By Edwin Dixon,2014-05-17 16:43
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Postmodern? Art and Architecture in the Third Reich


     Literature on art in the Third Reich tends to focus on the political, psychological, and social aspects of the work, viewing artistic and architectural style in light of the political and social aims of the National Socialists: as propaganda, a return to traditional genre forms designed to legitimize and reinforce state policy and authority. This is understandable, since art, as a cultural product, can never be divorced from the society in which it was produced. However, in order to remain objective, it is important to see National Socialist art on its own terms, without directly linking the art to horrors perpetrated by the Nazi program. To that end, I focus on ways in which art of the period may be seen as prefiguring certain postmodern impulses, especially the double-coded postmodernism of Charles Jencks. I do not wish to equate postmodernism with fascism. After all, according to Jencks, critics of postmodernism such as Kenneth Frampton often compare postmodernism to Nazi populism, charging double-coded architecture with paternalism,

    1monism, and totalitarianism. My only aim here is to read National Socialist art and aesthetic

    policy in terms of the postmodernism advocated by Jencks, noting similarities and differences between the two, and reinforcing the notion that there is no sharp break between modernism and postmodernism; in fact, as noted by Jean-François Lyotard, postmodernism “is undoubtedly a

    2part of the modern.” I will begin with brief overviews of National Socialism and double-coded postmodernism, followed by an examination of works by state-sanctioned artists and architects that illustrate the correspondence between the two movements.

     ;An earlier version of this essay was presented to Donald Kuspit‟s Spring 2007 graduate seminar, th“Varieties of Realism in 20 Century Art” at Stony Brook University. The present version originally

    appeared in Art Criticism Volume 22, Number 2, 2007. I am deeply grateful to Donald Kuspit and Leah

    Modigliani for their comments and suggestions in the preparation of this essay.

     1 Jencks, What is Post-Modernism (New York: Saint Martin‟s Press, 1986), 10 2 Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesta

    Press, 1984), 79

    This work is protected by a Creative Commons by-nc-sa License. Some Rights Reserved.

     Following World War I, Germany was in shambles. The treaty of Versailles forced Germany to accept responsibility for the Great War and make substantial territorial concessions, leaving the country bankrupt. During the Weimar republic period, the gulf between classes widened, unemployment increased exponentially, and rival political factions vied for control of the fractured government. One such party, the National Socialist German Workers‟ Party (NSDAP), gained support throughout the 1920s and came to power in January of 1933, promising to end unemployment and return Germany to its place as an industrial and social power. According to NSDAP thinking, modernity was the ultimate cause of the country‟s problems and they sought to unify society through a return to traditional culture and a belief in

    3the Volksgemeinschaft, “a „community of destiny‟ founded on „the blood and the soil.‟”

    NSDAP leaders understood the value of art as a means of promoting their social and political aims and instituted a cultural policy designed to glorify the new German state, largely through a return to traditional narrative and genre forms that were reinterpreted to serve National Socialist goals and programs. According to NSDAP policy, modern art and architecture served only to glorify the creator‟s ego. When placed solely in the service of the artist or architect, the ego is a destructive force, driving a wedge between specialists (artists, critics, historians, and the like) and the public. When placed in service of society and the ideal, however, the artist‟s ego becomes a creative and sustaining force, and works glorify the people and the state. Therefore, the National Socialists advocated a return to idealism, believing it to be the foundation on which society flourishes. Atonality in music, abstraction in art, and Bauhaus-style architecture were banned, since such modern tendencies deprived the people of archetypes, base-metaphors, and myths, the elements necessary for understanding and relating to the work.

     3 Michaud, The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 256


     The NSDAP rejection of modern art as alienating the public seems related to the claims of many postmodern theorists, including the double-coded theory of Charles Jencks. A thorough discussion of the various postmodern theories is beyond the scope permissible here, though an outline of Jencks‟s theory will help explain some of the features we find in German art of the period. For Jencks, the postmodern era is marked by “the end of avant-garde extremism, the

    4partial return to tradition and the central role of communicating with the public.” Jencks

    advocates a combination of modernist techniques and classical style in architecture; a double coding that results in new forms that appeal to architects and the public alike. For Jencks, postmodern art and architecture may be characterized by some or all of the following

    5“„Ideological‟ identifiers”: double coding of style; „popular‟ and pluralist; semiotic form;

    traditions and choice; artist/client; elitist and participative; piecemeal; and architect as

    6representative and activist. National Socialist aesthetic policy appears to run against several assumptions implicit in Jencks‟s list. However, in the final analysis, many NSDAP projects that

    at first glance appear antithetical to Jencksian postmodernism may, in actuality, prefigure his theory.

    For example, National Socialist myth making seems to go against Jencks‟s view of postmodern mythology and the changes it underwent in the shift from modernism to postmodernism. According to Jencks, “Whereas a mythology was given to the artist in the past

    7by tradition and a patron, in the Post-Modern world it is chosen and invented.” We may assume

    that this statement removes any possibility of postmodernism in NSDAP art, since the mythology

     4 quoted in Rose, The post-modern and the post-industrial: a critical analysis (New York: Cambridge

    University Press, 1991), 101

    5 ibid., 115 6 ibid. 7 Jencks, What is Post-Modernism?, 27


    employed by artists was rooted in tradition and prescribed by a patron (in this case, the state). However, the National Socialists did not use myths as they had come down from tradition, they chose and invented myths to serve specific programmatic ends, and the artists themselves played a role in articulating the new cultural mythos. The architects of NSDAP aesthetic policy read traditional myths through the lens of modern technological advancement, social and economic conditions, and the situation of Germany following World War I, creating a new, hybridized, complex, and contradictory set of state-sanctioned myths designed to articulate the situation and expectations of the new German society.

     By 1937, the year of the famous „degenerate‟ art and music exhibitions, artists remaining in Germany began working in the traditional genre styles favored by NSDAP policy makers. State-sanctioned artists and architects, such as Ivo Salinger, Leni Riefenstahl, Arno Breker, Josef Thorak and Paul Ludwig Troost, produced works in classical or mannerist styles, employing traditional narrative structures while also exhibiting and referencing modernist techniques and themes. The adoption of National Socialist aesthetic theory by artists of the period should not be seen as an adoption of fascist ideology; they simply chose to employ styles and themes favored by their patrons, so as to increase their chances of future commissions. Despite the adoption of state-sanctioned genres, viewers can easily see the influence of modernism in the work of these artists. Furthermore, a close reading of these works reveals a clearly identifiable double coding of traditional and modern codes, techniques, and forms, as well as indications of postmodern tendencies. In what follows, works by Salinger, Riefenstahl, Thorak, Breker, and Troost are compared with works from the postmodern canon that exhibit the characteristics described by Jencks.


     In order to thrive and expand, the NSDAP government needed a large, healthy, and growing population committed to the vision of a new German society. Given the ever-increasing population losses due to expatriation, forced labor, World War II, and other factors, the National Socialists instituted a system of natal propaganda designed to promote the reproduction of pure Germans, while also serving to define acceptable partners and gender roles. This natal propaganda campaign appropriated recognizable images from well-known mythology, such as Leda and the Swan, and the Judgment of Paris, redefined to serve state purposes. According to this propaganda, Leda was right to accept the advances of Zeus. After all, Zeus was a god, and any woman should be happy to produce offspring with gods. In fact, women should happily accept any opportunity to procreate with male party members, which would produce more healthy Germans to continue expanding the glory of state. Similarly, men were to mate with as many women as possible, and should employ any tactic that would ensure procreative activity, though they must be careful to choose healthy mates of pure German stock. Hence, artists employed the Paris myth, in which Paris must judge the beauty of three goddesses. Many artists produced works that explored these myths, including Ivo Salinger, whose Leda and the Swan and

    Judgment of Paris also seem to exhibit certain Jencksian characteristics.

     Salinger‟s Leda and the Swan depicts Leda in a seductive pose reminiscent of advertising

    and pornography, reclining near a stream in a wooded landscape, seemingly unaware of the swan‟s approach. At first glance, the painting may be seen as a somewhat failed attempt to return to a classical or mannerist painting style, but something else is happening here. Notice the flat handling of the figure and drapery and the sketchy quality of the grass and trees. Flattening of the body and stroke-heavy delineation of plant forms is characteristic of certain modernist impulses, which, when combined with the classical arrangement, traditional narrative, and contemporary


    pose seems to imply a double coding of modernism and classicism. As noted above, NSDAP natal propaganda appropriated traditional myths, reinterpreted them, and placed them into a modern context that would appeal to the people while conveying the roles that the Third Reich expected people to play. This simultaneous appeal to the general public, on one hand, and to specialists (or the state), on the other, is characteristic of postmodernism as formulated by Jencks. The traditional story of Leda‟s meeting with the swan has little relevance to modern society, yet seems to take on a new meaning through its combination of traditional and modern elements. Salinger‟s painting, by reinterpreting classical mythology to serve a new purpose, seems to

    employ the semiotic form advocated by Jencks, if we interpret „semiotic form‟ as forms designed to encourage interpretation and understanding by viewers and other end-users.

     Another painting by Salinger, The Judgment of Paris, takes the double coding of

    classicism and modernism one step further. Here we see Paris, holding the Golden Apple, moments after his judgment in favor of Aphrodite. Athena and Hera dress while Aphrodite moves towards Paris, arms outstretched in an open, inviting pose. Interestingly, the drapery that Athena wraps herself in is composed of only a few flat planes of color, depriving the cloth of a truly three-dimensional feel. Additionally, as noted by Eric Michaud, Paris seems to be wearing

    8the costume of a member of the Hitler Youth. The landscape appears to be painted in a

    somewhat traditional manner, though careful observation reveals the distance and depth to be composed of flat planes of color, rather than through any traditional glazing or highlighting techniques, much like Salinger‟s handling of the drapery. Here, modern costuming and flat paint handling again combine with a traditional landscape and narrative to produce a double coding of classical and modernist styles. Interestingly, the female bodies also seem rather masculine, as if

     8 Michaud, The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany, 157


    Salinger painted a couple of male bodies, augmented with female primary and secondary sex characteristics, and then merely added female faces to them. Here the double coding is of the masculine and feminine, perhaps alluding to the „pluralism‟ found in Jencksian postmodernism.

    In this case, „pluralism‟ should be understood in the largely negative sense of a devolutionary system designed to subsume individual bodies under a larger state-organized body. I am certain that Jencks‟s „pluralism‟ refers more to the plurality of stylistic codes and organizing principles in government, rather than a plurality of sexual characteristics. However, a certain brand of semantic pluralism is evident in Salinger‟s work. Undoubtedly, Salinger‟s loose understanding of the body and movement contributed to the androgyny of the figures, and there is no reason to suspect that such androgyny was intentional. Intentional or not, the postmodern impulses toward a double (or triple) coding of modernism with some other code(s), and a tendency toward some form of pluralism, though not necessarily Jencksian pluralism, are apparent in the work.

     To explicate this further, we may compare Salinger‟s works with Carlo Maria Mariani‟s The Hand Submits to the Intellect and The Grand Creative Process. Both images are painted in a

    style reminiscent of mannerism, but lack the sensitivity of handling found in mannerist works. Jencks advocated Mariani as exemplary of postmodern double coding, due to the modern concerns combined with a classical or traditional handling found in his work. In the case of The

    Hand Submits to the Intellect, Mannerist figures and paint handling are employed to reference

    the birth of painting and the Dibutades myth, as well as late twentieth century discussions of the Cartesian mind/body split, embodied consciousness and other philosophical and scientific theories of cognition and phenomenology. Additionally, the body of the reclining figure in The

    Grand Creative Process seems to be both male and female, much like those found in Salinger‟s

    Judgment of Paris. Mariani is undoubtedly more skilled at his craft than Salinger, yet the end


    results are quite similar. Both employ classical or mannerist styles and techniques double-coded with contemporary concerns to create readings of traditional or popular narratives suitable to the age and society in which they were created.

     Other artists working under the strictures of National Socialism copied traditional forms even more directly. Leni Riefenstahl‟s photograph Olympia: Living Statue presents viewers with

    the archetype of male strength and virility, in this case a German discus thrower, in a pose closely resembling that of Myron‟s Discobolus. Myron‟s classic sculpture was greatly admired

    by Hitler, for it showed “how splendid man used to be in the beauty of his body, and… we can speak of progress only when we have not only attained such beauty but even, if possible, when

    9we have surpassed it!” Here we find evidence of the idealistic mode of thinking encouraged by the National Socialists in their aesthetic and social policy. Myron‟s sculpture is idealized, not actual, a fact that is clearly seen when comparing the sculpture to its living copy. Here we find Jencks‟s „popular and pluralist‟ tendency, which he contrasts with the modern „utopian and

    10idealist.‟ Riefenstahl‟s Living Statue is an actual member of the population, showing the

    volkskorper, the body of the people (or an exemplary body to be worked towards), which is easily contrasted to the elongated and idealized body found in Myron‟s statue. That the body of

    the athlete is an idealized body is of little importance, since this is an attainable and actual body.

    Though National Socialism was in some sense an idealized and utopian project (no matter how misguided), Riefenstahl‟s photograph is popular, of the population, and pluralist, because through double coding it combines the two metanarratives of classicism and National Socialism. The photograph references both the Myron statue and the ideal of German male virility and power, reinforcing themes found in natal propaganda and other NSDAP social programs, while

     9 quoted in Michaud, The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany, 148 10 quoted in Rose, The post-modern and the post-industrial: a critical analysis, 115


    also appealing to a popular audience for whom the propagandist nature of the imagery may only register unconsciously. This double coding may be made even clearer by comparing Riefenstahl‟s photographs with works by Cindy Sherman, a currently living artist known for her postmodern practice of photography.

     In the 1990s, Sherman remade herself in the image of old master paintings, creating self-portraits that appropriate images from art history to comment on and critique contemporary social structures. For example, her 1990 photograph Untitled (#224) replicates Caravaggio‟s Self

    Portrait as a Sick Bacchus. Employing makeup and costuming to transform herself into the

    mythological seducer in a sort of Butlerian drag performance, Sherman re-reads Caravaggio‟s

    work as a critique of patriarchy and heteronormativity. Sherman‟s works are clearly postmodern in the Jencksian sense, as they employ classical motifs to reflect on contemporary issues, and so we can identify a direct parallel between Sherman‟s Bachus and Riefenstahl‟s Living Statue.

    Both remake a classic work from art history to discuss contemporary issues. While Riefenstahl presents the ideal of male virility and power in NSDAP Germany, Sherman critiques patriarchy and heteronormativity in current Western capitalist society. Though the theoretical and historical models differ, the result is the same: a double coding of modernism with some other code.

     Sherman‟s examination and critique of heteronormativity through her transformation of self into old master paintings is characteristic of certain impulses in postmodern art. The dissolution of the subject and the rejection of „normalcy‟ (defined as white, heterosexual, and

    male) found in postmodernism may be viewed as antithetical to the National Socialist project. However, as sculptural works by Josef Thorak and Arno Breker show, NSDAP art often undermined the authority of the male heterosexual subject, depicting men as ultimately dependent and contingent on the state for survival and identity definition.


     Josef Thorak and Arno Breker both produced sculptures entitled Comradeship, which are

    meant to show the courage and brotherhood of the German people, though, as we will see, other issues arise in the work. Thorak‟s sculpture of 1937 depicts two men holding hands and staring defiantly into the future. They are grotesquely muscled, with large hands and feet typical of mannerist figures, though somewhat clumsily modeled. At first glance, the men seem to be models of the ideal National Socialist warrior, strong-willed, superhuman, and ready for battle. However, their clasped hands and crossed legs betray an interdependence and familiarity seemingly uncharacteristic of modernist ideas of masculinity. This familiarity need not be read as a homosexual impulse, though authors and theorists have noted certain homosexual tendencies in

    11NSDAP dogma. The friends are not individuals; they are a collective unity, entirely dependent on one another for strength and stability. This familiarity and unity reflects the volksgeist, the

    spirit of the German people that provides the basis for the Volksgemeinschaft. Their collective

    strength, however, betrays a dependence and vulnerability uncharacteristic of National Socialist policy, ultimately serving to undermine the spirit of the people and will of the party.

     Breker‟s 1940 bas-relief continues the theme, though the scene has changed. No longer strong and defiant, yet still highly dependent on one another, one man cries out in anguish as he drags his comrade‟s lifeless body to safety. If, in Thorak‟s sculpture, the interdependence was implicit, here it is explicit. The figures are no longer grotesquely muscled supermen; they now appear emaciated and weakened, perhaps due to the escalating war. This image was likely meant to remind viewers of the necessity of sacrifice in ensuring the continued spread and success of the Reich and the Volksgemeinschaft. However, this image also seems to fail in its attempt to

     11 see, for example, Geoffrey Gilles, “The Denial of Homosexuality: Same-Sex Incidents in Himmler‟s

    SS and Police,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 11, no. 1 (2002)- 256-290; and Stefan Michler,

    “Homophobic Propaganda and the Denunciation of Same-Sex-Desiring Men under National Socialism,”

    Journal of the History of Sexuality 11, no. 1 (2002): 95-130


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