Hans Cristof Drexel: “Die Blumenfrau”[The Flower Woman], oil on canvas, 114 x 103 cm, 1927/28.
© Hans Christof Drexel / Stadtmuseum Berlin | Reproduction: Oliver Ziebe

Tracing „Degenerate Art“

Hans Cristof Drexel’s „Die Blumenfrau“

Hans Cristof Drexel’s “Die Blumenfrau” [The Flower Woman] (1927/1928), with her yellow hat and oversized basket of flowers, does not give the impression she could overthrow a regime. According to Nazi cultural ideology, however, she had the power to stand in the way of their totalitarian ambitions.

Convinced that conformist culture would create a conformist populace, the National Socialist government removed modern art from public collections and museums in the summer of 1937. Before the confiscated works were destroyed or sold on the international market, they were shown in a series of exhibits called “Entartete Kunst” [Degenerate Art]. To emphasize the cultural danger of the modern, minors were barred from the exhibits.

The Nationalgalerie in Berlin had removed the Blumenfrau from its public collection after the Nazis took power in 1933. Now, it was confiscated and sent to Munich for the first of the “Entartete Kunst” exhibits, to demonstrate the supposed excess and threat of modern art. Afterwards, with the help of his contacts in the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, art dealer Bernhard Böhmer acquired hundreds of these “Ungerman” artworks. He bought the Blumenfrau for five dollars.

A room on the ground floor of the “Entartete Kunst” [Degenerate Art] exhibition in Munich’s Hofgartenarkaden, summer 1937. “Die Blumenfrau” hangs between windows in the front left of the photo.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Central archive

In the postwar period, there were disagreements about what to do with the once-confiscated works. Should they remain with their current, private owners? On the one hand, this would further the Nazi’s cultural mission, as German museums would then have little if any modern art in their collections. And, art dealers who collaborated with the Nazis would continue to profit from their close ties to the Third Reich. On the other hand, the museums were a part of the Nazi state, and so cannot claim to have been its victims. While the occupying powers in West Germany – as well as the current German state – subscribed to the latter argument, in the Soviet Zone efforts were made to recover the art for public institutions.

In Berlin, a city organization called the Department for the Return of Artistic Property was responsible for seizing looted, stolen, imperiled, or presumed ownerless art. In 1947 this department sent Kurt Reutti to Güstrow, where Bernhard Böhmer had lived until his death. There, Reutti was to recover the confiscated artworks from Böhmer’s estate. In 1949 he was able to return some of these recovered works, including “Die Blumenfrau”, to Berlin’s museums.

The first version of August Wilhelm Dressler’s “Die Verlobten” [The Betrothed], which was destroyed.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Central archive
However, not all paintings that had been taken from the Nationalgalerie made it back to Berlin: “Die Verlobten” [The Betrothed] (1925), a painting by August Wilhelm Dressler, is listed in the register of confiscations as destroyed. Perhaps it was incinerated in the infamous art burning in Berlin on March 20th, 1939, after it was shown in the “Entartete Kunst” exhibit there for a final time.

After the defeat of the Nazis, Dressler painted a new version of “Die Verlobten,” which was bought by the Art Acquisition Commission of the Berliner Magistrate in November 1950. The purchase demonstrated East Berlin’s new cultural politics, which aimed to show a definitive break with Nazism and support living artists in the city.

In the course of an administrative reorganization in summer 1951 the city transferred some of its art, including “Die Blumenfrau” and “Die Verlobten,” to the Märkisches Museum. These two paintings, which today belong to the Stadtmuseum Berlin’s collection, represent the expressionist November Group, its radical aesthetics and politics. Their journey to the Stadtmuseum Berlin demonstrates the demonization of this movement in the years that followed, the denouncement of its art as perverse and dangerous, as well as the ongoing effects of National Socialism and its ideologies, with which we are left to grapple today.