Modern Art and Ideas, Unit 6: Art Between the Wars

Setting the Scene

The third and fourth decades of the twentieth century were years of great political, social, and intellectual change, influenced by such events as the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, the end of World War I in 1918, the rise of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist party in Italy in the 1920s, the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933, the Great Depression in the United States throughout the 1930s, and World War II looming on the horizon. It was also a time of prolific artistic activity; artists actively responded to the turmoil and change in their environments and throughout the world. Immediately after World War I, artists began to reject avant-garde styles, such as Cubism and Futurism, that had been at the epicenter of artistic activity in Europe prior to the onset of the war. In place of these movements, artists explored new forms of Classicism, abstraction, and satire in their work.

Rather than focusing on specific artistic movements during the interwar period, this guide looks at themes that emerged concurrently in art in Europe, North America, and South America during that period.

Between the wars, movements such as Dada, Surrealism, Suprematism, and Constructivism were developing in Europe, Russia, South America, and elsewhere. For further information on these artistic movements, we encourage you to explore the lessons in Modern Art and Ideas 4 and 5.

1. Create a Timeline

As a class, brainstorm what your students know about the social and political events of this time period. Based on their comments, begin to sketch out an initial timeline on the board. Break your class into groups of four to five students, and have each group research the major events that took place in European countries such as Germany, France, Italy, and Russia and in North and South America between 1918 and 1939. Encourage your students to use history texts, art history texts (consulting the bibliography at the end of this guide), and Internet resources.

Once each group’s timeline has been created, make a photocopy for each student or post them all in a visible place in the classroom. Use them as a benchmark for your discussions as you move through the guide.

2. Curate an Exhibition

Inform your students that despite the diverse artistic activity during this period, social and political upheavals deeply impacted artists’ lives and their ability to work. In 1933 the Nazi party took control of the German parliament. Soon after, Hitler (a failed artist himself) focused his attentions on the art world. In 1937 he opened the Entartete Kunst or Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. The exhibition presented 650 of the 1,600 artworks that the Nazi regime had seized from public art museums since 1937; the represented artists were largely of the avant-garde, with promising careers. The purpose of the exhibition was to display to the German public the art that the party deemed unacceptable and, essentially, to ridicule the artists. Eventually, many of the artworks in the Degenerate Art exhibition, which in the following years traveled throughout Germany, were destroyed.

The inclusion of their work in the Degenerate Art exhibition caused many artists to flee their homes, radically alter the way they created art, or abandon their creative practice altogether. Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, whose work is discussed in this guide, were included in the exhibition.

Ask your students to brainstorm reasons why art may be censored. Do they agree or disagree with the idea that art can be censored or considered unacceptable today? With your students, discuss examples of contemporary art that has been censored or considered unacceptable. Some examples that you can explore as a class include the Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999 (now the Brooklyn Museum), the removal and destruction of Richard Serra’s sculpture Tilted Arc from Federal Plaza in New York City in 1989, and public reaction to the work of British artists Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin. As a class, choose one of the above examples and have a debate about the topic of censorship in art as it relates to the individual case study.
Ask your students to research an artist whose work was included in the Degenerate Art exhibition, such as George Grosz, Vasily Kandinsky, or Marc Chagall. Have each student write a one-page report about the artist and one of his or her artworks included in the exhibition, giving information on where the artist was from and how his or her inclusion in the Degenerate Art exhibition impacted the artist’s work and life in general.
As a class, create an exhibition that celebrates the work of these artists (or controversial contemporary artists) by posting color copies of the images selected by the students with each student’s report next to it in your classroom or in a public area within the school. 

Go to Lesson 1: Identity →

Grove Art Online: Suggested Reading

Below is a list of selected articles, which provide more information on the specific topics discussed in the lesson.