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Smith takes look at expressionist artists in Nazi Germany


2010-08-09

Katie Smith 

Community of Scholars

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Of the many things people associate with Nazi Germany, art is not high on the list, but Wofford junior Katie Smith is undaunted as she looks at the reaction of artists, specifically expressionist artists, to the oppressive environment around them during National Socialism’s reign in the 1930s and 1940s this summer. Smith is one of 19 student fellows participating in the college’s Community of Scholars program.

Hers is a project born of her interest in art as a whole as well as her relationship with Community of Scholars mentor Dr. Kirsten Krick-Aigner, an associate professor of foreign languages at Wofford.

“One of the first things I did when I got to Wofford was declare myself an art history major,” Smith says. “It’s always been a large interest of mine. I began to develop another interest in German identity in my German classes.

Krick-Aigner, Smith’s faculty sponsor for the program, is researching German expressionist jazz and poetry, “so I went with the art aspect, and I’m really liking it,” says the Pendleton, S.C., student.

So what distinguishes German identity and German art?

“German art is really interesting because the Germans have struggled with their artistic identity since the Middle Ages,” Smith says. “They wanted to have an art that was specifically their own, but they think about art too much. They think about the ideals and what they want to express instead of simply expressing it, per se. They even created their own Renaissance, applying their ideas to the Italian Renaissance. It has really been a quest for the German people to find an identity.

“At the turn of the 20th century (German artists) were reacting to a lot of things going on in other places, such as avant garde movements in France,” she continues. “Germans were opposed to France because they had just become their own state in 1871, and they really wanted their own identity at that point. They were finally unified as the German state. Artists were reacting to this and that’s where the expressionist movement came about. It was probably one of the most important movements of the 20th Century at least for modern art.”

Indeed, one of the most famous paintings of the past few centuries, “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, inspired 20th century expressionists, who longed to present the world with a new, subjective perspective, distorting it violently to obtain an emotional effect and to show mood as well as ideas. “The Scream” is a perfect example.

Then, with the rise of Adolf Hitler, life unfortunately began to imitate art, and artistic freedom and expression suffered under a leader with his own preconceived notions of what art should be.

“Hitler actually tried to attend the Prussian Academy of Arts to pursue art, but was denied three times. The leaders of the Prussian Academy were Jewish, and many believe his hatred of Jewish people was because he failed to become an artist,” Smith says.

Hitler created more than 1,000 drawings during his life, but he was never recognized for them, she adds. “He wanted and liked heroic images. He implemented the idea of the perfect German family. His ideas directly affected many expressionist artists.

“In 1937, Hitler opened a museum for what he called Degenerate Art. He confiscated around 1,200 works from artists all over Germany, put them in this museum and declared them ‘UnGerman.’ He destroyed a lot of art, too. There’s a book called ‘The Rape of Europa’ that is about all the works that were sold or destroyed that he took from museums.”

Thankfully, several important works survived. In her research, Smith says, she has seen a visible influence on some of the artists of this period and their work.

“I’m examining a few German expressionists, especially Ernst Kirchner and Emil Nolde, and how they were directly influenced and how their art changed,” she says. “It’s high in emotion when you look at it. Abstraction. Bright colors. Some things might make you think, ‘My 5-year-old could do that,’ but I like to look at what’s beneath the surface. These artists had really big ideas that came about because of National Socialism and the implementation of those ideals and the clash it created.”

Smith did a lot of reading for her project, and she says her research has been influenced greatly by other members of the Community of Scholars.

“At a coffee we had together early on, I walked in and there were three people there whose projects were, of course, totally different from mine,” she recalls. “Yet we sat there and talked about my project for almost an hour, and the way they analyzed my research really opened up my eyes to things I had never even thought about.

“I wasn’t thinking of my project analytically until I started listening to some of their questions. I was thinking more of the history and how it evolved and how it’s organic and things like that.”

As a result of those conversations, Smith incorporated some of their ideas and claims that her final project has been enhanced by interactions with scholars from other academic disciplines.