Snapped up by Germany's new elite, painter's work evokes disturbing memories of Nazi era

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The Independent Online

Norbert Bisky's paintings show Teutonic youths stripped to the waist and columns of marching blonde maidens.

Yet the 33-year-old Berlin artist is a runaway success in Germany, despite provoking charges that his work is reminiscent of Nazi-era art.

Bisky's pictures are usually wall-sized and fetch up to ¤35,000 (£24,000) apiece. They have been snapped up by the German jet set and leading politicians, such as Guido Westerwelle, head of the liberal Free Democratic Party.

The conservative newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung describes him as among Germany's most promising painters, and last month two of his huge paintings were put on show at a major Berlin exhibition of German and Russian art.

Yet Bisky, an East German and son of the leader of Germany's reformed communists, the Party for Democratic Socialism, has provoked searching questions from left-wing critics. "What, exactly, is the difference between these paintings and the pseudo-idyllic, body culture works that Adolf Hitler liked?" asked Der Spiegel magazine.

It is not difficult to understand why Bisky's work has caused controversy: nearly all of his paintings depict shock-headed blond youths clad only in shorts, flexing their muscles or throwing spears in bright sunshine. Women are marching in columns or dancing in troupes.

The titles of his works are equally provocative. Everyone wants to see the Fuehrer is the name of one of his 2001 paintings. Others are titled Bloodbath and We will be victorious.

Some critics say that the only element of his pictures that distinguishes them from the works of Arno Breker, the Nazi sculptor, and Leni Riefenstahl, the director of the Nazi cult film Triumph of the Will, is the glaring psychedelic colours that they are usually painted in.

Others say that his work is more similar to Soviet art of the Stalin era. Michael Schultz, the Berlin art gallery owner who promotes Bisky's works, said: "They polarise. They are either loved or hated. Nobody who looks at them walks away feeling indifferent."

The artist, who was brought up behind the Berlin Wall in Communist East Germany, has a different explanation for flirting so ostentatiously with totalitarian themes. "Good painting is always autobiographical," he said. "As a child in East Germany I was preoccupied with official imagery and the fact that these images were incredibly similar to those used by other horror regimes."

For Bisky, painting is an attempt to come to terms with Germany's totalitarian past. "My work is about ideology, indoctrination of youth, clichés about beauty and the image the Germans at present abroad," he said.

He said that he had no plans to drop these themes, although he admitted that he was once asked to consider painting brunettes rather than Aryan blondes. He refused.

"I knew that I was absolutely right not to do this," he said.

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