gallery is sponsor of Human Rights Watch, the Anne Frank Foundation and member of a national Humanist Association.