Coping With Artistic Oppression - The Bauhaus MovementWhen we think of oppression, we usually think of religious oppression, or political oppression, but seldom do we consider artistic oppression except perhaps in the context that our work, already priced ridiculously low, still won't sell. In Germany however, in the 1930s, artistic oppression, an outgrowth of political oppression of course, was a very real threat to the livelihoods, indeed, even the lives of certain avant-garde artists who found themselves targets of the conservative political ideology sweeping the country at the time. This reactionary conservatism culminated in 1933 with the election of Adolph Hitler as chancellor. And the lightning rod for this oppression was the Bauhaus.
Founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, by Walter Gropius, an architect, and Paul Klee, a painter, they were joined by Wassily Kandinsky, Joseph Albers, Mies van der Rohe, and other art luminaries in the creation of a school merging industrial arts, architecture, and art into a unified curriculum as revolutionary as their liberal political philosophy. Twice the school was moved to avoid being closed down, first to Dessau, and later to Berlin. German authorities considered it not only educationally unsound, but politically subversive as well. Once Hitler came to power, the Nazis launched an aggressive campaign against Modernist art and the school was finally forced to close. Most of the faculty emigrated to the US where a semblance of the school ended up in Chicago.
But the artistic oppression didn't stop there. The Nazis especially objected to German Expressionism, calling it "Degenerate Art". Paintings were burned and confiscated. Going beyond that, they organised a derisive exhibition of such works, seeking to stamp out Modernism for all time. Derogatory signs and slogans were posted on the gallery walls next to the artwork. Over six hundred paintings, sculpture, prints, and books taken from German public museums were viewed by 2 million people in the four months the exhibit was on display in Munich. Painter, Ludwig Kirchner, was driven to suicide while other artists merely left the country. And in the end, needing hard currency, the Nazi government shipped the works off to Switzerland where they were sold at auction. Because of this, ironically, many of these "degenerate" works survive today to bear silent witness to the "art oppression" that was a harbinger of even worse forms oppression yet to come.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
17 April 1998