THE incredible history of an exhibition of banned German artwork which came to Glasgow in 1939 is the subject of a special conference this weekend.

The collection of “degenerate art” – paintings by German artists banned under the Nazis – came to the McLellan Gallery in 1939 after a showing in London and as a response to the widespread banning and persecution of artists under the Nazi regime.

International art experts and academics are discussing the counter-campaign at a conference at the University of Edinburgh this weekend.

The London exhibition made Hitler “furious”, according to Dr Christian Weikop, an expert in German art history at Edinburgh’s College of Art and organiser of the symposium.

In 1937, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels staged a huge exhibition of “degenerate art” in Munich, designed to condemn artwork the National Socialists considered the product of ‘racial impurity, mental disease, decadence and weakness of character’.

A total of 650 mainly avant-garde works of art, drawn from over 5000 pieces of art confiscated from German museums, were shown to more than one million people.

In 1938, an attempt was made to defend artists under Nazi persecution by the formation of a counter-exhibition which was staged in London by the British artistic community. Works were smuggled and sent from across Europe by fleeing collectors, art dealers and artists to create a collection of 300 “degenerate” works created by banned German artists.

Weikop said: “This type of art was viewed very badly by the National Socialists, huge numbers of artists and their works were banned. Hitler was furious that this was being done in London as a kind of counter-blast to what had been done in Munich the year before.”

Part of that collection came to Glasgow the following year and was displayed at the McLellan Gallery on Sauchiehall Street. The Saltire Society and Glasgow’s Lord Provost Patrick Dollan, a celebrated anti-fascist campaigner, were among the sponsors of the Scottish leg of the exhibition.

A report from the Herald at the time notes: “Much of this art is now in official disfavour in the country of its origin, and many of the artists are exiles.” The catalogue for the exhibition lists Provost Dollan as the patron of the show, and states: “Art as an expression of the human spirit in all its mutations is only great in so far as it is free. Any attempt to control and direct art from the outside will be resented by persons interested in art everywhere, and sympathy on that account may be implied in the arranging of the present exhibition.”

Weikop said: “More work needs to be done on the Glasgow part of the exhibition, aside from two newspaper cuttings there is very little about what Scottish audiences thought of the works.

“At our conference this weekend we will be asking the international experts what they know about this part of the story.

“We do know that when the counter-show opened in London there was a mixed reaction from the press – some journalists thought it was good that it was being staged and that the art represented a free democratic world where the Nazi regime was not allowed to curtail expressionism.

“But that kind of art was unknown in the UK in 1938, the British audience was not used to the form and the style, expressionism was unfamiliar. There was great public interest in coming to see the art that Hitler hated, it was quite a sensationalist show.”

In a huge piece of detective work to mark the 80th anniversary of the London exhibition, curators at the Liebermann Villa museum in Berlin have this year painstakingly reconstructed some of the works shown in London and Glasgow.

Also on show this autumn at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh is a controversial showing of paintings by Emil Nolde. The Nazi supporter, one of Germany’s greatest expressionists, had over 1000 works confiscated by the Third Reich because of his painting style and the subjects he captured, despite his belief in their appalling views.

The National Galleries have warned visitors of his political stance, saying: “We do not condone or excuse the artist’s political beliefs and anti-Semitic views in any way.”