Anger at new exhibition of 'Hitler's favourite sculptor'

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Arno Breker, whose sculptures of muscular Aryan men adorned Hitler's Berlin Chancellery, never quite managed to wash away his association with the Third Reich. Now though, after years in obscurity, works by the man known as "Hitler's favourite sculptor" are drawing large crowds.

The decision to show 70 of Breker's works in the city of Schwerin, in north-eastern Germany, has caused uproar this summer. Many argue that Breker, who was close friends with Albert Speer and Adolf Hitler and profited from the Nazi regime, should be left on the sidelines of art history. "It is wrong to recognise an artist who created the physical images of Nazi ideology," said Klaus Staeck, president of the Berlin Academy of Arts, who pulled out of an exhibition of his own work in Schwerin as a protest. He added: "He was not only a protégé of Hitler, but also a profiteer." A joint appeal for the show to be cancelled was issued by about 30 local artists, gallery owners and art historians.

But cultural heads in the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania argue that the show is "absolutely necessary". Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, they say, Germany has enough distance to the Third Reich to be able to discuss the relationship between dictatorship and art and ask the question: how could such a talented artist allow himself to be so corrupted by the Nazis?

"The debate over whether Breker was a great artist or a terrible artist is not so important to us," said Schwerin's deputy mayor, Hermann Junghams. "What is important to us is to show the interaction between art and ideology."

And their judgement seems to have been correct. Since the exhibition opened last Friday, more than 900 visitors have flocked to the small town to see the works by the man Hitler chose to give him a guided tour of Parisian art treasures in 1940. The Nobel Laureate Günther Grass has also spoken out in favour of the exhibition.

Much of Breker's Nazi-era work was destroyed after the war. The controversy over the Schwerin show follows a similar uproar over Breker's work during the World Cup. Jewish activists failed to have the bronze figures in Berlin's Olympic Stadium covered up or removed.

Critics say that exhibiting his works in Mecklen-burg-West Pomerania, an area where neo-Nazis are rife, will only serve to help their cause. But organisers deny that the show, which runs until 22 October, amounts to a rehabilitation of Breker, who died in 1991. "It was clear to us that this would be controversial, that's why the decision did not come easily," said Mr Junghams. "Everyone will see we are far too critical of Breker for this to be any kind of rehabilitation."