Book gives overview, context of Nazi regime-sponsored art

August 23, 1992|By Daniel Grant

ART OF THE THIRD REICH.

Peter Adam.

Harry Abrams.

` 332 pages. $39.95.

7/8 An evaluation of Nazi art is a terrific subject, and this book comes at an opportune time, on the heels of another Abrams book (and related museum exhibition), "Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany." Peter Adam's "Art of the Third Reich" is a good overview, although this subject calls for either an art historian, who is able to see more in art than solely the political intentions behind it, or a historical scholar, who can better describe where culture fits into a political system. Mr. Adam, an author of several books and a television producer with the BBC, leaves readers with a hunger for more.

He clearly doesn't care for state-sponsored German art between 1933 and 1945: "Out of the bombastic proclamations, German artists made works which supported a megalomanic ordinariness." There was "no development during these twelve years, just endless repetitious displays so that in the end the boredom became palpable." According to Mr. Adam, by 1938 even Hitler was getting bored with all the art his regime had touted and sponsored.

An art book that announces early and often that the art it is evaluating is mediocre at best and boring in general, then treats the reader to several hundred examples of it in a 332-page book, needs to spend a lot of time on the context of that art. Mr. Adam is most comfortable describing the history of why Nazism caught on with such a large portion of the German people. The ideology appealed to all types of discontent, of which there was a great deal at the time, and provided a new basis of national pride and unity as well as a sense of individual worth within a larger system.

Again, he is not a real historian and hasn't done any real searching of historical sources: He relied instead on other histories of the period as well as his own disapproval to color the observations he makes. Hitler's "message was always of the same triviality. It is hard to understand how he was able to convince anybody with his ideas, and yet his success was overwhelming."

Mr. Adam later notes that "Hitler's ideas on culture and the arts stemmed from 'Mein Kampf,' written in a verbose pseudo-educated style, with neurotic obsessions that made the book difficult reading. . . ." All the reader can be certain of is that Mr. Adam is at a loss to explain fully the rise of Nazism and found Hitler's own writings tough going.

Perhaps the specific ideas of Nazism were not as consequential to its success as the desire to rebound Germans in a collective sense of national and cultural unity, much of that built on what the Germans were against -- Jews, modernism, pluralism in general and liberal democracy in particular. The art that the Third Reich sponsored either stressed these national bogymen or highlighted the national ideals of a healthy, Aryan people at work and at rest, and otherwise showing their patriotism. The degree to which painting and sculpture influenced or reinforced Germans in that thinking is suggested, yet never proven.

It might have been worthwhile for Mr. Adam to have studied German film of the Nazi era, since movies by their nature appeal to a mass audience and are more likely to be influential because they look more "real" to people than even the most realistic painting and sculpture. Mr. Adam points out that attendance at German museums showing state-sponsored art grew during the Nazi reign, but a film can be viewed by more people in one day than an art show can draw in a month. The failure to include in his discussion Nazi film -- other than occasional stills from Leni Riefenstahl documentaries -- or perhaps even to view film as art form, makes the overall argument much weaker.

An art historian might have compared Nazi-approved art with Russia's Socialist Realism, or even the American Regionalism of Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton. All three stressed nativist values within a political framework. An art historian might have delved deeper into the lives and careers of some of the German artists mentioned, identifying where their style of work and political values dovetailed with the official Nazi policy and where they diverged.

Mr. Adam brings Nazi-sponsored art before the reader, and his sense of moral outrage at the manipulation of fact as well as the wholesale carnage of the Third Reich assures one that he is not justifying anything. "Art of the Third Reich" is based on his two-part documentary film of the same name. Just as there is a world of difference between writing a political tract and creating a propagandistic painting, a book requires more analysis and background than a documentary, which relies essentially on pictures (with voice overlaid) to make its points. Mr. Adam is a popularizer, going where a historian or art scholar should tread.

Mr. Grant is a writer who lives in Amherst, Mass.

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