Why Mention Arno Breker Today? The work of the Nazi sculptor is on exhibit. By Caroline Fetscher
Adolf Hitler loved Arno Breker's sculptures. For him, they showed the perfect "Nordic" man, catering to the Nazi's perverted belief system. An exhibition in Schwerin is now showing what has up to now been taboo - and has attracted 2,000 visitors in five days. The media has been highly critical of the initiative.
Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's chief supplier of racist ideology, more than once expressed delight at the sculptures of Arno Breker. No relation whatsoever to "degenerate" Cubism, Surrealism, Impressionism or Expressionism, no trace of Dadaism or Modernism in Breker's works of art.
On the contrary, his solidly crafted, muscular and polished "beautiful bodies," as Breker remarked on Breker, were inspired by Hellenic and Roman precedents and present pseudo-classical fantasy figures. Breker can be seen as the stone-carved equivalent to Leni Riefenstahl's movies or Albert Speer's megalomaniac Nazi architecture. Breker was to provide the eternal model of man for Nazism's perverted belief system and its theme parks.
Why bring up Breker today? Because he has suddenly, though not coincidentally, reemerged from the past. He is a topic in this summer's feature pages, while in the city of Schwerin, near the Baltic Sea in the former East Germany, an exhibition of 70 of Breker's major works opened on July 21.
Schwerin allegedly ventured into this enterprise to break a taboo, to inform the public, and, as the title of the show suggests - "Subject to Debate: The Sculptor Arno Breker" - to inaugurate a discussion about the valuation or devaluation of this ill-reputed artist.
Breker, born in the northern German town of Elberfeld in 1900, as the son of a stone carver, died in obscurity and relative wealth in rural Bavaria in 1991. The publicy financed museum "Schleswig-Holstein-Haus," critically aims at "documenting Breker's career," says curator Rudolf Conrades. By no means, he explains, does the exhibition aspire to glorify or spare the artist.
In 1936, Breker took the major aesthetic turn needed to succeed in the new regime. From then on, muscles now clearly dominated the "beautiful bodies." Fantasies of flawless and idealized flesh became stone at his hands, as he took part in the contest to adorn the venue that hosted the 1936 Olympic Games. Eventually, Breker contributed two victorious figures, one male, one female, to the Olympic compound ("Reichssportfeld").
Breker's works represented to Alfred Rosenberg, the "mighty momentum and willpower" ("Wucht und Willenhaftigkeit") of the new era, which after all, aspired to exceed the lifespan of any past empire and last a thousand years - plenty of reason to yearn for such "timeless" language in art serving basically organicist aesthetics.
Hence the young talent was commissioned by the new totalitarian regime which had discovered the ideological potential of his chisel and pitching tool. Subsequently, Breker sculpted Hitler's bust, and etched "Comradeship" in stone in 1940, a piece full of promise to "comrades" that they will be redeemed by their sturdy peer group should they sacrifice their lives. Breker's yearly allowance by the regime amounted to at least one million Reichsmark, a considerable fortune.
As early as 1937, Breker joined the National Socialist Party and received tenure as a professor of art in Berlin. His work was part and parcel of the regime he served. It is nearly impossible to believe the naivity he claimed for himself after World War II when he said he had been "unaware" of the atrocities committed by the regime. Still, Breker was "de-Nazified" in 1948 for, among other arguments, having at times defended colleagues such as Pablo Picasso or spoken out on behalf of the imprisoned publisher Peter Suhrkamp. He was, it appears, important enough for the "Reich" to let such occasional shortcomings pass - and the mere fact that he defended those who were deemed "degenerate" or "subversive" tells us that Breker knew very well what kind of dictatorship he was offering his services to.
Ninety percent of Breker's polished and superhuman ogres are said to have shared the fate many Nazi symbols encountered when Allied forces finally ended the National Socialist regime: they perished. Breker's lavish studio in Berlin was destroyed as was the fine castle of Jäckelsbruch he owned, a present by the "Führer" for Breker's 40th birthday.
Still, much of Breker's prolific output did surface from the debris and in the 1950s, Breker went on to portray great Germans in the new republic.
Only in 1981, when Breker was banned from taking part in an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, did he publicly distance himself from National Socialism.
In 1985, the "Museum Arno Breker," a glorifying private collection, opened its gates in the Castle of Nörvenich near Cologne. Schwerin's curator had no luck with Nörvenich and, after some disputes, was not granted the use of any of the "timeless" exhibits on display at this site.
No matter how "enlightening" the Schwerin show hopes to be, its intentions must be questioned, especially since it claims to exhibit "art" and not historical items.
Hitler had, in 1937, personally supervised the exhibition of "Degenerate Art" in Munich which was to set an example of denunciation to all schools of modern European art. In a perfidious and complex manner, this art was to be shown in order to present what would not be displayed in the future. It would draw a false parallel to insinuate that Schwerin is exhibiting Breker "in order to show what not to show anymore in the future." For in this case, the opposite would be more likely: To show the late Breker's works in order to demonstrate that he indeed can be shown and discussed "like any other ordinary artist."
In these days, over and over again the question about nationalism is raised. Who are we, in past and present, as a people, as a nation? We wave German flags, and a new innocence and lightness in national issues was seen during the World Cup frenzy.
Meanwhile the majority of Germans seems to be reluctant to acknowledge that identifying with a "new" and modern Germany can only encompass facing the past.
One could suggest to the city of Schwerin that it deal with other works of art with historical awareness. When visiting its famous dome one is taken aback by an oil painting in the right aisle of this church depicting a crude and huge portrait of "Judas with the Money Bag." The painter was Rudolf Gahlbeck (1895 - 1972) who taught art at local schools under the Nazis as well as under the Communists. He is supposed to have been a "Christian and a humanist," pious sources reveal, and no one in Schwerin, neither the city authorities nor the thousands of tourists who flock to this clerical monument each day, seems to be protesting against this permanent exhibit.
Of course, it would be unfair to directly associate Schwerin's curators of Breker with this uncommented piece of anti-Semitic art in the public sphere. But it is fully legitimate to worry about the question of how deep rooted and reliable Germany's democratic culture really is. "It is wrong to recognize an artist who created the physical images of Nazi racist ideology," said Klaus Staeck, president of Berlin's Academy of the Arts.
- Caroline Fetscher is a senior editor for the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.
A Lachrymose Artist
In the late 1970s, Düsseldorf's Richard Wagner Association made it possible to visit the atelier of Arno Breker. A delicate, elderly white-haired man greeted us a bit awkwardly. His lecture almost uniquely addressed his Nazi past and the injustice that he - an unpolitical, naive artist - has experienced in Germany since the end of the war. Without stopping, he defended himself in a lachrymose and self-pitying tone.
The atelier is full of plaster models, including one of Moroccan ruler Sultan Mohammed V and a bust of Salvador Dalí. In the garden, there are numerous larger-than-life, idealized heroes, sculpted smoothly and without surface unevenness; every sinew, every muscle is meticulous and unrealistic. The heads are comparatively small, hollow and empty. Breker is not Michelangelo's successor. He is merely a skilled craftsman whose representations of "supermen" intentionally served the taste of Hitler and his cronies.
- Brigitte Sträter