Elliott, David. The battle for art in the 1930s. (includes photographs of material presented in the Hayward Gallery's 'Art and Power: Europe Under the Dictators, 1930-1945' exhibition)(Cover Story) History Today, Nov 1995 v45 n11 p14(15)
London's Hayward Gallery is currently hosting a major Council of Europe exhibition looking at the role of the arts in the Europe of the Great Dictators. David Elliott, director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, and one of the exhibition's organisers, looks here (in an article based on an essay in the accompanying catalogue) at how Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler and their regimes used culture to their own ends and how the ramifications of this on aesthetics has continued beyond the war years to the present day.
The rhetoric of war and struggle echoed across 1930s Europe like a trumpet blast. In Germany, the USSR and Italy, increasingly intense battles for the control of art and culture were an integral part of the establishment of power and prefigured the real war which started in Spain in 1936 and then spread throughout Europe.
These battles for art -- or cultural revolutions -- were part of the process of purging or cleansing, through which each `threatened' nation could be healed and made whole. Enemies could be found everywhere; but first they had to be eliminated at home -- where they seemed to threaten the states, very existence. Art was a weapon which could be used for this end. Only when a firm hand had taken control could attention be directed further afield -- to those unknown enemies who lurked beyond the frontiers.
These new states, which had all been created out of the chaos of the First World War, were essentially hermetic, self-referential bodies which set out consciously to establish new world orders. They were driven by utopian ideals and shared a common lineage in the traditions of messianic socialism to which idiosyncratic admixtures of Nietzsche, Nordau and Marx had been added. And all, to a greater or lesser extent, believed in the eugenic theory that selective breeding could lead to the creation of a higher race. The achievement of their programmes was made possible by a process of bureaucratic categorization and pseudo-rational centralized planning, which was fuelled by an obligatory solidarity and enthusiasm. In the religion of dictatorship, facts became fetishes and unpalatable realities, which denied the onward march of progress, were either ignored or obliterated.
In spite of these obvious similarities, however, the ideologies of the three dictatorships were distinct. Hitler's book Mein Kampf, the well-spring of the Nazi political programme, advocated the necessity of racial purity as a precondition for the development of the German peoples. It was first published in 1926, long before Hitler became a serious political force and, although it was later revised, it set out clearly the tenets of a totalitarian, racist, military state. Nationality, Hitler maintained, lay in blood -- not in language; the Aryan, Teutonic and Nordic fantasies of the Nazis were based on the desire to establish a Kultur which was worthy of a chosen people. This inversion of the Jews, belief in themselves as chosen, marked the beginning of the policy of `ethnic cleansing' which culminated in the Holocaust. The Jews were labelled as `impure' enemies -- the opposite of all the `positive' values embedded in the Aryan race.
The central ideology of Stalinism was formulated after Stalin had taken power and was part of the general programme of the rewriting of history which resulted from the Central Committee decree of May 1934 `On the Teaching of Civil History in the Schools of the USSR'. This was concerned with the issue of political legitimacy and the elevation of Stalin as the natural and chosen heir of Lenin.
The converse of this was the obliteration of such enemies as Trotsky and Bukharin, and their demonisation gave Stalin the mandate to forge ahead with the construction of heavy industry and the collectivisation of agriculture in the Five-Year Plans. The Short Course in the History of the All-Union Communist Party (of Bolsheviks) appeared in 1938 after the Great Purge and provided the correct party line on historical development. It was a justification of the increasingly florid cult surrounding Stalin, as well as mandatory reading for all painters of historical subjects.
Such a version of events was grossly mendacious, but it provided a seamless narrative to support the image of Stalin which had been regularly appearing in propaganda and art since the beginning of the decade. Gustav Klucis' Five-Year Plan poster `Under the Banner of Lenin for Socialist Construction' shows the face of Lenin as a mask with that of Stalin emerging from behind; it is one of the first and most telling manifestations of the lie of Stalin as Lenin's chosen successor.
The ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism which supported the USSR was non-racial, although racial discrimination undoubtedly did exist. As a result, its ethos was imperial rather than national and incorporated many races; much importance was attributed to the fact that the land area of the USSR occupied one sixth of the earth stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. The history of anti-Semitism in Russia dates from long before the Revolution, but as Karl Marx, as well as active Party functionaries such as Lazar Kaganovich, were Jewish, it did not become enmeshed in Party policy until the Cold War when Stalin's power was virtually unchallenged and `cosmopolitanism' rather than 'formalism' became the main enemy.
Fascism, like Nazism, was a nationalist ideology which attracted, for a time, a much broader range of adherents. A streetwise amalgamation of nationalism and socialism forged in the social ferment which followed the First World War, it established its credibility by using the image of the fasces -- the insignia of the popularly elected law-makers of ancient Rome. The axe head, projecting from a bundle of elm or birch rods tied together by a red strap, became a symbol not only of strength in unity but also of the penal power of the state -- both corporal and capital.
Fascist gangs of blackshirts helped Mussolini suppress opposition, but beyond a state-sponsored syndicalism there was little coherent ideology to the movement which incorporated many different and conflicting viewpoints which Mussolini manipulated. During the 1920s, he was critical of Nazi racism, but a significant wing of his party did not share this view; racism was eventually adopted as party policy in 1938 when, under German influence, the anti-Semitic racial laws were enacted.
No formal summary of Fascist belief appeared until 1932, when Mussolini published the Doctrina del Fascismo (Doctrine of Fascism) in the Enciclopedia Italiana. Typically, this established an ideology out of pragmatism: `Our programme is simple. We wish to govern Italy. They ask us for programmes, but there are already too many. It is not programmes that are wanting for the salvation of Italy but men and will power'.
Equally telling was the showpiece Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista (Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution) which was opened in Rome the following year to mark the tenth anniversary of the Party's coming to power. The most modern and striking display techniques were used and artists and architects of all tendencies were invited to participate in the design.
The art and architecture of these three dictatorships revealed, therefore, as many differences as similarities but, for a number of complex reasons, this has not always been acknowledged. During the Cold War, critics and historians in the West tended to emphasize their similarities, while the ideologues of the Eastern bloc wished to distance the products of Socialist Realism, then long past their sell-by date, from any trace of Fascism. Now there is no longer the same compulsion to take sides.
There are dangers in believing, like the dictators did themselves, that an immutable link is created between art and the political environment in which it is made. This is not to claim that art and politics do not have an intimate relationship, but that within a dictatorship, when the individual autonomy of an artist is compromised, it is the work alone that can express the nature of that particular compromise. Too often it has been argued from a moralistic point of view that all work which was not in clear opposition to the regime was automatically `bad'. In any period of history artists of lasting quality are a rare phenomenon, and an assessment of their work should not depend on questions of political affiliation.
This touches on a larger argument in which the related fields of ethics and aesthetics are often confused. Few people would claim that `good' art can only be made by morally blameless people although the implication, common in the Cold War, that a bad political system produces only bad art has been pervasive. In both Germany and Italy during the 1930s an official concept of the `aesthetic' persisted which related to previous art, although often in a debased form. In Soviet Russia, however, the whole notion of the `aesthetic' was rejected as a bourgeois anachronism and was gradually replaced by the evolving theoretical criteria of Socialist Realism.
If the officially-sponsored painting and sculpture of these years, in spite of its grand ambitions, produced little of lasting artistic worth, this is a reflection of the ideology which supported it. But there were many different tendencies at the beginning of the 1930s and although some were patronised and others were anathematized by the state, there were still others which continued discreetly or in secret. In both the USSR and Germany some, mainly realist, artists who had no particular sympathy with the aggressive ideals of party culture found that their work fitted its precepts and accordingly were awarded commissions.
Other artists, who may or may not have been fellow-travellers, discovered that their more avant-garde work had now become `degenerate' and found themselves stigmatised. In Italy the situation was different again: a diversity of styles characterised the period and there was no officially sanctioned demonisation of any in particular, although a campaign against those artists who happened to be Jewish became increasingly intense as the decade progressed.
As part of the process, which took place in all three countries, in which culture was submitted to the exigencies of the Party, ideology gradually merged into the personality of the leader. Transplanted from the theoretical into the personal realm, aesthetics became conflated with matters of the leader's taste, which then had to be given ideological justification, actual and retrospective, by the Party apparatus.
Official art veered towards the conservative, the grandiose or the meretricious and the paintings preferred by Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini bear this out. This was only one tendency within a barely orchestrated chaos, but was used as a weapon with which to identify and vanquish the art of the state's enemies. Within the Nazi hierarchy Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels were men of refined tastes, although they would trim and conceal them to reflect the party's evolving ideology. Hitler's instinctive taste in modern art, however, veered towards the allegorical, the kitsch, the anecdotal or the sentimental, as borne out by his choice of Adolf Ziegler's nude triptych `The Four Elements' to occupy pride of place in the living room of his Munich apartment.
In discussing such matters Hitler disliked the term `modern art', associating it with degeneracy; he preferred the term `German art' which reflected `eternal' values:
Until National Socialism came to power, there existed in Germany a so-called
`modern' art, which is to say that, almost by the nature of the word, there was something new almost every year. National Socialist Germany, however, means to have a German art once again, and this, like all the creative values of a people, must and will be an eternal art. If art dispenses with such eternal values for our people, then even today it is without redeeming value.
Adolf Ziegler had been appointed professor at the Munich Academy of Arts in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. In December 1936 he was made president of the Reichskammer der bildenden Kunste and was soon put in charge of the commission for the confiscation of modernist works of art from public collections; he was also chairman of the organizing committee for the infamous `Degenerate Art' exhibition of 1937, where the most `hideous' creations of modernism were exhibited for public and official ridicule.
Unlike Hitler, neither Mussolini nor Stalin had been blessed with the benefits of training in the fine arts, however rudimentary, and showed little interest in them, although both remained in awe of the power of literature. On his visit to Florence in 1938, Hitler expressed shock at Mussolini's indifference to the great works in the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace. Stalin is known to have attended only two art exhibitions, one of which was the 1928 AKhRR (Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia) commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Red Army; his favourite painting was Ilya Repin's nationalistic `The Zaporozhe Cossacks Writing a Reply to the Turkish Sultan' (1891) which recorded a defining moment in the history of the war-like horsemen of the southern Ukraine who in Tsarist times had been incorporated into the Russian Empire.
All three dictators mistrusted the ambiguous autonomy of the fine arts which they were unable to understand, although they grasped at the possibilities that architecture offered for building a new and glorious future. Official painting and sculpture either remained suspended within an historicist time-warp, where vision and style would never be synchronised, or were orchestrated as propaganda into a vast, unholy iconostasis in which saints and apostles were replaced by the graven images of the new Party religions. In this structure blood, soil and iron were the foundation of the nation; family, hearth and home gave succour and shelter to its citizens; agriculture and industry poured forth their bounty; labour, sport and education formed the new man who with his partner -- comrade and mother -- clean and well-fed, strove to inseminate the future; underfoot and vanquished lay the dirty Judas, wrecker, enemy, kulak, Jew. Triumphant was the Holy Trinity of peasant, worker and warrior. And from the very summit of this blasphemous altarpiece shone down the spirit from which all power was derived: the quasi-divine presence of the Leader himself.
In the art, photography and film of these years the figure of the Leader -- watchful, paternal, caring and vengeful -- appeared in many different guises, but always with an intensity which evoked the sacerdotal. The iconography differs from country to country but the message remains the same: all hopes and fears are focused in this man. One particular image -- that of the warrior-leader -- typifies the age: in Hubert Lanzinger's 1934 painting `The Protector of German Art', Hitler appears as a medieval knight on horseback, carrying the red swastika banner into the present. In Heinrich Knirr's modern dress rendition of 1937, Hitler appears in more conventional military garb, but posed like an aristocrat on his country estate in the style of a late eighteenth-century English portrait.
Depictions of Mussolini spanned history in a similar way: Adolfo Wildt's white marble bust portrayed Il Duce as Italy's new Caesar while, no doubt inspired by Lanzinger, the South Tyrolese painter Albert Stolz painted his fine profile as a Renaissance Condottiero romano in 1938. But he also appears as a more typical warrior, complete with steel helmet and all the panoply of the modern battlefield, in Gerardo Dottori's aero-Futurist portrait of 1933.
Towards the end of the 1930s the figure of Generalissimo Stalin became increasingly pervasive in Soviet art and propaganda. Although inflated to vast sizes in the photo-panels for street demonstrations, he tended to appear on a more human and intimate scale in paintings, sometimes dwarfed, as in Grigori Shegal's `Leader, Teacher and Friend' (1937), by a vast statue of Lenin from whom he mendaciously claimed to have derived political legitimacy. In one painting, probably made in 1940 as international tension escalated, Stalin appeared as both a modern warrior and guardian of history. Gavril Gorelov, the artist, specialised in making portraits of both the famous and unknown against the cultural monuments which were kept in Moscow's Tretiakov Gallery. His portrait of Stalin, in military uniform, is framed against a detail of Viktor Vasnetsov's famous painting, showing the guardian warriors of ancient Russia.
All the dictators rewrote their national histories to construct a past which suited their own ends. Speaking in 1940, the Ukranian film-maker Aleksandr Dovzhenko outspokenly, humorously and bravely analysed the way in which the historical film had been enlisted into the service of the totalitarian state:
In the films about Peter the Great,
about Aleksandr Nevsky, about Minin
and Pozharsky... there is a kind of
servile desire to bring history closer to
our time and even to put lines in the
heroes' mouths that are virtually taken
from the current speeches of our leaders.
The result is that Aleksandr Nevsky
could be appointed secretary of the
regional party committee in Pskov.
The dictators of the 1930s were the apotheosis of modernity. By looking simultaneously at both the past and the future, they were able to sustain the fantasy of being able to stand outside their own time. Their impulse to repudiate both modern art and modern culture, however, lies as much in the semantic confusion between the `modern' and the `modernist'. Aggressively modernising, they were modern but hated modernism. They were also prepared to draw a line through the past but would then, as Dovzhenko pointed out, have no compunction in re-invoking and remodelling its culture to suit their own ends.
The notion that an artist's individual conscience or sensibility could lead to personal or universal redemption is in direct opposition to this corporate view of culture. It is the aesthetic foundation upon which all `modern art' has been built and was one which both Stalin and Hitler violently repudiated. There were similarly repressive tendencies within the Italian Fascist party but Mussolini refused to give them a free hand.
The idea of the autonomy of artistic expression was crystallised towards the end of the eighteenth century in the Critiques of Immanuel Kant. These set out the notion of a subjective, but altruistic, form of aesthetics which expressed, symbolically and intuitively, what Kant described as the Absolute -- a universal moral consciousness. Art was purely an end in itself and if its practice happened to illustrate other forms of reality this was coincidental to the act of transcendent creation through which it became a paradigm of individual and social freedoms.
Kant's ideas had been influenced by the ferment of opinion about the nature of law, morality and society which had consumed Europe during the previous century. In 1750 Jean-Jacques Rousseau had pointed out in a seminal essay, Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts, that the sciences, arts and literature -- far from representing a universal ideal -- had for many years been the agents of servility and corruption:
Princes always view with pleasure the
spread among their subjects of the
taste for the arts... besides fostering
that spiritual pettiness so appropriate
to slavery, they know well that the
needs that people create for themselves
are like chains binding them... The sciences,
letters and arts... wind garlands
of flowers around the iron chains that
bind [the people and] stifle in them the
feeling of that original liberty for which
they seemed to have been born, [it]
makes them love their slavery, and
turns them into what is called civilised
And from this point onwards, the idea of a specialised, fragmented and modern world became a pervasive double to that of the romantic, unitary being of the alienated but `noble savage' -- the man who had not been corrupted by the decadence and idleness of despotism. Rousseau summarised the reasons for this corruption as simply:
... inequality ... wherever men are
equal, there will be neither rich nor
poor. Wealth inevitably leads to luxury
and idleness; luxury permits a cultivation
of the arts, and idleness that of the
Under despotism, art had reflected and reinforced the immoral power of the State. As an antidote, Rousseau maintained that the search for freedom and equality demanded that a moral sense should pervade all aspects of the new culture. By the end of the century, Kant had provided an idealistic framework for such convictions in which autonomy in the arts represented a field of non-specific, secular, symbolic and intransigent morality.
Kant's mapping out of the aesthetic field, as full of potential conflict as it may be, remained important because it constituted a symbolic space through which artists could move and work and in which they represented, as much as depicted, other forms of reality. In modern societies bohemianism and the avant-garde fulfilled symbolical functions as counter-cultures in which aesthetics was established as an ethical field.
The concept of the avant-garde had developed in parallel with that of modern art. The term had originally been taken from military usage by Henri de Saint-Simon in the 1820s to denote those revolutionaries and artists who could sense the future. In the brave new worlds of the dictators, the idea of an avant-garde could seem either like an unwelcome reminder of the past or a rallying point for counter-revolution. It was, accordingly, one of the first manifestations of the old order which had to be obliterated.
Stalin and Hitler differed from Marx in that they believed that the control of culture was as important as that of the economy, and agreed with Lenin that, in a revolutionary society, culture had to be engaged with the Party. But Party culture did not already exist, it had to be created. Mussolini was less defensive; he felt that the Graeco-Roman, classical ideal was not only the source of all Western art but was also the model upon which his new totalitarian state would be built. For Stalin and Hitler cultural purity had to be imposed, for Mussolini it was already, to a large extent? innate.
In 1945 Allied troops swept across Europe, but the battle for art had many years to run. During the dictatorships, non-Party artists and writers, along with many others, had been murdered, forced into exile, or had to cover their tracks at home. A terrible vacuum had formed where once had stood people, language and art. From the perspective of the ruins, Paris and Berlin were no longer the great cultural arbiters of before. Energy and power had slipped across the Atlantic, with the many artists who had gone into exile: to New York where a new generation of American artists was about to change the scale and ambition of modern painting.
In Europe, modern art revived but only haltingly. The Cold War narrowed its social and political horizons and optimism seemed either foolish or subversive. In Italy, a divide developed between realist, Communist-inspired painters, such as Guttuso, and abstract artists such as Lucio Fontana who, during the 1930s, had strongly supported the Fascists. But it was now a world of superpowers, rather than dictators, in which America vied with the Soviet Union to dominate the world stage. Italy was firmly rooted within the American sphere, as was the German Federal Republic.
Nationalism was an unthinkable concept in the empires of either East or West and new forms of international culture had to be put in its place. For a time, Socialist Realism became the lingua franca of the Eastern bloc. In the West, Modernism had always aspired to be a universal and international movement but increasingly -- in economic and political, as well as in cultural terms -- it was America that called the shots.
Germany was divided, split between the USSR and the West, and started to construct two distinct cultures and histories to justify its position. In the Federal Republic there was an active debate about the relative merits of abstraction and realism, whereas in the German Democratic Republic there had been a continuation of the Moscow party line. After 1953, with the death of Stalin, this position was modified, as a younger generation of East German artists began to invent a revised form of realism which accommodated leftist traditions within German art and European modernism.
One dictator -- Stalin -- survived the war: the purges continued in the USSR and Andrei Zhdanov, and, later Georgi Malenkov, imposed an increasingly narrow concept of art. Opposition was unthinkable but, after the death of Stalin, an independent, autonomous art slowly began to grow. Within the system itself, deprived of its supreme leader and no longer fuelled by terror, entropy took its toll. Perestroika and the collapse of the Berlin Wall dealt the coup de grace. Although it enlisted some talented artists, the dogma of Socialist Realism could now be perceived as a nightmare rather than as a creative method or style; it is a nightmare from which Russia has only recently, haltingly and painfully begun to awake.
Matthew Cullerne Browne, Art Under Stalin (Oxford. 1991); Igor Golomstock, Totalitarian Art in the Soviet Union, Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People's Republic of China (London, 1990): Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalin (Princeton, 1992); David Elliott, New Worlds: Russian Art and Society 1900-1937 (London, 1986); David Elliott, Engineers of the Human Soul: Soviet Socialist Realist Paintings 1930s to 1960s (Oxford Museum of Modern Art, 1992); Bertold Hinz, Art in the Third Reich (Oxford, 1980).
David Elliott is Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, and the author of Photography in Russia 1840-1940 (Thames and Hudson, 1992).
This article is adapted from his longer essay published in Art and Power:
Europe Under the Dictators, 1930-1945 (Octagon), the catalogue accompanying the
exhibition of the same name at the Hayward Gallery.