#94 Pitcher, form 698/5, dec.U.1473, Elsterwerda, ca.1934 – 1935. Green U 1473; Blind 608/5; 19.5 cm H, 6.8 cm opening, 7 cm base Ø. RM160

#94 Pitcher, form 698/5, dec.U.1473, Elsterwerda, ca.1934 – 1935. Green U 1473; Blind 608/5; 19.5 cm H, 6.8 cm opening, 7 cm base Ø. RM160

How Degenerate German Airbrushed Ceramics, 1928-38 Came to Be

By Rolf Achilles

By June 1933, the Reichskulturkammer (the German Reich’s Cultural Chamber) had been established. Within a year a sub-group of this Chamber was in charge of porcelain, glass, household and kitchenware production throughout Germany. With full government backed authority, the Chamber’s sub-group quickly attacked the aesthetics of an industry that championed the Avant-garde claiming them to be the handmaidens of an anti-German international network led by Jews and Bolsheviks. The charges had been leveled at an industry that had produced clean, rational silhouettes and smooth ceramic surfaces of everyday modernism accessible to anyone who wanted to be Modern. The Hallesche Form, designed in 1930 by Marquerite Friedlaender-Wildenehain for the Staatliche Porzelanmanufaktur in Berlin, a superbly designed coffee and tea table service, was an ambassador for the new look and an ideal target for Reichskulturkammer.

Others saw new forms as a threat to the new government approved aesthetic that argued for traditional German values first and foremost. They saw the new machine aesthetic, now called Modernism, as a anti-natural, anti-traditional, anti-craft, anti-skilled labor threat to traditional German folkloric patterns, production and commercial traditions. This view helped politicized both the old and new aesthetics. By 1933 the public had numerous fine Modern ceramic silhouettes with patterns on them that were sympathetic to the bold, bright, brash, lines, steps, circles, squares and dots that made Spritzdekor (airbrush) applied design industrial and Modern at accessible prices.

By late 1937 German ceramics production, stores that sold them and many people that had bought them to be Modern followed their base political persuasion and cleansed their household of dots and dashes. While airbrushed production was officially assaulted and industrial inventories smashed, several artists fled Germany. What is surprising is the number of outlawed items that survived the purges of the 1930s. Some of these also survived the World War II and its aftermath that in East Germany lasted through the 1980s, only to become collected and studied museum exhibition worthy objects from the early 1990s through today.

Much has been written about the inter-war rise of German nationalism, how and when Modern art and artists were persecuted, museums purged of their work, their books burned, their theaters darkened, and their musicians silenced. Dessert for this diabolic nationalist binge was a feast of an exhibition entitled Entartete Kunst, translated as “Degenerate Art.” The show opened in Munich on July 19, 1937 and presented a who-is-who of cosmopolitan Modern avant-garde artists. It did not include ceramics

The Entartete Kunst exhibition was a culling of subjects and styles anathema to the leaders of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, abbreviated as NSDAP, and commonly referred to in English as the Nazi Party), a far-right political party, which was extremely popular with Germans who had suffered or gained from the aftermath of World War One.

The exhibition was an immediate sensation, attracting some 2 million visitors in its four months in Munich, alone! The exhibition, or aspects of it, went on the road, traveling to thirteen German and Austrian cities through April 1941.

While purges against private, mostly Jewish collectors and public institutions are now well know, little time and research has been devoted to the simultaneous purges of everyday household items such as domestic and commercial kitchen and table ware, textiles, metal and glass, all popularly available in large and small stores and produced by German companies, several of which were world leaders in the technology of their industry. One of those industries was the production of ceramics.

The ceramic objects reproduced and discussed on this site were on display on at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, May – September 2017. They are all survivors of the calamitous purges inflicted on a world famous industry in Germany by the National Socialists.   

This push to cleanse Germany of foreign, especially Marxist, Bolshevik, cosmopolitan and international aesthetics had already found nourishment in the unification of Germany in 1871. Intellectuals reveled in the new nation building and strove to define an aesthetic for it. Several were proposed.

Just before and then following World War I Germany was a fractured culture. During the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933, some 40 political parties represented the opinions of the populace in the Reichstag (the Parliament). Due in part to the high cost of the treaty signed by Germany to end World War One, by 1923, Germany suffered hyperinflation that shredded what was left of the German economy. By November of 1923, a loaf of bread that had cost 13 Pfennig in 1914 cost 80 billion Marks. At the same time Germany was becoming the world’s leader of Modern aesthetic in all the arts that would by 1936 be labeled “degenerate.”

Historically, Germany had industrialized late by English and American standards, but once it did in the mid-19th century, it quickly gained international recognition. Significantly, by the 1890s Germany had developed its own industrial aesthetic and the public with newly acquired financial means became eager to participate. The new aesthetics were discussed in the popular media. Industrial designers and architects became popular cultural champions. Newly commissioned homes were filled with time appropriate art, decorative objects, furniture, and state-of-the-aesthetic table linens and ceramics. What easier way to feel fresh and reborn in a time of turbulence than through an aesthetic that was not of a past generation but of a bright future that would be available for all to use and to see. Most important it was contemporary.

During the Weimar Republic years, the German ceramics industry became the largest and technically most sophisticated in the world, competing only with industries in the newly born country of Czechoslovakia. Eventually some 90 companies in Germany produced airbrushed ceramics. Several of these were Jewish owned or employed Jewish artists. If the number of articles in trade publications on Spritzdekor (airbrush) and its presence at trade fairs are an indication, Spritzdekor was wildly popular.

The airbrushing technology was a relatively simple one that been used by the ceramics industry since around 1900 but did not gain wide appeal until after the tumultuous mid 1920s. Spritzdekor allowed glazes to be applied quickly and cost effectively in up to five colors. Inspired by international, cosmopolitan, non-objective painting and sculpture, and Soviet avant-garde aesthetics such as Constructivism, the mass produced, reasonably priced decoration was successful. Some considered it to be politically subversive.

As the post World War I German economy floundered the major ceramics manufacturers found salvation in a technological leap that moved them from the potter’s wheel to ceramic casting. This took them out of the arts and crafts tradition and placed them squarely in the forefront of industrial mass production. In 1922, the Staatliche keramische Fachschule zu Bunzlau, the State Ceramic School in Bunzlau, Silesia (today, Boleslawiec, Poland) was reorganized. Four years later, in 1926, Arthur Hennig, an Expressionist painter, introduced industrially sympathetic abstract and non-objective geometric patterns into his class on Form and Decoration. Advances in glaze chemistry made this possible. Stencils assured uniformity. Henning’s students were sought by industry and Bunzlau aerograph (the technical name for airbrush) generated aesthetics became a new norm. Across the ceramics industry, airbrushed decoration quickly replaced traditional hand painting.

While museums and art galleries exhibited new paintings and sculpture, shop windows displayed a diversity of related new silhouettes and decorative patterns on everyday objects. Suddenly being contemporary was being Modern and it was available everywhere and affordable for everyone.

By late 1929, within two cycles of the great trade fairs, especially the trend setting Leipziger Messe, some 90 German ceramics companies had embraced the new smooth surface Sprtizdekor aesthetic and its machine based technology – first in Germany and Czechoslovakia, followed quickly by ceramic producers in Austria, Holland, Hungary, Portugal and other European countries..

Machine age technologies and aesthetics became everyday household fare. By favoring non-objective colors and patterns, intense compositions lagging only a few years behind avant-garde canvases, Spritzdekor patterns on ceramics allowed everyone to participate in the art of their time. For industry, the new efficiencies allowed seemingly endless, if not constant variations of compositions that could be sold at prices everyone could afford. By 1932, everyone who wanted to be Modern was or could be.

But many saw the rise of an international Modernism aesthetic as a threat to their German identity, to their German traditions. The collapse of world capitalism, starting in 1929, gave rise to political populism with easy to grasp answers throughout Europe. A large majority of the population sought solutions in various degrees of nationalism. In Germany it culminated in National Socialism. This inward looking political movement became broadly popular first in local, then regional elections in Germany. By January 1933, the National Socialists had coalesced power into a systematic solution to save Germany. It looked inward to create jobs while its propaganda perpetuated national myths, both traditional and invented, that helped the whole nation to systematically eliminate proclaimed enemies to what was now glorified, factory work and a rural agrarian traditional  way of life that was mostly mythical. Gaining the national spotlight, the National Socialists instantly set their long-simmering agendas on high flame. Among their first actions, ceramic firms owned by Jews were Aryanized, even while the decorative patterns based on French Cubism and Soviet Constructivist and non-objective aesthetics remained broadly popular. By 1935, as political pressure mounted on the ceramics industry, geometric and non-objective Spritzdekor patterns ran in parallel production to best selling busts of Hitler in ceramic firms such as Max Roesler and Karlsruhe, to name but two. Alpine settings and flowers followed as a quick third.

With a cheering populace behind them, the National Socialists pushed ever harder to champion a traditional nationalistic artistic realism that was often anti-urban, pro-agrarian as true and pure German. By 1936, after much internal discussion and maneuvering for power, several government ministries had been established with authority to root out foreign and non-traditional German influences in the arts and in industry. Among its solutions was Volksgeschirr (People’s dishes), the Volksempfänger (Radio) and, of course, the perennially popular Volkswagen, the People’s Car.

The National Socialist’s art push came in the form of a sensationalized exhibition Entartete Kunst organized by Adolph Ziegler and the Nazi Party in Munich. Adolph Hitler himself gave the opening speech proclaimed the art on display insulted German feelings, destroyed or confused natural form or simply revealed an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill. He declared war on Modern German cultural and with it, Germany’s everyday household Modernism withered then died.


Rolf Achilles, Chicago, 2018