William Cook

Haus of ill repute

Not all the paintings and sculptures that Hitler approved of were rubbish, as the Pinakothek der Moderne museum in Munich demonstrates

Here in Munich, in the gallery that Hitler built, this year’s big hit show is a spectacular display of modern art. Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965 is a massive survey of international modernism, curated with typical Germanic can-do. Talk about ruthless efficiency — even the catalogue weighs several kilograms. All the stars of German modern art are here, from Joseph Beuys to Gerhard Richter, but the most interesting exhibit isn’t in this huge central hall, where Hitler staged his Great German Art shows, it’s in a quiet corner of the gallery, at the end of a deserted corridor, up an empty flight of stairs. Haus der Kunst — The Postwar Institution, 1945–1965 charts the transformation of this bombastic building from a shrine of Aryan art to a temple of the avant-garde. It’s a fascinating insight into the history of the Haus der Kunst, a museum that became a battleground in the Kulturkampf between traditionalism and modernism — a battle the modernists won, eventually, but at a terribly heavy price.

Hitler erected the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art) to showcase the fine art of the Third Reich. The museum’s opening show, 80 years ago, was the Great German Art exhibition of 1937. The Führer supervised the selection. The focus was on healthy Teutonic heroes (soldiers, farmers, virgins, mothers), depicted in an archaic, academic style. Anything negative or experimental was condemned as Jewish and/or Bolshevik. Only art that glorified the Fatherland was allowed.

The conventional wisdom is that everything Hitler approved was rubbish, and everything he vetoed was superb. It’s convenient and comforting to believe that tyrants have no taste, but the truth is a bit more complicated — and a lot more interesting — than that. Hitler persecuted some of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

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