Degenerate Art?

You’ve probably said it yourself. “I may not know much about Art, but I know what I like.”

I don’t spend much time in art galleries. I come away feeling I haven’t gotten as much out of them as I should.

Do you ever feel that way? As if the art experts are part of a secret club that you can’t join?

I’m still absorbing what I learned on a visit to the Three Countries Museum (Dreiländermuseum) in Lorrach last weekend. One of the highlights was a new art exhibit: Art and National Socialism.

The museum focuses on the area I live in where three countries come together, France, Switzerland and Germany. Which means the artists, none of whom I had ever heard of, were all more or less local.

I have a vague understanding about the place of art in Nazi Germany. There was an ideal, and there was a long list of less than ideal. Those works tended to be confiscated and destroyed, and in extreme cases the artists could be locked up or worse.

Art appreciation tends to be subjective though. And certain members of the Nazi hierarchy collected a lot of looted art, masterpieces that are in some cases still missing, 75 years after the war’s end. Some of the Old Masters may have been considered degenerate by the regime, but that didn’t stop the higher ups from appreciating them and their value. And stealing them of course.

I must admit that I was a little confused at times as I wandered through the exhibition. It didn’t help that the captions were in German and French, but not English, so I may have missed some of the nuances. But I couldn’t figure out what was approved Nazi art and what was considered subversive. I just know what I liked.

Turns out I am not the only one with problems distinguishing between the uplifting and the degenerate. The Nazis had the same problem.

One of the artists I liked in the exhibition was Adolf Riedlin, whose use of color and choice of subject seemed pleasing to me. Reading his biography I discovered that he was not only from the general area, but from Laufen, which is now part of my town, Sulzburg. I’ve probably walked past his house, and seen some of his relatives on the street.

Riedlin was one of those artists whose work was seized and destroyed by the Nazis. At the same time he was commissioned to create works that were acceptable to the Party. If you think that sounds a little contradictory, you are right.

I guess he was only considered degenerate part of the time. It does prove the point though that art appreciation is subjective.

The exhibition hasn’t had its official opening yet – that has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On a rainy Saturday afternoon there were only a few people in the museum, so no problem keeping social distancing.

If you are in the area, the exhibition is slated to run until May 30, 2021. Museum admission is only three Euros.



  1. From the title of the exhibit, I was expected some hard-core propaganda, rather than the gentle paintings here. The works you post are celebrations of work and workers, tastefully done. While they’re idealized, with none of the grit and sweat of manual labor, they could arise anywhere on the political spectrum. Maybe that’s the subversive part.

    1. Of course the most effective hard-core propaganda isn’t always recognized as such.

      Looking at the works on offer it was difficult for me to discern what was and what wasn’t acceptable to the Nazis – but that may be due to my ignorance. An historian would probably see the distinction immediately.

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