Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
At least that is how I am starting to think about modernism. We are now living in the Age of Modernism. It triumphed after World War II. The free love ideal that anyone should be able to have sex with anyone else without restraint at any time of their choosing is modernist. The idea that you should be able to change your sex or abort your own child for personal freedom reasons is also modernist.
The following excerpt comes from Frederic Spotts excellent book Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics:
“During his first four years in power, Hitler took only one concrete action regarding the visual arts. In June 1933 he received a group of anti-Modernists, including Paul Schultze-Naumburg, who showed him photos of the collection in the Kronprinzen-Palais, a branch of the National Gallery. With some 500 Modernist works, this was the world’s premier museum of the avant-garde. Hitler was suitably outraged and gave orders for the director, Ludwig Justi, to be sacked and the paintings to be removed from display, though ‘not destroyed but preserved in special rooms as monuments of a period of German degeneration.’ With equal amounts of optimism and naivete, gallery officials thought they might get by if they exhibited only the very best of their Modernist works. To do the deed they called in the director of the Halle municipal museum, Alois Schardt, in the hope that his reputation as a promoter of ‘Nordic art’ might appease Nazi critics. Schardt made his choices and, to minimize provocation, tucked them away on the top floor while installing works by Caspar David Friedrich and some of Hitler’s other favourite Romantics on the floors below. The ploy failed. Rust forbade the public to view the collection and fired Schardt, who fled to America. Still adamant, museum officials passed the poisoned cup to Eberhard Hanfstaengl, head of the municipal art collection in Munich. Since he came from conservative southern Germany and was therefore no friend of Modernism, it was hoped that he could offer cover. The new director consigned fifty important paintings to storage but reopened the galleries with a limited selection, still demurely installed in the upper rooms. On this basis the museum continued for several years to exhibit and even to acquire contemporary works.
Strange to say, Hitler visited the collection and even stranger to say did nothing about it. The episode occurred in early 1934 when he went to the museum to see a special exhibition of works by Karl Leipold, a protege of Rudolf Hess. After putting in an appearance there, he insisted on visiting the rest of the museum and eventually came upon the gallery’s avant-garde works. He winced but said nothing. In fact, the visit turned out to be more an architectural field trip. What excited him and provoked his only comment was the vista, visible from the windows of the upper galleries, of Schinkel’s great classical buildings in the centre of Berlin. It was not until nearly two years later that Hitler again raised the subject of the Kronprinzen-Palais collection when at lunch one day he spoke of ‘cleaning out all that rubbish’. But again nothing came of it.
Hitler apparently had his first really good look at Modernist canvases during a visit to Dresden in August 1935 when he toured the local ‘Images of Decadence in Art’ exhibition that had been put together two years earlier. He found the show such an exemplary display of Modernist horrors that he ordered it to tour the country. Several weeks later it went to Nuremberg and was shown in connection with that year’s party rally. The event, along with the subsequent opening of the House of German Art, offered Hitler platforms at last to spell out what he so detested in this ‘cultural perfume’. One trait was its sheer ‘ugliness’: ‘It is not the function of art to wallow in dirt for dirt’s sake, never its task to paint men only in a state of decomposition, to draw cretins as the symbol of motherhood, to picture hunched-backed idiots as representatives of manly strength.’ Linked to this was the perversion of naturalism: ‘There really are men who in principle feel meadows to be blue, the heavens green, clouds sulphur-yellow – or as they prefer to say “experience” them in this way.’ Still another fault was its primitivism: ‘It is either impudent effrontery or incomprehensible stupidity publicly to exhibit today works which ten or twenty thousand years ago might have been made by a man of the Stone Age. They talk of primitive art, but they forget it is not the function of art to go backward …’ Its style was contemptible: ‘Theirs is a small art – small in form and substance – and at the same time intolerant of the masters of the past and the rivals of the present’.
To make matters worse, changes of style were never-ending: ‘Just as in fashions one must wear “modern” clothes whether beautiful or not, so the great masters of the past have been decried. These facile daubers of paint are but the products of a day; yesterday, non-existent; today, modern; tomorrow, out of date.’ Additionally, Modernism lacked national character: ‘Art … was said to be “an international experience,” and so its intimate association with the nation has been stifled; it was said that there was no such thing as the art of a nation or of a race – there was only the art of a certain period’ And it was elitist, without meaning for the general public: ‘An art which cannot count on the readiest and most heartfelt agreement of the great mass of the people, an art which must rely on the support of small cliques, is intolerable.’
Leaving aside personal taste and racism, Hitler spoke true – truer than he knew – in analyzing Modernism and its place in the cultural crisis of the time. Modernists differed significantly in their artistic intentions; avant-garde painters did not always work in the same direction as their counterparts in music, literature or architecture. But by and large Modernists were guilty as charged, even if the prosecution’s case was as exaggerated and contorted as it accused Modernist paintings themselves of being.
Modernists were indeed revolutionaries. They rejected the notion that art must be rooted in a nation’s history, and they deliberately sought change and experimentation. ‘To every age its own art’ was the founding principle of the Vienna Secession in 1897. It was permissible for art to be ‘ugly’ and to emulate the blunt energy of ‘primitivism’. They were more concerned for truth and doubts than for beauty and certainties, more interested in questions than in answers, more anxious to communicate feelings – Hitler’s ‘inner experience’ – than to portray visual reality. In the face of the Germans’ consuming passion for order, Modernists celebrated disorder and uncertainty. Far from shunning the epithet of elitist, they raised it to a high principle that artists were independent of society and that culture was a sphere unto itself. The gulf that had opened between Modernists and the public was not their fault; it was the public that had lost its aesthetic sense and gone its own way. Nothing could have been more foreign to the Modernists than the idea that they had an obligation to society. Inculcating national pride or providing the public with security, beauty and joy, not to mention a refuge from life’s travails, was not what they had in mind.
In seeking to obliterate Modernist art forms, Hitler was obviously imposing a personal artistic preference. The straightforward realism of most of the nineteenth-century German school was what he admired and what he believed to be the culmination of everything worthwhile in the visual arts. In its simplest form it was the style he had painted in. It was the style that he could understand and that the mass of the public could grasp. But why did the ‘ugliness’ of the Modernist canvas trouble him? Why did the exuberant play with colour grate? Why was the raw power of primitive art disturbing? Why did he see obscenity in irony? Simply to ask the questions is to make the answers obvious and leads to the very heart of his hatred of the avant-garde. For him Modernism was intolerable because it was thought-provoking, unconventional, uncomfortable, shocking, abstract, pessimistic, distorted, cynical, enigmatic, disorderly, freakish. It was exactly what you do not want if what you want for yourself – and for your nation – is an escape into a world of security, conventional beauty, conformity, simplicity, reassurance. He did not put it that way. What he said was ‘Deutsch sein heißt klar sein‘ – to be German means to be clear – a gnomic aphorism referring ‘not only to subject matter but also to the clarity of rendering sentiments’. Paradoxically it was the very realism of Modernism – not in the manner of his nineteenth-century favourites but in the metaphorical representation of the unease and terror of modern life – that made it unbearable to him. He wanted art to provide escape from pain, not confrontation with it. Ultimately the issue was not simply one of artistic taste but even more of social eschatology. He had no political choice but to oppose it. Hitler knew, as Plato knew, that art and society are moved by similar forces and that art not only reflects but promotes social upheaval.
Sad to say, Hitler’s antipathy to Modernist painting was broadly shared in time and space, and even his very terms of abuse were common currency. Roger Fry’s post-Impressionist exhibition in London had been variously likened by British critics to ‘another Gunpowder Plot, an attempt to plant a bomb under the institutions of art’, a ‘widespread ploi to destroy the whole fabric of European painting’, ‘the exact analogue to the anarchical movements in the political world’, ‘another form of madness’. The art critics of The Times explicitly labelled it ‘degenerate’. But in Germany, where politics and culture were historically intertwined, Modernism was denounced not just by some critics but also by authorities of the state. In 1901, after ordering the director of the Berlin National Gallery to be discharged for buying a large number of Modernist paintings, the head of the Second Reich – Wilhelm II – declared, in words strikingly similar to those later uttered by the leader of the Third: ‘Art is not art if it transgresses the laws and barriers laid down by me. The word “liberty” is often misused and can lead to license and presumption … Art which merely portrays misery is a sin against the German people …’
A great irony of the attack on Modernism by the Kaiser and the Fuhrer is that it was provoked precisely by the fact that Germany was in its vanguard. Not only where there more Modernist painters of note in Germany than elsewhere, there were more art museums collecting avant-garde works. In 1897 Berlin’s National Gallery was the first museum anywhere to by a Cézanne; the Folkwang Museum in Essen was one of the earliest promoters of Gauguin and van Gogh; some fifty other museums followed their lead. Through the interwar period, while British and French galleries refused Modernist works, even when offered as gifts, on the ground that such works, as the director of the Tate said, ‘might exercise a disturbing and even deleterious influence upon our younger painters’, German museums were steadily expanding their collections. Their holdings were consequently the foremost in the world, supplemented by a number of extremely important private collections. The total number of Modernist works in Germany probably reached an impressive 18,000.
Hitler was only speaking the truth when he insisted that, as a result of being captured by Modernists, the arts had lost their mass appeal and culture had been detached from the experience of all but a small minority. Popular response to the avant-garde ran the gamut from indifference and incomprehension to hostility. The great majority of German painters and sculptors themselves were traditionalists to whom any form of Modernism was foreign in every sense of the word. This was particularly true in southern Germany, as reflected in the annual summer exhibitions in March’s Glass Palace. Of nearly a thousand painters who showed there in 1930, for instance, only a dozen or so could be considered Modernists.
Hitler’s antipathy, however, had two unique elements. One was the centrality of anti-Semitism. The association of Jews with Modernism had no basis in fact. Chagall apart, there were no Jewish painters of note and only five or six minor ones, none the equivalent in painting to Schoenberg in music or Erich Mendelsohn in architecture. In truth, he tacitly recognized this fact. His speeches condemned not Jewish painters but Jewish influence on painting, which had made itself felt through art commentary in the Jewish-controlled press. He once explained to Christa Schroeder what he was driving at. Jews knew very well, he said, that Modernist painting was worthless and decadent. But they bought it and made a tremendous fuss about it; as a result prices were inflated and they then sold it and made huge profits. With these they acquired valuable Old Masters for themselves. He believed this was borne out when private Jewish art collections began being seized in the late 1930s. ‘What is so remarkable,’ he told Goebbels, ‘is that Jews – as is now becoming evident from the confiscation of Jewish property – spent all the money that they swindled from the people for [Modernist] kitsch on outstandingly good and valuable pictures.’
In Adolf Hitler’s time, modernism was new and rising. A century later, it is the decadent establishment. It has sunk deep roots into mass culture.