Guilt by association

Dictators used art to bolster their regimes. Does that make the art evil? By Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Culture
Hitler was a failed artist. The buildings he commissioned from Albert Speer, Werner March and Paul Troost were inherently totalitarian. The Nazis suppressed all Modern art. The Social Realist art and architecture commissioned by Stalin was, a priori, totalitarian. So were the monuments commissioned by Franco. And most (if not all) of the public art bequeathed to the Italian nation by Mussolini was fascist in spirit and form.

These trite platitudes are trotted out as if by rote in "Art and Power", the Hayward Gallery's brave, if flawed, exhibition of art under the European dictators between 1930 and 1945.

Fifty years on from Hitler's Gotterdammerung, one might have expected art historians to be a little more questioning, for surely no one form of art is fascist, Nazi or totalitarian as if by nature. Art is essentially innocent until proven guilty by association.

An essay in the exhibition catalogue by Winfried Nerdinger - which attempts to pre-empt the argument that the heroic Neo-Classical architecture designed by American architects in Washington and elsewhere during Roosevelt's New Deal was democratic in spirit (and thus good), while that designed by Nazi architects at the same time was evil - is a waste of breath. Both John Russell Pope's design for the National Gallery of Art, Washington (1937-41) and Troost's for the Haus der Deutschen Kunst, Munich (1933- 37) are weak, pseudo-academic and dull. The former has never been able to stir democratic sentiment in the New England breast, while the latter is unlikely to have caused an Aryan youth to batter the brains out of a Jewish child. The United States has produced "democratic" art and the Ku Klux Klan. Nazi Germany gave us "totalitarian" art and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran priest and author of Ethics, who was tortured and hanged at Flossenburg in 1945 for crusading against Hitler.

Once one begins to doubt the political premise of "Art and Power", the exhibition is in danger of collapsing. It looks at the art made in Berlin, Rome, Moscow and Paris in the Thirties; but, if it were to cast the most cursory eye on other 20th- century regimes, it would have to acknowledge that avant-garde and abstract art, Modern architecture and innovative poster design have been used both purposefully (and indifferently) by governments and savage political cultures. In Latin America, for example, modern art and architecture has often prospered under despotic regimes. Indeed, some of the cruellest South American torturers have been devotees of avant-garde art and there are those who have happily snapped the finger joints of revolutionaries and left-wing sympathisers en-sconced in swish Miesian offices decorated tastefully with Charles Eames furniture and a Rothko on the wall (this example is real). History shows, too, that cruel and despotic regimes have often encouraged glorious and vivacious art. The fabulous princes of Renaissance Italy were no strangers to gratuitous violence, while Henry VIII was both deeply cultured and an unashamed fan of the rack, stake and block.

There is, however, one strand that runs through the exhibition and makes the most convincing case for saying that the art of the dictators was almost inevitably banal. Which is this: Stalin, Hitler and, to a lesser extent, Mussolini, were masters of mass communication. They knew, partly through instinct and partly through trial-and-error, how best to appeal to base and populist sentiment. Stalin, for example, appeared in many guises in paintings and posters, sometimes as kind and loving Uncle Jo (the caption to a poster by D Grintes, 1937, showing Stalin hugged by smiling and well-fed Soviet children, shouts "Thanks to the Party. Thanks to Dear Stalin for a Happy, Joyful Childhood"), now as Stalin, the great architect of the never-to- wither-away state (as in II Brodsky's archetypical Portrait of Stalin, 1937). Such images are designed to reduce the viewer to the state of childish exultation. How comfortable it is to know, even while our stomachs rumble, that our country is strengthened by the spirit of the Great Leader.

Hitler encouraged the art of braggadocio to achieve the same aim. Well- fed and exercised young Nazi voters wanted to believe with the Fuhrer that they were the natural inheritors of ancient Greece and imperial Rome. So, painters like Arthur Kampf remade us in the image of Venus and Adonis (1939), while Albert Speer built a model of the new Germania (Berlin reshaped in heroic Neo-Classical mode and due for completion, with a little help from slave labour, in 1950).

Such manipulative art was necessarily created by artists who were either toadying to or willing slaves of the regime that commissioned it. What seems to be true is that the most imaginative artists working during the Hitler and Stalin years found life intolerable because they were intellectually, if not morally, incapable of producing such certain, vapid and manipulative images. The artist blessed (or cursed) with an enquiring mind is liable to fall foul of regimes that do not want people to think, or want them to think in a particular way. Ultimately, they are forced to leave, not so much because they wish to make a moral stand against the evils of dictatorship, but because dictatorship prevents them from working in the way they want to.

To its credit, "Art and Power" does make this point. So we are reminded, uncomfortably, that the great avant-garde architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (director of the Bauhaus after Walter Gropius left Germany for the US) continued to work under the Nazis. He won the competition to design the Reichsbank (Berlin, 1933), but was stopped from building it because Hitler demanded a Neo-Classical design. Even after this snub, Mies carried on until 1937, when Chicago beckoned with its prodigious appetite for Modern architecture and its generous fees.

Mies could, of course, have waited until 1945. After all, Albert Speer expected to be employed by the Allies, and scientists like Werner von Braun (inventor of the V2 rocket-bomb) were soon leading lights at Nasa. Mies was, in fact, just as much the inheritor of the mantle of Hitler's favourite architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel (the Prussian who shaped imperial Berlin in the late 18th and early 19th century), as was Hitler's pet, Albert Speer. The avant-garde brushed hands with the Neo-Classical. And, as if to prove the point, many of the most inventive engineering- inspired (early Hi-Tech) buildings which have influenced us to this day were the work of Hitler's architects.

For all its flaws, "Art and Power" is a bold attempt to introduce a big public to that minefield where art meets politics. It blows up in its curators' faces here and there, yet this is a starting point for an understanding of the machinations and manipulations of 20th-century art. And of the artists who thrived or suffered as a result.

n To 21 Jan 1996. Booking: 0171-960 4242