- Franz Radziwill and the Contradictions of German Art History, 1919–45 by James A. van Dyke
The vicissitudes of art production during National Socialism exert particular fascination as they raise important historical, aesthetic, and moral questions. What was the legacy of formative earlier art periods, especially the Renaissance and Romanticism, for the mythologizing tendencies in the period’s construction of authentic “German art”? What was the role of political institutions, ideological quarrels, and economic conditions that both enabled and restricted emerging artists? How did these artists come to forge their self-understanding, their individual subject-positions, self-justifications, and legitimizing programs in response to often dramatically shifting experiences of public success, market pressures, and promotion or condemnation from official party lines? And, most importantly: how do we read a particular art work’s subject matter, techniques, and references to art history as forms of reflection, opportunistic articulation, or subversive critique of larger discursive networks, social circumstances, and technological media conditions of the time of its production, dissemination, and reception?
In his illuminating study of the painter Franz Radziwill (1895–1983), James A. van Dyke addresses these and related issues through a complex interrogation of biographical facts, close readings of selected paintings (of the artist himself and his contemporaries and precursors), textual analysis, and reconstructions of sociopolitical contexts. He rightly questions “common, sweeping assumptions about the relationship of the NSDAP […] to contemporary German artistic production in the 1920s and 1930s” (2), arguing that National Socialist art policy and “Nazi Art” “were no unchanging, monolithic entities but rather dynamic processes and fragmented fields fraught with tension, struggles over the assertion of competing definitions of authentically German art” (5–6). In many ways, Radziwill, a relatively marginal yet representative figure, reflects these manifold contradictions and tensions in exemplary fashion. Distrustful of “urban, commercial, rational civilization,” but fascinated by modern technological spectacles and popular culture, even while recuperating the techniques of Old Masters, Radziwill, according to van Dyke, is best classified as the “preeminent ‘reactionary modernist’ painter of the Weimar Republic and Third Reich” (11). [End Page 521]
Formed even before Hitler’s ascent to power, Radziwill’s sympathies for National Socialist ideology and politics “were rooted both in his class identity and in a romantically anticapitalist cultural critique” (12). Having begun his career in the circles of the Expressionist avant-garde and socially critical art, he struggled with severe professional and personal setbacks to arrange himself with the regime and its institutions. A protagonist of “Neoromanticism” (25), Radziwill called himself a “proletarian of art” and “worker of painting” (34) rooted “organically in an intact social environment” (36) and believing, since 1925, “that urban society and its artistic culture were pervaded by crass materialism and aestheticist decadence” (38). By the early 1930s, Radziwill had “left behind his politically indeterminate critique of modern civilization” to become a “passionate, outspoken supporter of National Socialism” (77), even though he later turned bitter about the dictatorship’s centralized art bureaucracy and policies (119). In 1935 Radziwill lost his professorial position at the prestigious Düsseldorf Art Academy “on the grounds that he lacked the ‘nativeness’ and comprehensive technical ability” to teach his local students (126). His career was effectively ended by the intrigues of the antimodernist and anti-Semitic faction of the NSDAP, causing him to withdraw into the ideals of “pantheistic nature lyricism” and artistic autonomy in opposition to modern mass society (127–28). Although not directly associated with active resistance to the regime, he seems to have been sympathetic to the national-conservative conspiracy that led to the events of 20 July 1944 (162). Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Radziwill’s labyrinthine career is his attempt, after 1945, to exculpate himself from the ideals and errors of his past. Seeking court compensation for the damages sustained after being dismissed from the Düsseldorf academy, he one-sidedly stylized himself as a victim of unjust professional disasters while downplaying his NSDAP activities and the support...