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The first major exhibition of works by Arno Breker, Hitler's favourite sculptor, opened July 22 at the Schleswig-Holstein-Haus in Schwerin. Stefan Koldehoff is critical of the show in light of insufficient access to the artist's works and archive material.


Hitler's favourite sculptor

Stefan Koldehoff takes a critical view of the first solo exhibition of works by Arno Breker

Arno Breker, bust of Adolph Hitler. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In principle, the idea is good, in principle it's very important that it be executed: the work of sculptor Arno Breker should be exhibited, its creation, aesthetic and political impact should be debated. Breker's oeuvre, demonised for decades by academics and unduly idealised by others, played, for a few years, a very influential role in German cultural history. So it's understandable, but at the same time a little short-sighted, for the clever Schwerin museum director Kornelia von Berswordt-Wallrabe to tell her colleagues in neighbouring Schleswig-Holstein-Haus that their Breker exhibition, which is about to open, is superfluous. She argues that from the standpoint of art history, there are no artistic aspects of Breker that merit discussion. And the rejection of an exhibition in Schwerin by poster artist Klaus Staeck, current president of the Berlin Academy of Arts, seems like more of a politically correct protest reflex against antiquated notions of the enemy than evidence of a willingness to engage in debate that one might expect of educated art enthusiasts.

Not every art historian is as foolhardy as the former Wuppertal museum director Sabine Fehlemann, who wanted to integrate a Breker sculpture into a "sculpture path" between a Henry Moore and a Tony Cragg without giving it a second thought. The Breker exhibition that she planned in conjunction failed, like many others, in the preparation phase – and that was a good thing. It can't be presumed that any engagement with Arno Breker is aimed at his moral rehabilitation, but the suspicion that this is a foremost goal is not so far-fetched, because behind every Breker initiative, one finds the same initiators - for reasons to be explained.

Arno Breker, sculpture of the painter Max Liebermann, 1934. Courtesy Breker Archiv Düsseldorf.

For the exhibition project in Schwerin, the suspicion is not direct. Günter Grass was right to speak out in favour of the project and a coming to terms with the artist's past. What's astonishing is the unusually vague formulation of the normally so precise writer. The demand for coming to terms with Breker is reasonable and popular, and Grass is by no means the only one making it these days; but it is also evidence of a naive ignorance of the actual situation. Dealing with Breker at the moment is simply impossible, because the necessary material – work and primary sources – is not available.

Anyone wishing to research an artist, his work and its legacy, has to turn first to what is available of the oeuvre. And anyone who judges a controversial personality such as Arno Breker, who was extremely willing to get involved in politics, on his work alone, is going to do neither the artist nor the history of art and politics, justice. In the case of Breker, therefore, the archive is the second requisite source: letters and documents, diaries and personal records which could provide insight into intention and result. Both sources, however, are very problematic.

After the war, Arno Breker was denazified as a fellow traveller in the regime but nonetheless, his work as a state sculptor under the Nazis meant a temporary end to his career. Both his earlier impressionistic work in the tradition of Renoir, Rodin and Maillol and his gigantomanic sculptural monuments to the Nazi body cult and racial craze were largely destroyed. In the historical analysis, therefore, only photographic reproductions can be used as reference. Whether the works created after 1945 should be considered authentic is likewise questionable. They are more likely a function of financial necessity in the new Federal Republic than of an artistic impulse.

The man that was Hitler's favourite sculptor, who willingly created the set for the Nazis' performances of power and thus contributed to the disguise of its murderous intent, could not count on public commissions in the allied occupied zones and later in the Federal Republic. But private commissions continued: well-off industrialists like Quandt and Bayer, Oetker and Giradet – all supporters of the economic miracle – commissioned smoothly polished busts reportedly for 150,000 DM a piece, and thus provided him with an income. The Gerling corporate group decorated its head office in Cologne with Breker reliefs, and Konrad Adenauer had himself portraited by Breker. The city of Wuppertal ordered a statue of the war goddess Pallas Athene with a shield and spear and had it erected in front of the Wilhelm Dörpfeld Gymnasium in a festive ceremony in 1957 which Breker attended. It still stands there today.

Arno Breker, Gypsy, 1928. Courtesy Breker Archiv Düsseldorf.

At some point in the 1970s, a second phase of aggressive Breker marketing began. Via the "Marco" gallery in Bonn, businessman John G. Bodenstein offered print graphics, original works and little sculptures. Through an English language website, these obviously commercial works have reached American buyers as well. At the same time, in connection with the gallery, books on Breker have been published which celebrate Breker, free of critique, as one of the most significant artists of the 20th century and otherwise follow his credo that he was always and only an artist. The fact that celebrities such as Salvador Dali, Ulrike Meyfahrt, Jürgen Hingsen and the Cologne collectors Irene und Peter Ludwig had themselves portrayed by Breker assisted his rehabilitation and de-politicisation. Finally, a private museum devoted mainly to Breker was opened at Schloss Nörvenich in the Eifel, likewise under Bodenstein's aegis. In it, his later works are also available for sale. The museum website advertises with photographs of numerous celebrities (among them, the former president of the German parliament Rita Süssmuth), who supposedly support the idea of European international understanding as it is put forward by the museum. In fact, these public personalities are advertising for Breker.

So anyone who is trying to understand Arno Breker and his work has trouble finding authentic pieces that reflect something of his artistic programme. It's a similar case with the archives, which could provide information on the person of Arno Breker. Breker's widow Charlotte lives in Düsseldorf. She, together with her children, manages his estate. One of the researchers involved in the Schwerin exhibition reported that he was not granted access to the cabinets containing his work: "I wasn't allowed to get within ten meters of them." A few others seem to have experienced the same: there is still no biography of Breker that satisfies academic standards. Rather, the last decades have given rise to either condemnations and demonisations or hagiographa written by a strangely esoteric circle of friends. In the Breker villa on the Rhein, there seems to be little interest in making academic research on Breker possible.

Arno Breker: Bereitschaft (Readiness), 1939. Courtesy Breker Archiv Düsseldorf.

But there is evidence that the reality – as is so often the case – lies somewhere between black and white. Statements by Peter Suhrkamp (which appear in his memoirs and elsewhere) and Pablo Picasso to the effect that they might not have survived the war without Breker's support are being much quoted these days and need to be looked into, as does Breker's late and blunt admission of the possibility that he didn't behave properly. The question also remains open as to why the sculptor, who was credited with great talent by Cocteau, Maillol and others, suddenly committed himself to banal, totally unsubtle monuments to megalomania.

The fact that all attempts to approach Arno Breker in exhibitions and texts have failed miserably has a number of reasons. As an artist, Breker is no longer to be comprehended through his work. Information about his historical personality is denied by his estate. In Schwerin, they've taken on a large project – and the potential for failure is again great; because they've had to rely on loans by the Breker apologists and because access to the archives was not adequate. But maybe the loud debate surrounding the exhibition in Schwerin will lead to conclusion that it's time for non-prejudiced researchers to take a serious look at Arno Breker without letting vested interests get in the way. Otherwise Breker will remain the demon of art history.

The exhibition "Zur Diskussion gestellt: Der Bildhauer Arno Breker" (The sculptor Arno Breker: a discussion) will show at the Schleswig Holstein Haus in Schwerin until October 22, 2006.

The article was originally published in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on July 18, 2006.

Stefan Koldehoff reports on art for several media, including Deutschlandfunk and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Translation: nb. - let's talk european