people, terms, and concepts: totalitarianism, retour à l’ordre, Social(ist) Realism, Degenerate Art Exhibition
additional reading: selection from a Hitler speech
After the Great War, and especially in the 1930s and 40s, European culture and indeed even many modern artists reacted against Modernism. The general call of the early 1920s was for a retour à l’ordre (return to order), as though Modernism had become associated with the chaos, inhumanity, and destructiveness of the war. Practically speaking, this meant that many artists rejected geometric abstraction, mechanomorphic subjects, and social criticism in favor of more “human” sentimental content and traditional, naturalistic styles. Even Picasso, one of the most fertile innovators of Modernism, responded to this general retreat. (However, remember that the 1920s was also the heyday of Léger, Purism, Mondrian, and the Bauhaus, so the “retour à l’ordre” of the 1920s was by no means universal.)
In the 1930s, a worldwide economic depression and an increasingly conservative political climate in many European nations also contributed to the end of Modernism: particularly in the rising totalitarian nations of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Hitler took art very seriously (he applied to study at the Vienna Academy of Art before becoming a politician), and saw modern Expressionism and Dada as contributing to a general German cultural decline. The Nazis forced the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, and Hitler sponsored two parallel exhibits in 1937: The Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) Exhibit aimed to discredit Modernism as a conspiracy of Jewish dealers, insane artists, and genetically deformed models to confuse and undermine German culture and thought. By contrast, the Great German Art Exhibit aimed to show the clarity of normal German mental life and the beauty of the ideal Aryan body. Similarly, after the brief alliance between the new Communist state and Suprematism and Constructivism, Lenin (and Stalin, even more emphatically), rejected Modernism as a form of bourgeois degeneracy. Both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia began to permit only art that directly celebrated the ideals and leaders of their respective regimes in a conventional, naturalistic style called Socialist Realism. It is particularly interesting that these political opposites -- Communism and Fascism -- would both call for an identical style showing heroic, capable, and contented workers looking vaguely up and off into the distance, as though contemplating the glorious future of their state and its people ...
Ironically, American art of the 1930s and 40s exhibits similar qualities. This is the beginning of the idea of America celebrated (some would say fabricated) by Norman Rockwell and TV shows like Leave it to Beaver, with its roots in small-town midwestern society (we East Coast city-dwellers are degenerate, of course); in white, Western European immigrants (all the other immigrants don’t really belong); and “traditional” family values (2 kids, dog, picket fence, father works, mother stays home, everyone is straight ...).
Picasso, Woman with Child on the Seashore, 1921
Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit, Berlin, 1937
Great German Art Exhibit catalog cover, 1937
Worker and Collective Farm Woman, Soviet Pavillion, Paris Universal Expo, 1937
Norman Rockwell, Our Heritage, 1932
Arno Breker, Readiness, 1936