The Munich hoard: Maybe not so ‘degenerate after all’?

I’ve found this whole ‘Munich art hoard’ story fascinating. 1,500 modernist masterpieces have been found – almost by accident – at the home of Cornelius Gurlitt. It turns out his father, Dr Hildebrand Gurlitt, looted ‘degenerate art’ for the Nazis. Ever since, young Cornelius has been selling off these Matisses and Chagalls to fund his not-so-lavish lifestyle as a recluse.

Marc Chagall

The incredible story of Cornelius Gurlitt is almost old news now, but I’ve been thinking about everything I thought I knew about Nazi Germany. Admittedly, this wasn’t much beyond GCSEs and a couple of documentaries I’ve watched when trying to kid myself I’m being productive on a hangover.

I always assumed Hitler REALLY didn’t like modern art. In July 1937, as you might remember from school, they gathered together some absolute masters – including German artists Otto Dix, Georg Grosz and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – not in praise, but in mockery. The idea was that modern art was a conspiracy by the Bolsheviks and dastardly Jewish dealers to break down traditional European culture. They wanted to show their enemies in a ‘laughable’ light.

(It’s always amusing to recall that the Nazis’ ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition drew a far greater crowd than their exhibition of favourable art – own goal, suckers).

So, because of their words and actions, it seemed that Hitler and his henchmen hated modern art. We know the Furher wasted his inheritance trying – and failing – to become an artist in Vienna. I kinda assumed Hitler hated modern art because it had rejected him. But perhaps the alleged ‘destruction’ of ‘degenerate art’ wasn’t the mark of a failed artist throwing his toys out of the pram after all.

Otto Dix

The reason family Gurlitt got away with it for so long was because we assumed his hoard had been destroyed by the Nazis. But so much art went missing between 1936-1945 that it has become almost impossible to see the loots from the fires. The ‘monuments men’, art experts who searched for missing masterpieces in the aftermath of WW2, understandably focused on Titians and other artworks the Nazis would have deemed worthy of stealing. But the fact that this newly uncovered hoard was made up of entirely ‘degenerate art’ proves they should have been looking for the artworks they assumed destroyed as well.

We always thought the Nazis grabbed modern artworks to get rid of them, when actually, they did much more to preserve them than we could have imagined. The money element is the obvious alternative, but there is one more that I find infinitely more intriguing. Maybe Hitler loved modern art; maybe he hated it. Or maybe he loved to hate it. That seems most feasible. If you love to hate something, you do want to keep it tucked away somewhere so you can have a sneak peek every now and again (and that, dear readers, is the only reason why the Daily Mail is include in my browser history).

Somehow, I don’t think this is the last we’ll be hearing of Nazi hoards of degenerate art.

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