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Postmodern?

Art and Architecture in the Third Reich

Literature on art in the Third Reich tends to focus on the political, psychological, and

social aspects of the work, viewing artistic and architectural style in light of the political and

social aims of the National Socialists: as propaganda, a return to traditional genre forms designed

to legitimize and reinforce state policy and authority. This is understandable, since art, as a

cultural product, can never be divorced from the society in which it was produced. However, in

order to remain objective, it is important to see National Socialist art on its own terms, without

directly linking the art to horrors perpetrated by the Nazi program. To that end, I focus on ways

in which art of the period may be seen as prefiguring certain postmodern impulses, especially the

double-coded postmodernism of Charles Jencks. I do not wish to equate postmodernism with

fascism. After all, according to Jencks, critics of postmodernism such as Kenneth Frampton often

compare postmodernism to Nazi populism, charging double-coded architecture with paternalism,

monism, and totalitarianism.1 My only aim here is to read National Socialist art and aesthetic

policy in terms of the postmodernism advocated by Jencks, noting similarities and differences

between the two, and reinforcing the notion that there is no sharp break between modernism and

postmodernism; in fact, as noted by Jean-François Lyotard, postmodernism “is undoubtedly a

part of the modern.”2 I will begin with brief overviews of National Socialism and double-coded

postmodernism, followed by an examination of works by state-sanctioned artists and architects

that illustrate the correspondence between the two movements.

An earlier version of this essay was presented to Donald Kuspit’s Spring 2007 graduate seminar,
“Varieties of Realism in 20th Century Art” at Stony Brook University. This present version originally
appeared in Art Criticism Volume 22, Number 2, 2007. I am deeply grateful to Donald Kuspit and Leah
Modigliani for their comments and suggestions in the preparation of this essay.

1
Jencks, What is Post-Modernism (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1986), 10
2
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesta
Press, 1984), 79

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Following World War I, Germany was in shambles. The treaty of Versailles forced

Germany to accept responsibility for the Great War and make substantial territorial concessions,

leaving the country bankrupt. During the Weimar republic period, the gulf between classes

widened, unemployment increased exponentially, and rival political factions vied for control of

the fractured government. One such party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party

(NSDAP), gained support throughout the 1920s and came to power in January of 1933,

promising to end unemployment and return Germany to its place as an industrial and social

power. According to NSDAP thinking, modernity was the ultimate cause of the country’s

problems and they sought to unify society through a return to traditional culture and a belief in

the Volksgemeinschaft, “a ‘community of destiny’ founded on ‘the blood and the soil.’”3 NSDAP

leaders understood the value of art as a means of promoting their social and political aims and

instituted a cultural policy designed to glorify the new German state, largely through a return to

traditional narrative and genre forms that were reinterpreted to serve National Socialist goals and

programs. According to NSDAP policy, modern art and architecture served only to glorify the

creator’s ego. When placed solely in the service of the artist or architect, the ego is a destructive

force, driving a wedge between specialists (artists, critics, historians, and the like) and the public.

When placed in service of society and the ideal, however, the artist’s ego becomes a creative and

sustaining force, and works glorify the people and the state. Therefore, the National Socialists

advocated a return to idealism, believing it to be the foundation on which society flourishes.

Atonality in music, abstraction in art, and Bauhaus-style architecture were banned, since such

modern tendencies deprived the people of archetypes, base-metaphors, and myths, the elements

necessary for understanding and relating to the work.

3
Michaud, The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 256

2
The NSDAP rejection of modern art as alienating the public seems related to the claims

of many postmodern theorists, including the double-coded theory of Charles Jencks. A thorough

discussion of the various postmodern theories is beyond the scope permissible here, though an

outline of Jencks’s theory will help explain some of the features we find in German art of the

period. For Jencks, the postmodern era is marked by “the end of avant-garde extremism, the

partial return to tradition and the central role of communicating with the public.”4 Jencks

advocates a combination of modernist techniques and classical style in architecture; a double

coding that results in new forms that appeal to architects and the public alike. For Jencks,

postmodern art and architecture may be characterized by some or all of the following

“‘Ideological’ identifiers”5: double coding of style; ‘popular’ and pluralist; semiotic form;

traditions and choice; artist/client; elitist and participative; piecemeal; and architect as

representative and activist.6 National Socialist aesthetic policy appears to run against several

assumptions implicit in Jencks’s list. However, in the final analysis, many NSDAP projects that

at first glance appear antithetical to Jencksian postmodernism may, in actuality, prefigure his

theory.

For example, National Socialist myth making seems to go against Jencks’s view of

postmodern mythology and the changes it underwent in the shift from modernism to

postmodernism. According to Jencks, “Whereas a mythology was given to the artist in the past

by tradition and a patron, in the Post-Modern world it is chosen and invented.”7 We may assume

that this statement removes any possibility of postmodernism in NSDAP art, since the mythology

4
quoted in Rose, The post-modern and the post-industrial: a critical analysis (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1991), 101
5
ibid., 115
6
ibid.
7
Jencks, What is Post-Modernism?, 27

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employed by artists was rooted in tradition and prescribed by a patron (in this case, the state).

However, the National Socialists did not use myths as they had come down from tradition, they

chose and invented myths to serve specific programmatic ends, and the artists themselves played

a role in articulating the new cultural mythos. The architects of NSDAP aesthetic policy read

traditional myths through the lens of modern technological advancement, social and economic

conditions, and the situation of Germany following World War I, creating a new, hybridized,

complex, and contradictory set of state-sanctioned myths designed to articulate the situation and

expectations of the new German society.

By 1937, the year of the famous ‘degenerate’ art and music exhibitions, artists remaining

in Germany began working in the traditional genre styles favored by NSDAP policy makers.

State-sanctioned artists and architects, such as Ivo Salinger, Leni Riefenstahl, Arno Breker, Josef

Thorak and Paul Ludwig Troost, produced works in classical or mannerist styles, employing

traditional narrative structures while also exhibiting and referencing modernist techniques and

themes. The adoption of National Socialist aesthetic theory by artists of the period should not be

seen as an adoption of fascist ideology; they simply chose to employ styles and themes favored

by their patrons, so as to increase their chances of future commissions. Despite the adoption of

state-sanctioned genres, viewers can easily see the influence of modernism in the work of these

artists. Furthermore, a close reading of these works reveals a clearly identifiable double coding

of traditional and modern codes, techniques, and forms, as well as indications of postmodern

tendencies. In what follows, works by Salinger, Riefenstahl, Thorak, Breker, and Troost are

compared with works from the postmodern canon that exhibit the characteristics described by

Jencks.

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In order to thrive and expand, the NSDAP government needed a large, healthy, and

growing population committed to the vision of a new German society. Given the ever-increasing

population losses due to expatriation, forced labor, World War II, and other factors, the National

Socialists instituted a system of natal propaganda designed to promote the reproduction of pure

Germans, while also serving to define acceptable partners and gender roles. This natal

propaganda campaign appropriated recognizable images from well-known mythology, such as

Leda and the Swan, and the Judgment of Paris, redefined to serve state purposes. According to

this propaganda, Leda was right to accept the advances of Zeus. After all, Zeus was a god, and

any woman should be happy to produce offspring with gods. In fact, women should happily

accept any opportunity to procreate with male party members, which would produce more

healthy Germans to continue expanding the glory of state. Similarly, men were to mate with as

many women as possible, and should employ any tactic that would ensure procreative activity,

though they must be careful to choose healthy mates of pure German stock. Hence, artists

employed the Paris myth, in which Paris must judge the beauty of three goddesses. Many artists

produced works that explored these myths, including Ivo Salinger, whose Leda and the Swan and

Judgment of Paris also seem to exhibit certain Jencksian characteristics.

Salinger’s Leda and the Swan depicts Leda in a seductive pose reminiscent of advertising

and pornography, reclining near a stream in a wooded landscape, seemingly unaware of the

swan’s approach. At first glance, the painting may be seen as a somewhat failed attempt to return

to a classical or mannerist painting style, but something else is happening here. Notice the flat

handling of the figure and drapery and the sketchy quality of the grass and trees. Flattening of the

body and stroke-heavy delineation of plant forms is characteristic of certain modernist impulses,

which, when combined with the classical arrangement, traditional narrative, and contemporary

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pose seems to imply a double coding of modernism and classicism. As noted above, NSDAP

natal propaganda appropriated traditional myths, reinterpreted them, and placed them into a

modern context that would appeal to the people while conveying the roles that the Third Reich

expected people to play. This simultaneous appeal to the general public, on one hand, and to

specialists (or the state), on the other, is characteristic of postmodernism as formulated by

Jencks. The traditional story of Leda’s meeting with the swan has little relevance to modern

society, yet seems to take on a new meaning through its combination of traditional and modern

elements. Salinger’s painting, by reinterpreting classical mythology to serve a new purpose,

seems to employ the semiotic form advocated by Jencks, if we interpret ‘semiotic form’ as forms

designed to encourage interpretation and understanding by viewers and other end-users.

Another painting by Salinger, The Judgment of Paris, takes the double coding of

classicism and modernism one step further. Here we see Paris, holding the Golden Apple,

moments after his judgment in favor of Aphrodite. Athena and Hera dress while Aphrodite

moves towards Paris, arms outstretched in an open, inviting pose. Interestingly, the drapery that

Athena wraps herself in is composed of only a few flat planes of color, depriving the cloth of a

truly three-dimensional feel. Additionally, as noted by Eric Michaud, Paris seems to be wearing

the costume of a member of the Hitler Youth.8 The landscape appears to be painted in a

somewhat traditional manner, though careful observation reveals the distance and depth to be

composed of flat planes of color, rather than through any traditional glazing or highlighting

techniques, much like Salinger’s handling of the drapery. Here, modern costuming and flat paint

handling again combine with a traditional landscape and narrative to produce a double coding of

classical and modernist styles. Interestingly, the female bodies also seem rather masculine, as if

8
Michaud, The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany, 157

6
Salinger painted a couple of male bodies, augmented with female primary and secondary sex

characteristics, and then merely added female faces to them. Here the double coding is of the

masculine and feminine, perhaps alluding to the ‘pluralism’ found in Jencksian postmodernism.

In this case, ‘pluralism’ should be understood in the largely negative sense of a devolutionary

system designed to subsume individual bodies under a larger state-organized body. I am certain

that Jencks’s ‘pluralism’ refers more to the plurality of stylistic codes and organizing principles

in government, rather than a plurality of sexual characteristics. However, a certain brand of

semantic pluralism is evident in Salinger’s work. Undoubtedly, Salinger’s loose understanding of

the body and movement contributed to the androgyny of the figures, and there is no reason to

suspect that such androgyny was intentional. Intentional or not, the postmodern impulses toward

a double (or triple) coding of modernism with some other code(s), and a tendency toward some

form of pluralism, though not necessarily Jencksian pluralism, are apparent in the work.

To explicate this further, we may compare Salinger’s works with Carlo Maria Mariani’s

The Hand Submits to the Intellect and The Grand Creative Process. Both images are painted in a

style reminiscent of mannerism, but lack the sensitivity of handling found in mannerist works.

Jencks advocated Mariani as exemplary of postmodern double coding, due to the modern

concerns combined with a classical or traditional handling found in his work. In the case of The

Hand Submits to the Intellect, Mannerist figures and paint handling are employed to reference

the birth of painting and the Dibutades myth, as well as late twentieth century discussions of the

Cartesian mind/body split, embodied consciousness and other philosophical and scientific

theories of cognition and phenomenology. Additionally, the body of the reclining figure in The

Grand Creative Process seems to be both male and female, much like those found in Salinger’s

Judgment of Paris. Mariani is undoubtedly more skilled at his craft than Salinger, yet the end

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results are quite similar. Both employ classical or mannerist styles and techniques double-coded

with contemporary concerns to create readings of traditional or popular narratives suitable to the

age and society in which they were created.

Other artists working under the strictures of National Socialism copied traditional forms

even more directly. Leni Riefenstahl’s photograph Olympia: Living Statue presents viewers with

the archetype of male strength and virility, in this case a German discus thrower, in a pose

closely resembling that of Myron’s Discobolus. Myron’s classic sculpture was greatly admired

by Hitler, for it showed “how splendid man used to be in the beauty of his body, and… we can

speak of progress only when we have not only attained such beauty but even, if possible, when

we have surpassed it!”9 Here we find evidence of the idealistic mode of thinking encouraged by

the National Socialists in their aesthetic and social policy. Myron’s sculpture is idealized, not

actual, a fact that is clearly seen when comparing the sculpture to its living copy. Here we find

Jencks’s ‘popular and pluralist’ tendency, which he contrasts with the modern ‘utopian and

idealist.’10 Riefenstahl’s Living Statue is an actual member of the population, showing the

volkskorper, the body of the people (or an exemplary body to be worked towards), which is

easily contrasted to the elongated and idealized body found in Myron’s statue. That the body of

the athlete is an idealized body is of little importance, since this is an attainable and actual body.

Though National Socialism was in some sense an idealized and utopian project (no matter how

misguided), Riefenstahl’s photograph is popular, of the population, and pluralist, because

through double coding it combines the two metanarratives of classicism and National Socialism.

The photograph references both the Myron statue and the ideal of German male virility and

power, reinforcing themes found in natal propaganda and other NSDAP social programs, while

9
quoted in Michaud, The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany, 148
10
quoted in Rose, The post-modern and the post-industrial: a critical analysis, 115

8
also appealing to a popular audience for whom the propagandist nature of the imagery may only

register unconsciously. This double coding may be made even clearer by comparing

Riefenstahl’s photographs with works by Cindy Sherman, a currently living artist known for her

postmodern practice of photography.

In the 1990s, Sherman remade herself in the image of old master paintings, creating self-

portraits that appropriate images from art history to comment on and critique contemporary

social structures. For example, her 1990 photograph Untitled (#224) replicates Caravaggio’s Self

Portrait as a Sick Bacchus. Employing makeup and costuming to transform herself into the

mythological seducer in a sort of Butlerian drag performance, Sherman re-reads Caravaggio’s

work as a critique of patriarchy and heteronormativity. Sherman’s works are clearly postmodern

in the Jencksian sense, as they employ classical motifs to reflect on contemporary issues, and so

we can identify a direct parallel between Sherman’s Bachus and Riefenstahl’s Living Statue.

Both remake a classic work from art history to discuss contemporary issues. While Riefenstahl

presents the ideal of male virility and power in NSDAP Germany, Sherman critiques patriarchy

and heteronormativity in current Western capitalist society. Though the theoretical and historical

models differ, the result is the same: a double coding of modernism with some other code.

Sherman’s examination and critique of heteronormativity through her transformation of

self into old master paintings is characteristic of certain impulses in postmodern art. The

dissolution of the subject and the rejection of ‘normalcy’ (defined as white, heterosexual, and

male) found in postmodernism may be viewed as antithetical to the National Socialist project.

However, as sculptural works by Josef Thorak and Arno Breker show, NSDAP art often

undermined the authority of the male heterosexual subject, depicting men as ultimately

dependent and contingent on the state for survival and identity definition.

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Josef Thorak and Arno Breker both produced sculptures entitled Comradeship, which are

meant to show the courage and brotherhood of the German people, though, as we will see, other

issues arise in the work. Thorak’s sculpture of 1937 depicts two men holding hands and staring

defiantly into the future. They are grotesquely muscled, with large hands and feet typical of

mannerist figures, though somewhat clumsily modeled. At first glance, the men seem to be

models of the ideal National Socialist warrior, strong-willed, superhuman, and ready for battle.

However, their clasped hands and crossed legs betray an interdependence and familiarity

seemingly uncharacteristic of modernist ideas of masculinity. This familiarity need not be read as

a homosexual impulse, though authors and theorists have noted certain homosexual tendencies in

NSDAP dogma.11 The friends are not individuals; they are a collective unity, entirely dependent

on one another for strength and stability. This familiarity and unity reflects the volksgeist, the

spirit of the German people that provides the basis for the Volksgemeinschaft. Their collective

strength, however, betrays a dependence and vulnerability uncharacteristic of National Socialist

policy, ultimately serving to undermine the spirit of the people and will of the party.

Breker’s 1940 bas-relief continues the theme, though the scene has changed. No longer

strong and defiant, yet still highly dependent on one another, one man cries out in anguish as he

drags his comrade’s lifeless body to safety. If, in Thorak’s sculpture, the interdependence was

implicit, here it is explicit. The figures are no longer grotesquely muscled supermen; they now

appear emaciated and weakened, perhaps due to the escalating war. This image was likely meant

to remind viewers of the necessity of sacrifice in ensuring the continued spread and success of

the Reich and the Volksgemeinschaft. However, this image also seems to fail in its attempt to

11
see, for example, Geoffrey Gilles, “The Denial of Homosexuality: Same-Sex Incidents in Himmler’s SS
and Police,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 11, no. 1 (2002)- 256-290; and Stefan Michler,
“Homophobic Propaganda and the Denunciation of Same-Sex-Desiring Men under National Socialism,”
Journal of the History of Sexuality 11, no. 1 (2002): 95-130

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bolster national pride. The expression of anguish shows neither the strength to carry on, nor

confidence in National Socialist programs. Instead, his friend is dead, and the surviving man is

left to carry the weight of failing social policy on his own, as pictured through the body of his

friend. We may see Breker’s work as exhibiting the Jencksian postmodern signifier of ‘artist as

representative and activist.’ Breker was lauded as the embodiment of NSDAP ideology, and was

given a studio and large private residence in Paris, where he was provided with forced labor from

French and Italian prisoners.12 He served on several cultural boards and played some role in

looting artworks from occupied lands, yet he also worked to free certain Russian Jewish

prisoners, though such activities were not entirely altruistic, thereby implying his dual role as

representative and activist.13 In his Comradeship, we can clearly see this impulse. The work

encourages viewers to remain confident in the success of the party, while simultaneously

suggesting imminent defeat.

This is further reflected in his Wounded (1942). The man is now alone, his comrades are

dead or missing, and he is wounded, head in hand, bemoaning his fate and the state of the party

in a pose of abject defeat. The wounded soldier, as representing the Volksgemeinschaft of 1942,

is no longer strong, defiant, or brave. He appears unable to continue the struggle, though the

battle rages on. It is interesting to note that by 1942 increasing numbers of children and elderly

citizens began serving as soldiers and guards in the homeland, while the majority of able-bodied

adult males fought on the various fronts. Wounded seems to reflect this; the wounded soldier

bemoans his fate and the fate of his children. Here, as in virtually all works of NSDAP art, we

find the double coding advocated by Jencks, a combination of classical or mannerist styles with

12
Petropoulos, “From Seduction to Denial: Arno Breker’s Engagement with National Socialism,” Art,
Culture, and Media under the Third Reich, ed. Richard A. Etlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2002), 215-217
13
ibid., 215

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modern sensibilities. Breker’s handling of the figure, as in all of his works, refers to classical

Greek and Roman sculpture, but without the sensitivity to proportion and harmony found in

classical works. Harmony and proportion have been replaced by National Socialist dogma and

stylistic prescription.

We might compare this work of Breker’s to August Rodin’s famous Thinker of 1880-82.

This is an obvious comparison, as the poses are virtually identical. However, where Rodin’s

figure is subjective, egotistic, and contemplative, Breker’s is objective, idealized, and emotional,

reflecting the NSDAP rejection of modern individualism and rationalism in favor of the

Volksgemeinschaft. Rodin intended his sculpture to be part of a series depicting the Gates of

Hell, influenced by Blake’s illustrations of Dante’s Inferno. The Thinker is Dante, seated before

the door to Hell, contemplating his poem; as a figure, he symbolizes philosophy and poetry.14

The same can not be said of Breker’s work, which symbolizes only regret and shame; regret over

the loss of friends and relatives to the war effort, and shame for the lack of strength and will

exercised on the battlefield, as well as the direction National Socialism was taking the country.

The attempt to reference classical ideas through modern materials and codes also extended to

Architecture as well, as seen in Troost’s House of German Art.

The House of German Art, completed in 1937, is a fine example of NSDAP neoclassical

architecture, resembling numerous buildings in the western world. Interior spaces of the House

of German Art closely resemble many other modernist museums, with large, high, open spaces

lit by skylights, far removed from classical architecture and building techniques, although

containing a lavish decor reminiscent of palaces throughout Europe. Troost made his reputation

as a designer of luxury ocean liner interiors and extended this practice to his design of the House

14
Phelan, “Who is Rodin’s Thinker?” Artcyclopedia (August, 2001),
http://www.artcyclopedia.com/feature-2001-08.html (accessed March 22, 2007)

12
of German Art, creating a lavish monument to German culture, which was totally unjustifiable

given the economic state of Germany at the time. The columns that line the front of Troost’s

building are completely smooth cylinders, devoid of the sensitive fluting and tapering found in

classical architecture, although they recall classical public buildings and the grandiosity of

neoclassical construction. However, if we were to remove the classical arcade, this building

could be one of the many modernist museums, office buildings, or parking garages found

throughout the world. Despite the traditional building materials, the House of German Art

contained the most modern environmental control and civil defense systems available at the time.

This combination of traditional materials and styles with Modern equipment and techniques

represents the simplest use of Jencksian double coding, albeit in a somewhat naive manner.

Additionally, according to Hitler, “The building was also conceived of as a turning point that

would put an end to the chaos of architectural dabbling we have seen in recent years.”15 We may

see an echo of this in Jencks’s claim that “Modern architecture had failed to remain credible

partly because it didn’t communicate effectively with its ultimate users … and partly because it

didn’t make effective links with the city and history.”16 The return to classical form in an attempt

to unify state architecture and communicate effectively with the public while remaining true to

modern technological considerations can be seen throughout the architectural projects pursued

and realized by the National Socialists, thereby tying NSDAP architecture to Jencksian double-

coding.

In addition to the numerous works of art and architecture, National Socialist society

exhibited certain elements of Jencksian postmodernism, especially the ideology of elitism and

participation that Jencks advocates. Under NSDAP control, German society enjoyed a low crime

15
quoted in Hinz, Art in the Third Reich (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), 8
16
Jencks, What is Post-Modernism?, 14

13
rate and employment approaching one hundred percent. The National Socialists constructed

numerous buildings and an extensive highway system that remain in use today. Of course the

improvements in German society occurred only due to the exclusion of large numbers of the

population through internment and genocide. Still, the remaining population did participate

heavily in the National Socialist project, exalting the NSDAP leadership and making huge

sacrifices in support of the war effort. Thus, the society was elitist and participative, though

perhaps not in the way Jencks envisioned the process, since he advocated an end to

totalitarianism in art and a move away from what might be called ‘authorial fascism,’ the

absolute rule of creative genius over any other considerations. In Jencks’s mind, postmodernism

in art and architecture put an end to the absolute authority of single individuals and codes, hence

the various ideological impulses he mentions. However, although Hitler was the unquestioned

and absolute ruler of National Socialist Germany, and the will of the state was imposed on the

people, the ‘coding’ employed by Hitler and his advisors to define the role and content of art in

the society was expanded and perpetuated by artists and the public at large. The NSDAP

government was undoubtedly authoritarian, yet it only existed due to the support of the people: it

was, under a certain interpretation, elitist and participative, popular and pluralist, complex and

contradictory. “By the end of the regime, the motivating image[s]… had accelerated the

production of motor roads, cannons, acropolises, suspension bridges, engines, seaside resorts,

television projects, ‘cities of the dead,’ ruins, and worksites, all of which coexisted in

confusion.”17 This confusion, between the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime and the

beneficial social programs parallels the schizophrenic nature of postmodernism, further

suggesting links between National Socialism and various theories of the postmodern.

17
Michaud, The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany, 219

14
By way of a conclusion, through an examination of National Socialist genres and the

genre form in general, as well as the concept of ‘realism’ in NSDAP society, the difficulties

inherent in National Socialist aesthetic policy will become clear. The genre form developed in

response to the rise of capitalism, which put an end to traditional forms of patronage, forcing

artists to create works for unknown viewers and purchasers. This new market depended on the

ability of artists to create an identifiable style and work with specific genre forms, thereby

encouraging continued patronage. This stylistic branding made innovation and change extremely

difficult, since buyers were unlikely to purchase unrecognizable works, dooming artists and the

genre form itself to stagnation. Traditional themes in genre painting included landscapes,

farming and hunting scenes, mothers and children, fruits, vegetables, flowers, and young women,

amongst others. National Socialist art pursued similar themes but, as noted by Berthold Hinz,

… in contrast to earlier genre painting … this new genre painting was weighed down
with the task of proclaiming essential truths and making binding prophesies. Every
child and every cow was now supposed to embody ‘the sacred mysteries of the
natural order.’ This meant that children or cows - once they were painted - could no
longer be what they were. They became masks of the proclaimed substance, masks
that made up the face of the National Socialist system.18

This system of idealized mythology, though it tended to depict the material world, had little or

nothing to do with realism. According to Hinz, “Objectivism is not realism if the objects

depicted are not themselves drawn from the reality of the present.”19 In fact, realist painters in

Germany had been among the first victims of the art purges, since the verism practiced by

painters of the Weimar period depicted the capitalist, bourgeois world; a world that National

Socialism attempted to destroy by claiming that it was egotistic and destructive. In contrast,

18
Hinz, Art in the Third Reich, 80
19
ibid.

15
NSDAP art depicted a world that, if it ever existed, was no longer possible in modern western

societies; a world of joyous labor, unified culture, and unending prosperity. The actual situation

of National Socialist society was far different than the depictions found in painting, which were

meant to prescribe ways of living and encourage activities and beliefs that would allow National

Socialism to survive and thrive, despite its destructive character.

The horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime left an indelible mark on world thought and

any attempt to view National Socialist art divorced from its horrific social context is necessarily

doomed to failure. However, by foregrounding the postmodern impulses found in National

Socialist art, one may move discussion of the works beyond the traditional political, social, and

psychological readings found in Hinz, Micheaud, and others, providing an additional

understanding of the forces surrounding artistic production in the period. Additionally, when

viewed in this way, the art of the Third Reich shows the existence of certain postmodern

tendencies well before Jencks’s date of 1961.20 Though Jencks’s postmodern theory is not Nazi

populism, as other authors charge, NSDAP art exhibits many of the ideological impulses of

postmodernism defined by Jencks, as well as the double coding that characterizes his theory.

Thus, Jencks’s theory seems a useful tool for describing controversial art works, uniting

Modernism and postmodernism, and putting to rest some of the controversies in the postmodern

debate, and National Socialist may be seen to serve a purpose beyond its destructive and

propagandist origin.

20
Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 3rd ed. (New York: Rizzoli International
Publications, Inc., 1991), 11

16
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