Hollow-Headed Angels

Nicholas Penny

  • Art and Power: Europe under the Dictators 1930-1945 edited by David Britt
    Hayward Gallery, 360 pp, £19.95, October 1995, ISBN 1 85332 148 6

The Romantic Spirit in German Art, an exhibition shown at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh in the summer of 1994 and at the Hayward Gallery last winter, included a small group of paintings by artists popular during the Third Reich – the type of painting which was excluded in 1985 from the Royal Academy’s survey of German art in the 20th century. The labels that accompanied these pictures at the Hayward warned that they could have no claim to the true lineage traced from Friedrich to Beuys, while the catalogue briskly dismissed them as distasteful banalities. However, Adolf Wissels’s puzzled and frightened farming family from Kalenberg, which was shown at the exhibition, are self-reliant, plain-living, God-fearing folk of a kind especially popular in North American art and literature. Looking at pictures such as this, we should ask ourselves whether, or rather to what extent, the character of the painting was determined by the regime which approved of it.

There is a larger but less interesting selection of German paintings from this period in the Hayward Gallery’s current exhibition, Art and Power: Europe under the Dictators 1930-1945 (which closes on 21 January and then moves to Barcelona and Berlin). Hitler himself is depicted here by Heinrich Knirr with a raised nose and slight frown against a backdrop of troubled clouds, mountains, a low horizon – precisely the tame sublimity which is favoured for portraits of English public school headmasters or senior American officers. Ivo Saliger’s Diana’s Rest, which depicts three nude maidens sternly reposing in a northern landscape (pine trees top left), was chosen by four newspapers to illustrate their reviews of the exhibition, no doubt because the picture evokes the master race and its Hellenic pretensions. However, a preoccupation with clean minds, healthy bodies and ancient Greeks was not unfamiliar to the British, the males of whose ruling class had been plunging naked into icy streams for decades. And the style of this painting, with its resolutely unsensuous handling of paint and crisply distinguished bands of light on the lake, can be found in British as well as German painting.

Hanging opposite the art which enjoyed both official and popular success under the Third Reich are specimens of art which was banned, most conspicuously a series of watercolours by Emil Nolde – who was, nevertheless, a passionate supporter of the regime – and nearby are oil paintings by Felix Nussbaum, who died in a concentration camp. In the earlier section on Stalin’s Russia we again encounter an opposition between the art of the avant garde, which was largely snuffed out, and the art which was officially approved. The latter category includes Aleksandr Deineka’s tautly patterned watercolours of ruined Berlin, as well as much bland pastoral, but neither these nor the faux-naif spiritualism of the avant garde can compete with the powerful, or at least noisy, posters on the same walls. The largest of the Soviet paintings hangs in the first room of the exhibition: A. Samokhvalov’s marching athletes grin as their nubile comrades pelt roses at the party boss Sergei Kirov (eliminated by Stalin and cropped from the colour plate in the catalogue). It is the shape, and nearly the size, of a cinema screen. In Stalin’s Russia no less than Hitler’s Germany cosmopolitanism was a term of abuse as applied to art, but the style of this type of Soviet painting now seems remarkably close to that of much North American advertising.

Nearby, also in the first room, is another gigantic canvas, but vertical in format and entirely without saccharine optimism and uniform cheerfulness. José Maria Sert’s Saint Teresa, Ambassadress of Divine Love in Spain, Offers to Our Lord the Spanish Martyrs of 1936 is an altarpiece, painted in earth colours on gold, which employs the Counter-Reformation iconography of intercession and ascent. The heroes – of the Nationalist cause – and the ecclesiastics who cling to the saint both resemble, incongruously, the huddling, oppressed populace of Goya. The composition, with its dynamic diagonal, reflects a profound study of Baroque art. But the debt to recent cinematic experiments in expressive lighting and distorting camera angles is also apparent – as it is in Rodchenko’s photographs of the faces of Soviet pioneers or in the pro-Republican posters of Josep Renau.

The architecture, sculpture and painting produced in Berlin, Rome and Moscow during the Thirties have less in common than might be supposed, but the technique of photomontage was adopted in every part of Europe and to strikingly similar effect, as can be seen in this exhibition by comparing the wall decorations made by Giuseppe Terragni for the Fascist exhibition of 1932, the photo album on The First Cavalry made by Rodchenko in 1935, Renau’s photographic propaganda of 1938 and Gustav Klucis’s lithographic poster, Under the Banner of Lenin of 1940. The technique of photomontage derived from the cinema, where image was overlaid with image. Cinema was indeed the great new art form – but one to which this exhibition cannot do justice.

Consciously or not, the display in the first room of the Hayward has been influenced by the cinema – to tremendous effect. The darkness is penetrated by spotlights which trap the bronze sculptures, some of which loom above us on very high plinths, casting weird shadows on the walls and floor. Such lighting can be damaging to finer sculptural effects, but these pieces are not subtle and the lighting contrives to evoke the way sculpture was presented in the films of rallies and marches (some of which are shown on video monitors in subsequent rooms). The intention is to replicate some of the contrasts and confrontations found in the International Exhibition in Paris in 1937. Sert’s grim altarpiece was displayed in the Vatican’s pavilion there. Vera Mukhina’s pair of workers with hammer and sickle, 24.5 metres high and fashioned out of steel plates, stood on the Soviet pavilion facing Kurt Schmid-Ehmen’s eagle on the German one. At the Hayward a bronze maquette (itself nearly lifesize) stands in for Mukhina’s group and a bronze eagle from the façade of the New Reich Chancellery replaces the far bigger bird made for Paris.

Mukhina’s group, as one of the catalogue essays points out, must owe its basic conception (two figures striding forward in unison) to the antique statues of the tyrant killers made by Critios and Nesiote in 477-476 BC – just the sort of antique sculpture which inspired artists working in Berlin and Rome during the Thirties. But to understand Mukhina’s group we also need to go back to Paris in 1884, when the Winged Victory was unveiled on the new Escalier Daru in the Louvre surmounting a reconstruction of the prow on which it originally rose above the rocks of Samothrace. This event provoked a rage for colossal windswept personifications on the skylines of buildings, which reached a climax in the quadrigas by George Récepon which burst with exhilarating absurdity from the roof of the Grand Palais in 1900. This type of sculpture was made possible by welding sheets of copper over an armature – essentially the same technique that Mukhina used.

The Winged Victory was revered by Madame Verdurin, along with Beethoven’s Ninth and the Night Watch. So it comes as no surprise that the Futurists in their Manifesto of 1911 rejected it in favour of the new and ‘terrifying’ beauty of the motor-car. Ironically, it was in that very year that Charles Sykes’s statuette, the Spirit of Ecstasy, a juvenile descendant of the Winged Victory, also closely related to Loie Fuller and Peter Pan, first perched upon the bonnet of a Rolls-Royce.

By the Thirties architecture had begun to envy the sleek and aggressive forms employed in modern cars and ocean liners especially. We can see this from the spectacular perspectives hanging on the stairs at the Hayward. K.S. Melnikov’s visionary competition project of 1934 for the Commissariat of Heavy Industry in Red Square envisages buildings with sharp prows and adds colossal figureheads of the kind which, ironically, the great liners had neglected. (This is not the only example of Russian science fiction which is indebted to Piranesi, whose megalomaniac archaeology was surprisingly neglected in Germany and Italy during this period.) D. Chechulin and K.V. Kaurkov’s project for the Aeroflot building (seen at night, lit both from within and by searchlights) is crowned, just like a car, with a winged emblem. Boris Iofan’s Russian pavilion for the Paris exhibition was a pedestal as much as a building, but a pedestal which seemed to roll forward with the colossal striding figures it supported.

Mukhina’s group was made to be viewed from below – from in front and from the side (only from the side do hammer and sickle lock into the familiar pattern). The straight arms of the figures, and still more the horizontal ridges of the drapery, give the sculpture a geometric power, but something far more stylised was originally proposed, to judge by the giant drawing at the Hayward. The final design was a compromise reflecting official preference for another tradition in European sculpture, a tradition represented in this exhibition by Sarra Lebedeva’s Miner of 1937, in which rugged, heavy-legged labourers are depicted in a rough, earthy style of modelling. This tradition goes back to Meunier and Dalou at the end of the last century, but repose was essential to the monumentality that such sculptures often achieve: they seemed to emphasise that workers thought. Mukhina, on the other hand, sets the workers in motion, but their action is that of robots or athletes whose thinking is left to others.

Schmid-Ehmen’s eagle, although far less ambitious, was an unqualified success. Photographs reveal how perfectly it crowned the tower which Albert Speer designed (so he claimed) to halt the surging Bolsheviks opposite. The eagle’s wings were stylised into verticals and horizontals, its plumage as disciplined as the flutes of the three piers and the grid between them. The eagle displayed at the Hayward is less vertical, devised as a flat badge to pin above the Chancellery entrance, set in a wall of notably horizontal spread. The dictator’s faith in the power of monumental public art and the opportunities (never since equalled) which state patronage provided, especially for sculptors, were matched in the Thirties by a genuine response on the part of many artists: political emergency imparted a significance to ideas of identity and destiny, and a faith which, whatever else it may have been, was undeniably creative. It would be – indeed has been – convenient to dismiss Speer’s talents and to regard Schmid-Ehmen’s eagles as kitsch.

Later in the exhibition we are able to see what Mukhina might have created in the streamlined mode. Her 1938 project for a monument to the salvation of Chelyuskintsky consists of a gaunt personification of the North Wind, Boreas, with outstretched arms, straining forward but turning back, with a bearskin cloak blowing out behind in such a way as to suggest an animal lunging in the opposite direction: a foretaste of the grotesque forms and silhouettes later exploited in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. The small bronze version is mounted on a sheer plinth of ice-green glass in the shape of a sharp prow. Nearby are Ivan Shadr’s exuberant torch-bearing athletes – the girl especially lacks the weight and solemnity of Nazi and Fascist equivalents, and has something of the lithe and genial spirit of art deco bathers and greyhounds.

Racial purity was part of the ideal represented by such sculptures of athletes. But in none is this more explicit than in the life-size bronze soldier striding cheerfully home (with a German helmet as a trophy) erected in 1922 on a roundabout near the railway station in Cambridge – a specimen of the ‘East Anglican racial type’ modelled by Tait McKenzie, a Canadian ‘physical educator’ who was first attracted to sculpture as a branch of medical statistics. He became famous for his perfect all-round athlete, which he modelled in 1903 by taking measurements from 400 Harvard undergraduates, and was hailed by dons and aesthetes alike as the ‘reincarnation of a sculptor of ancient Hellas’. A similar description was often applied to Arno Breker, sculptor of The Party and The Wehrmacht in the courtyard of the Reich Chancellery, and creator of numerous other oddly hollow nude supermen.

At the Hayward Gallery, again in the first room, is Breker’s Prometheus of 1937, displayed very effectively with a staircase behind it. Despite its dull texture it is hard to look at it from any point of view and resist being caught up in its taut coiling forms. These move up; the figure moves down – down from the mountain top, bearing the frightening gift of fire. The mood is not triumphant. It is one of solemn care: the destiny of man and the progress of civilisation will not be easy. Breker’s later work is seldom so suggestive of thought and action in unison.

One essay in the catalogue claims that, having been taken up by the regime, Georg Kolbe’s sculpture tended towards an empty monumentality, replacing idiosyncratic models with exemplary athletes. Another essay notes that he ‘consciously skipped along the fine line between official and personal art’. One suspects some flexibility on the part of patrons anxious to accommodate one of Germany’s most senior and admired artists. Kolbe, who had reached maturity before the First World War, was perhaps the last great European sculptor whose figures express themselves with their whole body. His Proclamation (Verkündung), also confusingly entitled Genius, a bronze statue shown in the German pavilion in 1937, and again here, is a good example – a woman rises from her knees, at once active but unexpectedly poised, and eloquent from every point of view. But there is no clear meaning, as there invariably is in Breker. Ernst Barlach, an even older sculptor, but one of more radical tendency, rejected this plastic ideal. His figures are bound into log or block – their pathos depends on their inarticulacy.

The usual opinion is that National Socialism, to quote one of the essays in the catalogue of The Romantic Spirit in German Art, ‘only activated artists who would have been otherwise marginalised by the progress of modern art’ and the same is often said of state patronage under Stalin. However, the sculptural traditions to which both regimes gave vital support were vigorous. Ivan Shadr’s colossal head of Gorky of 1939, again in the first room at the Hayward, is inconceivable without the wild-haired Beethovens by Alfredo Pina and Bourdelle, which in turn depend on Rodin’s Balzac. But it has its own distinctive magnificence and a dynamic perhaps deriving from Cubism, which makes the eyebrows and locks of hair look as if they were about to take flight.

Upstairs in the second room we see how the avant garde responded to the outrages of the Right. The Spanish pavilion by Josep Lluis Sert, great-nephew of the painter, is aptly characterised in an essay in the catalogue as a ‘flexible, accessible, container’. In compensation for its studious avoidance of architectural rhetoric the pavilion was covered in written messages. Outside it was planted Alberto Sánchez Pérez’s concrete Surrealist pole with the cumbersome title The Spanish People Have a Path that Leads to a Star, a modern plaster replica of which is included in this exhibition. It is a sort of cactus crowned with a star and a stylised dove reminiscent of the inflatable accessories of the beach holiday, items with which the sculptor’s friend Picasso also played. Despite the jolly singalong title, the symbolism is too complex, and the mood too subjectively lyrical, to be suited to a monumental, let alone a polemical, purpose. Also shown here is Julio González’s Woman before a Mirror, a sculpture composed of iron parts. Its very structure seems vulnerable, even provisional. And it has a wit which immediately disqualifies it from any public platform. There is more power in the satirical attacks on the Spanish Nationalists – lithographs by Francisco Mateos and etchings (in a limited edition) by Picasso – but they make the mistake of using Surrealism to convey an obvious, even perhaps a crude meaning.

The intense individualism of the Surrealists, their interest in cruelty, their exploration of pain, their flirtation with spiritualism, might have been expected to find favour among the more romantic adherents of the Right. In one showcase in the room we find Laureados de España, a curious publication of 1940 commemorating Nationalist heroes, which lies open at an illustration (by José Caballero, although the label doesn’t tell us this) depicting a hollow-headed angel against a deep-blue sky, sea-washed dead branches, rocks growing into armour, weapons turning into drapery – a successful adaptation of the ironic and elegiac metamorphic imagery of Dali. We are left wondering whether there was more of this in Nationalist Spain.

The Italian section of the exhibition is by far the best selected and designed. It is also the most interesting and coherent because it was only in Italy that painting seems to have had a consistent relationship with the other arts, and only there that the ideas of modernists and traditionalists were consistently confused and, of course, only there that the dictator’s regime actually encouraged some aspects of the avant garde. There was no figure in Spain, Germany and Russia comparable to Giuseppe Bottai, who used his power as one of Mussolini’s ministers to defend and even to promote freedom of expression in the arts. Architecture, or something like it, was a favourite subject of Futurist paintings; Italian metaphysical painters populated their canvases with statues; the more classically inclined painters designed murals and mosaics consisting of highly sculptural figures for huge buildings – the figures by Mario Sironi look like bewildered time-travellers, transported from the archaic Mediterranean civilisations to modern building-sites.

The romanità promoted by Mussolini may have taken many predictable directions, but Italian artists responded to aspects of ancient art which had never met with academic approval, Etruscan murals, for example, and some of the styles of late antique carving (including sculpture in porphyry and granite – an aspect of official sculpture not illustrated in the exhibition). Italian architects devised a style of column which was both original and traditional, like the sans serif lettering which is typical of that period. Columnar architecture such as that imposed by Marcello Piacentini on the new town of E.U.R. (shown here in admirable photographs by Tim Benton) is often described as if akin to the classicism favoured by Hitler but it was in fact far more distinctive.

In his lively preface to the catalogue Eric Hobsbawm deplores the ‘pompous rhetoric’ of official Fascist architecture. But it included some of the most original buildings of this century – and many which were elegant without bombast, Florence railway station, for example – and I do not believe that it is true that the Fascist era ‘does not look impressive’ when compared with the cultural achievements of Italy post-1945. Even the ‘first fully realised Neo-realist film’, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, was produced in 1942 by Vittorio Mussolini, as Lutz Becker notes in one of the most interesting essays in this catalogue.

What is most striking about the catalogue is the resistance of most of the contributors to critical analysis of specific works of art. Few of them are prepared to claim any aesthetic merit for any of the works of official art selected, but they don’t expand on their failings either, although the German scholars go to considerable lengths to keep the contamination labels firmly in place. There is, however, a great deal of new interpretation of artistic policy, and much valuable information about what happened to artists (but far more precision, understandably, about the suffering of the victims than the often complex situations of the elect). In this sense it is a very valuable publication; but as an exhibition catalogue it is a disgrace. It anticipates no curiosity whatsoever on the part of the visitor. There are no proper entries for the exhibits, just a densely printed checklist. This isn’t easy to use, because the labels aren’t numbered. There are very brief biographies, but not for all the artists – there is nothing on Knirr, Saliger, Samokhvalov, Lebedeva, Schmid-Ehmen or Caballero, among those I have mentioned. Should you ask such elementary questions as what happened to Mukhina’s gigantic group, or how and where Breker’s Prometheus was first displayed, you won’t find the answers here. In addition, many works are not illustrated and it is hard to find those which are. This catalogue compares very badly with that of the Tate Gallery’s exhibition On Classic Ground of 1990, which provided succinct but thoughtful commentaries on numerous European artists still not available elsewhere in English, including some of the Italian artists with classical interests whose work is also featured here.

As the digits all click over in a few years’ time, the museums of modern art will become museums of 20th-century art and the history of that art will be completely rewritten – by the younger visitors to exhibitions such as this one or On Classic Ground. They will be as interested in Kolbe as in Maillol; they will dispassionately compare Speer’s classicism in Berlin and John Russell Pope’s in Washington; they will be interested in the ideological content of art, but only incidentally in the cards the artists carried. They will be as aware of the limitations of the avant garde as of those of official artists. And they will subject both terms to examination. They will not assume that work by avant-garde artists who were ridiculed or persecuted will have any special authenticity or sanctity in consequence.