"Turtle" Diary

Help the Nazis turn a profit, or let a great artwork be destroyed?

An advertisement for a series of auctions at the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne, Switzerland, appeared in Art News on April 29, 1939. In a list including dates for the sale of arms and armor, a library of illustrated books and medieval religious relics, most prominent was the announcement for the auction of June 30 that summer: "Paintings and Sculpture by Modern Masters from German Museums." The list of artists belongs in any survey course on modernism: Beckmann, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Paul Gauguin, Kirchner, Paul Klee, Amedeo Modigliani, Matisse, Picasso. A van Gogh self-portrait -- a late work exposing the artist in the aftermath of one his most tormented episodes -- was part of the sale. Gauguin's "Tahiti," Chagall's "Maison Bleue," Picasso's "Acrobat and Young Harlequin" and one of his most remarkable works from his blue period, "Absinthe Drinker," were some of the select properties included. "Bathers with a Turtle," a Matisse painting that would later be recognized as one of the most refined expressions of his incomparable career, would be auctioned as well.

The auction attracted a coterie of international art buyers -- among those who made the pilgrimage to Lucerne were representatives of prominent museums; The Blue Angel director Josef von Sternberg; Pierre Matisse, son of the artist; and Joseph Pulitzer Jr. -- future editor and publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- traveling through Europe on his honeymoon.

This was no benign art sale, however, and the decision to participate caused serious ethical debate. Although most of the art world recognized these works as the finest within the contemporary art movement, for the German government, under the reign of the Nazi Party, the work was officially designated entartete Kunst: degenerate art.

Matisse's "Bathers with a Turtle" was stacked against other canvases at the Grand Hotel Nationale in Lucerne, Switzerland, before its sale at the degenerate-art auction in 1939. The photo suggests the reality behind what is now a tabloid phrase -- "the Nazi shadow."
Matisse's "Bathers with a Turtle" was stacked against other canvases at the Grand Hotel Nationale in Lucerne, Switzerland, before its sale at the degenerate-art auction in 1939. The photo suggests the reality behind what is now a tabloid phrase -- "the Nazi shadow."

Art was by no means a side issue to the National Socialist Party. While on sabbatical in Europe in 1933, the young Alfred Barr, who would become the director of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), attended a meeting of the Stuttgart chapter of the Kampfbund fur Deutsche Kultur (Combat League for German Culture) only nine weeks after Hitler had come to power. Barr wrote a contemporary account of the Combat League director's speech: "It is a mistake to think that the national revolution is only political and economic," the director declared. "It is above all cultural.... Art is not international.... If anyone should ask: What is left of freedom? he will be answered: there is no freedom for those who would weaken and destroy German art ... there must be no remorse and no sentimentality in uprooting and crushing what was destroying our vitals."

Soon after the Nazis came to power, German art institutions began to be purged of such "degeneracy." One official press organ proclaimed: "The national socialist movement can no longer permit the German museums to be pure sites of art-hedonism, they must place themselves thoroughly in the service of their educational mission, their endeavors towards the rebirth of the German people." Art that did not promote the ideals of German health and vitality was removed from museums, galleries and private collections and kept in rooms labeled Schreckenkammers, "chambers of horrors."

One museum that was seriously gutted was the Folkwang Museum in Essen. With a significant collection of modern French art, it was deemed in special need of "cleansing." Art historian and researcher Laurie Stein, in her excellent essay commissioned by the St. Louis Art Museum, "The History and Reception of Matisse's Bathers with a Turtle in Germany, 1908-1939" (both this essay and Lynn Nicholas' The Rape of Europa were significant sources for this article), reports that in one five-hour period, a number of paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures by Matisse, including "Bathers with a Turtle," were confiscated by the government.

Those German artists who produced such work were shunted to the margins as well. In some cases, whatever supplies they required -- brushes, paints, canvas -- were denied them. For Ernst Kirchner, the removal of his work from his country's museums and the contempt with which he was perceived by the regime proved psychologically disabling. He committed suicide in 1938.

The previous year, the Nazis had toured the notorious Degenerate Art show throughout Germany; however, only a small percentage of the works the government removed from its own museums were exhibited. With these objects deemed socially useless taking up storage space, some 5,000 artworks served as the fuel for a Berlin bonfire in 1938. Joseph Goebbels, Reich minister for public enlightenment and propaganda, determined that art valued by foreign collectors could be sold. "We hope at least to make some money from this garbage," he reasoned.

The provenance of these works was not unknown to those who traveled to Lucerne just two months before the German blitzkrieg in Poland and the eruption of World War II. Many collectors and museum officials, Barr among them, chose to boycott the sale. Representatives of Galerie Fischer set out to assuage concerns that profits from the sale would go to the regime, reporting that the money would go to reimburse the museums. In fact, the remuneration was nominal at best. Stein reports that the Folkwang Museum alone lost 1,400 works, receiving only 43,170 reichsmarks (approximately $17,324 American in 1939, or $35,341 today) in compensation from the government.

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