Review

The art of propaganda: Central Library exhibition pulls Nazi past into the present

As the bizarre and disturbing presidential primary season rumbles on, the timing could not be better for an exhibition that dissects the operation of political propaganda in images and texts. Right about now, we could use a good dose of historical insight into the genre’s workings.

If only “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” were more compelling. The show, packaged for touring by the formidable United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., contains a lot of good information chronicling one aspect of the National Socialist Party’s meteoric rise from minor player in 1928 to the Reichstag’s largest political party by 1932. But it is drowned inside a very dull display.

At the Los Angeles Public Library’s downtown Getty Gallery, a linear path of folding screens takes a visitor through the unprecedented escalation -- and beyond, into the gruesome horrors of dictatorship. Adolf Hitler started out as director of propaganda for the German Workers’ Party, the short-lived predecessor to the Nazis, and when he wrote “Mein Kampf,” he devoted a full chapter to “what immense results could be obtained by a correct application of propaganda.”

The panels explain how, in a newly emerging age of mass media, the tool was used to promote a vision of national unity, create an appetite for war and foster a climate of indifference to mass murder. It ends with Allied efforts to cleanse postwar Germany of any vestige of Nazi propaganda.

There is a lot to read and not much to look at. The show is almost entirely text printed on pallid photo-reproductions of posters, newspapers and cartoons.

A 1932 presidential election poster isolates Hitler’s sharply cropped head against a jet-black field above his last name shown all in sans-serif capital letters. Image and text are blunt, confrontational and concise -- like a definitive answer to a question you didn’t know you had. Yet, one step removed from the real thing, the reproduction feels disappointingly remote.

Just a handful of actual artifacts is included. Some, like a period radio, an old phonograph player and even a Braille edition of “Mein Kampf,” represent newly emerging forms of modern media. Several video screens showing loops of documentary film clips better fulfill that goal.

But nothing compares to the jolt of coming upon an actual Nazi banner under glass, its black swastika screen-printed on a white cloth circle that is neatly stitched to a blood-red field. The banner’s astute graphic punch startles.

And that is exactly what one wants from a show on this critically important topic. Actual artifacts pull the past into the present in ways no reproduction can.

------------

“State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda”

Where: Getty Gallery inside the Central Library, 630 W. 5th St., Los Angeles

When: Daily through Aug. 21

Info: (213) 228-7000, www.lapl.org

------------

christopher.knight@latimes.com

Twitter: @KnightLAT

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°