Art that does not advance the culture, or the politician's or religious leader's concept of the culture, has always been a social problem. The Nazis called it Entartete Kunst, or "degenerate art," the result of "an artistic policy affronting the healthy folk feelings of Germany,” and condemned--and actively attacked--it. This art is the subject of a new show, “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” at the Neue Galerie in New York, where lines stretched out the door as soon as the show opened in March.
Strangely the Nazis stole a lot of it--probably making a value decision before the social decision was solidified. Once the error of their ways had evolved, the Nazis decided to get rid of it. What better way than to sell the degenerate stuff to their enemies and rot their souls.
Hildebrand Gurlitt was one of those picked by Goebbels to sell confiscated modern works abroad. Whether by plan or circumstance, he accumulated a lot of the art and kept it. In an essay written shortly before his death he described the collection “not as my property, but rather as a kind of fief that I have been assigned to steward.” So the fence created a little enclosure.
These treasures were handed on to his son, Cornelius. He had never held a job, kept no bank accounts, was not listed in the Munich phone book. Aside from sporadic visits to a sister, who died two years ago, he had had little contact with anyone for half a century. Der Spiegel reported that he had not watched television since 1963 or seen a movie since 1967, and that he had never been in love. Except. Except with his collection.
Early in 2012, police, customs, and tax officials descended on his Munich apartment and spent three days removing nearly 1,300 works, mostly nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European pictures, some by Picasso, Matisse, Otto Dix, Emil Nolde, and Oskar Kokoschka, along with older artists like Renoir, Courbet, Dürer, and Canaletto. Gurlitt was ordered to sit and watch. He told Der Spiegel that it was worse than the loss of his parents or his sister.