Reviewed by Maria Silina (Université du Québec à Montréal / Research Institute for Theory and History of Fine Arts, Russian Academy of Arts, Moscow, Russia)
Published on H-SHERA (September, 2018)
Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha (University of Calgary)
The questions and case studies brought up in Nazi Exhibition Design and Modernism are a part of contemporary scholarship on the culture and politics of National Socialist Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Its author, Michael Tymkiv, adheres to a functionalist (semiotic) approach to totalitarian studies and the culture of Hitler’s era in Germany and in occupied countries, such as Gleichschaltung (falling into line), a key principle of Nazi cultural politics; Führerprinzip, the totalitarian pattern of all artistic projects; and Volksgemeinschaft (people's community), a desirable image of German society. As the author states in the opening lines, he does not ask whether exhibition design under the Third Reich was modern or modernist; his main interest lies in bringing to light “the disparate precedents and contemporary developments that informed experimental approaches to Nazi exhibition design, and partly [in] closely attending the formal features of exhibition spaces in order to expose the multiple and often contradictory motivations that propelled such experimentation” (p. 238). The monograph builds on formal analysis of temporary expositions—large industrial shows such as Deutsches Volk - Deutsche Arbeit (German people, German work, 1934) and Gebt mir vier Jahre Zeit (Give me four years’ time, 1937); propaganda Schandausstellunden (exhibitions of shame) like Das Ewige Jude (The eternal Jew, 1937-38 in Germany and 1941-42 in France) and Das Sowjet-Paradies (The Soviet paradise, 1942), and Fabrikausstellungen (factory exhibitions, 1934-42).
Chapter 1 looks at early exhibition projects under the National Socialists that were created by artists traditionally associated with international modernism. Indeed, Deutsches Volk - Deutsche Arbeit, held in Berlin in 1934, was designed by the modernist architect and Bauhaus founder Mies van der Rohe, while other renowned Bauhaus leaders—architect Walter Gropius and architect Joost Schmidt—created the most spectacular attraction of the show: a tower made of nonferrous metals in the Hall of Energy and Technology. Tymkiw embarks on analyzing the spatial organization of interiors, objects, and abstract ideas of German unity and corporatism of Nazi industry. His scrutiny shows that the creators achieved “a control of spectator's kinesthetic vision … which broke the historic avant-garde’s attempts to encourage seemingly ‘organic’ forms of circulation” and encouraged instead “variances in movements across different halls” (p. 68).
Chapter 2, “Reconfiguring Expressionism—Otto Andreas Schreiber and the Mass Production of Factory Exhibitions,” examines Fabrikausstellungen and, most importantly, the authentic concept of their founder, Otto Andreas Schreiber, an ardent supporter of Expressionism before the Nazi era. A state-led leisure organization, Kraft durch Freude (Strength through joy) mounted small shows (with 80-100 prints on display) featuring mostly naturalistic, idyllic landscapes and (a matter of a postwar pride to Schreiber) the works of artists who were later denounced at the notorious 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate art) exhibition in Munich. Tymkiw is engaged in revealing complexity both in the authentic concept of Schreiber and in the development of the formal design of such exhibitions. For instance, Schreiber dovetailed typical Enlightenment museum projects of the early twentieth century in England and Germany with progressivist ideas of art as a remedy for the ills of industrialization, radical individualism in experiencing art, and the site specificity of such creative encounters, ideas that were drawn directly from his writings on Expressionism. To trace the uneven and seemingly contradictory paths of interwar visuality, Tymkiw puts into light the development of the design of such exhibitions: first they were made as conventional nineteenth-century domesticated interiors, but by 1937, when international modernism was banned in Germany, they had become a white-cube type. Seen in light of Theodor Adorno’s concept of modernity, the mass standardization of exhibition furniture and the mobile character and reproducibility of the shows exemplified the modernist “culture industry,” with its character of a well-run company producing creative goods and experiences.
Chapter 3, “Photomurals after Pressa,” explores the use of photomurals in the 1933 Die Kamera (The camera) and 1937 Gebt mir vier Jahre Zeit exhibitions. The key point for the second half of the book is to address a persistent point of Nazi historiography—a belief in degeneracy in the arts after a tremendous flourishing of the international avant-garde, epitomized in El Lissitzky’s iconic design for the Soviet Pavillion at the 1928 Pressa exhibition in Cologne. Here, Tymkiv addresses the long-standing belief that Nazi imagery of the time (masses photographed from an elevated vantage point) were “almost invariably interpreted as manifestations of a general wish to subjugate individuals” (p. 120). Thus, by carefully analyzing the spatial and conceptual design of the shows, he demonstrates their complexity that embraced the idea of engaged spectatorship, both emotionally and physically. The Gebt mir vier Jahre Zeit show, for instance, provided visitors with Gesamtkunstwerk sensory overstimulation in amalgamating mechanical trickery, palpability of objects, sounds, lights, and choral poetry under the symbols of National Socialism. Constructions were even made to demonstrate their constructedness and man-made character to emphasize various forms of “collective achievements” and the vibrancy of German civilization. This action was staged by Nazi-era architect Winfried Wendland in modernist purist architectural spaces that, in turn, promoted an idea of sacred Sauberkeit (purity) and spirituality of the German Volk.
Finally, chapter 4 “Fragmentation and the ‘Jewish-Bolshevist Enemy’” scrutinizes an ultimate formalist development of a full-scale visitors' engagement with propaganda at Schandausstellungen of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Launched in Munich in 1937, Der Ewige Jude show gave viewers a variety of sensory, physical, intellectual, and emotional experiences. Beginning with almost clinically white spaces that introduced the “biological foundations of Jewry,” the show continued to “period rooms” with skeletons (Freemasons’ lodge), finally turning Jew-hating into a kind of a risky entertainment. The latter was amplified by visual and kinesthetic experiences that provided connotations of threat, claustrophobia, spatial and bodily disorientation, and dissonance (spaces were furnished by stürzende Wände [plunging walls], p. 183). The other exhibition under review, Das Sowjet-Paradies was an unprecedented attempt to combine mimicry and mockery with real, three-dimensional artifacts from the occupied Soviet territories, and quasi-immersive spaces were used to create a frightening semiotic ambiguity of reality and fiction.
This book is an excellent example of contemporary study not only of German culture under National Socialism but of European totalitarianism of the interwar era (Italy, USSR). It focuses specifically on the question of presumed degradation of Nazi art and culture and creative profiles of those artists who collaborated with Hitler’s regime by critically revisiting their post-Nazi testimonials. It also opens up further reconsiderations on synchronic and diachronic developments of Nazi culture. Thus, the author closes his study with an epilogue on visual denazification in West and East Germany. Ironically, the West Germany Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels exposition featured International Style and transparency as visual signs of denazification and return to a modernism of the pre-Nazi era. However, it was silent on the fact that its architect, Egon Eiermann, had designed the Gebt mir vier Jahre Zeit expo in Berlin, featuring the same visual features of transparency and Sauberkeit as symbols of new astonishing perspectives for German Volk under Nazi rule. Lastly, the book is an unequivocal example of the need for further studies of totalitarian cultures in a functionalist mode. To give only one example, I’m thinking especially of Fabrikausstellungen and amateur art shows mounted in Soviet Russia in the 1930s that attracted millions of people. The projects were popular, as there were a handful of identity politics efforts to involve various social groups in industrial development and other proactive collaborations. Later, they were gradually yoked to repression and genocide. Today, case studies of public engagement with cultural initiatives, like this one by Tymkiw, raise the question of to what extent nationalistic, xenophobic, and populist propaganda was used alongside social engagement and affirmative cultural projects during the interwar years in Europe and North America.
. “Intentionalists” were those historians who regarded Hitler’s will as decisive and National Socialist policy as consistent, ideology-driven, and goal-oriented, while the “functionalist” or “structuralist” camp placed more importance on changing institutions and social structures in determining historical outcomes. Pamela M. Potter, Art of Suppression: Confronting the Nazi Past in Histories of the Visual and Performing Arts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 38.
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Maria Silina. Review of Tymkiw, Michael, Nazi Exhibition Design and Modernism.
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