Arno Breker: Schleswig-Holstein-Haus

The work of Arno Breker, the man generally given the wholly un-cuddly soubriquet “Hitler’s favourite sculptor”, is currently being exhibited in Schwerin (Schleswig-Holstein-Haus), Germany.

The Party, 1939 - Photo by muscl_mc

The idea to hold such an exhibition at all is not a new one, however it is the only time it has reached fruition due to the rather obvious, sometimes reasonable, sometimes reactionary objections.

Klaus Staeck, president of the Berlin Academy of Arts has been most vocal on the subject: “It is wrong to recognise an artist who created the physical images of Nazi ideology”, “Breker is guilty of crimes against humanity and against art”.

Now, from what I have read on the subject, Breker was a far more complex figure than Staeck is willing to acknowledge. During an interview with Andre Müller in 1979 he comes across as an alternately sympathetic and unsympathetic figure:

Yes, but you expect the state to give you work. As a private enterprise, you have enough customers to provide you with a secure life. Why then do you want state commissions?

I don’t want anything. I want peace and quiet, you understand? I’ve done nothing that went against artistic values or the dignity of the artistic vocation.

In what way have you been harassed then?

After the war, I could no longer exhibit. I was simply no longer invited.

Well then you had the peace and quiet you desired.

Pardon me, but I lost everything with the German defeat.

But you gained peace and quiet.

Irritatingly and interestingly he uses many anecdotes to distract from answering questions about the results of National Socialism:

Did you experience anything like anger against the regime, or against the people who had deceived you so dreadfully?

May I say the following: in Berlin during the war, we had many parties, and at every one, politics was discussed, which I found nauseating, because it was always the same thing. But I was fortunate enough to have access to music. I was on a first name basis with Wilhelm Kempff and Alfred Cortot. My brother-in-law is a pianist. Elly Ney was also a friend of mine. So to avoid all of that, we had only musical evenings. On one of these evenings the situation in Stalingrad was acute, and people were terribly agitated. Speer was there, and so were some other government ministers, and I said to Speer: either you people know a way out of this situation, or else you’re all criminals.

That’s hardly an answer to my question. I want to know what you felt in 1945 when you realized that these people with whom you’d been together on a daily basis had murdered six million Jews. Was your image of the human being still perfectly intact? Or did you repress it all?

Today I’ve repressed it. Today it’s gone. Because I’m still living, and I have the drive to develop further. Last year I had a heart attack, but after eight days I already had my sketchbook with me under the covers.

It seems that Staeck and others are falling back on demonisation of the Nazi regime and those within it to retain Germany’s hard fought distance from its past. Unfortunately any closer inspection of the individual rather ruins the demon image. At some points you think “well, what was he supposed to do” and at others you crave the admission of guilt and pleas for absolution he resists throughout. He disputes his soubriquet, insisting that it belongs to Josef Thorak and denies any political motivation inherent in his art beyond the fact that it was a state commission. (I would argue that the fact that it was a state commission and was approved by that state meant that its political use was readily apparent even if the artist refuses to acknowledge otherwise.)

Anyway, back to Staeck: he claims that it is wrong to “recognise” Breker as an artist because of what he has been involved in. Why?

The key factor for relevance (however fleeting) in an artist’s output is an engagement with his or her surrounding environment. The political body which governs that sphere is a logical place to start. The art and the environment are therefore tied together, but resurrecting one in the form of an exhibition does not resurrect that which it is linked to.

I get the feeling that reopening debate on those with strong ties to the Nazi party is seen as a bad thing because finding out that the people involved were anything less than monstrous has serious implications for the capacity of a Regular Joe to participate in the reprehensible. Social constructs are unstable and thoughts like this underline the fragility.

As for crimes against humanity – Breker maintains that he used his position to help others (notably Picasso) not affiliated with National Socialism and that he was oblivious to the use of concentration camps. Even if his own word can’t be trusted he was denazified some time after the war concluded so clearly he had achieved at least some degree of exonoration.

Crimes against art is trickier. I’m not sure that being morally bankrupt has traditionally been seen as a marker of bad output yet it seems to be Breker’s moral choices that Staeck is taking issue with. Good art does not always, or indeed often go hand-in-hand with being a good person and neither is it expected to otherwise (moral compasses depending) galleries worldwide would be stripped of Pollock, Picasso, Michelangelo and Andre to name but a few. Breker’s apparently unapologetic facade seems to be what has tipped himself and his work into a category of unacceptability now and in the past, but does one have to apologise for the past in order to earn ones place within it? Caravaggio murdered a man in a fit of petulance and his work adorns churches and is treated with quiet reverence in galleries.

Whether his art was good or bad seems irrelevant somehow. The work has become a physical manifestation of a political and social Nazi ghost we continue to be troubled by. I’m not saying that this shouldn’t, perhaps, be the case but it is interesting to note that Breker himself said:

You should write: Breker has been deserted by laughter. I’m a beaten man, a victim of the times. I’ve been totally deprived of the impact of my artistic achievement. Fifty years from now, when someone looks at my figures impartially because the political point of reference will no longer apply, then my works – and your presence here shows their actuality – will be seen for how I depicted arms and legs and human beings in general. And then I will be understood.

27 years on, it seems no more likely than when he made the statement.