Arts: Hanging Hitler's painters

No one in Germany knows how to view the art of the Third Reich. Now a new exhibition has raised the old taboos.

THEY WERE keener than average on Adolf Hitler in Weimar. Annalies Schaeffer, a neat old lady approaching 90, remembers just how keen. The manicured town in rural Thuringia where Goethe and Schiller once held court was one of the first to elect Nazis to the local council in 1929. "My father came home and said, `Child, this looks black for us. Weimar will be in the avant-garde of German backwardness'. By 1933, the rallies were packed full."

The family were Social Democrats and known opponents of the NSDAP (the Nazi party). Annalies, fascinated by the modernist painting she saw on visits to Berlin, wanted to study art, but the climate was hardly conducive to left-leaning female students inspired by Rodin and Munch. "What they wanted," she says, gesturing with her stick and an unmissable scowl, "was art-slaves true to the Fuhrer churning out crap like this."

We are standing in front of Arthur Kampf's 1939 Venus and Adonis, one of the paintings from Hitler's private art collection on display for the first time since the end of the war. Venus's thighs are as large as Adonis's, he is more interested in his brandishing spear than her passionate attentions.

With the exception of the odd doughty spirit like Frau Schaeffer, visitors to the exhibition shuffle rather awkwardly around the hall full of bathing maidens, muscular youths, landscapes, landscapes and yet more German landscapes. No one seems to know quite what the proper reaction is, apart from the odd disapproving cluck or a shake of the head.

The sheer soporific quality of the works is overwhelming. Bodies are routinely wreathed in golden light, the figures are heavy and brutally physical. In a dark corner hangs Michael Kiefer's The Guard, showing two sea-eagles in flight over a tempestuous sea. The threadbare symbolism leaves the spectator in no doubt about the martial intent of the German Luftwaffe circa 1940.

Germans under retirement age are unlikely to have ever seen any of the official art of the Third Reich. It has remained a taboo subject, treated as an unfortunate aberration in the cultural flow.

"These paintings were beginning to exercise an unhealthy fascination locked away in the store cupboards," says Leonard Weinigger, an art historian of the period. Younger visitors admit that they had no idea what to expect. "All we were taught in school was that Nazi art was very bad quality, without being able to see for ourselves," says Peter Steiner, who has travelled hundreds of miles from Aachen to see this particular exhibition. "In Germany, we've exhibited every vogue in painting except the Nazi one."

The canvases are drawn from a collection begun by Hitler and entrusted after 1933 to a curator. Many of the works were displayed in the 1937 Great Exhibition of German Art in Munich, intended as the positive counterpart to the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition. Hitler, who had failed as a young man to be accepted by the arch-conservative Vienna Academy, gave personal guided tours for favoured guests, lecturing them on the supremacy of "healthy" German art.

After 1945, the collection was stored in Austria, whence the Americans, fearful that the paintings could exert an unhealthy fascination in the uncertain political climate of the early post-war years, took the most overtly propagandistic works back to the US. They remain stored out of sight in vaults in Washington.

But, says Weinigger, the emphasis of the collection was overwhelmingly on the human form, nature and landscapes. Evidently, the Fuhrer sought some respite from unleashing havoc on Europe and spending his days surrounded by images of the swastika.

For Frau Schaeffer, art and personal experience of the century are closely interwoven. She remembers the local government Minister of the Interior railing at public rallies "against nigger culture" and "for a German art of the people". In 1933, she left Weimar with her mother to live with relatives in the safer anonymity of Berlin. Her father, imprisoned from 1938, died in 1944 in Buchenwald, the concentration camp which overlooked the town. Her brother was executed by the Soviets in the brutal massacres of Social Democrats at the Sachsenhausen camp outside Berlin in 1945.

She returned to Weimar after the war to teach art to schoolchildren, but was soon disillusioned by the restrictive ideology. She was expelled from the party for failing to condemn formalism, in the ideological fracas of the late Fifties which cost many intellectuals their jobs and some their freedom. "So you see," she says, "I have some issues with both fascism and communism and the way that they abused painting."

We walk around in the Gauforum, a parody of classical architecture with its brutal pillars, scorched brown by decades of brown-coal pollution. It was built to house the Gauleiter, or local Nazi chief. An intact Gauforum is an architectural rarity - the rest of these unmistakably Nazi constructions were either wholly or partially demolished after the war. But the authorities decided that these buildings were too good simply to waste and used them as industrial workshops.

As this year's European City of Culture - the first place in the old Eastern bloc to be so elevated - Weimar has been keen to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. Cobbles have been restored to the winding streets, Italian restaurants and cafes have opened, small businesses are booming - Weimar is one of the richest of the East's towns. The National Theatre is showing a predictably trendy production of Goethe's Faust.

The headache for the keepers of the town's art collections was how to combine celebration of a long and vibrant cultural and court history with the need to address both the Nazi and the Communist pasts. Their answer was the centrepiece exhibition, The Rise and Fall of Modernism. The first part would explore Weimar's role as a haven of early modernism. Two accompanying exhibitions would be devoted to the reaction against modernism in Nazi and East German art. "We were anxious not to appear to be concentrating on art solely as a pleasant distraction and ignoring its place within the dictatorships, reinforcing and reflecting them," says Rolf Bothe, who is the director of the art collections.

Things did not work out quite as smoothly as the planners hoped. The suggested equivalence of Nazi and Communist art brought forth an enraged response, particularly among former East Germans who see this as the latest Western-led assault on their history.

"It didn't so much look like an exhibition as a pile of canvases they wanted the bin-men to take," says Matthias Gerlach, one of a group of Dresden art graduates who organised a petition complaining about the exhibition. "Gerlach is in his mid-thirties and wasn't a Communist Party member before 1989, so can hardly be accused of harbouring the resentments of an old- timer. "The message of this exhibition is that the art produced here in the East was worthless, either because it was painted from the `wrong' ideological standpoint, or because it doesn't fit with the fashionable West view of art in the last 20 years that places the abstract on a pedestal and condemns everything else."

Burkhardt Kolbmueller, a local Green Party activist is also furious. "For culturally aware people in the East, art was incredibly important. Every new exhibition was greedily awaited. We argued about the critical nuances of pictures as we did about works of literature. It sustained us. This exhibition is a thoughtless denunciation by people who did not live through the experience of Communism and are placing a pat retrospective in interpretation on it."

Thuringia's Minister for Culture, having opened the exhibition with fanfare one week - claiming that it offered a major contribution to understanding the German past - was forced the next to warn that the ensuing tensions "should not exacerbate strains between East and West". Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ties that bind the formerly divided Germanies are still very fragile.

The sense of occupation by Westerners in prominent positions remains a source of bitterness. When it emerged that no Eastern experts had been called in to advise on the exhibition, the anger deepened. Walter Mattheuer, one of East Germany's leading realist painters, whose own work was scantily represented, spoke of a "victor's mentality" and referred to a "studied Western ignorance".

Since 1989, a bad-tempered debate has raged within the ranks of German academia about the status of East German writing and the extent to which writers who chose to stay in the East allowed themselves to be co-opted by a regime anxious for legitimation. The Weimar exhibition has brought the same harsh edge to the discussion of the visual arts. "At the moment, it seems that the harder we try to understand each other, the less we succeed," adds Gerlach.

Herr Bothe, a Westerner like most of the senior arts administrators in the old East, showed some penitence by suggesting that the works be rehung to reflect their provenance. Originally, they were jumbled up like an auctioneer's job lot. The random nature of the selection still offends. "It reminds me of the way the Nazis exhibited so-called Degenerate Art," says Frau Schaeffer. "It's a denunciation, not an exhibition. Yes, a lot of the official art was rubbish, produced to order. But was it any worse than the stuff you see in public spaces in the West, painted for mere commercial gain? I don't think so."

`Aufstieg und Fall der Moderne' continues at the Mehrszweckhalle, Weimar, until 9 November

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