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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Friday
Mar182011

« In Which In Politics Artists Don't Understand Anything »

Rodin's Shitheel

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Adolf Hitler's favorite artist was the sculptor Arno Breker, who died in Dusseldorf in 1991. The most important thing about a Nazi is the date of his death, and Breker was among the more long-lived of his brethren. Breker's sculptures represent a technical competence that is so thorough it is repulsive, and his pseudo-heroic depictions of the human form horrify me. Hitler felt that Greek and Roman art was not tainted by Jewishness, and so Breker followed his Führer's gesture to that place.

Breker's father was an abusive disciplinarian, and he loved his old man dearly, which explains a lot. Arno's biggest influence was Rodin, and he kept a copy of Rilke's book about the legendary sculptor all his life. As a young man he visited the Bauhaus and saw Paul Klee working on multiple paintings at once. Breker felt that it did not "represent real creativity," and took his work in another direction.

It would not be a terrific leap to assume fascists only desire to repress and destroy the arts. The opposite is true: they are captivated, fascinated, and very aware of the power in artistic expression. Not knowing very much about politics when the Nazi party began its rise in Germany, Arno Breker was easily taken in by the sharpness of its propaganda and the movement's popular support. When he finally did join the party in 1937, it was as a uniform, serving as both political leader and artistic guide. By 1940, Breker was already the recipient of the Golden Badge of the Nazi Party. He was forty years old.

breker and assistants put the finishing touches on a work, 1942

Breker's work entailed powerful representations of German heroes, and he controlled the artistic climate in Germany in the 1940s. A mere look from him at the opening of a gallery or a show was enough to ensure no critic would write about the event. He sent for a paper delegation of French artists to Germany in 1941, and when the group returned to France their leaders called artists in Germany "the cherished children of the nation."

Arno Breker with a bronze of his 1939 work, Héraut

Breker's career as a Nazi did not wholly consist of meting out death and pain. When the Gestapo found out that Pablo Picasso was sending money to Spain and Russia, Breker got in touch with Jean Cocteau, who he had charmed in Paris as a younger man, to get him to stop the transfers. Eventually he was called in front of the Führer on the matter. Hitler responded to him by saying, "I am going to tell you once and for all: in politics, artists are like Parsifal; they don't understand anything."

Though Stalin was a fan of the sculptor, after Germany fell to the Soviets Breker fled to the Alps. When he was called before the Americans, he denied ever being an officer, and was generally treated as a victim of the Nazis. His networking skills served him again and he was even approached about sculpting a bust of Eisenhower.

breker comes before a de nazification court in October of 1948The man Hitler tapped to begin to assemble his art collection was Hans Posse. As director of the Führermuseum, Posse put behind previous interests in artists like Klee and Kandinsky and focused on work that was more up his boss' alley. He was possessed by the idea of creating the greatest art collection in the world, and sought no financial advantage for himself from the considerable power he wielded. Naturally, he confiscated Jewish property without a second thought in his zeal.

degenerate art exhibitAlthough faith in ethnic superiority did not usually go with a love of artistic achievement, Hitler's proxies were usually motivated to safeguard treasures and would sacrifice much to preserve them. In contrast, art dealers saw a tremendous opportunity for profit. They wrote to the regime begging to get a chance to acquire artworks the state confiscated from Jews for exportation and financial profit. The regime presented and toured an exhibit of "Degenerate Art" with paintings accompanied by mocking labels explaining why the works were inadequate.

the alte pinakotek after its destruction, 1948

Breker continued to pursue his career after the war, but he was consistently identified with the Third Reich. Critics compared his Nazi sculptures to the work of a cosmetic surgeon, because his men contained no flaws visible to the human eye. This fascist ideal continued to appeal to clients, and even the Nazi-loving Cocteau couldn't resist getting a bust done of himself. Breker's sculpture of Wagner linked him to Hitler's favorite composer, and the connection between the two only intensified the trouble they had in reclaiming their lives in postwar Germany.

Breker's bust of WagnerAlive when others were not, Breker became a secret cause celebre for the German right wing. One pro-Nazi gallery, the Galerie Marco, passed out photographs of Breker with popular artists and public figures to increase his palatability to the public at large. Breker became more symbol than man, and over time his defenders grew.

While students and young people protested his exhibitions, others argued that he should be able to continue his life's work without denigration. There remained a question of whether art created for and by Nazis should be displayed to the German public at all, complicated by the fact that the Reich had displayed the sinful etchings of their victims strewn everywhere, as trophies of death.

Breker's denials throughout were many. He argued that French Jews had not been dispossessed of their property, and he defended the many of his actions during the war. Whereas his friend and Hitler's chief architect Albert Speer apologized and said that he regretted the crimes he committed during the Third Reich, Breker dismissed him, saying, "I don't like his view of the past."

protest against an exhibition of breker's art in Berlin, 1981

Because of his lack of repentance, Breker's art never received a wider airing. Since it is extremely imitative, this is no great loss, but a deluded niche can find power in the strong expression of anything, even evil. Damaged people in a shamed nation create otherworldly reimaginings of their enemies' destruction. To see why Nazi art violates our aesthetics, we can look to the fact that this is neither a relevant or productive message to anyone but Glenn Beck.

But can it be that National Socialism produced no artistic work of any value? In so many ways, Hitler's dedicated agents ensured an anti-Renaissance, but they also aimed to replace what they destroyed with their own version. Daniel Goldhagen has argued that anti-Semitism was so prevalent among the intelligentsia that politics became more important than culture for the appreciators of the period.

Jonathan Petropoulos, in his book The Faustian Bargain, finds an additional cause. He writes of the appeal of violence to the educated class under the guise of the 'noble savage.' Both these motivations would seem to serve an artistic sensibility, and they only reinforce a basic precondition of civilization: that everything has a corresponding artistic culture to accompany it.

with albert speer

Like Breker, Hitler's filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl defended her work on its own merits until she died. (Hitler's biggest fan, the woman lived to 101.) Some jaded bastard screened Triumph of the Will for me as part of a course when I was 12, and I never forgave him. For the only reassuring aspect of the Third Reich is the moral certainty that nothing of what they were is in us, really. Riefenstahl's talent was too prodigious: the remarkable technique shines through the horror of its subject. Witnessing delighted Germans applauding a stoic parade of murderers is too strange and disturbing a sight to do anything but awe.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He last wrote in these pages about the hundred greatest novels. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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a breker statue toppled during the war

 

References (42)

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Reader Comments (5)

a whole subset of people in this world feel they are witnessing unrepentant evil when they see American news and watch our people celebrate bombs dropped, missile strikes, tank track burials. etc.in a flag waving parade. or an f-117 flyover at the Super Bowl.
One nation's patriotism is another's nightmare.

March 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShrill.Illson

The "Degenerate Art" show was recreated for a touring exhibition in the 1990s -- though this time, the art was presented in the usual formal museum style, not hung from ropes and stuck up at angles as in the original.

From the catalogue to the 1991 version:

"During the four months Entartete Kunst was was on view in Munich it attracted more than two million visitors; over the next three years it traveled throughout Germany and Austria and was seen by nearly one million more. On most days twenty thousand visitors passed through the exhibition... The popularity of Entartete Kunst has never been matched by any other exhibition of modern art."

The question is, did those millions see the exhibit only because they hated the art, or because they were attracted to it and had no other way to see it once it had been banned by the Nazis?

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEntartete Kunstler

Who the hell would join the throngs to visit an art exhibition of work they already hated? Doesn't make sense in today's world.
But is that what the German public was doing the first time the show was presented in the 30's? If so, it illuminates an interesting scenario of evil - actively seeking out that which you hate in order to disparage. Is the opposite act, a virtuous act, in the same circumstance to actively seek out and offer kindness? Or to avoid seeking out altogether?

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDougie Fresca

Actually, Breker was one of the the few(troost, speer, thorak etc.) true artists serving the third reich. Your dislike of his personal political ideas is immaterial. He was a master sculptor and his work is finally getting the attention it deserves. Hitler was a demon but he had impecable taste in art. Sorry.

July 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSpeer
Naturally, he confiscated Jewish property without a second thought in his zeal.
March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterprom dresses

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