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.

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