The Schleswig-Holstein Haus in Schwerin, Germany, northeast of Berlin, has mounted a survey exhibition of 70 works by Arno Breker (1900-91), the German artist who is widely known as "Hitler’s favorite sculptor." Schwerin deputy mayor Hermann Junghans has denied that the show, which is on view July 22-Oct. 22, 2006, is "any kind of rehabilitation," characterizing it as "absolutely necessary to a discussion about Breker." German culture minister Bernd Neumann also argued that the event would prevent Breker’s works from gaining seductiveness due to an "aura of the forbidden." But a coalition of 30 local artists, dealers and art historians have urged that the exhibition be called off, and the noted artist Klaus Staeck, who is head of the Academy of Arts in Berlin, has canceled a forthcoming show of his own in Schwerin in protest.
All this controversy brings back to memory a visit I paid to Breker in 1985 at his home in Düsseldorf, where I flew for the day.
"Will you bring photographers?" Breker asked me in fluent French, when I called him to confirm my visit.
I was living in Paris on a fellowship, writing my Ph.D. thesis on the visual arts in France during the Occupation. Breker figured in my research for several reasons. First, because of that famous picture of Hitler flanked by Breker and Albert Speer in front of the Eiffel Tower, a photo taken shortly after Paris had been occupied by the Nazis in June 1940. It turned out that Breker had lived and worked in Paris in the 1920s, and his knowledge of the city made him a natural guide for Hitler. Second, because of the show of his bombastic sculpture at the Jeu de Paume in occupied Paris in 1942. Third, because Breker had sculpted portrait heads of at least three well-known French artists, all of whom were later tagged as collaborators -- Aristide Maillol, Jean Cocteau and Andre Derain. And fourth, because of a memoir he had recently published in which he spoke of having intervened with Hitler to save certain French personalities in danger during the Occupation.
I answered Breker’s question about photographers in the negative, and showed up at his doorstep with a tape recorder and my own camera dangling from around my neck. Perhaps out of a sense of hospitality toward a French native, Cocteau’s sculpted portrait was placed near the entrance of his home. The house was large, and had a large garden. No sooner had I come in than I was greeted by two not-very-young women -- his wife and his personal secretary -- followed by the master himself, who was dressed in his working outfit, a white coat. To me, this baldish old man in his 80s, middle-sized and slightly stooped, looked less like a sculptor than a doctor in an institution. His manner, on the other hand, was friendly, charming and talkative. Unaware that I had already activated my tape recorder, he was assuring his wife -- speaking in German -- who was advising great caution when talking to this Franco-American stranger, that he could handle the likes of me.
It was agreed that the conversation would first take place as we walked around in his garden, or rather his sculpture park, for that is what the garden looked like. Paths through formal gardens led from one piece of Breker statuary to another. The works, though quite large, were bronze replicas of sculptures from the ‘30s and early ‘40s, works that had been destroyed, or so I was told. In reproduction, the original pieces had seemed intimidating, but here the sculptures of tall naked men carrying symbolic accoutrements, or just posing, struck me as somewhat comical. It seemed that they had suffered as perches for birds, which had defecated on them, leaving here and there a greenish stain. The bronzes were, the artist told me, in the process of acquiring their permanent patina.
One piece, a head of Richard Wagner, stood out from the rest by its enormous size, at least ten times as large as a person’s head, an indication of the original large scale that was Breker’s signature, which had made him so popular with Adolf Hitler.
The conversation was pleasant and polite. I asked him when he learned his French, which was quite good, and he confirmed that he had lived in Paris in the ‘20s, and as a young artist had fallen under the spell of Auguste Rodin. You would not believe it now, I said, and he explained how his work changed when, after having returned to Germany, he began to mold the bodies of young athletes in plaster, seeking a never-before achieved smoothness of surface. That way of working made his work different from academic statuary, he claimed.
I noted that Hitler, who did not like academic art and loathed avant-garde art, had liked his work, to which he replied as expected, that he had never been an anti-Semite. I don’t remember at what point in the conversation he told me that he had never made a portrait of Hitler, and I confounded him by pulling out of my briefcase a copy of an article in an early post-war issue of ARTnews magazine featuring his bronze head of Hitler. He asked me if he could borrow this copy to make his own duplicate, and promised that he would send it back to me. He never did send me my copy, as if keeping the Xerox would be enough to eliminate the evidence. What a burden to have to live with!
That incident marked one of the few moments when I sensed I had the upper hand. Much rehearsed over the years, Breker certainly knew how to handle interviewers and give his side of history. He said he preferred American art historians to French ones, because in the U.S., people know that he helped the CIA. He even gave me the name of the American officer who came to thank him after the war.
As for his sculpture, it has nothing to do with politics, he said, for good art is above politics. Asked about those whom he had protected during the war, he mentioned Picasso vaguely, and most emphatically Maillol’s girlfriend Dina Vierny, who had been arrested and was awaiting deportation. It was hard to push her cause with Hitler, he said, because of her resistance work against the Germans, but the "chief le chef," as he referred to the Chancellor of the Third Reich, was a great admirer of Maillol, and Breker told Hitler that Maillol could not produce any work without the model in front of him.
I tried to corner him by asking why he had never made statues of older men. He replied by telling me that Stalin, or as he called him, "Shtalin," had offered to hire him after the war. He had declined, he said, for he could not envisage making statues of fully dressed people, and that was what Shtalin wanted.
We had tea and biscuits on a lovely shaded terrace, and then went inside, where I saw examples of the kind of work that he should have dedicated himself to all his life -- bronze heads. On the moment of leaving, I noted a table holding little booklets about him, and a revolving postcard holder containing images of his work. So his place was a tourist attraction.
No doubt many of the visitors to Breker's current show in Schwerin -- like those who used to and maybe still visit his mansion -- share a certain nostalgia for the days when the concept of degenerate art held sway in Germany, the Hitler years. A better way of reevaluating Breker’s work, both on historical and esthetic grounds, would be an exhibition that confronted his sculpture with art by the German artists whom Hitler condemned as degenerate. That approach would provide the context necessary to an intelligent debate.
MICHELE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).