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The Nazis’ Theater of Seduction

The apologists for modern art are naively convinced that the decision to remove Nazi art from public view represents the triumph of good art over bad, but such a decision raises more complex issues. After all, many Nazi landscapes, still lifes, and portraits are in no way different from the conventional art that decorates the lobbies of hotels and banks and the walls of private houses today, and not only in Germany. Leading Nazi artists such as the sculptor Arno Breker or the painter Paul Padua, who showed in 1940 a painting of a large and robust German family in front of a radio with the title The Führer Speaks, had successful careers in postwar West Germany as portraitists of the new democratic establishment, painting everyone from Konrad Adenauer to Franz Josef Strauss. As Adam rightly remarks, this raises the question of the “interchangability and emptiness” of Nazi art. Has the time come to admit that this art is just another of the styles that have appeared in the course of our restless century? Should Nazi art now profit from a postmodern plea for plurality?

Certainly nothing is wrong in principle with the landscapes, portraits, still lifes, and figurative paintings that people of conservative tastes like to hang on their walls. In an open society, there can be no moral or aesthetic obligation for any citizen to like modern art, and it is absurd to believe that an abstract painting is by definition more democratic than a view of a lake, a cow, or a bunch of flowers. But Germany in 1937 was not an open society, and even the most harmless paintings hanging in Hitler’s House of German Art were no longer just a matter of private taste. They were poisoned by being used, and by the willingness of the artists to have them used, on behalf of a faith that preached intolerance, reaction, and extermination. I think it could be shown that this immorality affected even the emptiness of their style. Peter Adam writes, “One can only look at the art of the Third Reich through the lens of Auschwitz.” In retrospect, this seems literally true to me, since one cannot simply erase the history of the Nazis’ crimes from one’s consciousness.

In the late Thirties, however, the concrete moral choice facing German artists, though grave, may well have looked less dramatic. I remember that my father had two close friends at that time who were both landscape painters. One of them, Willi Ter Hell, immediately began to exhibit in the House of German Art. He painted more and more like Caspar David Friedrich, turning away from impressionism, and became very successful. His name appears in the catalogs of the “Great German Art Exhibitions” and his paintings are occasionally reproduced in books on the art of the Third Reich. The other painter, Paul Greinert, was no less conservative in his methods, but he refused to take part in the exhibitions in the House of German Art. “As long as some of our fellow artists are defamed in the way they are in the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibitions,” he said, “one cannot apply for the ‘Great German Art Exhibition.’ That isn’t done.”

The story of these two minor painters is certainly not very important in the history of art, but it makes a moral point. The intolerant persecution of “degenerate art,” and all the artists participating in it, discredited Nazi art forever. By insisting that it conform to their propagandistic goals, the Nazis nullified all the German art of their time: the so-called degenerate art by defamation and terror and the submissive art by corruption. Hitler, Goebbels, and Rosenberg denied the arts the autonomy that is the indispensable basis of any dignified intellectual or aesthetic activity. They dictated the artist’s faith and morals, and in consequence got an art that could only lie.

Michèle C. Cone’s Artists Under Vichy: A Case of Prejudice and Persecution is a fine and subtle work that examines how Nazism’s antimodernist policies took effect in France. “I summon you to an intellectual and moral redressing,” Henri Philippe Pétain intoned paternalistically to his countrymen after the defeat in 1940. The decadence of republican France had to be overcome. The slogan Travail, Famille, Patrie was to replace the old revolutionary triumvirate Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

The decadence of French art also had to be cured. By the fall of 1940, all Jews were excluded from galleries, magazines, and artists’ associations. Art was to become totally French again. The many foreign artists who until 1939 had made Paris the most cosmopolitan center of the arts in the Western world were driven into hiding in the provinces or imprisoned in camps. Some, like Max Ernst and Marc Chagall, escaped at the last moment to the United States, while others were deported or, like the German-born Otto Freundlich, a friend of Picasso, murdered by the Gestapo. Cone cites a sad letter that Freundlich addressed to the local prefect in 1942: “Allow me to tell you that I am of the Jewish race…. I have been in France since 1924, and I have been closely tied to French art since my youth.” The persecuted refugee painter naively expressed his faith in the cosmopolitan idea of France that the Vichy regime had set out to destroy and replace with xenophobia and a “mystical return to the soil.”

In the antimodern corporate state that Pétain wished France to become, the art of the craftsman—work in wood, leather, porcelain, and textiles—was officially promoted. But one rarely heard in occupied France the kind of fanatical diatribes against modern art that were characteristic of the propaganda against “degeneration” in Germany in the Thirties. Lucian Rebatet, the extreme right-wing, anti-intellectual journalist, wrote of the artist Jean Fautrier: “If you want an aperçu of dementia prae-cox,” go see his paintings. But such statements were the exception.

Cone describes in detail how artists in Paris maintained an atmosphere in which different kinds of art could survive. Even abstract art went on, sometimes under a veil of neo-Catholic spiritualization that helped to “demodernize” its message. Picasso was not allowed to exhibit, but was tolerated; his atelier remained a meeting-place for Parisian artists, critics, and collectors, including even aesthetes from the German occupation forces.

The German authorities in Paris, though they were preoccupied with looting Jewish and other art collections, still found time to censor all the exhibitions in the occupied capital. Yet they did not try to stamp out modern art in France, apparently because in Hitler’s New Order of Europe, France was to be restricted to the production of luxury goods like fashion and perfume. As Hitler cynically remarked to Speer: “Are we to be concerned with the intellectual soundness of the French people? Let them degenerate if they want to! All the better for us.” Hitler’s conviction that modern art was unhealthy and dangerous ran so deep that he believed it could serve as a weapon, a poisoned instrument for the deterioration and corruption of a hostile country. Thus modern art in France, so long as it was not Jewish, could linger on.

The French artists who collaborated with the Nazis were patronized by a coterie of German intellectuals who in many cases had lived in France before the war, regarded themselves as “francophiles,” and now joined the occupying forces to draw defeated France into the new German order of Europe. Otto Abetz, Hitler’s ambassador in Paris and Vichy, and the German artist Arno Breker, who had studied in Paris, belonged to this group. So did Friedrich Sieburg, who in 1929 had published a widely discussed book, God in France, and who considered Germany’s neighbor a charmingly backward, hedonistic paradise. Sieburg traveled to Paris to lecture to the defeated French about the new Germany. In October 1941, a number of prominent French artists were invited to make a cultural trip to Germany. The next month, the sculptors Charles Despiau and Paul Belmondo, the impressionist André de Dunoyer Segonzac, and the fauvist painters Maurice de Vlaminck, André Derain, Kees van Dongen, and Othon Friesz traveled to Berlin, Munich, and other cities. Their hosts were Adolf Ziegler, president of the Reich’s Chamber for Visual Arts, and Breker, an unavoidable presence whenever Franco-German cultural relations were being promoted.

The following year Breker came to Paris, and on May 15, just as the first deportation of French Jews was imminent, a large show of his work opened in the occupied capital. The opening was attended by Despiau, Jean Cocteau, and Aristide Maillol. Maillol, then eighty-one years old, had always liked Germany, where he had been more admired than in France. Still, he should have known better. His most prominent German supporter, Harry Graf Kessler, had escaped from Berlin in February 1933 and lived in Paris until his death in 1937. Kessler’s diary from those years shows that from the beginning he had no illusions about the criminal character of the gang that had seized power in Germany. Yet as Cone shows in her thoughtful book, these acts of artistic collaboration must be understood as the remnants of the reaction against modern art within the Parisian art world itself, a reaction that had begun well before the war and was already visible during the preparations for the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. In the oppressive climate of 1941 and 1942 such collaboration was shameful, but it seems a result less of malevolence than of complacent naiveté.

The sad story Cone tells becomes appalling when she describes how refugee artists were taken off to die without any protest from the French. Still, the cultural climate of Paris seemed to create a civilized immunity against the pathological hatred of modern art that raged in Germany. There were even surprising outbursts of tragic laughter. After the Vichy laws against Jews threw Sylvain Itkine out of work, he founded the cooperative Croque Fruit in Marseille to feed needy artists and intellectuals. This was advertised at a 1941 food fair with a poster representing the paradise of temptation, with “Eve in her primitive nudity receiving this gift [of fruit] from the heavens in spite of restrictions.” When Breton couldn’t find a gallery in Marseille to show the works of the surrealists, Max Ernst hung his paintings outdoors on a plane tree.

In contrast, one notices most painfully in reading through all the bitter and deadly serious quarrels about modern and “degenerate” art in Germany that no one would express any sense of the absurd irony of a situation in which the consequence of an exhibition could be one’s arrest by the Gestapo. When artists were expelled from the museums, they were driven back into the wilderness. Was this not a symbol for the fate of all avant-garde art? But only the Surrealists of the Croque Fruit cooperative in Marseille seem to have understood this.

(This is the second part of a two-part article.)

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