Art in a Totalitarian Age : Exhibit Explores the Warping of Creativity During ‘30s and ‘40s


The giant bronze eagle and swastika sat atop the Reich Chancellery in Berlin until 1945. Now it is a bullet-pocked souvenir on a gallery plinth, an ominous preface to a landmark examination here of the art of darkness.

Fifty years after the end of World War II, the European Council is powerfully reminding a democratic continent how tyrants of the left and right subverted art, architecture and film as propaganda for messianic delusions that would claim millions of lives. It was only yesterday; passions still smolder.

It isn’t every day that you stumble across smug oil portraits of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Josef Stalin on display in one of Europe’s premier public galleries. Like the bronze eagle, they are works with a political message by professional artists adoring of their subjects--or cowed by them.


“Art and Power: Europe Under the Dictators, 1930-45” at the Hayward Gallery here is an exhibition with a powerful message for Europeans whose lives were scarred by authoritarianism in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union--and for their children, who were reared in a fearful Cold War aftermath.

“It’s an art show that tells as much about history as art,” said Andrew Dempsey, organizer of the 500-piece exhibition assembled with borrowed works from major European and U.S. collections.

Since opening here last month, the exhibition has drawn major scrutiny and debate in the European media.

“Some think we have gone too far, and others that we should have gone much further,” said Achim Borchardt, an art historian who organized the German and Italian segments of the show.

“Some would like to have seen more Nazi regalia. Nobody seems bothered by the swastika and the portrait of Hitler, which we worried about, but there are those who hate seeing official Nazi art in the same room with art that the Nazis denounced as ‘degenerate,’ ” Borchardt said.

Hans Freibusch, the last survivor of artists vilified by the Nazis in a 1937 show of “degenerates,” recoiled the other day on seeing the catalogue for the dictators’ show. The Soviet realist bronze of a worker and a peasant woman on the cover is “the worst piece of sculpture I’ve seen in my life--totally superficial,” griped Freibusch, 97.

Freibusch won a grand prize for painting from the German government in 1930, before art became hostage to Nazi policies and he became an artistic outcast. He fled Germany in 1933 and has worked here since. Freibusch opened a one-man show at a private gallery earlier this month.

A series of lectures and mini-concerts is also spinning out of the Hayward show, which is sponsored by Italy’s Banca Nazionale del Lavoro and moves to Barcelona, Spain, in February and to Berlin in the spring.

The exhibition’s greatest drawing card, Borchardt said, is its content.

“There’s big interest in the period, and people are bored with pretty exhibitions. They welcome a show that tells something about times and societies,” he said.

“Art and Power” is sweet and sour: world-class avant-garde and modern art mixed with cloying art-as-propaganda created to coddle dictators. What becomes plain is that during the 1930s, culture was such a pronounced battleground for competing ideologies that it left artists, architects and filmmakers as uncomfortable pawns. Their struggles with regimes and conscience presaged real fighting that began before the decade was out.

“Power not only made enormous demands on art, but art found it difficult or even impossible to escape the demands and controls of political authority,” said historian Eric Hobsbawm.

The Hayward display opens with the Paris International Exhibition of 1937, where the ideological contestants built grandiose pavilions to house regime-supporting art. Germany’s rooftop eagle, wings spread, glared bellicosely at a statue of heroic workers, proudly marching to Stalin’s tune. Spain’s republican government, losing a civil war, commissioned a pavilion painting from Pablo Picasso: He did “Guernica.” The Vatican obligingly displayed counterpoint art honoring dictator Gen. Francisco Franco.

The destructive relationships between art and power in Berlin, Rome and Moscow are chronicled in individual country displays that include painting, sculpture, drawings, photographs, posters and film shown on television sets.

“What power destroyed or stifled in the era of the dictators is more evident than what it achieved. These regimes were better at stopping undesirable artists creating undesirable works than at finding good artists to express their aspirations,” Hobsbawm said.

Observed art critic James Hall, “Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini mutilated modern art, then buried the corpse.”