“Divinely Gifted”. National Socialism’s Favoured Artists in the Federal Republic

Wolfgang Brauneis | 1 September 2021

On our blog we publish the speech by curator Wolfgang Brauneis, which he gave at the opening of the exhibition “‘Divinely Gifted’. National Socialism’s Favoured Artists in the Federal Republic” on 26 August 2021.

Dear Minister of State, dear Mr. Gross, dear colleagues and friends,

When I was asked to contribute ideas for the musical accompaniment this evening, I suggested two extremely popular songs from the year 1959. It was the year that “Abstraction” was proclaimed “as a World Language” on the occasion of the second documenta, and the year the most prominent representative of another supposed “world language”, Elvis Presley, caused a sensation when he was stationed in Hessen. And yet alongside the progressive, art-historically canonised segments Abstraction and Rock’n’roll, and apart from the feeling of a new beginning, there also existed artistic and musical forms of expression of a very different kind. The composer Michael Jary and the lyricist Bruno Balz wrote the evergreen “Wir wollen niemals auseinandergehn” (We Never Want to Part) for the 17-year-old newcomer Heidi Brühl, which first reached the top of the charts when it was broadcast on the Sunday morning worship programme and which led to a parting of the composers. Balz insisted on the singer Zarah Leander, with whom they had celebrated their greatest musical success, in “Die Große Liebe” (1942), for example, the most popular movie of the Nazi period. Bruno Balz wrote the film‘s hits, “Ich weiss es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehn” and “Davon geht die Welt nicht unter“, while he was under arrest by the Gestapo due to his homosexuality.

This shows that even presumably superficial pop songs, as symptoms of Federal German sensitivities, can potentially inspire historical-critical reflections, and there are evidently numerous  parallels to works in this exhibition: these, too, were, and still are, present in everyday life, but the individual layers of the often complex history of their origin and impact still have to be revealed.

The more intensively you let yourself get involved in the quasi archaeological principle of the exhibition, the more often, in the details, you will run into contradictions. After the war, for example, the sculptor Willy Meller– as is described at one of the twelve biographical stations throughout the exhibition – profited from his acquaintanceship with the painter Franz M. Jansen, whose works had been shown in the 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition and then posthumously in 1959 at the documenta in Kassel. And yet Jansen had also created monumental wall pictures in German-occupied Poland. Another contradiction: Henry Moore’s sculpture “Seated Woman”, which was shown at the second documenta, had been bought and lent to the exhibition by Friedrich Hetzelt, then the head of urban development in Wuppertal. At the same time, Hetzelt, who, during the Nazi period, was the architect responsible for building Göring’s country estate Carinhall, had shortly before the 1959 documenta allowed the installation of  Arno Breker’s sculpture “Pallas Athena” in Wuppertal – one of the major works you can see in our exhibition in the important section “Commissioned Art and Networks”. At the same time, the painter Paul Mathias Padua – who like Meller, Hetzelt and Breker was on the “Divinely Gifted List” – tried in vain to have his pictures shown at the annual exhibition of the Munich Artists’ Association in the House of Art – as you can learn in the second major chapter, “Exhibitions and Networks”. And Carl Theodor Protzen, one of the organisers of the annual Munich exhibition, had, like Padua, been a regular participant in the “Great German Art Exhibition” in Munich between 1937 and 1944, where Hitler had purchased Protzen’s work “Streets of the Führer” and Padua’s painting “The Führer speaks”.

However, the supposed principal contradiction that runs through the exhibition like a common thread can already be seen in the most basic layer and reveals itself in the works before and after 1945. It seems, for example, to be mutually incompatible to produce monumental figures for the Nazi training estate Ordensburg Vogelsang and for the post-war NS-Memorial Hall in Oberhausen; to make designs for the Nazi Party rally grounds and the New Reich Chancellery and, after the war, for the Bavarian Landtag and the Aschaffenburg Town Hall; to design sculptural decoration for the Führer-Loge in the Berlin Opera and fifteen years later for the portal of the Grillo Theatre in Essen; to produce monumental sculptures for the Gauforum in Weimar and ten years later to participate in the competition for the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial Site; to design the Gobelin “You are Germany” for Hitler and later the Gobelins for the Mahler Hall in the reconstructed Vienna State Opera; to produce figurative sculptures for institutions of the Wehrmacht, and then for the Bendlerblock – and so on, and so on. That these contradictions are recognised as such also has to do with the traditional art-historical narrative and which defined itself here in Germany after 1945 explicitly through the break with National Socialism. This, for its part, resulted in the circumstance that the art of the National Socialist period and the post-war careers of its representatives had been largely ignored.

In the exhibition parallel to the “divinely gifted” artists, a critical spotlight is shown on the documenta as one of the decisive factors in the establishment of a canon, whose importance is also reflected in the fact that years before the opening of this museum of the 20th century precisely with Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys, we have the two artists with the most frequent participations – names well-known to almost all of you. In this exhibition, the topic of the formation of the canon is also of importance, albeit implicitly, whereby the painters and sculptors we are dealing with here were not, as a rule, taken into the art-historical canon. And although Hermann Kaspar, Adolf Wamper or Werner Peiner were active into the 1970s, these are names that are probably not familiar to most of you.

The reason can be found among other places in the subtitle of the exhibition: they established their careers under National Socialism and led after the war a kind of double existence: On the one hand, these artists continued to have success, and on the other, they belonged for the field of art studies, if treated at all, to a long since past era. If we now focus on these post-war careers, we are not aiming for collective emotional experiences, for outrage or exorcism. We have deliberately avoided such attributes as “Nazi artists” or “Nazi art” so as not to get involved in possible debates about “typical” Nazi art or in memberships in political parties. After all, the art business in National Socialism is merely the point of departure for the exhibition.

The exhibition begins in the second storey with an introduction to that art business not only because of the “Divinely Gifted List”, which gives it its name. Said list, which already existed shortly after the beginning of the war and contained 114 visual artists who were defined as “indispensable”, may not be conclusive down to the last detail. And yet it can be seen as the most compact and, in the truest sense of the word, official overview of the renowned artists of National Socialism who were represented in major exhibitions, were commissioned to design architecture-related art projects, were collected by high-ranking functionaries, and occupied professorships. The introduction deals with the topic of art-in-architecture and the exhibition business in order to remind us of the ideological importance and popularity of the visual arts, and thus of the status of these artists after the war.

This introduction is followed by two major chapters we have already mentioned which are devoted to our main topic: the biographies, the works, and the reception of “divinely gifted” artists after 1945. It is no accident that the chapter on “Commissioned Art and Networks” begins in Bavaria. It is precisely in Munich that the continuities can be traced over decades, concentrated, as it were, in Kaspar’s mosaic for the Congress Hall of the German Museum, which he began in 1934 and completed in the 1950s. Unveiled in 1970, his Goblin “Lady Musica”, a gift of the State of Bavaria to the Meistersingerhalle in Nuremberg, is another major work in the exhibition. North Rhine-Westphalia also proved in the course of our research to be a kind of central area – especially because several architects of the National Socialist period who had previously worked in Albert Speer’s “working group for the reconstruction of bombed-out cities” were among those – alongside protagonists from industry and the economy – who awarded commissions for “art-in-architecture” projects.

The partition walls in this chapter – as well as in the Berlin chapter, the next-to-last of the topographically arranged rooms – represent distinctive gaps that fulfil a kind of double function. In the recessed showcases, you can see numerous newspaper articles on central works, and at the same time they open a view to large-scale historical photos of unveilings and installations. They illustrate the fact that the post-war artistic productions did not come about in some clandestine parallel universe, but were integral parts of the social, public life.

After 1945, commissioned art in general was the main field of activity for the artists of the “Divinely Gifted List” – as the Viennese painter Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger in the last room, devoted to Austria, explains in a television interview. It is one of the many TV broadcasts that have hardly ever been seen again, and which I heartily recommend to you, and especially the chapter “Exhibitions and Reactions” on the first floor. There we show that artists such as Werner Peiner with his 26-part cycle “Demons of the Hour” were already represented in exhibitions shortly after the war and until the 1980s, and that these exhibitions provided the occasion for a critical, nationwide reception much more frequently than did the commissioned work.

The last room, another key area of the exhibition, belongs to the here and now. The two photographers Thomas Bruns and Eric Tschernow travelled across Germany and Austria to document almost 300 works by artists of the “Divinely Gifted List” – from the National Socialist period and after the war – that are still there in the public and semi-public space. There the results are documented in a half-hour wall projection, which you can now also study on its own website as an interactive map. This research platform will also be maintained and expanded for a year as the Citizen Science Project – and I would be very happy if we could somehow continue this still incomplete research project.

“Art is what important artists make,” wrote the curator and art historian Werner Haftmann in the catalogue of the 1959 documenta – a thorny, highly effective tautology typical of the time. How effective and thorny – in the sense that the areas of art exhibition and art history took their separate directions – could still be seen in the 1980s in the éclat about Arno Breker’s busts for Peter and Irene Ludwig, which you can see at the end of our exhibition chapter. Terms such as “non-art” and “un-art” reverberated for a long time, and a topic such as that of our exhibition was kept at a distance from both of those areas of art. The only thing is: Who is responsible for this? The canonised art history orients itself on the concept of the progressive, on the ideal of the good, the beautiful and the genuine. In this methodical framework there is hardly any room for such a topic, as one can easily understand. Accordingly, debates about what forms of aesthetic production – and when, where and how – should be defined as art, which this exhibition will surely trigger, and which must necessarily lead to further debates about curatorial and art-historical methods. It is therefore sensible and, in the end, necessary that this exhibition should be shown in a history museum and that the objects should be shown as sources, but also as the basis for additional art-theoretical deliberations.

“Important” in this context is no longer a synonym for “admirable” or “gifted”, but rather, entirely mundanely, for “relevant”. Art is understood here as a kind of magnifying glass through which social interconnections become visible in a specific way. We can only hope that we have put together an, in this sense, “important” exhibition and in this way to have shown how fruitful it can be when art history and contemporary history come together on an equal basis.

In closing, we will now hear Ivo Robić’s hit “Morgen” (“Tomorrow”), which like “Wir werden niemals auseinandergehn”, sold more than a million singles – and with which some of you can probably hum along, without necessarily knowing the lyrics. And I find this interesting as a second parallel to the topic of our exhibition: one can not only see blind spots, but also hear them. Just as Henry Moore and Arno Breker both belong to the visual world of the post-war decades, so do Elvis Presley and Ivo Robić belong to its acoustic world. The ressentiments against abstraction and Rock’n’roll were deeply rooted and regularly surfaced in the form of protests and attacks, although the large field occupied by conservative views of art and music was not seriously threatened. In the end, the desire for continuity could assert itself unrestrained before the town halls and schools as well as before the radio sets and record players. Or in Robić’s words:

Tomorrow, tomorrow, Fortune smiles on us again
Yesterday, yesterday, lies so far back
It was also a beautiful, beautiful time

Tomorrow, tomorrow, we’ll be back again
Yesterday, yesterday, it’s all one to us today
It was also a beautiful, beautiful time