Fascism unbound

An exhibition at the Hayward Gallery examines the close links between the art produced in Europe under the great dictators, 1930-45

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An important exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London this month offers a rare opportunity to examine the conventional division between “good” modernism and “evil” totalitarian art. “Art and power: Europe under the dictators 1930-45” (until 21 January 1996) considers what modernist qualities, if any, exist in totalitarian culture and looks for the links between the authoritarian tendencies of modern movements and totalitarian art and architecture. It asks whether the only options open to artists were, and are, either to resist or to collaborate.

The exhibition, which has been organised as part of the anniversary marking fifty years since the end of World War II, is a thoroughly researched study into the relationship between art and power in Germany, the Soviet Union and Italy. Given the huge scope of the subject, the exhibition confines itself largely to Berlin, Paris, Moscow and Rome. It has been curated and selected by Dawn Ades of the University of Essex; David Elliott, director of the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford; Tim Benton, dean of the arts faculty of the Open University; Iain Boyd Whyte, director of the Centre for Architectural History at the University of Edinburgh; Lutz Becker, artist and film maker, and Simonetta Fraquelli, historian of twentieth-century Italian art.

“Art and power” aims to demonstrate how, on the one hand, art, architecture and cinema were subverted and used as propaganda to support the regimes of Hitler, Franco, Stalin and Mussolini, and, on the other, artistic expression under these regimes was highly varied and included work which did not directly serve the needs of political propaganda.

There are many similarities between the various regimes and their attitudes to art. Points in common include the elevation of ideology over legality; the systematic use of violence and terror to subordinate the will of the individual to that of the State; the abolition of social classes and cultural associations which were reorganised into centralised party structures and the politicisation of the arts and the mass media, used as bearers of the ideology and political messages of the State. Another shared feature was the creation of a strong symbolism expressing the heroism, death and self-sacrifice of the individual for the nation, the source of which symbolism is often to be found in past cultural tradition: in Italy's “romanità”, in Germany's Holy Roman Empire, and in the victories of Alexander Nevskii for Stalin's Russia. History was reexamined for the purpose of exalting and preparing for a glorious present.

The exhibition's structure is based around the four key cities. In Paris the great powers confronted each other on the battlefield of culture at the International Exhibition of 1937. Germany's pavilion was designed by Speer; Russia's was by Iofan with Mukhina's statue dedicated to “The Industrial Worker and Collective Farm Girl”. Spain's contribution was split between the Vatican pavilion where Franco's artists were exhibiting, and the one pavilion designed by the Catalan architect Sert which housed Picasso's “Guernica”, while Italy's pavilion was crowned with Gori's statue “The Genius of Fascism”.

The Moscow section examines the presentation of the architectural project for the rebuilding of the city commissioned by Stalin in 1935, and displays the work of the early Russian Avant-garde artists such as Malevich, Tatlin and Filonov along with Socialist Realist painters and sculptors like Gerassimov, Brodskii and Mukhina.

For Berlin, Speer's grandiose architectural projects give a flavour of how that city would have been had the outcome of the war been different. The work of artists supported by the Nazi regime such as Ziegler, Brecker, Thorake and Kolbe is shown alongside those considered degenerate such as Beckmann, Nolde, Klee, Barlach and Kollwitz.

Rome is represented by a survey of the artists whose groups made up the complex artistic scene in Italy in 1930-45; the Novecento movement as well as the so-called “Second Futurism”, the “Abstract” schools of Milan and Como and the “Scuola Romana”. It also examines the peculiarity of the Fascist establishment's attitude towards culture, in which coexist such artistic liberals as the Fascist Culture Minister Bottai, and the “extremist” nature of figures such as the pro-Fascist art critic Roberto Farinacci.

This is an exhibition which seems to warn that “art and power” never in reality means art in power. If in the initial period, as the power of the totalitarian regimes was confirmed, the innovative thrust of the avant-garde seemed to be a decisive influence (more or less consciously on the part of the artists involved), then later, when totalitarianism had reached its height, the emptiness of the art seemed no less inevitable.

The exhibition travels to the Centre de Cultura Contemporània, Barcelona (26 February to 5 May 1996) and the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin (7 June to 20 August 1996). The catalogue is published by the South Bank Centre (the hardback version is distributed by Thames and Hudson in English and Octagon Verlag in German).

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