Internationaler Kunstkritikerverband, Sektion der BRD

On the "Essays" Volume about Arno Breker. A Guest Article by Rainer Hartmann


It nearly turned into an ostracism of Rudolf Conrades, who presented an exhibition with works by Arno Breker in Schwerin's Schleswig-Holstein-Haus in 2006. In the closing discussion of the German AICA's general meeting on opening day of Art Cologne (31 October 2006), Conrades could hardly find an advocate (but all the more denouncers), of which very few managed a couple excusatory arguments. The conclusion was clear: Hitler's favorite sculptor may not be presented as he was in Schwerin.

Rolf Wedewer called the undertaking, which the exhibition's organizer tried to defend in his opening statement, "irresponsible." A small band of experts know about Breker, said Conrades, but the "millions of mere mortals" should also be allowed to obtain "a basic overview of Breker's development and work." This position proved too narrow. To summarize the discussion beyond some differentiation, Breker can only - if at all - be exhibited with a detailed critical accompaniment. In the first response to Conrades, Christoph Zuschlag (the fiercest opponent) insisted upon "academic and artistic rules, as well as moral and ethical principles" for work in public museums, and accused the exhibition of tending toward making Breker "presentable."

Many reproached Conrades with the fact that he had no access to Breker's archive and estate, which the widow has continued to look after since his death in 1991. Because of this, it was claimed, there existed no possibility for fundamental examination. Moderator Walter Vitt entered into the conversation with the remark that Breker had created "no characteristic image of humanity as a sculptor" and had shown "no particular virility," basically stating that a tradesman such as this does not merit exhibition. In a similar vein, Zuschlag said that Breker, as a man of propaganda, belongs "in an historical museum, but not in an art museum."

Many were rightfully astonished at Conrades' statement that Breker only interested him because of his decades-long, close friendship with Jean Cocteau. Evelyn Weiss' comment: one cannot present any exhibition whatsoever of an artist in whom one has no interest. And how then should this lead to the insight and comparison of form that Amine Haase demanded at the end of the discussion?

The debate can be read word for word in "Der Fall Arno Breker" ("The Case of Arno Breker"), volume 17 of the AICA series "Schriften zur Kunstkritik" ("Essays on Art Criticism") edited by Walter Vitt. (Zuschlag acted as co-editor for this volume.) What was said ad hoc in Cologne between the general meeting and the art market can serve as - as one calls it these days - "food for thought" regarding the approach to German history. It is bewildering that in the middle of everything, Conrades contends that "nearly all of the artists who remained in Germany played along" with the Nazis. As if there had been no reprisals. One thinks of Nolde, (who admittedly was weak in the beginning), of Schlemmer and his "Fensterbilder," of Schmidt-Rottluff, Pechstein, Heckel and Karl Hofer, who were defamed as "degenerate", forbidden to paint or exhibit, and retired. Willi Baumeister worked in a paint factory, Max Ackermann was banned from teaching and remained in obscurity. In the Cologne discussion, Zuschlag already pointed to the "stigmatization" of Barlach and Käthe Kollwitz by the Nazis. And this is only a few of the names of the many who did not "play along."

"The Case of Arno Breker" also brings forth parallels. In the brochure's afterword, Walter Vitt quotes an email sent to him by Klaus Honnef (from 28 July 2007), who emphatically denies that the products of so-called Nazi artists have anything at all to do with art, and emphasizes that there was only one Nazi artist, a woman, Leni Riefenstahl. In fact, as disagreeable as her films - or her attitude in the decades after 1945 - are and were: she developed a visual language that, in a unique way, virtually justified the organization of the masses. Just as "Triumph des Willens" ("Triumph of the Will") translates the "Führer" principle into the visual, so does the camera work in the Olympic films bring out the principle of heroization. Riefenstahl gains from her effort to adhere to formal structure (even much later in her - to the knowing eye - perverted and propagandizing Nuba photos), though she was unfortunately going in the wrong direction. In spite of everything, this distinguishes her from Breker, for whom a feeling for the tension of sculpture and space obviously remained foreign.

Other successful film directors of the Nazi era, however, do lend themselves to comparison with Breker and cronies such as Thorak or Peiner. For example Veit Harlan, who in the inflammatory film "Jud Süß" ("The Jew Süß") creates such a persuasive impression through cross-fading, totally independent of the denunciatory characterization. Or take Karl Ritter, who allowed the audience, excitement building, to look through tanks' observation slits. That is handicraft that willingly put its skills to use serving the Nazi ideology.

There is a reason why film is being discussed here, and not literature or theater. Around 1970, Hanns Eckelkamp, the film distributor made known through his company "Atlas-Film," wanted to bring about enlightenment by showing Nazi propaganda films. This was well-intentioned, and aimed at working on remembrance and certainly not at strengthening right-wing tendencies in what was then the Federal Republic. But after just the first attempt, with Veit Harlans long-winded opus "Kolberg," which never even made it into theaters before the war's end, the Atlas plan failed. The ideological and topical accompaniment was too paltry, the propagandistic contraband too weighty. Such munitions must be disarmed, and that is only possible through working very precisely with the material. The exhibition failure surrounding Arno Breker is a reminder of this botched cinematic undertaking. One may not guilelessly risk such a presentation, least of all without a true interest in figures of this kind, in their impact, their political environment and the defamation of others who accompany such cheap achievements.

Walter Vitt / Christoph Zuschlag (eds.): „Der Fall Arno Breker - Ein Kritiker-Disput zur Schweriner Ausstellung 2006" ("The Case of Arno Breker - A Critics' Dispute about the 2006 Schwerin Exhibition"). Volume 17 of the series "Schriften zur Kunstkritik" ("Essays on Art Criticism"), Steinmeier Publishing, Cologne/Nördlingen. € 9,10.




Cologne, November 2007

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