“By attacking modern art, the National Socialists attacked the concept of modernity as such.”
Interview with Dr Silke von Berswordt-Wallrabe, art historian and chairwoman of the foundation Situation Kunst in Bochum, Germany
In contrast to “Degenerate” Art, “Compliant” Art has not enjoyed much attention in the past. The stigma of its glorification by the National Socialists had relegated it to museums’ depots. But this perception seems to be changing. During her conversation with 42, art historian Dr Silke von Berswordt-Wallrabe portrays the challenges of dealing with historically charged art and what we can learn from it.
Dr Berswordt-Wallrabe – in 2016, you opened the exhibition “Artige Kunst. Kunst und Politik im Nationalsozialismus“ („Well-behaved art. Art and politics in National Socialism“). This was the first exhibition to show a substantial number of works of art that were glorified by the Nazis. What made you exhibit Hitler’s art?
One starting point for us here in Bochum was the art historian Max Imdahl’s (1925-1988) preoccupation with NS-art, especially the sculptor Arno Breker’s work, whose career was massively promoted by the Nazis. Situation Kunst is no “normal” museum, it is associated with the University of Bochum and dedicated to the memory of Max Imdahl. Imdahl himself dealt with the issue of “Nazi-art” when Klaus Staeck started a debate in the 1980s about whether it should be exhibited or not. Since the question has still not been satisfactorily answered, it seemed logical to us to take it up again. Moreover, it was clear to us that especially a university museum can show art critically and should even foster controversial discussions when needed. That is why, for example, we dealt with individual works in the catalogue entries and analysed them in detail. Many accounts of NS-art mostly examine the overall tendencies. Inspired by Max Imdahl’s text on Arno Breker, we made the effort to analyse individual works and place them in the historical context.
What is Nazism’s role in art history?
After 1945 you can observe the same processes of collective repression that characterised the overall societal reaction to Nazism at first. The works that were approved of by the regime disappeared in depots. If you were to believe most of the surveys of art in the 20th Century, art production and exhibition did not exist between 1933 and 1945 in Germany. It was not until the 1970s that a handful of art historians became interested in Nazi Germany’s art.
What does the term “Nazi-art” represent?
There was no single stylistic definition and no overarching programme. However, through the rejection of modernist tendencies, a representational and comprehensible art form oriented towards the traditional academic paintings and sculptures of the 19th Century prevailed. In the context of our exhibition, we looked at art that was valued and promoted by the regime.
What was it like to work with Nazi-art?
It was a special experience because a lot of the works had hardly been exhibited and published before. That is also why the research was quite work-intensive. The database of the GDK-research-group [Editor’s note: image-based research platform on the “Große Deutsche Kunstausstellungen” (“Great German Art Exhibitions”) 1937-1944 in Munich] was an important source of information, and soon it was evident that the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) in Berlin would become the most important access point. Many works from German museums and other official stocks were confiscated and brought to the USA by the Allied Forces after 1945. Since most of the works were returned, the DHM has the most extensive stocks of formerly “official”, i.e. conformist art from the period of National Socialism. Our starting point was a CD on which the DHM had recorded the stocks in blurry black-and-white photographs. We used this CD for an initial selection. As part of a group of people from the museum and catalogue authors, we could then look at the original works in the depot of the DHM. The difference between the small black-and-white depictions and the partly overwhelmingly large paintings is, of course, considerable and it underlines how important it is to deal with the originals.
Was it difficult to choose the works or were you quick to reach an agreement?
We were relatively quick in agreeing on which works should be represented in the exhibition. It soon became clear that a couple of themes played an especially significant role, for example, family and peasant life in propagandistic respects, pseudo-mythological and quasi-religious themes, sports and body culture. Of course, there were discussions about some pictures, but we felt like we were able to make a very meaningful selection. All the works we chose were exhibited in the “Große Deutsche Kunstausstellungen” (“Great German Art Exhibitions”) that took place in the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich from 1937-1944 and were bought by the state. That was definitely a criterion for us. We wanted to show what political leaders found interesting and worthwhile of support and we wanted to explore the reasons for this interest and support.
“I think that an examination of the art of Nazi Germany and its role in the wider social context can open our eyes to what is happening right now. It can also help us understand socio-political contexts in general, as art production is always influenced by its surroundings.”
What difficulties did you face in curating the exhibition?
Finding cooperation partners for the exhibition proved extremely difficult. A lot of art historians declined and said that this was not good art and therefore there was no point in dealing with it. Many museum people were also sceptical and scared that presenting the works in a museum would revaluate them. Actually, this strange reluctance towards an objective examination encouraged us in our conviction that this issue had to be dealt with, especially in the face of the evidently growing right-wing-populist tendencies in the current political debate. We still had some concerns from time to time though: Will the exhibition of these works make them accessible to the public and will they then be applauded from the wrong side? Apart from the evasive and negative reactions, we also got encouragement: Norbert Lammert, who was the president of the German Bundestag at the time, took over the patronage for the project. And Dorota Monkiewicz, the director of the museum in Wroclaw, was very excited and absolutely wanted to show the exhibition. She especially liked the critical aspect. However, half a year before the opening in Bochum, she was informed that her contract was not going to be extended and that the exhibition “Artige Kunst” would not take place in Wroclaw. The fact that an exhibition was cancelled due to political reasons was of course a shocking experience. Especially since it was not cancelled because of reservations against NS-art, but because a critical assessment of this art was unwelcome. It was clear from early on that the exhibition would also be shown in the Kunsthalle Rostock. The Kunstforum Ostdeutsche Galerie in Regensburg stepped in as a third exhibition partner. It might be surprising that an exhibition like this did not take place in Berlin or Munich, since this would have been fitting with regard to the historical context. But we did not find any cooperation partners there.
Hitler himself acted as a promoter of art: In 1937, the “Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung” in Munich was opened under his patronage. What position do you think art was supposed to take in the Nazi-regime?
Of course Hitler, a failed artist himself, was very interested in art. The same was true for Göring or Goebbels, who privately collected paintings which were very different from the art that was publicly propagated in the “Große Deutsche Kunstausstellungen”. But there was no clear official definition of what NS-art should look like. There were vague formulations from the political leadership, which placed art creation in the so-called völkisch or national identity, but there were no formal, stylistic or thematic instructions. It was not like somebody said, from now on please only draw pictures of peasants or families. The artists themselves, who were drawn to these topics, the political leadership and also private interested parties could choose from these sets of pictures at the “Große Deutsche Kunstausstellungen”. The artists who exhibited their work there thus used the leeway concerning interpretation and action and also influenced developments. In 1937, at the latest, when the exhibition of “Degenerate Art” was opened at the same time as the “Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung”, one could be sure of what conformist art should not look like. For the most part, NS-art defined itself by excluding the so-called “Verfallskunst” (“decaying art”), by demeaning everything that was avant-gardist, modern, or critical. By excluding, vilifying and persecuting all the representatives of the avant-garde, as well as all Jewish artists and those who had unwanted political opinions, according to the perverse NS-logic, a sort of pure German art would emerge. Of course, the fine arts offered an ideal target to articulate a general discomfort and the hatred of modernity. By attacking modern art, the National Socialists attacked the concept of modernity as such.
Which artists and styles were vilified and presented in the “Degenerate Art”-exhibition?
The exhibition “Degenerate Art” was preceded by vast confiscations in numerous German museums. The confiscated works either ended up in an exhibition that travelled through Germany, were burnt, or sold abroad. All abstract paintings and all works of the modern streams since Impressionism – that is Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism and Constructivism were included as a matter of principle, as well as anything that was critical of society, ironic or subversive. By the way, the Nazis were met with broad societal approval in their rejection of modern art, from völkisch-nationalist as well as conservative-bourgeois circles. Finally, independent of any stylistic or thematic criteria, anything created by Jewish artists as well as political opponents was classified as “degenerate”.
What exactly classifies as “artige” (well-behaved, agreeable or good) art?
The title of the exhibition is, of course, ironic and also meant in a slightly provocative way as a counter-term or antonym to “entartete Kunst” (“degenerate art”). Interestingly enough, there is no similarly succinct term for the art that was tolerated and welcomed in Nazi Germany. Sometimes, the Nazis spoke of “arteigene” (“belonging to the species”) art, but a proper antonym was not coined. A lot of people probably assume that all the art that was tolerated and promoted was always openly ideological. For instance, many of our visitors were expecting a predominance of paintings depicting war and soldiers. However, these kinds of pictures only made up a small part of the art that was being produced and only really came up in greater quantities in the 1940s. What came before and made up a much larger part was rather harmless and stuffy at first glance; it catered to a taste that was bourgeois through and through.
“Organising such a massive and hateful crack-down on works of art and their producers means that you think they are capable of doing a lot of harm – this can also be seen in other dictatorships.”
Did the contemporary art serve the rulers as a medium of propaganda all the same?
The evaluation of the “Große Deutsche Kunstausstellungen” has shown that the large majority of art production was made of landscapes, still lifes of flowers, portraits and peasant scenes – a strangely disconnected, backward-looking imagery that had hardly anything to do with the social reality of the time. But it was indeed important to Josef Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Adolf Hitler and other leading politicians that art was not explicitly propagandistic. Although these mechanisms were not addressed in a fundamental way, it seemed to be more about presenting a relieving alternative world to everyday life, just like the films of the time did. In this sense, art seemed very important to the NS-leadership. Otherwise, you cannot explain the huge efforts that went into the “Große Deutsche Kunstausstellungen” from 1937 to 1944. However, the banning and destruction of the so-called “degenerate art” is almost more significant. Organising such a massive and hateful crack-down on works of art and their producers means that you think they are capable of doing a lot of harm – this can also be seen in other dictatorships.
What exactly was the imagery of the national-socialist idyll-paintings?
The painting of the rowers by Albert Janesch says a big deal. Simply the depiction of a sporting activity, you could say. But when you realise how simplified and schematic the figures are, the muscular and mechanical way in which they accomplish an effort together, you can see the message in there: They are striving for an overarching goal as a homogenous unit. We do not see individuals, but clones of the same type. In the end, a picture like this illustrates Nazi ideology and the idea of a homogenous racial corpus. It is not about the cooperation of independent individuals, but about a uniform movement that erases all individuality. The metaphor of hard peasant work was also popular, especially ploughing: The peasant, portrayed with his horses and his plough, in a time when agriculture was already industrialised, and reality was completely different. The ploughing in the picture seems like an enormous effort to bring about upheaval. On the one hand, these motifs have something idyllic about them, but there is also an underlying dull murmur. A lot of the pictures distinguish themselves by downplaying certain things in an extreme manner. We see an ideal, pre-industrial world where there are happy, healthy and energetic people, among them numerous mothers with lots of children, in keeping with the Nazis’ family policy. When you think of the simultaneous reality of the murderous Nazi regime, however, the mendacity of these images is evident.
Art in National Socialism is often dismissed as meaningless kitsch, yet the works disappeared in depots after the end of the war. Were the pictures perceived as dangerous?
The fact that the works silently disappeared in museum depots after 1945 mirrors what happened in other parts of society: First repress and lock away, and then go back to the time before the war or look ahead. This also explains the concept of the first documenta in 1955. Basically, people pretended like the time between the late 1920s and the end of World War II had not happened in Germany. This view was widely spread until the 1970s, when younger art historians started to deal with NS-art. The first attempts of showing this kind of art in exhibitions actually met with concerns that the works could exert a suggestive attraction – the exhibition of the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst in Berlin was subtitled “Aesthetic fascination in fascism”. When you look at the majority of the pictures in the original though, fascination is very limited. There is little virtuosity, a lot of stuffiness, and at best solid craftsmanship and the attempt to impress through large formats.
How did the audience react to your exhibition?
When we installed the exhibition, we did fear getting unwanted approval from people who were not democratically-minded, at first. As a matter of fact though, most of the over 15.000 visitors in Bochum reacted in a level-headed way and could place the works into the social context of the time. There was a lot of curiosity, many people wanted to learn more about the background. There has never been an exhibition in Situation Kunst that has generated so much discussion and so many questions. That showed us that, especially in this field, there is not only the possibility, but also the necessity for direct confrontation with the original works. And yet, this proved to be quite challenging for our curators Irina Lammert and Katherina Zimmermann, and especially the supervisory staff, who were all art history students. Some visitors, for example, were irritated by and even upset over the fact that we brought the reality of the time into the seemingly harmless ideal world portrayed in the imagery of the exhibition. We only tentatively did so by exhibiting four photographs of war-related destruction and the victims of the mass murders in concentration camps. Nevertheless, for most visitors, this cut was understandable and even helpful: They did not want to disregard this reality in their contemplation of these works. Some visitors recognised idyllic motifs that they had already seen in a different context, for instance as a reproduction in their grandparents’ house. This made them deal with these works in a very personal way. Many animated and even heated discussions in front of the exhibited works showed us that the topic triggers very different associations, but in the end, it affects everybody personally in one way or another.
Do you think that we perceive National Socialism in a different way as a result of the aforementioned contemplation?
Even though these pictures are no obvious propaganda, they were embedded in the political system. That this does not always work through obvious motifs and obvious propaganda is demonstrated very vividly in the exhibition. There are very different kinds of motifs, themes and styles, but still, walking through the exhibition provides you with an atmosphere that is definitely telling of Nazism and its propagated ideals. We consciously juxtaposed official NS-art with works of modernity, works of artists who were persecuted at the time. Not to take up and turn around the Nazis’ criteria or mechanisms of distinction, but because we wanted to show what was happening at the same time. That is why we also displayed the works of some artists whose relationship to National Socialism was rather ambiguous, for instance Otto Dix or Franz Radziwill. We also wanted to indicate grey areas, since the situation of many artists was of course much more complex than a simple juxtaposition can show. In any case, the works of the avant-garde show that there was an interest in the subjective, in actual experiences, and also in expressing distress, fears and personal concern. All of this cannot be found in the NS-art. The people we see there do not seem like individuals with whom we can identify, but more like generalised, simplistic types. For us, this exhibition was also a statement. During the preparations, it became evident that the New Right was gaining more and more followers: Thousands took to the streets in the pegida marches, the AfD became increasingly right-wing, the identitarians started their first actions and Donald Trump’s electoral campaign gained momentum. That gave us a feeling for the current political topicality of the exhibition. These connections to current affairs were also made by most visitors without us having to point them out explicitly.
Can “well-behaved” art help us learn something about the current political situation?
I think you can learn a lot about certain forms of staging and the function of supposedly harmless pictures; just think back to some of the AfD-posters from the last general election campaign. I think that an examination of the art of Nazi Germany and its role in the wider social context can open our eyes to what is happening right now. It can also help us understand socio-political contexts in general, as art production is always influenced by its surroundings.
Do you think that the fine arts can be an indicator of a political system change?
Drawing hasty conclusions from single works of art is surely somewhat tricky and unprofessional. You do have to examine a whole lot of works and take into account social contexts and backgrounds concerning cultural politics and mentality. However, you can deduce certain tendencies from the large number of works. My impression is that exhibitions like the “Artige Kunst” do not only offer indispensable analytical approaches but that they also tell us a lot about the time in terms of atmosphere, at least there is more than what the pictures show us superficially.
Interview: Jana Kipsieker
Translation: Charlotte Bander