A look into Modernist art during the reign of Adolf Hitler

St. John’s English professor, Dr. Gregory Maertz, presented his discovery of lost Modernist art from Nazi-era Germany on March 25 at the Institute for Writing Studies.

The event, titled “Art in the Third Reich,” featured a slideshow, lecture from Maertz, and a question-and-answer session.
During his lecture, Maertz offered evidence challenging traditional 20th century German art.

“Modernism is a much broader category than the art and artists persecuted by the Nazis,” Maertz said.

In addition, Maertz showed the audience Modernist and anti-war art produced during the Third Reich, a period in Germany that lasted from 1933-1945. These paintings helped to draw connections between Modernism and Nazism, a link previously thought to not exist.

“One of the things that attracted me to this project was to find out whether in fact there was a complete monopoly over cultural production [exercised by Nazi leadership],” said the English professor on his interest in the topic.

According to Maertz’s research, although Hitler, an artist himself, recognized how important art was in furthering his political goals, he still allowed cultural bureaucrats to fight among themselves in Nazi Germany. In the ensuing competitive chaos, it was impossible to characterize the art sponsored by National Socialist institutions as definitively “Anti-Modernist.”

The presentation began with a look at Modernist art, persecuted as “degenerate” by Nazi cultural ideologues. These works were then contrasted with anti-Modernist art exhibited in the Great German Art Exhibitions at the House of German Art from 1937 to 1944.

“This [art],” Dr. Maertz explained, “was a blueprint for those who wanted to be co-opted by the cultural institutions of the Third Reich.”

These works of art have become familiar to viewers through various art exhibitions organized in the years following the end of World War II.

All of these shows, Maertz noted, offered a limited perspective on Nazi cultural production because the works exhibited were drawn from a relatively small group of objects.

By contrast, the 9,250 works of art that he discovered “suggest a much broader range of artistic expression was possible” than that revealed by previous scholarship and exhibitions. The subject of many of these paintings was unexpected.

“Flüchtlinge in Russland” (“Refugees in Russia”) by Karl Busch, for example, shows sympathy for those suffering under Nazi aggression in Russia.

Other paintings were landscapes that, despite the knowledge of their being Nazi productions, “are definitely Modernist in style and they challenge the binary opposition between Classical Modernism and Nazi Realism that has dominated museology and art historical scholarship since the end of WW II.”

Maertz noted that these paintings are complex artifacts. Despite their obvious affinity with the Modernist art persecuted and purged by Nazi cultural guardians, Maertz reminded his audience that “these are landscapes [in the collection that he discovered] where atrocities occurred.”

Subjects of other paintings included fatigued German soldiers “given an impossible task,” as Maertz put it. Without knowing better, he pointed out, they could just as easily be portraying contemporary American soldiers in Iraq.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Aren’t you trying to humanize [the Nazis?]’… I’m not trying to humanize them. I’m trying to understand them,” Maertz said.

“They were much more like us than we are willing to admit.”

Maertz plans to showcase the unearthed artwork at Rutgers University in 2010.
The lecture was the third part of a four-part series by English honors society Sigma Tau Delta.

“This semester, we’ve been really invested in challenging the way things are normally thought about,” said Sigma Tau Delta president Ailia Rizvi. “Dr. Maertz’s discussion embodied our aim to find and accentuate the ‘grey areas.’ I feel like that’s where the most interesting work happens.”

The series concludes with its final installment, “God in South Asian Literature,” presented by Dr. Lisa Outar during the last week of April.