“Degenerate Art” Research Center Starts New Studies on Involvement of Art Dealers during Nazi Period
Scholars assess first ten years of research positively
Sep 27, 2013
During the first ten years, researchers from the “Degenerate Art” Research Center at the Art History Department at Freie Universität Berlin have tracked down about 10,000 of the sculptures, paintings, and drawings that were categorized as “degenerate art” and confiscated from museums in Germany during the Nazi period by a commission of the Ministry of Propaganda.
According to Dr. h. c. Andreas Hüneke, an art historian at Freie Universität Berlin, that is about half of the roughly 21,000 originally affected works of art. The project coordinator, Dr. Meike Hoffmann, said that of the works investigated so far, about 4,000 are still in existence and were not destroyed. They are mainly paintings and sculptures that are in public or private collections.
The researchers described new features of the database, in particular the fact that the service is now also available in English. There is no charge for using it to search for information about the missing works. The banned artists included Emil Nolde, Marc Chagall, Otto Mueller, and Wilhelm Lehmbruck. Many of the missing works are now back in museums; some were even returned to the ones they were in at the time they were removed by the Nazis. A new emphasis in the group's work will be to investigate how the art dealers and the authorities were involved in the operations against the banned art.
As emphasized by the chairman of the Ferdinand-Möller-Stiftung (a German foundation that sponsors research in the field of Expressionism as well as on Nazi art and cultural policies) and initiator of the “Degenerate Art” Research Center, Wolfgang Wittrock, “The ostracism of art as ‘degenerate’ shows that it is important to constantly be trying to stand up for tolerance and understanding toward modern art. The measures taken by the Nazis continue to affect the perception of art; there is still widespread resentment of contemporary art today. Even now policy makers often ignore modern art, until they suddenly notice that formerly stigmatized works of art are being sold at auctions for millions of euros.”
Two of the art dealers who traded in “degenerate art” during the Third Reich were Hildebrand und Wolfgang Gurlitt. They were cousins and according to the Nuremberg race laws were classified as “quarter Jews.” In addition to being involved in liquidating the so-called “degenerate art,” they were also enmeshed in transactions with looted art. The research center will investigate the complex, interconnected networks of the art trade under National Socialism, taking a particular look at the tension between perpetrator and victim. For this aspect, the researchers will be able to refer to extensive files from a private collection that were recently made available to them and the existence of which they had had no previous knowledge.
The “Degenerate Art” Research Center was set up in 2003 at the Art History Department at Freie Universität Berlin, following an initiative made by the Ferdinand-Möller-Stiftung. Research at the center focuses on the methods of art and cultural policy in the Third Reich, in particular the history of the Nazis’ seizure of modern art in German museums in 1937.
The main project of the research center is to set up a database containing information about all of the works of art that were confiscated in the context of the "degenerate art" measures. As of April 2010 the data are being published on the Internet. So far the researchers have succeeded in identifying about half of the more than 21,000 confiscated works of art and to reconstruct what happened to them. The online version of the inventory of the seized works is available for anyone to use free of charge. In view of the urgent political need to clarify what happened to all of the art works that changed ownership by force during the Nazi period, the database is an essential tool for provenance researchers and museum staff.
The work at the research center is closely related to teaching at the university. Various seminars are taught that are related to topics from this field of research. In cooperation with the State Museums of Berlin, Freie Universität offers a degree program in provenance research. In addition to teaching about historical contexts, emphasis is placed on a practical guide for the evaluation of archival material. Many graduates have found jobs in the career of their choice.
Scholars at the “Degenerate Art” Research Center at Freie Universität Berlin conduct systematic research on the art policies and cultural policies of the Nazis. This research is an important contribution in bringing to mind German history of the Nazi period. Training young researchers guarantees continuity and the future of the reassessment of this period of history. The research center is well established at Freie Universität as a long-term, grant-funded project. Its main funding comes from the Ferdinand-Möller-Stiftung (Berlin). The Gerda Henkel Stiftung (Düsseldorf) has been funding specific projects since 2005. Additional support comes from the International Music and Art Foundation (Vaduz), the Hermann Reemtsma Foundation (Hamburg), and the Cultural Foundation of the Länder (Berlin).