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Art and Images in Psychiatry
December 2006

Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006;63(12):1307. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.63.12.1307

 . . . on behalf of the German people I would like to ban any such pitiful unfortunates—evidently the victims of defective eyesight—from attempting to bluff the public into accepting the products of their distorted vision as real, or even as ‘art.’

—Adolf Hitler, July 18, 1937, opening remarks, House of German Art1(p386,388)

On July 19, 1937, the National Socialists (Nazis) opened the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit directly across the park from the newly founded House of German Art that had opened the day before. Entartete Kunst1 contained 650 items that had been confiscated from 32 public German museums during the previous 2½ weeks and hastily assembled. The confiscation of these works was retrospectively legalized on May 31, 1938; the museums were never financially compensated, and the artists represented were advised to stop painting and many were fired from their academic positions. The first rooms of the exhibit were grouped by theme: religion, Jewish artists, vilification of women; slogans in these and in other rooms scorned abstraction and antimilitarism, likening this modern art to that of the insane. Eight paintings of Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) were on display; 2 of his drawings were placed with one by an institutionalized patient diagnosed with a mental illness. On a wall poster, the viewer was asked which of the 3 was by an “inmate of a lunatic asylum,”1(p389) thus ridiculing Kokoschka's drawings and suggesting that he was a lunatic.

Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), Austrian. Self-Portraitas a Degenerate Artist, 1937. Oil on canvas, 110 × 85cm. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (http://www.nationalgalleries.org/collections/artist_search.php?objectId=8714)on loan from a private collection. © 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS),New York/ProLitteris, Zurich.

Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), Austrian. Self-Portraitas a Degenerate Artist, 1937. Oil on canvas, 110 × 85cm. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (http://www.nationalgalleries.org/collections/artist_search.php?objectId=8714)on loan from a private collection. © 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS),New York/ProLitteris, Zurich.

Kokoschka was shocked to find himself so characterized. Concurrent with Entartete Kunst, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, a major exhibit of his work was being shown at the Austrian Museum in Vienna. He was concerned about the fate of his works on loan from German museums if they were returned to Germany when the exhibit ended. On August 3, 1937, Kokoschka sought legal protections for his artwork from Kurt von Schushnigg, premier of Austria. Kokoschka wrote to von Schushnigg that at the opening of the House of German Art

The German Chancellor himself [epigraph] declared that the pilloried artists “. . . suffer from defective vision,” and called upon the Reich's Minister of Interior to determine whether this defective vision is congenital or acquired. “If congenital steps must be taken to ensure that it becomes impossible for them to pass it on, and thus propagate the defect.” In other words the German Chancellor threatened to have these artists sterilized.2(p148)

Kokoschka pointed out that painting involves far more than copying an object that is imprinted on the retina and that seeing is an act of the conscious mind; hence there can be no fear of a defect of vision being passed on.2 Despite Kokoschka's protest, his artwork was returned to the German museums.

Preoccupation with degeneration had taken hold in the 19th century following several publications by Bénédict Augustin Morel (1809-1873). He found an increased rate of cretinism among family members, attributed it to hereditary degeneration, and extended the idea of degeneration to medicine and psychiatry.3 Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) extended degeneration to the social sciences in his work on criminology and described associated stigmata, both physical and psychological. Max Nordau (1849-1923), physician, critic, and Zionist, widely popularized these views about degeneration and extended them to artists and authors in his 1892 book, Entartung (Degeneracy). Nordau claimed that artists had defective vision that made their work incoherent.3 George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) roundly refuted Nordau in his essay The Sanity of Art: An Exposure of the Current Nonsense About Artists Being Degenerate,4 writing that art cultivates and refines our senses.4(p343)

By the early 1930s, the concept of degeneration was in decline academically as new interventions for mental illnesses were introduced by Adolph Meyer, Eugen Bleuler, and Sigmund Freud (hysteria).3 By the late 1930s, sterilization too was in decline. Ironically, the Nazis took Nordau's position on degeneracy seriously but did not refer to him publicly, presenting instead a distorted version of Friedrich Nietzsche's views on degeneracy, perhaps because Nordau was a prominent cosmopolitan Jew.

Kokoschka's second and more enduring response to his inclusion in the degenerate art exhibit was his Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist—a self-portrait depicting a proud and defiant man. As the political situation in Austria deteriorated, Kokoschka had moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia, where his sister lived. There he was commissioned to paint the portrait of Thomas Masaryk (1850-1937), the president of Czechoslovakia, who granted him a Czech passport.

Kokoschka was working on a commissioned self-portrait when he was notified about the Degenerate Art exhibit. On hearing of it, he altered the position of his arms, now showing them defiantly crossed. Virile and robust,5 wearing a short-sleeved shirt, with a broad nose, closed lips, and widely open eyes, he looks directly at the viewer with a strained expression. The background of the painting shows the woods behind the house belonging to the grandparents of Olga Pavlovská, his future wife, where he had begun the painting. A stag appears on the right and a running figure is shown on the left, perhaps to suggest pursuit or impending flight, for Kokoschka was indeed a hunted man. He had become a vocal and adamant foe of the Nazis, who planned to arrest him when they entered Czechoslovakia in 1938. Kokoschka fled to England with Olga before the German invasion. There he painted a series of antifascist paintings (The Red Egg, AnschlussAlice in Wonderland, That for Which We Fight). After the war, he and Olga permanently settled at Villeneuve on Lake Geneva. From 1953 to 1963, Kokoschka initiated his School of Seeing at the Academy for Art in Salzburg, Austria. The school would alert students to an awareness of their own existence—“to which art alone gives form.”6(p175) There (no visual distortion for Kokoschka), he taught a new generation of artists to find the creative inner vision that Hitler despised and sought to abolish.

Barron  Sed Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany.  Los Angeles, Calif Los Angeles County Museum of Art1991;
Kokoschka  O Oskar Kokoschka Letters (1905-1976).  London, England Thames & Hudson1992;
Spiegel  R Freud's refutation of degenerationism: a contribution to humanism.  Contemp Psychoanal 1986;224- 24Google ScholarCrossref
Shaw  GB The sanity of art: an exposure of the current nonsense about artists being degenerate. In: Major Critical Essays. New York, NY Penguin Books1986;Google Scholar
Hoffman  E Kokoschka: Life and Work.  London Faber & Faber Ltd1947;
Kokoschka  O My Life. Britt  Dtrans. New York, NY Macmillan Publishing1974;