In the summer of 1937, the Nazi Party opened an exhibition in Munich titled “Great German Art.” Much of the show’s art was culled from Hitler’s personal collection — he had amassed a number of works with the proceeds from his autobiography, “Mein Kampf.” The show consisted of pure lines and pure themes, with scenes of immaculate peasants tilling the fields, families sitting down to hearty dinners and soldiers fighting for an Aryan Germany.
More than 420,000 visitors gathered to see this show in the city that was the birthplace of the Nazi Party.
Later that week, the Nazis opened another exhibition across the street. This time the theme was “Degenerate Art.”
Works confiscated from German galleries were badly hung on the walls, labeled with crude hand-scrawled captions. It was a showcase, a freak show of the works of “degenerate” artists, Bolsheviks, homosexuals and Jews, whose work and lives the Nazis hoped to extinguish in the coming years.
More than 2 million people saw that show. It was a blockbuster success.
John Minnion, a British caricaturist, speculates that the large crowds may have come to jeer and mock the works by Jews and other undesirables in the exhibition. But he points out that Hitler did not prevail. So, he says, “we can look back and say that this was the art of the 20th century.”
Minnion has collected 86 stories of this generation of visual artists, as well as writers, scientists, philosophers and musicians, and caricatured them in a new book, “Hitler’s List: An Illustrated Guide to ‘Degenerates,’ ” which is on sale at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow.
According to Minnion, whose pictures have appeared in the New Statesman, BBC On Air, The Guardian and the Financial Times, the book was the brainchild of Chris Schwarz, an old friend, who runs the Galicia Museum.
Schwarz suggested that for his next project Minnion do a study of notable European figures of the 1930s whose contributions to intellectual and cultural development, abhorrent to the Nazis, landed them on “Hitler’s list.” Minnion, taking up the challenge, researched the period, selected the people he wished to include and brought them to life in drawings based on photos, self-portraits and other images.
“The Holocaust is such a serious topic, and caricatures are so frivolous, but Chris convinced me to see that the story of the tragedy would be there all the time,” Minnion said. “We’re talking about a collection of individual stories. These people or their work survived, despite Hitler’s intentions.”
Each capsule biography, limited to one or two pages, delivers the story of a life lived with ambition and artistry.
From such musicians as Alma Rose, a niece of the composer Gustav Mahler who directed and played violin in the orchestra at Auschwitz and died in the camp, to such painters as Marc Chagall, whose personal art focused on images of rabbis, lovers and animals, to Edith Stein, the Jewish woman who became a Catholic nun and died in Auschwitz and later was canonized — a generation of thinkers and doers emerges.
They each challenged the status quo and so attracted the wrath of the Nazis.
“Hitler was a failed artist, but he had a definite aesthetic,”Minnion said, speaking from the Galicia Museum. An exhibition of his drawings opened there Feb. 17. “He felt that art should have no ambiguity, but great art always has ambiguity.”
Minnion has self-published “Uneasy Listening: A Caricature Guide to 20th Century Composers” and he illustrated “Glued to the Googlebox: 50 years of British Television,” with text by Lynn Truss. But he says neither book had the wide and immediate appeal of “Hitler’s List,” which Schwarz describes as a book of introductions to the people who shaped the last century.
“The megalomania and fundamentalist stupidity of the Nazi era not only set back German and European culture, but sowed the seeds of the Third Reich’s own destruction,” Schwarz said.
The book seeks to put a human — albeit cartoon — face on some of these cultural innovators. Minnion also wants to highlight that the people Hitler most hated, the ones he thought of as “cultural bolshevists,” he also thought of as being Jews.
In today’s climate in parts of Europe, with anti-Semitism re-emerging, it is becoming increasingly important to remember the great personalities of the last century.
If nothing else, Minnion’s book introduces them to a new generation, who will remember them, their artwork, their stories, their discoveries and their lives.
“If I perish don’t let my paintings die,” Felix Nussbaum, a Jewish painter who kept working even as he hid from the Nazis, once said. “Show them to people.”
Nussbaum died in Auschwitz in 1944.
For information about publishing or buying “Hitler’s List” by John Minnion, e-mail Chris Schwarz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.