Research sheds new light on Nazi-era art

The Art Newspaper 6 December 2011
By Julia Michalska

German art institute puts more than 100,000 photographs from Munich art exhibitions online

Archive image now online: the opening of the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung in 1939

Images documenting the Nazi-sponsored Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (GDK) have been made available to the public for the first time in an online catalogue created by Munich’s Central Institute for Art History. More than 100,000 photographs, categorised by artist, genre, theme and, remarkably, buyer, have shed new light on the annual art exhibition, giving an insight into officially approved art of the Third Reich and the collecting taste of its citizens.

“When we started working with the photographs, we realised there was a difference between what the secondary literature has told us about the exhibition and what it was actually like,” says Christian Fuhrmeister, an art historian from the Central Institute. According to Fuhrmeister, previous research relied on exhibition catalogues that listed works but failed to reproduce them.

Of the 1,200 to 1,800 objects on display at the exhibition each year, only 50 to 60 works were documented through black and white photographs, “which is a reason why research has stressed the aspect of propaganda, race, and National Socialist ideology”, Fuhrmeister says. Such themes were apparent in some of the exhibited works, but the vast majority of the 40 rooms were filled with landscapes, still-lifes and genre paintings. “Our view that such art is fairly uniform cannot be upheld because there is, in fact, no clear-cut image,” says Fuhrmeister. “It is rather just a clumsy arrangement of petit bourgeois art.”

The photographs had been languishing in albums at the Central Institute for decades. However, in 2004, researchers from the centre teamed up with Haus der Kunst in Munich and Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin to start cataloguing and digitising the collection. The Historisches Museum, which owns more than 700 works bought by Hitler, filled some of the gaps in the collection.

The database reveals that Hitler was the best customer at the shows, spending more than 7 million reichsmark on 1,312 works over the years. Some of his acquisitions were surprising. For example, he bought Paladine des Pan by Edmund Steppes, which shows a unicorn and a squirrel looking across a landscape. Fuhrmeister says: “Steppes was not a true surrealist but he did have some relation to Max Ernst, who, of course, was considered a degenerate artist.” The art historian believes that landscapes and genre paintings were prized under National Socialism because of their apolitical nature. “Viewers entered another world when they came to the exhibition, with little reminder of the bombs dropping around them,” he says.

The GDK took place every summer from 1937 to 1944 at the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich (now the Haus der Kunst).
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