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Where They Burn Books — 3/22/14

Posted by Matthew Abess, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

The years following the First World War found the beer halls of Munich resounding with complaints. Chief among these were age-old grievances concerning sovereignty, spheres of influence, and self-determination, to which were added by members of the National Socialist (Nazi) party: Judaism, Communism, and the diffuse anomie of modern life. The highly discursive prose of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf catalogs these complaints in especially virulent terms, identifying the many pestilent forces that posed a mortal threat to the “historic destiny” of the nation. The text advocates aggressive territorial expansion—the annexation of Lebensraum [living space]—as a foremost solution; its jingoistic passages presage extermination.

Yet even before formalizing the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, culminating in the mass-murder of European Jews, the Nazi state set about cultivating virtue by more benign means. Counter to complaints about the spiritually fouling effect of experimental form—modernist art by then was recognized as a metonym for modernity’s contamination of the völkisch soul—the regime initiated a program showcasing art that demonstrated a “return from degeneracy to the healthy path of technical skill” (from the secret situation report by the SS Security Service, 1940). The Grossen Deutsche Kunstausstellungen (GDK) [Great German Art Exhibitions], held annually at the Haus der Deutschen Kunst [House of German Art] in Munich from 1937 to 1944, promised to purify blood and soil through selected arrangements in oil and stone.

This classically-inspired figurative painting by Austrian artist Ivo Saliger—a favored artist of the Third Reich whose work was often included in the GDK—is characteristic of National Socialist values as they manifested in the fine arts. While the approved paintings and sculptures presented each year at the GDK included few that explicitly announced their persuasive purpose—straightforward landscape and genre scenes predominated—the compositional harmony and historical precedent on view articulated clear moral messages. Saliger’s image of two nude women is characteristic of the regime’s attitude toward femininity, which privileged fit and fecund female bodies for bearing new generations of a master race.

How does all of this bear upon the present proceedings? The following is an excerpt from the Power of Design 2014 statement: "Complaints can get us from here to there, dissatisfaction to action, action to innovation . . . We're considering not only expressions of complaint, but constructive responses . . . [Would we have advances] without discontent?"

This account of progressive betterment is reckless, even dangerous. As our conversations on complaint and the designed environment continue, let us keep in mind Adolf Eichmann’s designation as the architect of the Final Solution—from the murmurings of the masses to mass annihilation.

—Matthew Abess is a curator at The Wolfsonian

Caption: Painting, Doppelakt [Double Nude], c. 1940. Ivo Saliger (Austrian, 1894–1987). Vienna. Oil on canvas. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Note: This post is based on the presentation delivered for The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints on March 21, 2014.