New York

“The Art Of Hitler”

The Contemporary

In “The Art of Hitler,” curator Steven Kasher presented a dense, thought-provoking collection of several hundred documents concerning Nazi art; the ways in which the Nazis exploited art; and various subsequent attempts either to rejuvenate or to repress the spirit of the Third Reich. Beginning with the future Führer’s early, unassuming watercolors and his first designs for the swastika, the exhibition went on to explain how Hitler created a comprehensive visual campaign to propagate Nazi values, maintaining personal control over graphic design, architecture, photography, and the public media.

Highly skilled henchmen such as Arno Breker and photographer Heinrich Hoffman provided the imagery. Both Albert Speer’s visionary renderings of a gargantuan stadium echoing Boullée’s cenotaph, and his grandiose master plan for the New Berlin rely on improbable scale to humble and also to inspire. More sinister and ultimately more devastating than these comically inflated architectural showpieces, however, were the concentration, slave-labor, and extermination camps, such as Auschwitz, which Speer also designed, and which remained hidden from the public eye. While Kasher chose not to present images of the camps, the relation between seen and unseen would have merited examination in this context.

The second part of the exhibition concerned how Nazi visual culture and ideas persist in the present. When Hitler’s watercolors were exhibited in Florence in 1984, they were, according to Kasher, “presented as spoils captured from the evil Nazis,” while no mention was made of the Italian collusion with Hitler. Art collector Peter Ludwig was actively involved in the Hitler Youth and promoted Breker’s sculpture for many years. The Ford Motor Company is still trying to blot out its founder’s expressed sympathy with the Nazis, and their own dubious decision to sponsor the Anselm Kiefer exhibition. Kiefer’s attempts to confront the Nazi past in monumental paintings and sculptures have been accused of romanticizing what they set out to examine critically. Mies van der Rohe, Bauhaus figure-turned-American corporate architect, is portrayed not as a man who emigrated to protest the Nazi agenda but as an opportunist who repeatedly—and in vain—sought Nazi commissions. The final section highlighted the analogies proposed by the media between Hitler’s and Saddam Hussein’s politics, Jesse Helms’s cultural censorship, and the recent rise of skinheads in Germany.

Kasher’s thesis is that what we seek to repress will only return with a vengeance: as long as we continue to deny the Nazi past by suppressing its visual culture, it will continue to resurface in insidious ways. (The show itself suffered, though, from its reliance on reproductions, textual material, and long exegeses rather than visual material.) A 1944 Texaco ad shown here sums up what Kasher, the founders of the Holocaust Museum, and others today fear: a young girl reading a magazine calls out “Mommy, who was Hitler?” “Too many children know” who Hitler was, the fine print admonishes; “our job” is to create a new world and erase any memory of past atrocities.

Kasher is equally wary of our tendency to distance ourselves from the Nazis by turning them into the evil other. Yet Kasher’s moralizing exposés of Ludwig, Mies, and others, are tinged by just that sort of holier-than-thou attitude. It’s not enough to acknowledge that nationalist, racist, and fascist sympathies, Nazi-inspired or otherwise, are in our midst; we must also see them in ourselves.

Lois Nesbitt