Art of darkness

Dictators don't know much about art, but they know what they like: its power to deceive, to flatter, to rewrite the past and reinvent the present. The historian Eric Hobsbawm considers the dangerous alliance of art and power
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Art has been used to reinforce the power of political rulers and states since the ancient Egyptians, though the relationship between power and art has not always been smooth. A new exhibition, Art and Power, illustrates probably the least happy episode in this relationship in the 20th century, in what has been called the "Europe of the Dictators", between 1930 and 1945.

Most of the regimes with which this show is concerned consciously and deliberately broke with the immediate past. Whether this radical break was made from the political right or left is less important than that such regimes saw their role, not as maintaining or restoring or even improving their society, but as transforming and reconstructing it. They were not landlords of old buildings but architects of new ones. They were ruled, or came to be ruled, by absolute leaders whose command was law. Moreover, although these regimes were the opposite to democratic, they all claimed to derive from and operate through "the people" and to lead and shape them.

These common characteristics distinguished both Fascist and Communist regimes in this period from the older states, in spite of their fundamental differences and mutual hostility. In them, 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. Not surprisingly, an exhibition on art and power in this period is dominated by the arts in Hitler's Germany (1933-1945), Stalin's USSR (c. 1930-1953) and Mussolini's Italy (1922-1945).

There are three primary demands that power usually makes on art, and which absolute power makes on a larger scale than more limited authorities. The first is to demonstrate the glory and triumph of power itself, as in the great arches and columns celebrating victories in war ever since the Roman Empire.

The second major function of art under power was to organise it as public drama. Ritual and ceremony are essential to the political process, and, with the democratisation of politics, power increasingly became public theatre, with the people as audience and - this was the specific innovation of the era of dictators - as organised participants. The importance of art for power lay not so much in the buildings and spaces themselves, but in what took place inside them. What power required was performance in the enclosed spaces, elaborate ceremonies (the British became particularly adept at inventing royal rituals of this kind from the late 19th century onwards); and, in the open spaces, processions or mass choreography.

A third service that art could render power was educational or propagandist: it could teach, inform and inculcate the state's value system. Power clearly needed art in this period. But what kind of art? The major problem arose out of the Modernist revolution in the arts in the last years before the Great War, which produced styles and works designed to be unacceptable to anyone whose tastes were, like most people's, rooted in the19th century. They were, therefore, unacceptable to conservative and even to conventional liberal governments. One might have expected regimes dedicated to breaking with the past and hailing the future to be more at ease with the avant- garde. However, there were two difficulties which were to prove insurmountable.

The first was that the avant-garde in the arts was not necessarily marching in the same direction as the political radicals of right or left. Probably the Soviet revolution and revulsion against the war attracted many to the radical left, although in literature some of the most talented writers can only be described as men of the extreme right.

The German Nazis were not entirely wrong to describe the Modernism of the Weimar Republic as "cultural Bolshevism". National Socialism was therefore a priori hostile to the avant-garde. In Russia, most of the pre-1917 avant- garde had been non-political or doubtful about the October Revolution which, unlike the 1905 revolution, made no great appeal to Russian intellectuals. However, thanks to a sympathetic minister, Anatoly Lundcharsky, the avant- garde was given its head, so long as artists were not actively hostile to the Revolution. It dominated the scene for several years, although several of the avant-garde's less politically committed stars gradually drifted westwards. The Twenties in Soviet Russia were desperately poor, but culturally vibrant. Under Stalin this changed dramatically.

The only dictatorship relatively at ease with Modernism was Mussolini's (one of whose mistresses saw herself as a patroness of contemporary art). Important branches of the local avant-garde (for example the Futurists) actually favoured Fascism, while most Italian intellectuals not already strongly committed to the left did not find it unacceptable, at least until the Spanish Civil War and Mussolini's adoption of Hitler's racism. It is true that the Italian avant-garde, like most of the Italian arts at the time, formed a somewhat provincial backwater. Even so, it can hardly be said to have dominated. The brilliance of Italian architecture, later discovered by the rest of the world, had little chance of emerging. As in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, the mood of official Fascist architecture was not adventure, but pompous rhetoric.

The second difficulty was that Modernism appealed to a minority, whereas the governments were populist. On ideological and practical grounds they preferred arts that would appeal to the public, or at least be readily understood by it. This was rarely a top priority for creative talents who lived by innovation, experiment and, quite often, by provoking those who admired the art displayed in official Salons and Academies.

Power and art disagreed most obviously over painting, as the regimes encouraged works in older academic, or, at any rate, realistic styles, preferably blown up to large size and filled with heroic and sentimental cliches - in Germany, adding a little male erotic fantasy. Even in broad- minded Italy, official prizes such as the Premio Cremona of 1939 (with 79 contestants) were won by what could almost serve as a photofit portrait of public painting in any dictatorial country - perhaps not surprisingly, with such subjects as "Listening to a speech by Il Duce on the radio".

How, then, are we to judge the art of the dictators? The years of Stalin's rule in the USSR and of the Third Reich in Germany show a sharp decline in the cultural achievement of these two countries, compared to the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) and the Soviet period before 1930. In Italy, the contrast is not so great, as the pre-Fascist period had not been one of such creative brilliance - nor, unlike Germany and Russia in the Twenties, had Italy been a major international style-setter. Admittedly, unlike Nazi Germany, Stalin's Russia and Franco's Spain, Fascist Italy did not drive out its creative talents en masse, force them into silence at home or, as in the worst years of Stalin, kill them. Nevertheless, compared to the cultural achievements and international influence of post-1945 Italy, the Fascist era does not look impressive. One has only to compare the Fascist plan for Rome's railway station - fortunately it did not get far - with what was actually constructed after 1947.

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 art to express their aspirations.

Dictatorships were not the first to want buildings and monuments to celebrate their power and glory, nor did they add much to the traditional ways of achieving these objects. And yet, it does not look as though the era of the dictators produced official buildings, spaces and vistas to compare with, say, the Paris of the two Napoleons, 18th-century St Petersburg or that great song of triumph to mid-19th-century bourgeois liberalism, the Vienna Ringstrasse.

It was harder for art to demonstrate the dictators' ability to change the shape of their countries. The antiquity of European civilisation deprived them of the most obvious way of doing so: the building of entirely new capital cities like 19th-century Washington and 20th-century Brasilia. (The only dictator who had this opportunity was Kemal Ataturk in Ankara.) Engineers symbolised world change better than architects and sculptors. The real symbol of Soviet planned change was "Dnieprostroi", the much- photographed great Dnieper dam. The most lasting stone memorial to the Soviet era (unless the distinctly pre-Stalinist Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square manages to survive) is, almost certainly, the Moscow Metro. As for the arts, their most impressive contribution to expressing dictatorial aspiration was the (pre-Stalinist) Soviet cinema of the Twenties - the films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin and Victor Turin's unjustly neglected epic of railway building, Turksib.

But dictators also wanted art to express their ideal of "the people", preferably at moments of devotion to, or enthusiasm for, the regime. This produced a spectacular quantity of terrible paintings, distinguished from each other chiefly by the face and costume of the national leader. In literature, the results were less disastrous, though seldom worth turning back to. It was photography and above all film that lent themselves most successfully to the aims of power in this respect.

Lastly, the dictators wished to mobilise the national past on their behalf, mythologising or inventing it where necessary. For Italian Fascism the point of reference was ancient Rome, for Hitler's Germany a combination of the racially pure barbarians of the Teutonic forests and medieval knighthood, for Franco's Spain the age of the triumphant Catholic rulers who expelled unbelievers and resisted Luther. The Soviet Union had more trouble taking up the heritage of the tsars which the Revolution had, after all, been made to destroy, but eventually Stalin also found it convenient to mobilise this episode, especially against the Germans. However, the appeal to historic continuity across the imagined centuries never came as naturally as in the dictatorships of the right.

How much of the art of power has survived in these countries? Surprisingly little in Germany, more in Italy, perhaps most (including the magnificent postwar restoration of St Petersburg) in Russia. Only one thing has gone from all of these countries: power mobilising art and people as public theatre. This, the most serious impact of power on art between 1930 and 1945, disappeared with the regimes that had guaranteed its survival through the regular repetition of public ritual. The Nuremburg Rallies, the May Day and Revolution Anniversaries on Red Square, were the heart of what power expected from art. They died forever, along with that power. States which realised themselves as show-politics demonstrated their and its impermanence. If the theatre-state is to live, the show must go on. In the end it did not. The curtain is down and will not be raised again.

Eric Hobsbawm 1995. This is an edited extract from the foreword to the catalogue for 'Art and Power: Europe under the Dictators 1930-1945' published by the Hayward Gallery at pounds 19.95. The exhibition runs from 26 Oct to 21 Jan.