The 1930’s and 40’s were a wild time for artists and designers, and I mean w i l d. Not only was the Great Depression hitting the entire world, hard, but World War II began soon after. nearly 3 straight decades of worldwide turmoil led to some amazing new technologies and opportunities for design to improve, however. As part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, jobs were created for designers and photographers to create travel posters and capture the images of the times. Raymond Loewy, the “father of industrial design” (and the father of streamlining – can someone find the full family tree, please?) helped create simple, functional, and appealing objects. Two world fairs helped to push new inventions and innovations in design into public view.
During World War II, many European designers fled to the United States to escape the Nazi regime. This resulted in a shift of the art centre of the world from Paris to New York City, and helped to modernize art and design in America (a much needed change).
“Divine destiny has given the German people everything in the person of one man. Not only does he possess strong and ingenious statesmanship, not only is he ingenious as a soldier, not only is he the first worker and the first economist among his people but, and this is perhaps his greatest strength, he is an artist. He came from art, he devoted himself to art, especially the art of architecture, this powerful creator of great buildings. And now he has also become the Reich’s builder.”
–Hakenkreuzbanner (The Swastika Flag), June 10, 1938
The Third Reich aimed to control and manipulate every are of its citizen’s lives. Part of the reason why it was so successful in its control was because it utilized many different tactics to target people. Hitler’s plan to create a “synchronization of culture” was made to present a unified Germany, tied together by its shared Aryan culture. To him, art was another method of control, just like propaganda or the military. As an art school reject himself, Hitler wanted to be viewed as a passionate man who understood and valued art.
But exactly how was Third Reich art classified? Finding a definitive answer to that question can be difficult, since it was based on a complex set of ideals created mainly by Hitler himself and his trusted leaders. For the most part, it was any art that well exemplified Nazi ideals. Anything else was considered degenerate art. Hitler hated modernist and expressionist art, and anything he deemed “not serious” enough to promote his ideas. What was not considered degenerate was usually quite boring and classically academic. Third Reich art promoted power, strength, triumph, and optimism. It often portrayed young, beautiful men and women.
“I will not tolerate unfinished paintings!”- Adolf HItler
Hitler handpicked some artists whose work epitomized Third Reich ideas. Josef Thorak and Arno Breker were two such artists. Their work celebrated ideal beauty and power. Interestingly, Breker had artwork that was branded as degenerate early in his career, yet was still highly favoured by Hitler himself.
Hitler’s ideas about art were accepted by his followers and close advisors, but it’s interesting to look at what three of these men thought of art before they came into close contact with him. Joseph Goebbels collected modern art, which he displayed in his home and office, and like degenerate art pieces. Heinrich Himmler liked mystical tribal German art and Alfred Rosenberg liked romantic art portraying rural life, both of which didn’t fit Hitler’s guidelines. Goebbels and Rosenberg would fully support Third Reich art and denounce degenerate art. Himmler, however, secretly stole valuable (yet condemned) works of art from Hitler throughout the war.
The Great Exhibition of German Art
The Great Exhibition of German Art was held in Munich in the summer of 1937, and presented a large collection of Third Reich approved art. The exhibition featured sculptures from Breker, as well as plenty of beautiful, muscular bodies and wild animals. Only a few steps away, across the street, was the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit, created to mock and degrade degenerate art and artists. Unsurprisingly, the degenerate art drew far more visitors. In the long run, degenerate art would have a much stronger impact than the Third Reich art ever did, since it was progressive, powerful, and modern. Thankfully, our ideas of art are no longer restricted like they were in World War II.