“Art and Power”

Deutsches Historische Museum

If the theme of “Art and Power” is timeless, this latest illustration of it—in the form of an ambitious exhibit organized under the auspices of the Council of Europe, examining art and architecture in Republican Spain as well as Spain under Franco, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s USSR, and Hitler’s Germany—could not be more timely. Indeed, the original project dates back to 1988, the year before the fall of the Berlin wall, and its evolution is at once the result and the reflection of subsequent events. This sense of history shaping history was perhaps most acute in Berlin, where, after stops at the Hayward Gallery in London and the Centre de Cultura Contemporanea in Barcelona, “Art and Power” was presented in an imposing Baroque structure that served as a Prussian arsenal and military museum, Nazi war museum, and central historical museum of the GDR before being turned over to the (reunified) Deutsches Historische Museum in 1991.

Adopting a straightforward expository approach, reinforced in Berlin by a classical exhibition design—unlike the more expressive and ultimately aestheticizing presentation in the new Barcelona cultural center—“Art and Power” took as its starting point the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. Organized by France’s Popular Front government as a celebration of art and technology, this event was in fact an ideological battleground where, most notably, the German and Soviet pavilions confronted each other in an architectural prefiguration of the coming international conflict, while the Republican government of Spain publicized its battle for survival against Franco’s nationalist forces with the modernist pavilion by Jose Luis Sert, in which Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, was exhibited. Following this microcosmic look at Europe on the brink of a holocaust, “Art and Power” offered what amounted to four case studies tracing the emergence of dictatorships, official art, and cultural resistance in Spain, Italy, the USSR, and Germany. In all, more than 500 works—paintings, sculptures, posters, photographs, architectural drawings and models, plus invaluable documentary film footage—were on view, accompanied by extensive chronologies, commentaries, and artist biographies. The overriding point brought out by this welter of material (and underscored in the text placed at the entrance to the exhibit) was that “there is no straightforward alignment of artistic and political radicalism or conservatism.”

Picasso may have been on the “right” side, but Nolde was not. Nor, as various paintings and posters in defense of Republican Spain amply demonstrate, did the fascists have a monopoly on bad art. Indeed, in Mussolini’s Italy, modernist art and architecture coexisted with the most academic revivalist styles, and even in Germany or the USSR, the legacy of modernism survived in applied arts such as typography. For this very reason, the fine points of the relationship(s) between art and power are not necessarily discernable in the works themselves. In this respect, the implied symmetry between Nazism and Communism is embarrassingly reductive for an otherwise thoughtful presentation. The catalogue essays, which are much more nuanced, help to establish an analytical framework, and a particularly useful perspective is provided by the social historian Eric Hobsbawm, who shifts the focus from “art” to “power” in order to identify exactly what the political authorities in question demanded of art: namely education/propaganda, ritual and ceremony, the expression of glory, and the triumph of power.

Such a typology explains, first of all, the preponderant role of architecture, amply demonstrated here in grandiose building schemes such as Mussolini’s abortive Exposizione Universale di Roma, Hitler’s project for the rebuilding of central Berlin, or Stalin’s Moscow plan for a “truly socialist city,” all of which aimed at imposing themselves and the manifestations of their power not simply on the present but on the past and the future as well. It also explains, in social and political terms rather than that of bad taste, the populist bent of any “party” art intended to shape the thought of the masses. And perhaps most important of all, the dynamic of “demands” implies that there are human beings working away to fulfill them, to ignore them, or to subvert them.

Ultimately, the strongest images in this exhibit were found not on the walls, but on video monitors. From the throngs of visitors strolling obliviously through the International Exposition of 1937 to Nazi sycophants following Hitler through the inauguration of the “Degenerate Art” exhibit held in Munich the same year, the archival film footage admirably compiled by Lutz Becker served to reinject objects and monuments into their social and political setting and, in so doing, to make the timeless, timely point that art is not a matter of creation alone, but of responsibility as well.

Miriam Rosen