Berlin-Moscow 1900-1950 1995-January 7, 1996; and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, March 1-July 1, 1996
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
Von Allen Seiten Schön [Beautiful from All Sides] Museum, Berlin, October 31, 1995-January 28, 1996
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. 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 …