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  • Modernism and the State
  • Sabine Hake
Nazi Exhibition Design and Modernism. Michael Tymkiw. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Pp. 312. $140.00 (cloth); $35.00 (paper).
Bernhard Heisig and the Fight for Modern Art in East Germany. April A. Eisman. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2018. Pp 280. $49.95 (cloth).

New developments in modernist studies continue to have an invigorating effect on the study of literature, as can be seen in richly interdisciplinary and theoretically sophisticated studies on anything from canonical authors to minor genres to mass cultural sensibilities. Meanwhile much of art history has held on to models of interpretation first developed under the influence of Alfred Barr's bold vision for the Museum of Modern Art (made possible, indirectly, by the Nazi's Degenerate Art campaign) and, later, through the ideological competition between democratic and socialist modernisms during the Cold War. Not surprisingly, revisionist accounts of German modernism tend to focus on the two periods that represent its absolute other: the official art and architecture of the Third Reich and the socialist realist style prevalent during the Stalinist era. Recent studies on the German projects of Mies van der Rohe after 1933 (for example, the 2001 Mies in Berlin exhibition) and the continuities of New Objectivity in the work of Franz Radziwill (for example, the 2010 monograph by James van Dyke) started the process by challenging the convenient equation of Nazi art with classicist and regionalist styles. The rediscovery of postwar German art (as in the 2009 Art of Two Germanys exhibition) has further expanded and complicated the genealogies of modernism beyond American abstract expressionism.

The books by Michael Tymkiw and April Eisman continue these lines of inquiry, Tymkiw by examining Nazi exhibition design and Eisman by looking at the East German artist Bernhard Heisig. Both books are important case studies on the politics of art and design in modern dictatorships, but they explore these connections through very different methodologies. Tymkiw insists on the primacy of form and the [End Page 427] importance of formal analysis as the foundation of any political critique, even when it involves the applied arts. Eisman rejects the facile denunciation of German Democratic Republic (GDR) modernism as either state propaganda or bad art, in favor of serious engagement with artists equally committed to modernism and socialism.

Nazi Exhibition Design and Modernism departs from a seemingly obvious point: the Nazis' need for advertising their ambitious modernization projects through the most advanced models available at the time—that is, the forms and techniques developed by the historical avant-gardes. The 1937 exhibition on the Nazi Four-Year Plan allows Tymkiw to lay out his critical approach: to use a small number of exhibitions to reconstruct the importance of formal experimentation in, and for, the Nazi state. His four case studies focus on industrial exhibitions promoting the country's major industries: so-called Leistungsschauen that advertised the Nazis' recent economic and technological achievements; thematic art exhibitions designed specifically for factories and workers; and anti-Semitic and anti-Bolshevik propaganda shows conceived for mass audiences. Tymkiw reconstructs how such a "complex entanglement with modernism" involved three distinct strategies (6). These included the refunctionalization of practices developed by, and associated with, the historical avant-gardes; the appropriation of vernacular modernist forms from the illustrated press and film; and the instrumentalization of these forms and practices in political contexts unique to the Third Reich. An important precondition for uncovering these connections is the conceptual shift from the kind of passive spectatorship assumed in propaganda studies to the engaged spectatorship that made exhibition design an integral part of the Nazi modern: at the workplace, in public life, and through the new alliances between art, industry, and technology.

According to Tymkiw, only close attention to formal features can reveal the complicated relationship between "aesthetic" and "political" modernism. Thus chapter 1, titled "Falling into Line," uses the formal principle of alignment (as in chevron patterns) in the 1934 Deutsches Volk-Deutsche Arbeit exhibit to analyze the visualization of the process of political Gleichschaltung and the experience of collective formations—that is, of Volksgemeinschaft. Chapter 2 examines a number of factory exhibitions developed by Otto Andreas Schreiber in association with the German...


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