• Email
  • Print

Subversives

Berlin-Moscow 1900-1950 1995-January 7, 1996; and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, March 1-July 1, 1996

An exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, September 3,, Catalog of the exhibition by Irina Antonova, by Jörn Merkert
Prestel, 709 pp., $80.00

Art and Power: Europe Under the Dictators 1930-45 1995-January 21, 1996, continuing on to Barcelona, February 26-May 6, 1996, and Berlin, June 7-August 20, 1996

An exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, October 26,, Catalog of the exhibition by Dawn Ades, by Tim Benton, by David Elliott, by Iain Boyd Whyte
Hayward Gallery/South Bank Centre, 360 pp., £29.95 (paper)

Von Allen Seiten Schön [Beautiful from All Sides] Museum, Berlin, October 31, 1995-January 28, 1996

An exhibition of Renaissance and Baroque bronzes at the Altes, Catalog of the exhibition edited by Volker Krahn
Edition Braus, 639 pp., $125.00

1.

One can feel simultaneously enlightened and misled by the large exhibitions currently in London and Berlin, both of which present art produced under the great dictatorships. Public and private are set side by side. Here (in London) are the intolerable public nudes of the Nazi Arno Breker. And here too are the private doodles of the anti-Nazi Willi Baumeister, transforming the genitals, on a photograph of Breker’s serpent-slaying Avenger, into the face of a serious young man with a large spotted bow tie. Here, like prisoners on leave, are forbidden works of Nazi art, always marked “Property of the Federal Republic of Germany” or “U.S. Army Center of Military History”—works like Hubert Lanzinger’s The Color Bearer (in Berlin), which shows Hitler riding in shining armor. Hitler’s face has been attacked with some sharp object, but it seems to be thought inappropriate to restore Nazi art—it will remain defaced, in the way that the devils in illuminated manuscripts remain defaced, as a tribute to the feared power of their image. And here (in London) are the “good” paintings produced in secret by the old Nazi Emil Nolde, and Oskar Schlemmer’s beautiful Window Pictures, scenes of private life, privately produced.

Then you come to an object that seems historically impossible—the bronze head, for instance, of a Jew who has been beaten up. Did Theo Balden really model this and go to the dangerous expense of having it cast, in bronze, in 1943? Did Fritz Cremer really take along to the foundry, in 1936, the self-portrait bust which he called Head of a Dying Soldier? Do these subversive bronzes actually belong to these dates, or are they not, more probably, postwar casts of a kind of sculpture which would have been kept in its original medium—plaster or terra cotta—and kept more or less hidden until the end of the war?

These questions really matter, but neither the Berlin nor the London catalog is consistently helpful. In Berlin, the pieces by Balden and Cremer are displayed alongside a couple of heads, dated 1936-1938, which surprise us by being in the Constructivist mode. One is made of sheet metal and rods, the other of welded steel wire. Unlike the Jew’s head or the dying soldier, these abstract pieces are dangerous only for the resolute way in which they ignore the official aesthetics of the time. They are labeled as being by the Berlin sculptor Hans Uhlmann. Unfortunately neither Uhlmann nor Balden nor Cremer appears among the biographies in the catalog.

But Uhlmann turns out to have had an unusual combination of gifts.1 Born in 1900, he spent the first part of his adult life studying the violin, working in industry, and teaching electrical engineering. In 1925 he began as a sculptor, but apparently destroyed much of his early work. Uhlmann was a socialist, and made no secret of the fact. In 1932 he visited the Soviet Union—a visit which cost him his teaching job but which appears to have introduced him to the work of the Constructivists. At least, his first works in this mode date from the next year.

In October of 1933, Uhlmann was arrested for distributing subversive propaganda and spent several weeks in the cellars of the Gestapo before being sentenced to one and a half years in jail for high treason. In the Tegel prison, he managed to acquire scraps of paper on which, in secret, he drew the kind of wire constructions that he intended to make if he ever got the chance. On his release in 1935 he joined a division of Krupp, first as a draughtsman, later as an engineer, developing calculating machines. So perhaps it was at work that he managed to find the tools and materials for his constructions, including the two on display. It would have been nice to be told. After the war, Uhlmann pursued his vocation, teaching and making abstract metal sculpture and winning several prizes. An honorable member of the “inner emigration,” he forms a link between two utterly diverse generations.

The Berlin-Moscow exhibition is so huge, occupying almost the whole of the Martin-Gropius-Bau, next to which the Wall used to run, and involves so many objects and so many subjects (the relations between all the arts of the two cities between 1900 and 1950) that one may find it hardly surprising that not every work of art receives equal attention from the catalog. But the fact is that both the London and the Berlin catalogs are of a common contemporary kind, in which emphasis is given to a generous number of illustrations and an overgenerous number of essays. The list of objects exhibited is summary, as are the biographies.

The London exhibition, Art and Power, Europe under the Dictators 1930-45, is the Twenty-third Council of Europe exhibition, one of a distinguished series which began in 1955. Of the two shows previously held in London, both were huge and both had important scholarly catalogs. The Age of Neo-Classicism (1972) occupied the Royal Academy and nine rooms of the Victoria & Albert. It consisted of almost two thousand objects, each of which was given a detailed entry in a catalog which remains a reference book today.

The Art and Power catalog has fewer than five hundred objects to list, which it does in a mere eight of its 360 pages. It saves space on its biographies by giving only date of birth and death, followed by events between 1930 and 1945. So the biographies are useless for the general reader, superfluous anyway for the expert. If I say: “Georg Kolbe, whose sculpture was exhibited in Albert Speer’s 1937 German pavilion in Paris…,” I will expect to make one kind of impression. If I say: “George Kolbe, whose sculpture was exhibited in Mies van der Rohe’s 1929 German pavilion in Barcelona…,” the impression should be rather different. In the London exhibition, Kolbe makes more of the first than the second sort of impression.

In the first room, we see his bronze Proclamation from Speer’s pavilion for the Paris International Exhibition. A nude woman, in a semi-kneeling position, appears to be using her left arm to shield her eyes from some bright light, while her right arm stretches out to the side. Is she making the proclamation, or receiving it? Hard to tell. A label informs us that the 1937 caption read: “Prof. Dr. h.c. Kolbe, Bronze Genius (1937), created on the order of Prof. W. Brinkemann, Bremen, for the vestibule of the German Pavilion.” This implies that the artist was working under some kind of military order. In fact Kolbe was merely commissioned to produce an enlargement of a figure he had made in 1934-1935. That earlier version, sometimes called Proclamation and sometimes Victoria, is not, as one might at first think, a celebration of Hitler’s coming to power, but appears to relate to still earlier pieces called Proclamation, which were made for war memorials. Perhaps the Victoria is to do with a triumph over death. Perhaps the content of the proclamation was supposed to be something along the lines of “Their name liveth for ever more.” At all events, what looks now like an exemplary piece of Nazi art, a spirit or “Genius” heralding in a new era, has a history that takes it back well before the Thirties. Kolbe was not a Nazi artist. He was the leading sculptor, rather, of the Weimar era.2

Because of the fame of the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, and the destruction of the work of the Expressionists, one tends to think of that which was banned as good, and that which was as good, and that which was not banned as degenerate. But this is simply a way of reversing Hitler’s values while retaining his taxonomy. Kolbe’s work was, some of it, destroyed, some of it promoted under the Nazis. The Heine memorial and the monument to Walther Rathenau were dismantled for political reasons, while Kolbe’s athletes and nude allegorical women might find favor if they fitted into the developing National Socialist décor. And if Kolbe’s allegories were indeed somewhat vapid, then they might well be made to fit in.

After the first German room in the London exhibition, there is a corridor marked “Crisis and Conscience.” It might have been better labeled “Propaganda,” since it features works by Käthe Kollwitz, Ernst Barlach, and John Heartfield. They are three notorious manipulators of response—Kollwitz forever advertising her grief, Barlach with his pseudo-medievalism, the caricaturist of the folksy apocalypse, and Heartfield, the brilliant advertising man with the Party Line account. The idea that these three represent the conscience of Germany under fascism is familiar—but familiar from East Germany under communism.

One of Heartfield’s photomontages shows Kolbe himself, under the title The Dream of the Brown [i.e., Nazi] Artist, and quotes a newspaper report to the effect that Kolbe had been commissioned to make monuments in honor of both Franco and Beethoven. Kolbe is talking to himself, saying: “Franco and Beethoven, how can I create this nude? Perhaps it would be best to make a centaur, half beast, half man.” And what we see is Franco’s body, with Beethoven’s head, carrying a dagger and a violin, in a ruined, corpse-strewn landscape. But in fact either Heartfield or the newspaper was slightly wrong. Kolbe had been commissioned to make a portrait head of Franco (he did not paint a portrait, as the London catalog says). But that is not quite the same thing as a monument. He had modeled heads of all kinds of people—Weimar politicians, diplomats, industrialists. In 1946, asked why he had accepted the Franco commission, he replied: “First, I did not understand the reality of the situation and, secondly, it was a private commission, interesting from the formal point of view, which allowed me to get to know Spain.” This sounds feeble, but it is true that Kolbe would have been ill informed by the German papers about Spain. He was also, at that time, a sick man, and his judgment may not have been at its best.

An interesting point in the London catalog is that Hitler never had any colossal statue of himself made, as one might have expected he would have done. But his portraits were everywhere. It is said that an official delegation came to visit Kolbe, to sound him out about making a bust of the Führer. Kolbe replied so insultingly casually—he said, “Well, I’ve done Herr Müller and Herr Meier, I might as well do Herr Hitler”—that the delegation went off in a huff and the offer was withdrawn.

If it is not quite fair to take Heartfield’s attack on Kolbe uncritically, nor does it seem right to call Kolbe’s 1945 statuette, The Liberated Man, “one of the most moving works of this time,” as David Elliott does in the catalog. The liberated man in question sits with his face in his hands. The war is over and he is feeling ashamed of himself. It seems a rather facile plea for understanding.

Truly remarkable, on the other hand, are the sculptures that Max Beckmann made in the Thirties, beginning with Man in the Dark (1934). There are eight in all, of which four are displayed in London. The man in the dark puts his hands out in what is almost a Marcel Marceau gesture. His eyes and his feet are enormous, as if they have become enormous because they are searching. The Crawling Woman seems rendered beast-like by her search. The Adam and Eve depicts man and the snake as huge in comparison to the woman. The Self-Portrait, powerful as one expects any Beckmann self-portrait to be, seems almost brutal.

None of these pieces is as the artist knew them. They are all posthumous casts, and it is worth knowing this not only, as in the case of Degas, because anything to do with their finish will be the result of a decision by somebody other than the artist, but also because their not having been cast is a part of their history. They were made between Hitler’s assumption of power and Beckmann’s departure for exile in Amsterdam, immediately after listening to Hitler’s speech at the Degenerate Art exhibition. Did the artist intend to cast them, and was the project interrupted, or would he not have been able to cast them, because most of the bronze in Germany then was being used for other things?

2.

Bronzes—Renaissance bronzes—used to be far more popular among collectors than they are today. They were a part of the furnishings of the ideal collector’s home at the turn of the century: a coffered ceiling in the Renaissance style, walls hung with damask silk, intarsia paneling, a good stone fireplace, Oriental rugs, fine paintings and stucco madonnas (a fair proportion of which might have been fakes), Florentine or sub-Florentine furniture and, on the desk, bronzes. Bronzes on the desk in particular—figurines, inkwells, obscene lamps—because these would reflect the interests and values of your ideal Paduan humanist.

Interiors of this kind have survived, mutatis mutandis, in many of the cities where large sums of money were made in the late nineteenth century. The grandest are in America—the Frick, the Isabella Stewart Gardiner, the Pierpoint Morgan—but there are beautiful examples in Antwerp, Marseille, and Milan.3 One would expect to find them in Berlin—and indeed there used to be several interiors of precisely this kind, but their owners were mainly Jewish, and the collections have long ago been dispersed.4

The man who advised and encouraged the Berlin collectors was Wilhelm von Bode, who is commemorated in Berlin in a series of exhibitions on the occasion of his 150th birthday. Bode was very much behind this integrated approach to collecting and to museum display. If he had a Florentine madonna, he liked to show it in front of a fine antique rug. He pioneered the dating of such rugs, which were rescued from churches and which could sometimes be dated according to their resemblance to rugs in old master paintings (there is an exhibition in Berlin’s Islamic museum devoted to this aspect of Bode’s work). 5

Bode also pioneered the study of Italian Renaissance bronze statuettes, and his book on this subject is still consulted (but in the handy revised single volume, edited by James Draper6—Bode’s original being full of mistakes). So it is appropriate that the major Bode exhibition in Berlin is the one devoted to bronzes of the Renaissance and Baroque, Von Allen Seiten Schön (“Beautiful from All Sides”). This occupies the entire top floor of the Altes Museum, of which the ground floor is currently occupied by the astonishing exhibition of Italian architectural models that originally appeared in Venice.7 The bronzes exhibition is the most important of its kind since the one that visited Florence, London, and Amsterdam in the early Sixties, so a visit to the Altes Museum confers a unique double benefit, unlikely to be ever repeated.

Recalling the previous exhibition, John Pope-Hennessy said some rather discouraging things: these objects must be studied, he said, at first hand, by which he meant actually held in the hand—“in no other way can their weight and facture and all the important play of movement in the forms be judged—they are resistant to the camera and they are extremely hard to carry in the eye.” He also said that the only decent catalog (the exhibition traveled from Florence to London and Amsterdam) was the Dutch one. Well, I possess this rather dismal document,8 and have compared its approach with that of the current exhibition.

The main thing that has changed is the conception of the subject: bronzes were once considered quintessentially an Italian specialty. Now, one looks both north and south of the Alps, both because there is an increased interest in northern artists, and also because some of the objects which, a generation ago, were assumed at least to be Italian are now under suspicion of having northern origins. It is extraordinary how much uncertainty there is about the history and authorship of these bronzes. Somebody once said that if we knew as little about the Impressionists as we do about Italian bronzes, we would assume that Monet was a misprint for Manet.

So in the case of the Negro Venus, a celebrated figure of a woman with African features admiring herself in a mirror, this was once Italian, attributed to Giambologna, Cellini, Ammanati, Alessandro Vittoria, and Danese Cataneo. Then it leapt northward and became a Barthélemy Prieur, before hopping across to the neighborhood of Johann Gregor van der Schardt. A marvelous figure of a fat man, perhaps a Roman emperor, perhaps an allegory of Gluttony, perhaps a portrait of Willibald Pirckheimer, which was thought by Pope-Hennessy to be Florentine around 1540, has since then sidled up to northern Italy or possibly Nuremberg. A crouching gladiator in Vienna (not in this exhibition), once given to Leone Leoni, is now quite definitely by Adriaen De Vries.

These sudden reversals of scholarship make the literature on bronzes good fun to read, if you enjoy an intellectual switchback ride. Some of the reversals have arisen because the early Italian statuettes, inspired by classical precedents, were actually treated as forgeries and passed off as being Roman. This happened to two of the Vienna statuettes included in the Berlin show. The first is one of the loveliest pieces in the whole exhibition, Bellerophon Taming Pegasus, whose authorship was unknown until a remarkable-sounding man, Louis Courajod, recognized it in 1883 as a group described as being in a house in Padua in a document dating from the beginning of the sixteenth century. Courajod was able to say: This is by Bertoldo di Giovanni, and was cast by his pupil Adriano Fiorentino. A few years later a thick layer of wax was removed from the underside of the base, revealing the inscription: EXPRESSIT ME BERTHOLDUS. CONFLAVIT HADRIANUS. The suspicion was that the signature had been concealed deliberately.

The second example involves Manfred Leithe Jasper, the Vienna scholar who, looking at a figure of a standing satyr, decided that his predecessor had been wrong and that this piece should be assigned to Florence in the later fifteenth century. The statuette was sent to an exhibition in Tokyo in 1983, and on its return was found to have come loose from its socle. A piece of plaster fell out, revealing, once again, the inscription, ADRIANUS FLOR. FACIEB….

Two morals could be drawn from these stories. One is that, if you possess a fine statuette by an unknown Renaissance master, it’s a good idea to seize it boldly by the shoulders and bring its base sharply down with a healthy whack against some hard surface and see what happens. But perhaps better than this is the moral that scholarship combined with connoisseurship does indeed have some basis, that at least some of the experts are going in the right direction.

The Berlin exhibition and its impecable catalog are put together by Volker Krahn, who recently brought out, with Ursel Berger, the catalog of the bronzes in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig. Several of those pieces are in Berlin, together with items from Liechtenstein, Berlin, Dresden, and Vienna, and many other collections, over two hundred and fifty bronzes in all. One function of the small bronze was to provide a museum in miniature of copies of the revered statues of antiquity. And so these statuettes are related to the notion of a musée imaginaire, and an exhibition of them, one like this, becomes a kind of musée provisoire: one wants it to be as complete as possible.

It is not complete—Ghiberti, Cellini, Leonardo, Verrocchio, and several other key players are missing. But it is so intelligently chosen, and so pleasantly displayed—and anyway two hundred and fifty is quite enough bronzes to attempt to take in. I visited it four times, in four days, and felt my education must have benefited, that the eye had made some sort of gain, even though my hand had played no part in it; nor had I examined these bronzes as the old collectors would—by lamplight, like some ancient learned Paduan at his desk.

  1. 1

    Zwischen Widerstand und Anpassung, Kunst in Deutschland 1933-1945. Catalog of an exhibition at the Berlin Akademie der Kunste, 1978, p. 258.

  2. 2

    Ursel Berger, Georg Kolbe, Leben und Werk (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1990).

  3. 3

    Respectively the Museum Mayer van der Bergh, the Musée Grobet-Labadié, and the Museo Poldi Pezzoli.

  4. 4

    The catalog of the Berlin exhibition shows, for instance, on page 49, a photograph of the Berlin study of Eduard Simon, cousin of the Jewish textile dealer James Simon. When the latter’s collection of Renaissance painting, sculptures, and medals was given to the Kaiser Friedrich-Museum, Bode gave it its own little room, in order to preserve its identity as a private collection. See photo on page 46, in which the bronzes are placed on a table, rather than behind glass.

  5. 5

    See Volkmar Enderlein, Wilhelm von Bode und die Berliner Teppichsammlung (Berlin: Museum für Islamische Kunst, 1995). This catalog shows many photographs of the favored style of display. See also Wilhelm von Bode, Museumsdirektor and Mäzen (Berlin: Der Kaiser Friedrich-Museums Verein, 1995).

  6. 6

    The Italian Bronze Statuettes of the Renaissance, edited by James D. Draper, translated by William Gretor (Polymath Press, 1980).

  7. 7

    See the review by Joseph Connors, The New York Review of Books, February 16, 1995.

  8. 8

    Meesters van het Brons der Italiaanse Renaissance (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, 1961), p. 2. Introduction by John Pope-Hennessy. “An Exhibition of Italian Bronze Statuettes,” in which Pope-Hennessy gave a retrospective view of the show, was reprinted in his book Essays on Italian Sculpture (Phaidon, 1968).

  • Email
  • Print