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Authority and Ambiguity: Three Sculptors in National Socialist Germany

posted on 2023-09-01, 14:22 authored by Nina Lübbren
The artistic range of responses to authoritarian regimes has varied from utter conformism, as exemplified by the New Year's posters distributed to communities during the decade of the People's Republic of China's Cultural Revolution, to overt political critique, such as that found in the anti-fascist photomontages of John Heartfield, produced in exile from Germany during the 1930s. Those who do not emigrate are obliged to come to terms with power and authority in some form or another. Resistance is one way among others to imagine how art might relate to power in a totalitarian environment. This chapter examines three German sculptors' creative practice under National Socialism. Continuing as a professional sculpture during the fascist regime necessitated at least a degree of accommodation to circumstances lest one be punished with Berufsverbot, that is, be prohibited from publicly exhibiting and selling work. From the first months after the National Socialist take-over it was clear that persons who were identified as communists or Jews, were dismissed from posts and forbidden to practice, the case with regard to the formal or iconographic language of art works themselves was much less clear-cut. The careers and works of Hanna Cauer, Milly Steger, and Oda Schottmüller allow us to trace the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in making sculpture in an authoritarian environment, and in particular, in the German environment between 1933 and 1945. The monumental, state-sponsored character of much National Socialist sculpture would seem to make it difficult to use this medium in order to “resist” the establishment. Sculpture, one might say, resists resistance. Sculpture would appear to be particularly susceptible to co-optation by authoritarian systems because of its potential as propaganda in the form of monuments in public spaces. Ellen Schwarz-Semmelroth, editor of the official National Socialist women's journal NS.Frauen-Warte, wrote of the 1942 Great German Art exhibition in Munich: “Heroic demeanor, toughness and discipline have made human souls more receptive than ever to monumental form and content.” In its public address, sculpture differed from painting, and James van Dyke notes, sculpture in fascist Germany was in many ways treated as superior to the “hyper-refined” products of modern painting. In 1942, art historian Hans Weigert formulated the difference between painting and sculpture thus: "Easel painting is suited to a room, sculpture to the public square. Inside the room, there lives the individual, the square absorbs the crowd [...] Sculpture radiates out into a space and can thereby dominate many people." I take Weigert's notion of domination not only to pertain to sculpture's physical command of space but also to its psychological authority and emotional interpellation. Sculpture was deemed on a par with architecture in its public reach and was often conceived as part of an architectural urban environment. However, figurative sculpture (and there was no other in National Socialist Germany) could operate at an affective level in a way that architecture could not. National Socialist art historian Johannes Sommer wrote in 1943: "Of all the visual arts, sculpture is the medium most capable of forming an immediate and replete image of the human. Sculpture retains the essence of ephemeral being in non-perishable material and in spatial tactility. A sculptor’s work reveals the force of life that is at work within humans and elevates individual existence into the greater circle of creation." Given the preponderant focus of the literature on public sculpture and on large monumental work in particular, it is worth recalling that the public arena is not the only space where sculpture can unfold its affective impact. Sculpture can also be located in semi-public and domestic spaces where it could elicit more intimate responses. Indeed, the majority of sculptural works produced during the fascist era were not large-scale monuments but small-scale figurines, mostly portraits or animal motifs. To take the Great German Art Exhibition of 1938 as a representative example: of the circa three hundred and fifteen sculptures shown, only forty-seven or less than one-sixth were life-size or larger-than-life. Monumental statues were set up in the central halls near the ground-floor entrance but the overwhelming majority of three-dimensional works were statuettes, figurines and medals, displayed in glass cases and on tables and plinths in the top-floor galleries. Well over half of the sculptures were of animals, heads or busts rather than of full-scale nudes or draped figures. Partly this is a reflection of the commercial character of the Great German Art Exhibitions. All the art on show was for sale, ranging in price from under one hundred to two hundred thousand Reichsmark. It is to be assumed that small-scale works were affordable and appealed to a larger segment of the potential buying public than monumental statues which were the purview of official patronage. The three artists I have chosen exemplify positions on a possible spectrum ranging from apparently absolute conformity to seeming absolute resistance. All three artists remained in Germany and carried on their careers, exhibiting in private galleries or (from 1937) in the annual, state-sponsored Great German Art Exhibitions in Munich, being reviewed in the press, taking part in competitions, or bidding for commissions. These sculptors' cultural practices span a range from official patronage and apparent conformism (Cauer) to pragmatic adaptation (Steger) and political opposition (Schottmüller). The case of Steger points to the ambivalence of National Socialist cultural policy itself, a shifting ideological field of proscriptions and pronouncements that posed a challenging terrain for any individual to negotiate.



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Number of pages



Visual Cultures and German Contexts



Place of publication

New York, London, Oxford, New Delhi, Sydney

Title of book

Art and Resistance in Germany



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  • Published version


  • eng

Legacy Faculty/School/Department

ARCHIVED Faculty of Arts, Law & Social Sciences (until September 2018)

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