Honors Capstone Project
Date of Submission
Professor Michael Ebner
Professor Laurie Marhoefer
Art and Music Histories
Arts and Science
Capstone Prize Winner
Won Capstone Funding
Contemporary Art | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Other History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology
In 1935, two years prior to the opening of the House of German Art in Munich, Adolf Hitler declared the following during a speech to the German people in Nuremberg:
“Art, precisely because it is the most direct and faithful emanation of the Volksgeist, constitutes the force that unconsciously models the mass of the people in the most active fashion, on condition that this art is a sincere reflection of the soul and temperament of a race and is not a deformation of it.”
Numerous scholars have noted the importance and necessity of art in the creation and molding of the Third Reich, from the establishment of the Reichskulturkammer, or Reich Chamber of Culture under Alfred Rosenberg (and later famously run by Joseph Goebbels) in 1933 to the opening of the House of German Art four years later to Hitler’s ultimately failed plans for the creation of an even grander complex of German art in Linz. Some contemporaries of the Third Reich, including Thomas Mann, noted the direct link between the Wagnerian Romantic doctrine that “German art should not be content simply to aspire but must realize its German essence,” and Nazism. As Robert Scholz, a Nazi art theorist, described it, “the desire to create of the German people is always born from two roots: a strong sensitive inclination toward nature and a deep metaphysical aspiration.”
These lofty Romantic ideals seemingly manifested themselves deeply in the artistic policies of the Third Reich as it attempted to reestablish and cement a thoroughly German Volksgemeinschaft, notably in the prevalence of idyllic German landscapes present in most major Nazi art exhibitions under the Third Reich.
Nazism’s propensity for Romantic and Realist-inspired landscapes depicting the connectedness of the German people to their land and representing a longing for an idyllic, communal past belied a worldview that was both modern and regressive. Indeed, those drawn to the movement and its leaders themselves viewed it not as a refuge from the twentieth century, but a revolutionary movement intent on forming a new type of nation-state. This paper explores the tensions between the brand of perverted and philistine Romanticism that the Third Reich exploited and the technology-driven modernism necessary as a driving force behind the mass movement, tensions that Jeffrey Herf characterizes as forces of “reactionary modernism.”
The means of exploring these tensions are the landscape paintings that were produced under the Reichskulturkammer. Though painting subjects favored by the Nazis ranged from images of women to genre scenes to heroic images of the leaders, landscape comprised the largest portion of painting output, representing 40 percent of the paintings displayed in the House of German Art in Munich. Though Hitler aimed to create and foster a new, “eternal” brand of Nazi art, these paintings (rarely studied seriously by art historians) have been derided as “second-rate” and derivative. They visually embody the leadership’s nineteenth century tastes as well as an empty brand of Romanticism that the Nazis used to exploit their own nihilistic goals driven by racism and a desire to destroy in order to create a New Order. These horrific goals were sold to the German people visually through comforting landscapes and rural-scapes that touted the purity of the German soil, and strength of the German peasant, and celebrated the “sublime” and superior beauty of the specifically Nordic landscape.
However, another less familiar type of “landscape” emerged around 1940, deemed the “heroic landscape” by architect Paul Schultze-Naumberg. These scenes juxtaposed the unique beauty and appeal of that Nordic landscape with scenes of worksites – from granite quarries to bridges to the Autobahnen – in a manner that more aggressively stated Hitler’s progressive and modernistic goals for Germany’s future. They gained popularity during the “peak” years of the Third Reich, that is, post-1938, all and pre-1943, when victories from the Anschluß (1938) to the Fall of France (1941), all stemming from the notion of Lebensraum, bolstered confidence and made the creation of a New Order seem possible. It was at this time, it seems, that visual depictions of the more modernistic, and often disturbing (one painting depicts slave laborers from Dachau mining a granite quarry for another labor camp at Mauthausen-Gusen) were fed to the German public. These “heroic landscapes” disappear for the last two years of the Reich’s existence (according to evidence in Die Kunst im Deutschen Reich, the official National Socialist arts publication), and are again replaced by an abundance of comforting, benign landscapes and farm scenes.
Ultimately, although these landscapes have been dismissed by art historians, their subject matter has much to say about National Socialist ideology and its mode of indoctrination. In spite of the derivative nature of the landscapes, in the words of historian Roger Griffin, “the Nazi exploitation of…Romanticism is not the archaism of a society nostalgic for the past, but the modernism of a regime which was nostalgic for the future.” The arts program “pulled the wool over the eyes,” so to speak, of the German people with comforting, appealing landscapes that had a deep-rooted tradition in the German collective consciousness. Following the stunning successes between 1938 and 1942, the most modern, radical, and criminal impulses of the Reich revealed themselves in painting, in the form of the still-beautiful, sanitized “heroic landscapes.” This more modern subject matter was abandoned as the possibility of German victory disappeared, replaced once again by a preponderance of those affirming landscapes and rural-scapes.
Gramer, Jennifer A., "Backwards Romanticism or a Glimpse of the Future? The Visual Language of Reactionary Modernism in National Socialist Landscape Painting" (2010). Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. 334.
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