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Conflicted past

July 19, 2012

In July 1937, Hitler declared war on modern art with the opening of the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Seventy-five years later, an exhibition examines the historical legacy of the museum as an icon of ideological power.

The conflicted history of Munich's Haus der Kunst
Image: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Christian Philipp Müller races at top speed through the large exhibition hall of the Haus der Kunst in Munich. There, the Swiss artist enters the space in which Adolf Hitler threatened to purge modernity from art in 1937. Müller has created a counterpoint: In place of swastikas and portraits of the Führer is a larger-than-life picture of young woman in a fashion show.

It's a snapshot: The Second World War is over and people are drawn towards lightness and color. A model on the runway parades past the audience. Her face cannot be seen, just an absurdly large structure which could well be a hat.

The image from the fashion show is representative of the changeable history of the Haus der Kunst. American occupying troops celebrated the end of the war here, transforming one of the exhibition halls into a basketball court. The models came in the 1950s.

What the backs of paintings reveal

"I was asked to intervene," said Christian Philipp Müller. His task was to offer advice during the examination of the museum's own troubled history. Adolf Hitler himself opened the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), as it was then called, on July 18, 1937. From then on, art was required to reflect National Socialist ideology. Art had to appeal to the masses, be simple to understand, and depict scenes from everyday "German" life. Abstraction was considered "un-German," and was ostracized and forbidden.

The "Histories of Conflict" exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich
The "Histories of Conflict" exhibition allows visitors to view backs artworksImage: Maximilian Geuter

At the current show, "Histories in Conflict," 75 years later, roles appear to have been reversed. That which was previously forbidden now hangs on the walls in the exhibition hall, while the examples of "German art," as Hitler defined it, are attached to a steel construction, similar to a collection of wire fences, in the exhibition hall.

The staging is part of Christian Philip Müller's "intervention" and the result is that the back of the "German" artworks are now visible to the public. Visitors can now view the tag attached to the back of painting, depicting a ruined French town on which the words "Acquired by: The Führer" are written. Other motifs in the show include the image of a male elk in the German forest or a u-boat storming through the Atlantic Ocean. The pictures seem bizarre and anachronistic, even for the circumstances back then.

The National Socialists showed the world what they understood to be "German art" at the "Great German Art Exhibition" at the Haus der Kunst, and then, just around the corner, there was the accompanying "Degenerate Art" show. Anything which had any kind of status in the modern visual arts was suddenly banned: Picasso, Kandinsky, Beckmann, Klee.

"Modernism is now forbidden," commented the New York Times on July 25, 1937.

Embarrassing slip-up

The organizers of the two shows didn't realize that a one artist, Rudolf Belling, actually had works in both shows. While his sculpture of boxer Max Hemming was part of the Haus der Kunst exhibition, two other works were included in the "Degenerate Art" show. When those responsible realized their embarrassing slip-up, the two artworks in the degenerate art show where quietly removed.

Rudolf Belling's 1925 bust of Toni Freeden
An embarrassing slip-up: this work by Rudolf Belling was labeled "degenerate"Image: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

The National Socialist regime assiduously celebrated the triumphal procession of German art in its home city of Munich. A model of the Haus der Kunst had already been paraded through the streets of Munich during the planning phase of construction. The model was also proudly presented at the Paris Exposition in 1937. Picasso's "Guernica" - the world's most famous anti-war painting - hung in a neighboring pavilion.

White chocolate and gold

The Führer liked the building so much so that Herman Göring gave Hitler a gold model of it for his 50th birthday. For the exhibition "75 Years of the Haus der Kunst," Christian Philipp Müller commissioned a 160-kilogram model out of white chocolate - a play on the sweet, seductive draw Hitler's ideology had on the masses.

Rudolf Bellings 1929 sculpture of Max Hemming
Meanwhile, Belling's sculpture of boxer Max Hemming was proudly presented as great "German" artImage: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

The Haus der Kunst did not deal with its own history in any scholarly sense until the mid-1990s, said Sabine Brantl, the historian who curated the current exhibition. People weren't prepared to deal with this difficult history directly after the war. The desire was to return to "normality," even in art, so that they would not be reminded of the dogmas of the Nazi period.

"It was locked away very quickly," she said. "Maybe they also didn't want to acknowledge the fact that many of images were much to the public's taste." Society quickly swept up in the economic miracle, suppressing thoughts of the past.

But the present is unthinkable without some relation to the past, explained Okwui Enwezor. The internationally acclaimed Nigerian curator has been director of the Haus der Kunst since the end of 2011.

A model of the Haus der Kunst made from 160 kilograms of white chocolate
A model of the Haus der Kunst made from 160 kilograms of white chocolateImage: Maximilian Geuter

"Here the past, there the present - it doesn't work like that," he explained. "I always say, it's our job to think historically about the present, since the present is always embedded in the past."

The documents in the archives have been brought back to life as opportunities to reflect on the past, Enwezor said. That the exhibition "Image Counter Image," examining the power of images, is running concurrently was not intentional but fits perfectly within the context.

"There is a dialogue between the two exhibitions. It's about how we use art and images, about what world-view we are portraying," commented Enwezor. The images, media and world-views which emerge from the dialogue encompass themes which are as relevant today as they were 75 year ago.

Author: Birgit Görtz / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen