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AN ARTIST AGAINST THE THIRD REICH: Ernst Barlach 1933–1938

Peter Paret, Author
Peter Paret, Author . Cambridge Univ. $35 (246p) ISBN 978-0-521-82138-4
Reviewed on: 03/10/2003
Release date: 03/01/2003
Paperback - 248 pages - 978-0-521-03570-5
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Before Hitler's mission to weld Nazi ideology to art produced in the Reich, modernists and National Socialists met their ill-defined enmity with fumbling hands. Paret (German Encounters with Modernism) views the clash through the career of Barlach (1870–1938) who emerges from this meticulous study paradoxically steadfast and yet destroyed. After 1933, the then renowned artist continued to sculpt and sketch broad-planed, fine-lined figures possessed of an earthy grace, and to proclaim that "[n]othing can be more certain than that art is not subject to the strictures of a political view of the world." As internal party factions sought correlatives to the "un-German" art that Hitler reviled, this avowedly apolitical work became a locus of rhetorical contest: vanguards proclaimed its Nordic virility while conservatives denounced its alien distortion. Paret finds that Barlach, in the beginning, had no clue of the magnitude of his affront to the manic radicals who finally deemed his drawings " 'likely to endanger public safety and order.'" Ultimately, Barlach was disowned by the state that might have embraced him: cultural police moved his work from museum to warehouse, from the office of Goebbels (an early admirer) to the 1937 "Degenerate Art" exhibit. He died of a heart attack the next year. While Paret charts this history with graceful clarity, his appraisals of the sculptures sometimes want aesthetic defense. It's unclear, for instance, why certain pieces would "seem to belong not to a national or even an international world, but to a world that is non-national." Still, he succinctly assesses the artist's threat to the Nazi agenda—in particular, by setting Barlach's spare, mournful monuments to World War I against popular tributes to the invincible Reich. Wholly compelling yet never celebratory, Paret's account (including 38 halftones) grants Barlach his long-due regard in English. (Apr.)

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