History on a page: V&A to publish German 1941-1942 list of ‘Degenerate Art’ online

One of the many fascinating objects held by the V&A is a complete list of ‘Degenerate Art’ confiscated by the Nazi regime from public institutions in Germany in 1937 and 1938. It will be published on the Museum’s website by the end of this month.

The two volumes of the document. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

‘Degenerate Art’ is the English adaptation of the German ‘Entartete Kunst’, a derogatory term coined by the ministry of propaganda of the Nazi regime as the title of a 1937 exhibition of works deemed ‘an insult to German feeling’. The verdict ‘degenerate’ applied to virtually all German modernist art, but works by internationally renowned artists such as Picasso were also seized. ‘Entartete Kunst’, held in Munich and with versions shown elsewhere in the ‘Reich’, was the most successful exhibition of modern art at the time, with more than 3 million visitors attending across the country.

The artworks displayed in the exhibition were only a fraction of the titles listed in the V&A document. The typescript inventory was apparently compiled in late 1941 or early 1942 by the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda (Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda). It comprises 479 pages, split into two volumes (A-G and G-Z). Institutions are listed alphabetically by location. For each institution confiscated works are recorded alphabetically by artist and include information on the fate of each piece. Often the name of the work’s buyer and a price are given, others entries are marked ‘X’ indicating that the works in question were destroyed.

This page in the first volume is an overview of abbreviations. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The list is one of the key sources on the provenance of works of confiscated ‘Entartete Kunst’. As is the nature of such documents, research has shown that it is incomplete and at times incorrect. The research centre for ‘Entartete Kunst’ based at the Freie Universität, Berlin presents information from the list held by the V&A as well as extensive additional research on its website.

The inventory was donated to the V&A by the widow of Vienna-born art dealer Heinrich Robert (Harry) Fischer (born Vienna 30 August 1903; died London 12 April 1977) in 1996. Heinrich Robert ‘Harry’ Fischer fled to Britain in 1938, the year when his native Austria was annexed to the German Reich. He served in the British Army’s Pioneer Corps during WWII, an auxiliary unit joined by many Austrian and German refugees. Among other things his duties involved tree-felling in Scotland and Wales. Fischer went on to become one of the founders of Malborough Fine Art in 1946. He became a naturalised British citizen in 1947, and established Fischer Fine Art in the early 1970s. He is credited with having ‘put Expressionism on the map of the London gallery circuit in the late Fifties and early Sixties’, as his son Wolfgang explained in 1997.

Three examples of pages of the list. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Although it is unknown how, when and for what purpose Fischer obtained the list, he seems to have possessed it from at least the late 1960s. His intention to give the list to the V&A seems to have been formed early on. His widow Elfriede’s donation in 1996 was also welcomed as significant addition to the Museum’s holdings of early twentieth-century German art publications.

Scholars internationally have used the document since its arrival at the Museum, and copies have been shared with institutions around the world. However, images of the original pages have not been available online so far. Martin Roth, V&A Director, said: “This list is so significant for all those who work in the field of provenance research. The recent Gurlitt case highlights how important it is for this original document to be made available in its entirety to as wide an audience as possible by publishing it online.” The document will be accessible on the V&A website from late January 2014.

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