They were only obeying orders

What happens when art is recruited by evil? A grisly new show at the Hayward Gallery explores the cultural legacy of the great European dictators of the Thirties
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The Independent Culture
THE Hayward Gallery's "Art and Power'' is one of the most dispiriting exhibitions I have ever seen, yet its subject is so important that everyone who cares for art - or culture generally - will feel the need to ponder its grisly messages. The basic theme is quite simple. The idea has been to explore the art that was produced by European dictatorships in the 1930s. So we see the painting and sculpture, together with many photographs of architecture that was approved by the murderous and philistine regimes of Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler and Franco.

There are also quite a few works by artists who were opposed to the dictators. They lighten the spirit a little or, rather, remind us that the human spirit of free creativity was never completely stifled. But the show as a whole is horrible. The visitor feels the tyranny. And, of course, "Art and Power'' would not be so effective if we were not made to sense the inhumanity of the Thirties. Much credit is due to the design of the exhibition. Mark Fisher (better known for his stage work with Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones) had the overall idea for the installation. Tim Benton of the Open University contributed to the look of the large upstairs gallery. Andrew Dempsey supervised the hang. No one understands the Hayward better than Dempsey. He has supervised dozens of beautiful exhibitions in its varied spaces. Without that expertise, I think, "Art and Power'' would not look so convincing.

For the moving thing about the show is that, however bad and often hateful so many of the exhibits are, dignity somehow prevails. I attribute this quality to Dempsey, who has overseen the whole project. Long experience of putting on major 20th-century exhibitions does bring an accumulation of humanity. (Incidentally, the South Bank Centre ought not to pretend that the Hayward had no existence before they took over its management. The catalogue says that Dempsey has worked there since 1987. In truth he began at the Hayward in 1969, when the exhibition organisers were employed by the Arts Council.)

"Art and Power'' begins with a dramatically unsettling first room. It evokes the coups de theatre that were part of the totalitarian sensibility. Here, high above our heads, are Vera Mukhina's The Industrial Worker and Collective Farm Girl of 1935, Kurt Schmidt-Ehmen's eagle and swastika, placed on the Reich Chancellery in 1938, and Aleksandr Samokhvalov's Kirov at the Sports Parade of 1935. At the end of the gallery is an extraordinary mural-sized canvas by Jose Maria Sert, St Teresa, Ambassadress of Divine Love to Spain, Offers to our Lord the Spanish Martyrs of 1936, in which the saint zooms like a bomber plane. Thus are announced dominating themes of the exhibition: religiosity, especially in Spain; false heroism, darkness and regalia; much employment of sculpture rather than painting; fake neo- classical architecture; and an academic style with a forbidding rather than inspiring aura.

Technically, though, it's noticeable that the dictators' artists weren't that good at being academic, if by that we mean high skills in illusionism, realistic representation, enamelled surfaces and so on. The sculptors, perhaps because they so often came from a rigid apprenticeship system, are on the whole more competent academicians. Sculpture is prominent in this show because totalitarian art was essentially public and therefore favoured three-dimensional work. The painters are often haunted by muralism. They couldn't get correctness into their smaller pictures, which look better in reproduction. I'm thinking mostly of the Soviets, and portraits of Stalin by Filinov, Shegal and Brodsky; but the failing is shared by many fascist artists from Germany and Italy.

The things that look best are posters, especially if they also contain photography. The reason for the superiority of the posters is simple. In this area modernism, defeated and banished in the traditional fine arts, still had some effect. Hence the crisp designs and adventurous typography. It's possible that German fascism produced its best work in the applied arts. They are not considered in this show. Still, we have the posters, and some of them, like Deni and Dolgorukov's Our Army and Country are Strengthened with the Spirit of Stalin! or Terragni's Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista, with its sculptural head of Mussolini, are excellent of their kind. Of course, it's in the nature of a poster that one is immediately impressed and doesn't consider its true content.

Totalitarian art does not allow the viewer to contemplate. Independent thought is its enemy. There's little sign that the artists employed by totalitarian regimes had any free or private ideas of their own. For this reason they often seem best when executing projects devised by higher authorities. Obedience gave them a neatness and a kind of strength that was not to be found in their own natures. This explains the importance of architecture, especially in Italy and Germany. Whole sections of the exhibition are taken up with the stylistic issues involved in new government buildings, grandiose urban planning, Moscow metro stations and German motorways. Here, perhaps, dictatorship was at its most compelling. One sees through fascist or Stalinist art in a trice. Dictatorial architecture is more complicated. It mixes old and new in crazy ways. There's this almost hysterical compulsion to be ultra-modern. At the same time the architects' political masters wanted the solidity of the eternal, or the inherent and ancient spirit of the fatherland. And then, overriding everything, is the knowledge of cruel and unreasonable authority, somehow written into every stone.

The exhibition is planned around the three authoritarian centres of Berlin, Rome and Moscow. Madrid is not so much insisted on, but Spanish art appears in a highly instructive section devoted to the Paris International Exhibition of 1937. There, in Europe's most civilised capital, the Russian and Soviet pavilions confronted each other with their often parallel artistic lies. The Spanish pavilion, where Guernica vas unveiled, was matched by the "Pontifical Pavilion", where there were new altarpieces from a dozen countries. Prominent in the Vatican's anti-democratic scheme was Sert's St Teresa picture, the canvas now shown in the Hayward's opening room. One might have thought that the subject of Guernica had been exhausted. But the rival Sert painting gives Picasso's mural a new and pointed context. And thus the Hayward show brings us closer to the genuine mainstream of modern art.

This does not mean to say that free art is well represented. Guernica we did not expect to see at the Hayward, but it is adequately represented by a giant photograph of its initial appearance in the Spanish Pavilion. I am uneasy about the other Picasso exhibits. For historical reasons The Dream and Lie of Franco had to be in the show. But is not this 18-part print one of his most crabbed and uneasy performances? Picasso's political (and religious) feelings still need elucidation. An exhibition such as this ought to have examined his friendly attitude to Stalin's regime. Other Spanish art comes from Dali and Miro. There is an excellent Gonzalez sculpture and an interesting plaster by Alberto Sanchez Perez, whose hardly existent reputation will now be much enhanced. He's the only "find" in the avant-garde wing of the exhibition. Many of the dictators' artists we've never even heard of. But now we know them, they add to our knowledge of art's perversions, nothing more.

Given the pathos, rather then the achievement, of German artists such as Klee and Schlemmer, I wonder whether Dempsey has softened avant-garde art to give more scope to the awfulness of the dictators' aesthetic lackeys. It's common knowledge in the art world that there were disputes in the planning committee about the work to be shown. For instance, should "Art and Power" have included Hitler's own art? It happens that the largest store of the Fuhrer's painting is in Britain, at Longleat. It was collected by the fascistic father of the present Marquess of Bath. Many people think such material should be exhibited. Others find the idea intolerable. We are reminded that "Art and Power" could have been more controversial than it is at present. We're looking for historical truth, but public relations have been at work.

A book goes along with this sombre show and will be its permanent record (Thames and Hudson, pounds 39.95). I appreciate the contributions on Soviet art by David Elliott and on Berlin architecture by Iain Boyd White. Alas, the commentary lacks a wise overall view from a highbrow art historian. On one occasion it is guilty of a bad faith that diminishes the liberal tone of the Hayward's enterprise. It is not true that Clement Greenberg's views dominate modern art history. His writing is generally unavailable and is hardly studied. The relevant truth is that Greenberg, a Jewish socialist intellectual from a New York immigrant family, looked at Europe from that viewpoint with unswerving honesty and total opposition to totalitarianism. Art historians should follow his example.

! 'Art and Power': Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre, SE1, 0171 261 0127, to 21 January.

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