While the Nazi and Soviet political movements were undoubtedly among the most vile developments of the 20th century, they inspired works of art which have the ability to expose some of the best and worst that art can achieve. Because they involve such stark contrasts of good and evil, they offer excellent opportunities to discuss what aspects of art are good and bad, what art can achieve at its best and what it can destroy at its worst. My goal in this collection is not so much to present all of the best or worst of the art from these movements, but to provide concrete materials for discussions regarding the nature and purpose of art. Discussions of these topics crop up on a regular basis in rec.arts.fine and my GoodArt discussion list among others.
The Guard (44K)
The Warrior Departs (23K)
The Party and The Army (31K)
I included Arno Breker in this archive first because he was in a certain sense both the best and the worst of the Nazi artists. His technique was excellent, and his choice of subject, poses, theme, and so on were outstanding, but on the other hand, Breker was therefore much more directly and effectively a supporter of the Nazi cause. Had his sculpture been ugly, ambiguous in meaning, poorly-executed, or less directly associated with Nazi militarism, the negative effects on the world of his sculpture would have been considerably lessened. In a certain sense, Breker uses his numerous "naked men with swords" to unite the notions of health, strength, competition, collective action and willingness to sacrifice the self for the common good seen in many other Nazi works with explicit glorification of militarism.
The pair of statues The Party and The Army stood outside the entrance of Hitler's Reich Chancellery. Like Breker's other sculptures, they are both stongly and clearly expressive, and also an idealization of some of the most aggressive and totalitarian themes in Nazi art.
Farm Family from Kahlenberg (1939) (29K)
This painting is typical of a certain class of what I call "Nazi Folk Art". The themes running through such works (and there were a LOT of them) are the virtues of the simple, natural life, living close to the land, and using muscular power to turn the land into a healthy living. This is a theme I find often portrayed in the more recent primitivist art of the environmentalist movement except that it tends to promote a more etherial or surreal notion of what "union with the soil" and "the simple life" might entail. More likely than not because rural Germans had some experience with "the simple life" while most urban environmentalists have little direct connection with such a life and are able to idealize it more.
By eschewing sophistication in subject and execution, the artists of this genre were in essence "coming down to the level of the peasants" and telling them that they were better than (or as good as) the fancy intellectuals with their unrealistic theories and pie in the sky ideals (and of course the Nazis were just as guilty of this as the liberals before them were, but that didn't stop them from package-dealing such faults away with art). Their goal was to associate the ideals of health, family, motherhood, and so on with the land ("blood and soil") rather than some kind of rational evaluation of the situation which of course wouldn't have favored either the Nazis or the Communists. Such "folk art" is realitively easy to produce (actually, this is a well-implemented example of the genre, most of the other similar works I have seen are far more ham-handed in their execution) and the Nazis created and displayed a lot of it, and since it was seen by many as a more genuine expression of political will than the work of some painter educated in France who painted blobs or stick-men it did double-duty as both propaganda for "blood and soil" among the rural poor and as a boost for the general consensus that the Nazis were well-liked in the rural areas.
The Flag Bearer (55K)
I have often used this particular painting as an excellent example of a work of art that is "good" in the sense of being quite effective at conveying its idea (generally, that Hitler was a great man, or that his political program was noble, his party principled and trustworthy) and also false in fact, and evil in its effect (since of course Hitler and the Nazi Party were none of these). It is interesting to note that this painting was stabbed in the face with a knife several times by vandals.
This is a somewhat more accomplished attempt at portraying the themes of "simple country life", muscularity, collective action, and a union between the people and the soil. While most of these "rural nazi" attempts were embarrassingly clumsy, Junghanns is quite effective. I included this example as a counterpoint to the Wissel painting to highlight the difference between similar political themes and a skilled and unskilled approach to their portrayal.
Relay Runners (35K)
This is a good example of the rather inferior art which was acquired after the Nazis cleared the museums of "degenerate art". The only way to fill all of the newly open old museums and the new ones being built was to lower standards for quality and in many cases substitute idealogical viewpoint as the standard for quality. The forms in this sculpture are blunted and imprecise and obviously cannot stand on their own without the supports attached to the legs. Still, the themes of athletic prowess, health, and collective action seen in so much other Nazi art are present in such botched attempts.
Much German sculpture of this era is criticized for amateurish workmanship and rightly so in cases like this. So why should such works have been popular when the "degenerate art" of the Weimar era was so despised? It is clear that past the lack of talent or care, there is a desire to portray something, and for it to be something good. In that sense, this piece can be viewed from several perspectives. One the one hand it is aimed at a notion of health and achievement that people did and should have found appealing (a good thing in general), on the other hand, it served to unite the idea of the Nazi Party with such positive ideas (clearly a bad thing), on the other hand it is a rather poorly executed work (unlike Arno Breker's much of which is quite good in that respect).
It was the union of the yearning of the public for "something good and wholesome" along with the Nazi's desire to "package deal" their political program with such ideals that caused this piece to be displayed in a public museum rather than being relegated to some dusty cellar, and it doubtless did its small part in promoting the Nazi cause.
Water Sports (1936) (52K)
This painting is an excellent example of the common theme of athletic prowess in Nazi artworks. It is particularly effective in conveying a sense of motion because of the lines of rowers acting like frames of movie film as the eye passes over them. Certainly the theme and technique of this painting are excellent, and there's certainly nothing especially overtly Nazi-oriented about the portrayal (no swastikas and so on), but given the era in which it was created, the themes of health, athletic prowess, collective action, and competition are unmistakably intended to promulgate this view of German society and what kind of world the Nazis wanted to be thought of as creating.
It is unfortunate that today so many artists and others have taken home the wrong lesson from such works. Of course the end toward which they aggitated was evil, but must we reject the idea of meaningful art promoting true virtues (such as health, success, and strength in this case) on the grounds that some artists in some eras have used their power to portray good ideals in association with evil political movements? I think not, and in fact, by abandoning the idea that art can portray good, meaningful, and true notions, such people leave the door open to some evil ideology to align itself with the virtue art still can express.
By the Water (46K)
Here again we see a vivid example of the Nazis associating themselves with health, strength, and beauty (not to mention sexual titilation) through well-executed art. While Lieberman's technique couldn't stand up next to a Leighton or Alma-Tadema, it is fairly good and is directed toward portraying a very specific kind of ideal, and was just the kind of thing the Nazis wanted to use as a cover for their otherwise despicable platform.
Monument to the Third International (57K)
Tatlin (seen here in the lower left smoking a pipe) in this piece used a purely abstract form to represent a sort of "upward and onward" theme he wished to associate with the Third International. Unlike many abstract pieces in the west in later times, this clearly expresses that theme (admittedly a simple and unsubtle one) through a clear and unsubtle means.
Revolutionary Poster (1920) (25K)
This kind of bluntly simplistic propaganda was a big favorite of the Soviets. Their use of "folk art" styles involved a certain sort of cynical "talking down" to the people they considered to be "poor dumb peasants" who were unaware of their class interests and had to be "fixed" by exposure to crude and blunt messages like this. In some ways this resembles the simple art the Nazis used to appeal to their own "poor dumb peasants". It is as though both groups were under the impression that people are unable to comprehend art not similar to that their social class generally has the skills to produce.
This is pretty much the same kind of thing as Mayakovsky's poster above buy with even more crude "folk art" of the kind the lowliest peasant could produce. Clearly the Soviets were showing through this kind of crude and simplistic messages that they really didn't expect the peasants to think for themselves, just to "identify with" their social class and their kind of "class art".
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