Last week it was revealed that scores of Modernist paintings, hidden from the Nazis in the 1930s, have turned up in Munich. The Nazis thought they were examples of Degenerate Art, comparable to barnacles, human imbeciles and other organisms more universally thought to come about when evolution went wrong, or maybe backwards.

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The art that the Nazis hated was impressionistic or abstract, not self-explanatory and needed pretentious instructions to be understood.

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Max Beckmann 1884-1950    – and his triptych being hung in the safety of the New Burlington Galleries in 1938.

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Paul Klee 1879-1940                                      Otto Dix 1891-1969

Tate; (c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation      DACS; (c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Ernst Kirchner 1880-1938                                                    Max Ernst 1891-1976

The word “degeneracy” came to the fore in the 1880s, when the marine biologists Ernst Haeckel and Ray Lankester described barnacles and other animals that had lost one or more of their highly developed functions or structures. They suggested that such degeneration was a natural feature of evolution for some lineages. Features of the embryo were not required in that adult’s life-style.

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First it was Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) who depicted normal and monstrous foetuses as symbols of degeneration, creative failures. But the Nazis had no such ambiguity and for them such flexible interpretations were not available. Anything Jewish and anything that showed signs of an individual’s own creativity was banned. Or else hidden …. until now.

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