Edited by Olaf Peters

Prestel. 288 pages. £39.99. ISBN 9-78379-135-760-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“When did the catastrophe begin?”, asks Olaf Peters in the introduction to this splendid book. The “catastrophe” was, of course, the 1933 assumption of power in Germany by Hitler and his followers. Peters suggests a number of dates which might be seen as a starting point, but I would guess that, in fact, it was a series of cumulative events, together with a continuing crisis in democratic procedures, that eventually created a situation where a dictator could step in and take over.

However, a key date may have been 1930 when the coalition government in Germany was dissolved as a financial crisis, exacerbated by increasing unemployment, brought about a situation where “so-called presidential cabinets governed”. Bypassing the parliament, there was a move towards an “authoritarian leadership style……which gave impetus to the supporters of antiparliamentarian and antidemocratic parties and movements”.

In the region of Thuringia, where National Socialists held key posts in the local government, it was deemed important to attack modern culture as symbolic of democracy. What happened in Thuringia, where liberal academics and others were hounded out of their positions, and works of art removed from display and sometimes destroyed, set the style for later developments in Germany generally.

During the 1920s, artists had been relatively free to satirise society, attack politicians and businessmen, and on the whole operate without too much direct interference from the authorities. This isn’t to say that they were free from attack by conservative forces in the media, church, and government. And their activities were noted for future reference by members of the rising National Socialist movement. When the time came the names were known and the work could easily be identified.

Once Hitler was in control the question of what to do became paramount. Some artists thought it necessary to leave the country, and some went into what was referred to as “internal exile”. It essentially meant keeping one’s head down and not attracting the attention of the authorities. Not all artists were necessarily faced with this dilemma. Many had never painted anything that could be construed as critical of the any government or political ideology and, unless they were Jewish, could carry on as before. And there were others who were inclined to go in a different direction than keeping quiet, and deliberately identified with National Socialism to the extent of joining its ranks. There were advantages to such a decision in terms of being sponsored to produce paintings for specific purposes, or being proposed for posts that became vacant when Jewish and liberal or left-wing professors lost their jobs.

It’s pointed out that several artists associated with the New Objectivist movement of the 1920s, among them Alexander Kanoldt, Georg Schrimpf, Franz Lenk, and Franz Radziwill, “took the positions of professors who had been dismissed from the art academies”. One of the more-extreme examples of an artist collaborating with the National Socialists was the case of Hans Adolf Bühler, who furthered his own career while the Nazis were in power. His painting, “The Wild Forest” (1937) caught my attention as I read Before the Fall, and even reminded me of some English Neo-Romantic art of the 1940s. But when I browsed the internet and saw more examples of his work I realised how deep into National Socialist ideology he was, and how hackneyed many of his paintings were.   Stefanie Heckmann, in an essay on “Visions of Disaster”, says: “There were large numbers of intellectuals and artists who initially accepted without regret, or even welcomed, the end of the Weimar Republic and hence the end of democracy. To them, the National Socialists taking power was a necessary political act that had to precede any renewal of Germany”. Bühler was certainly among them.

There are reproductions of several of Radziwill’s paintings in Before the Fall and he was clearly a talented artists. The striking “Landscape with the Artist’s House”, painted in 1930, can be read in various ways, though perhaps not politically. The small, lone female figure does seem somewhat overwhelmed by her surroundings, and what might appear to be threatening dark clouds, but I suspect that the impulse behind the painting may have been personal.  Heckmann says that Radziwill “revised his works after the war…..in order to make it appear as if he had belong to the opposition”. It would certainly have been possible to put another interpretation on “Landscape with the Artist’s House” by seeing it as the work of an artist feeling threatened by an oncoming National Socialist storm.

The situation in Austria following the end of the First World War had some similarities to Germany, though Austria suffered a greater loss of territory with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This caused major economic difficulties due to much of the industrial and agricultural basis of the Empire being located in areas that now became independent countries. The instability that was experienced in Austria was heightened by the abdication of the Emperor. An active Communist Party fomented strikes, and in 1927 there was a failed uprising. The Prime Minister, Engelbert Dolfuss, eventually brought about what was, in effect, a coup, and assumed near-dictatorial powers. A right-wing attempt at a putsch in 1934 was defeated, but Dolfuss was assassinated.

What was referred to as the Austrian Civil War occurred in 1934, with the left-wing Social Democratic Schutzbund battling with the right-wing paramilitary Heimwehr. Hundreds of people died in the fighting in Vienna and other towns and cities, and the Austrian army eventually intervened to support the Heimwehr and bring the war to a conclusion. It’s probable that the chaotic circumstances in Austria led to the overwhelming vote in a referendum in 1938 to approve the annexation of Austria by Germany. The Anschluss, as it was known, led to a wholesale persecution of the Jewish population in which not only the authorities but many ordinary people participated.

If the writing was on the wall by 1930 or so there were still artists willing to take a chance by producing paintings that commented on the social and political situation in Germany and Austria. Richard Oelze’s “Expectation” has a crowd of people, all dressed in overcoats or mackintoshes, and hats, gazing upwards at a dark sky. To be fair, although this painting can be viewed as forecasting the coming misery of political repression and war arising from the turbulent political situation, it can equally be seen as a timeless comment on the human condition. But its date of composition, 1935/36, surely has some relevance? If it happens to function as a comment on both the specific and the general, then that’s a tribute to its qualities as a work of art. Oelze was a strange and interesting person. He was associated with the surrealists in Paris in the 1930s, and during that time knew the poet Mina Loy who based the central character in her novel, Insel, on him. He returned to Germany, despite having a reputation for producing art that the Nazis would describe as “degenerate”, and did military service during the Second World War. He died in 1980.

Ottilie Cieluszek’s “The New Rulers”, probably painted in 1933, is curious in that it shows what seem to be National Socialists killing people while various onlookers – a uniformed Nazi, an older man wearing his medals, and a communist with a hammer and sickle clearly shown on his tunic – are simply observing. Is the communist protesting at what is taking place? Another Cieluszek painting, “Deployment” dated 1933, has ranks of Brownshirts parading down a flag-bedecked street while presumably singing.

There are more-direct comments in Friedl Dicker-Brandeis’s “The Interrogation” and in several of her photocollages included in Before the Fall. A member of the Communist Party, Dicker-Brandeis died in Auschwitz in 1944. Another artist to die in Auschwitz was Felix Nussbaum, whose “Self-Portrait in the Camp” (1940) is a stark reminder of how many Jews were interned in France at the start of the Second World War. Paul Weber’s work which shows hordes of people marching up a hill and pouring into a coffin marked with a swastika and, in another example, death grinning down on columns of parading troops, makes clear his feelings about National Socialism. His cover illustration for a 1932 book entitled Hitler: A German Doom has a skeleton in National Socialist uniform raising its right arm in the Heil Hitler salute. Weber survived to resurface after 1945, despite his obvious anti-Nazi sentiments.

Otto Dix also managed to get through the years of the Third Reich, though I’ve always thought that his work in the 1920s, while sharply critical in a wide social sense, was less overtly political than that of some of his contemporaries. But it was removed from galleries by the Nazis and he was included in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937.  One of his works, “Vanitas (Youth and Old Age)”, has always intrigued me. With obvious influences from German Renaissance art, it shows a naked blonde girl almost thrusting herself at the viewer, while behind her is lurking the spectre of old age. The girl seems to be something of the type of Aryan female admired by many Nazis, though she’s perhaps not the statuesque ideal certain pro-Nazi artists painted. She looks a little too brazen. I’m probably reading far too much into the painting if I suggest that she might represent the Nazi advance that, like the girl, will inevitably lose its surface attractions, grow old, and come to an end? Dix perhaps wasn’t attempting to be that subversive.

The “ideal” referred to is easier to see in the Austrian Ivo Saliger’s “Rest of Diana” with its trio of naked women posed to display their perfectly-formed bodies. The National Socialists never objected to nudity on canvas provided it could be seen to be promoting their ideology. Health and fitness, and an acceptable sexuality, could be suggested by giving the painting a classical or mythological reference. Saliger was a skilled artist who could turn out portraits and attractive landscapes, as well as numerous canvases in which the female form was celebrated.

There were plenty of painters who didn’t necessarily pander to Nazi tastes in art, nor did they try to send messages of opposition in their paintings. Like many artists do in all kinds of circumstances, they simply carried on painting. I haven’t checked in detail about their activities after 1933, but Thomas Baungartner’s 1939 “Portrait of a Boy” in an excellent work that imparts some character to the sitter, and Curt Querner’s “Peasant Girl”, painted in 1934, is an attractive portrait. Peasants rated highly in National Socialist ideology, perhaps deriving from Spengler’s theories about them being closer to the land, and so less affected by modernism. I doubt that Rudolf Dischinger’s 1935 “Reading with a Pipe” was likely to upset any Nazi zealot hunting for degeneracy in either subject-matter or style.

There are attractive still lives in Before the Fall. Rudolf Wacker’s “Autumn Bouquet with (Pinned) Butterfly” from 1938, and Karl Völker’s 1934 “Autumnal Still Life” can’t be faulted for their conception and realisation. Annemarie Heinrich’s “Still Life in the Studio” (1931) is less colourful than Wacker and Volker’s paintings, but it has a certain charm relating to its comparative simplicity. Both Wacker and Volker fell foul of the Nazi hunt for subversives. Wacker was arrested and questioned by the Gestapo because of his alleged links to left-wing individuals and groups. He died after suffering two heart attacks brought on by the interrogation. Volker was labelled as a “degenerate artist”, and his work banned. During the Second World War he was conscripted into the armed forces. He survived and died in 1962.

Before the Fall is a fascinating book, and has many other artists besides those I’ve mentioned who are worthy of attention. I’ve not had the space to refer to a chapter about some of the writers active in the period concerned, and how they fared as censorship came in and books were burned. Nor have I give any attention to the photographs of August Sander, who practised his art around Germany and photographed children, blind people, businessmen, National Socialist Party members, victims of persecution, and others, with the same unerring eye, and helped set up a record of life in Germany in demanding circumstances. With notes and a useful bibliography, this is an essential book for anyone interested in art and history. 

Before the Fall: German and Austrian Art of the 1930s was published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the Neue Galerie, New York, March 8 – May 28, 2018