‘Totalitarian art is, after modern art, the second international style of 20th century culture’, Igor
Golomstock, Russian-British art historian, 2012.
For a long time the official art of twentieth century totalitarian regimes was seen as ‘non art’, a
representation of a lower form of life and culture, and not worth researching. Once famous works of
art created in totalitarian states, were kept in inaccessible underground depots of museums or state
owned warehouses. Obvious, this is not the case with art from older totalitarian regimes, and we can
argue that the older the totalitarian regime is, the more acceptable its art is to the 21 st century citizen.
The dislike of busts of Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong is widespread, but what about Napoleon (1821),
Philip II of Spain (1598), Charles the Great (814), Juluis Cesar (44 BC) or the barbarian Caligula (44),
who, by the way, appointed his horse to Consul, the highest elected public official of the Roman
Republic? Apparently time heals?
Around 450 portraits depicting Hitler and other Nazi-officials, Nazi-symbols, German Soldiers and
battle fields, several of them earlier displayed at the Great German Art Exhibitions, are currently
stored in the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington. Keeping this German War Art
Collection in the US is not seen by the Americans as a violation of the 1907 Hague Convention and
the 1970 UNESCO Treaty on cultural property, as they don’t classify these paintings as art. In 2004
Brigadier General John Brown, outgoing head of the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History, was
interviewed about the Army’s view of the legal status of these 450 objects in the German War Art
Collection that remained in the custody of the United States. When asked if the Army’s continues
sequestration of these works, which had been determined to be in violation of U.S. and German laws
in 1947, could not also be construed as a violation of the 1907 Hague Convention and the 1970
UNESCO treaty on cultural property, he replied, ‘No. That would only be true if the objects in the
German War Art Collection could be defined as cultural property or art. Our position is that these
paintings are no art.’
Alfons Schneider, ‘Silvesternacht 1941’ (‘New Year’s Eve 1941’). Displayed at the GDK 1942 room 13. Size 150 x 125 cm.
This remarkable point of view leads us to the following question: is a painting depicting Angela
Merkel, Joseph Stalin, Benjamin Netanyahu or Xi Jinping art or non-art? And who decides this?
Respectively German left-wing extremists? Russian civilians? Palestinians or Taiwanese civilians?
Can people be interested in a portrait of Napoleon or Hitler because of its historical significance? Or
does their interest mean that they are automatically right-wing extremists with the aim of conquering
the whole of Europe? This last point of view echoes the theory of Hannah Ahrend who states: ‘The
essence of terror lies in the immediate transition from accusation to conviction’. One thing we learned
very well from the tragic 1930s and 1940s is that classifying art as ‘non-art’ is a dead-end-street, just
like burning and forbidding books for political reasons. No matter how much one dislikes Hitler,
Napoleon, Caligula or Stalin, and no matter how much their depictions were used as propaganda, a
painting or sculpture of them cannot be reclassified as ‘non art’.
Sepp Happ, ‘Über allem aber steht unsere Infanterie’ (‘Above all stands our Infantry’). Size 200 x 100 cm. Left side of a Triptychon which was displayed at the Great German Art Exhibition of 1943; bought by Gauleiter Florian.
Only recently the art historical interest in this art class is rising; perhaps 20 century totalitarian art,
uprooted from its historical context, appears now harmless enough. In Germany we have seen in the
last eight years at least 35 exhibitions about Nazi art, and in 2023 the giant Thorak horses went on
permanent display in the Spandau Museum in Berlin. In Italy the Museo Civico Ala Ponzone in
Cremona organized the exhibition ‘Il Regime dell’Arte – Il Premio Cremona 1939-1941’, a successful
exhibition with high visitor numbers and broad press coverage. The prestigious London Royal
Academy of Arts staged in 2017 the exhibition: ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932’. It took more
than 70 years before William Cook wrote in the British Spectator in 2017 the daring article ‘Was Nazi
Art Really that Bad?’. Cook: ‘The conventional wisdom is that everything Hitler approved was
rubbish, and everything he vetoed was superb. It’s convenient and comforting to believe that tyrants
have no taste, but the truth is a bit more complicated, and a lot more interesting than that…It would be
so much easier if bad men and bad politics made bad art…. but when you look at this picture with
fresh eyes (The Four Elements by Adolf Ziegler) you are forced to acknowledge an awkward truth:
despite the repugnant morals of the man who made it, it’s actually not that bad…’
Golomstock defines the following foundations of totalitarian art:
1. The State declares art to be an ideological weapon and a means of struggle for power;
2. The State acquires a monopoly over the country’s artistic life;
3. The State constructs an all-embracing apparatus for the control and direction of art;
4. The State selects one style and declares it to be official and obligatory;
5. The State declares all other styles reactionary and hostile to class, race, progress, Party and State.
Anton Grauel, ‘Der Hüter’ (‘The Guard’). Bas-relief, created in lime-wood (Lindenholz), 1942. Size 100 x 84 x 12 cm.
The theme’s within the totalitarian art world show a constant hierarchical order:
a. The official portrait of the Leader (and subordinated leaders);
b. Historical painting: heroic battles, national festivals, beginning of the regime;
c. Battle pieces, or War Art;
d. Genre painting: marching columns, youth groups, reapers in the field, industry;
e. Landscapes, still life’s and nudes.
Battle pieces: World War II Totalitarian Art
Battle pieces in visual art were not exclusive the domain of totalitarian regimes. During World War II
it was a popular and common theme for artists also in the UK and the US. Most countries installed
during the world war propaganda companies with painters who portrayed battle fields and heroic
scenes of their own solders.
In 1942 Nazi Germany installed a ‘War Art Program’: the High Command of the Wehrmacht founded
the Squadron of Visual Artists (Staffel der bildenden Künstler Propaganda Abteilung. War art was
meant to galvanize the viewing public and glorify the war effort. US forces had also shared this
tradition of combat art (since 1917), though the program during World War II was largest and best
developed in Germany. In Germany, nine Luftgaue (Air Districts) organized their own ‘Kunst der
Front’ (‘Art of the Frontline’) exhibitions, even staged in Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. The
Metropolitan Museum in New York organized in 1942 the exhibition ‘Artists for Victory’, were the
famous American sculptor Carl Paul Jennewein also showed his works; only three years before, 1939,
Jennewein was still represented, for the third consecutive time, at the Great German Art Exhibition in
After 1945, especially art depicting battle fields and portraits of leaders of the empires who lost the
war, were destructed on a massive scale.
Golomstock’s statement: ‘Totalitarian art is, after modern art, the second international style of 20th
century culture’, seems quite realistic seeing the large numbers of totalitarian states in the previous
century: China, DDR, Ethiopia, Nazi Germany, Haiti, Mussolini’s Italy, Iran, Iraq, Japan, North Korea,
Salazar’s Portugal, Romania, Russia, Franco’s Spain, etc.
Below we will focus on Nazi Germany, Italy and Russia. Also we will discuss American New Deal
art, as this art class shows quite some similarities to Nazi Art.
Nazi art – Modern art
Claus Bergen versus Pablo Picasso
On top: Claus Bergen, ‘Die Beschiessung Almerias durch Adimiral Scheer’ (‘The Bombing of Almeria by the Admiral Scheer’), mid 1937. Official commissioned by the Nazi’s and assumably the counterpart to Picasso’s ‘The Bombing of Guernica’. Displayed at the Great German Art Exhibition in 1937. In the possession of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
The Bombardment of Guernica took place on 26 April 1937, the Bombardment of Almería less than a week later, on 31 May 1937.
Below: Pablo Picasso, ‘Guernica’, 1937. Displayed at the Paris World Exhibition in 1937. Picasso painted Guernica in response to the 26 April 1937 bombing of Guernica.
Germany totalitarian art 1933 – 1945
National Socialist totalitarian Art
The National Socialists had nothing but deep contempt for the culture of modernity, which
was perceived as decadent. They rejected avant-garde styles in art as ‘un-German’ and a
‘typical Jewish product’. Immaculate men and women were portrayed by the Nazis as
propaganda for the aesthetics of the Nordic man. They symbolized beauty, purity, grace and
strength and were intended to demonstrate the superiority of the ‘Aryan master race’. While
modern art movements in the Weimar Republic were largely met with incomprehension and
rejection, Nazi art received broad approval among the population.
The ‘Reichskulturkammer’ (‘Reich Chamber of Culture’), founded on 22 September 1933 under
the chairmanship of Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, became responsible for the
reorganization of the artistic sector. The purpose of this chamber was to stimulate the Aryanization
of German culture and to prohibit, for example, Cubism, Dadaism, Expressionism, Surrealism and
Arno Breker and Josef Thorak (1889-1952), the most prominent Nazi sculptors, created idealized
monumental figures of muscular men based on the model of Classical Antiquity, Classical Greek
and Roman art, seen by Hitler as an art whose exterior form embodied an inner racial ideal and
uncontaminated by Jewish influences. Art was to be both heroic and romantic, and comprehensible to
the average man. Female nudes (Ernst Liebermann, Karl Truppe, Johann Schult, Robert Schwarz,
Erwin Knirr) were the focus of painting. Other preferred motifs were landscapes (Hermann
Gradl, Werner Peiner), still lifes (Ludwig Platzoder), the working life of people in agriculture
(Oskar Martin Amorbach, Paul Mathias Padua) and industry (Erich Mercker, Ria Picco-Rückert),
soldiers and battles (Claus Bergen), and large families (Hans Schmitz-Wiedenbrück).
Pictures of Adolf Hitler (Fritz Erler, Franz Triebsch) as well as rallies and celebrations of the
Nazi regime also played a significant role in Nazi art. The paintings were an expression of the
‘ideal community’, of ‘Führer, Volk und Reich’, propagated by the National Socialists. Starting
in 1937, they were presented annually in the ‘Haus der Deutschen Kunst’ at the ‘Great German
Art Exhibitions’. A year earlier, in 1936, a total ban on all modern art was established.
After 1945: ‘Free’ German artists producing ‘free German art’
In the ideology of OMGUS, the U.S. Military Government in post war Germany, painting was
conceived of as a strategic element in the campaign to politically re-educate the German people for a
new democratic internationalism. Modern art allowed for the establishment of an easy continuity with
the pre-Nazi modernist past, and it could serve as a springboard for the international projection of
Germany as a new country interacting with its new Western partners.
‘Free’ artists producing ‘free art’ was one of the most powerful symbols of the new Germany, the
answer to the politically controlled art of the Third Reich. Modern art linked Western Germany to
Western Europe – separating the new West German aesthetic and politics from that of the Nazi era, the
U.S.S.R., and East Germany – and suggested an ‘authentically’ German identity (Cora Goldstein,
Professor Political Science, California State University. Chicago, 2001). Dr. Irith Dublon-Knebel, Tel
Aviv University, writes in 2006: ‘The Illusion of Stunde Null, abstract art now symbolized the break
with the past and the vision for the future..’.
Russia 1932 – 1988
‘Socialist Realism’ was a style of idealized realistic art that was developed in the Soviet Union and
was the official sanctioned style in that country between 1932 and 1988, as well as in other socialist
countries after World War II. It was formally proclaimed by Maxim Gorky at the Communist Party
Congress of 1934, were he laid out the four guidelines for Socialist Realism, according to which art
1. be relevant to the workers and understandable to them:
2. present scenes of everyday life;
3. be realistic;
4. be partisan and supportive of the aims of the State and Party.
Gorky proclaimed that art that portrayed a negative view of the State of the Party was to be illegal.
Nazi art – Socialist Realism
Hermann Otto Hoyer versus Konstantin Yuon
On top: Hermann Otto Hoyer, ‘In the Beginning Was the Word’, 1937. In the possession of the US Army Center of Military History.
Below”Konstantin Yuon, ‘First Appearance of Vladimir Lenin at the Petrosovet Meeting at Smolny on 25 October 1917’, 1927. In the possession of the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.
In practice, in painting it meant using realist styles to create highly optimistic depictions of Soviet life
and communist values, like the emancipation of the proletariat. Any pessimistic or critical element was banned, and this is the crucial difference from social realism. It was quite simply propaganda art, and
has an ironic resemblance to the Nazi realism imposed by Hitler in Germany.
The new Soviet art also sought to create an attractive image of life in the Soviet Union’s factories and
on its farms. Peasant farmers working on state collective farms were portrayed as being well rewarded,
celebrating a successful harvest, tables filled with an abundant supply of fresh food, the people were
well-fed and wearing bright-colored, clean clothing.
Socialist realism played a major role in the creation of Stalin’s cult of personality. Building on the
paternalistic traditions of Russian culture, Soviet art portrayed Stalin as a national father figure. In
much the same way as Tsar Nicholas II had been known as the ‘Little Farther’ chosen by God to rule
over the nation, so too Stalin was referred to as the Vozhd, meaning ‘Leader’.
Italy 1922- 1944
Censors in Fascist Italy had long allowed artists relatively free reign to express their creativity so long
as they adhered to European or national norms. The leading art style since 1909 had been the
‘Futurism’, founded by Marinetti, an artistic and social movement that emphasized dynamism, speed,
technology, youth, violence, and objects such as the car, the airplane, and the industrial city. It
glorified modernity and according to its doctrine, aimed to liberate Italy from the weight of its past.
Arturo Ciacelli, ‘Dux’ (‘Il Duce’), signed ‘CIACELLI ROMA-XIII” (1935).
The Era Fascista (‘Fascist Era’) was a calendar era used in Fascist Italy. The March on Rome, or more precisely the accession of Mussolini as prime minister on 29 October 1922, is day 1 of Anno I of the Era Fascista. Anno XIII is 1935. Each year of the Era Fascista (E.F.) was an Anno Fascista, abbreviated A.F.
But besides Futurism, in fact al other art styles were allowed, until the mid-1930s. From 1936
onwards, events such as the victorious war in Ethiopia, the proclamation of the Italian Empire and the
declaration of the Rome-Berlin Axis followed by the Pact of Steel in 1939 caused Italy to be drawn
into Hitler’s sphere of influence….Even art and culture had to be reconsidered in order to conform
more closely to Nazi ideals which promoted the pure Aryan race. From 1937 to 1943, Italian artists
produced works of ‘militant-art’ that followed official propaganda in line with Nazi tastes and
principles. These artworks were shown regularly at local and regional events, and at the three Premio
Cremona exhibitions held in the city of Cremona in 1939, 1940 and 1941, national contests which
aimed to popularize ‘militant art’.
Louigi Stracciari , ‘Parla il Duce’ (‘Il Duce Speaks’). Displayed at the Cremona 1939-exhibition, Palazzo del Comune, maggio-luglio 1939. Winner of the second prize (the painting that won the first prize had been destroyed).
The Cremona Prize Exhibition was established in 1938 by the
powerful politician and journalist Roberto Farinacci (1892-1945), a man who was ironically
nicknamed ‘the German’, for his burning anti-Semitic feeling and open attraction towards Nazism.
Mostly based on anti-intellectual aesthetics, and centered on didactic realism, the first Cremona Prize
opened successfully in 1939, and was visited by Mussolini and the Italian King. Artists were not free
to choose their own subject and were compelled to adhere to the themes chosen for them for that year.
The Cremona 1939 themes were: ‘Listening to a speech by the Duce on the Radio’, and ‘The State of
Mind created by Fascism’. The Cremona 1940 theme: ‘The Battle for Grain’, and the 1941 theme:
‘Italian Youth of Littorio’.
The paintings shown in 1940 and 1941 in Cremona, were also displayed in Germany, at the exhibitions
‘Ausstellung Italienischer Bilder aus dem II Wettbewerb in Cremona’, Künstlerhaus Hannover, city of
Hannover, 1940, and respectively the ‘Ausstellung Italienischer Bilder aus dem III Wettbewerb in
Cremona’, Künstlerhaus Hannover, city of Hannover, 1941.
Italy after 1945
Between May 1945 and the beginning of 1946, numerous Cremona-displayed paintings were destroyed by order of the CLN (The National Liberation Committee). However, Italy has kept many of its fascist monuments and buildings. After World War II, prompted by the Allies, Germany underwent an intensive de-Nazification program. In Italy, however,- there was no equivalent de-fascistization. The country is still filled with war monuments, buildings and street names that evoke its 20-year dictatorship.
In 2018 and 2019 some 40 surviving Cremona paintings were displayed at ‘il Regime dell’ARTE’, Premio Cremona 1939–1941’, held in the Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Cremona.
United States 1933 – 1943
A large number of the public art works in the US, created from 1933 to 1943 under the PWA and WPA programs as part of the New Deal*, were painted in the Social Realism style. Many of these murals in the US are strikingly similar to murals and paintings in the Third Reich. What is the difference, for example, between ‘German Soil’ by Werner Peiner and ‘American Soil’ by Jerry Bywaters?
Nazi art – New Deal art
Werner Peiner versus Jerry Bywaters
On top: Werner Peiner, ‘Deutsche Erde’ or ‘German Soil’ or ‘Terra tedesca’, Displayed at the Great German Art Exhibition 1938, at the XIX Venice Biennale, 1934, and at the ‘1938 Berliner Ausstellung in der Preussischen Akademie der Künste’.
Below: Jerry Bywaters, ‘Soil Conservation in Collin County’, 1941. Mural in the Post Office of Farmersville, Texas. ‘American Soil’, the American counterpart of ‘German Soil’.
* The Public Works of Art Project (PWA) was a program to employ artists, as part of the New Deal, during the Great Depression. It was the first such program, running from December 1933 to June 1934. The purpose of the PWA was ‘to give work to artists by arranging to have competent representatives of the profession embellish public buildings. Artists were told that the subject matter had to be related to the ‘American scene’. Artworks from the project were shown or incorporated into a variety of locations, including the White House and House of Representatives.
The Federal Art Project (1935–1943) was a New Deal program to fund the visual arts in the United States. It was one of five Federal Project Number One projects sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the largest of the New Deal art projects. It was created not as a cultural activity but as a relief measure to employ artists and artisans to create murals, easel paintings, sculptures, graphic art, posters, photography, theatre scenic design, and arts and crafts. The Federal Art Project’s primary goals were to employ out-of-work artists and to provide art for non-federal municipal buildings and public spaces. As many as 10,000 artists were commissioned to produce work for the WPA Federal Art Project.
Lincoln Kirstein, one of the ‘Monuments Men’, wrote in ‘Art in the Third Reich’ (published in the ‘Magazine of Art’, American Federation of Arts, New York, October 1945): ‘There have been many new buildings to decorate (in Germany): party offices, banks, barracks, schools, and town halls. What has been done compares, at least in technique, more than favorably with our PWA and WPA murals. Americans employed much the same subject matter – physical energy and the Common Man…. The Nazis did not tolerate incompetence or slipshod execution. Their patronage was in no sense charity…….The general level of official work in Germany was technically superior to much of the work in France, England, and the United States’.
Nazi art – New Deal art
Hermann Tiebert versus Grand Wood
Left: Hermann Tiebert, ‘Erbhofbauer’ (‘Hereditary Farmer’), 1934. Displayed at the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1938, and at ‘Die Auslese I’, 1934, Berlin, NS-Kulturgemeinde. ‘Erbhofbauer’ by Tiebert can be seen as Germany’s counterpart to Grand Wood’s ‘American Gothic’.
Right: ‘American Gothic’, 1930, by Grand Wood. Size 78 x 63 cm. According to the Royal Academy of Arts ‘probably the most famous American painting in the world’. ‘American Gothic came to be seen as a depiction of the steadfast American pioneer spirit…..….Wood intended the painting to depict the farmer and his daughter as survivors, to pay homage to the strength of the rural community, and to provide reassurance in a time of great economic upset..’. The painting is in the possession of the Art Institute of Chicago. From 2016 to 2017, the painting was displayed in Paris at the Musée de l’Orangerie and in London at the Royal Academy of Arts in its first showings outside the United States.
Apart from murals and paintings created under the New Deal program, American World War II art also shows great similarities to Nazi War art.
On 23 September 1981, the House of Representatives, Committee on Armed Services, Investigation Subcommittee discussed the return to Germany of 6,337 pieces of war art that were seized from the German Government by the United States Army in March 1947. Below are some remarkable quotes from the discussion.
1. George William Whitehurst (Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, journalist, professor) regarding the 6,337 pieces of German war art:
‘They are similar to the military works of art hanging in our own committee and subcommittee rooms. Part of the German collection is on display in the Pentagon…. This is war art, showing the life of German military personnel under the best and the worst conditions, as indeed soldiers, sailors, and airmen of all nations experienced it…’ When asked by the Chairman about the value of the art: ‘Some of it is very, very good. The large canvas in my office is an outstanding work of art’.
2. Marylou Gjernes, Army Art Curator, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Department of the Army:
‘..The Air Force similarly favors retention of German war art integral to its museum operations at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and a small exhibit of paintings that they have in the Pentagon.’…. ‘Some of the paintings and drawings are brilliant in conception and execution. They show by their artistry, color and mood, the spirit of combat, and the desolation, destruction and tragedy of war. There are illustrations of the despair and boredom of the troops…They are a testament to the sensitivity of the artist regardless of nationality. The collection…is utilized in ongoing exhibition programs and displays to provide a unique view of World War II that supplements and supports the written history of the conflict.’
(partly based on ‘Totalitarian Art’ by Igor Golomstock, 2011, ‘Sporting Propaganda in Visual Arts Under the Fascist Regime and the Example of the 1941 Cremona Prize’, by Gigliola Gori, 2020, and ‘Nostalgia for the Future’ by Gregory Maertz, 2019).