Nazi Exhibition Design and Modernism

Nazi Exhibition Design and Modernism
by Michael Tymkiw

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis MN, 2018
312 pp., illus. 98 b/w. Paper, $35
ISBN 978-1-5179-0057-1.

Reviewed by
Mike Mosher
February 2020

In the version of Susan Sontag’s 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism” in the New York Review of Books, she linked Third Reich filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s photographs of elegant Africans and a mass-market paperback on Nazi regalia.  She analyzed the visual appeal of the regalia to avid readers (though neglected enthused California bikers and Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton) from a design standpoint. With dramatic contrasts of black, red, and white, stylized runes and swastika, greatcoats and shiny black boots, how many Germans were seduced into acceptance of evil by the Nazis’ design aesthetic?

Their designers were good. Damned good. Nazi Exhibition Design and Modernism examines the formal look and feel, content and influence of the regimes’ major public exhibitions in the 1930s. Nazi Modernism drew upon Italian fascist precedents, as well as their Futurist enthusiasts’ aesthetics of war and command. The spectator was involved, drawn in, brought into line ideologically.  Designers took control of the experience, traffic pattern, craning of the neck or sweep of the head to take it all in.

For an exhibition in 1937 celebrating four years of Nazi rule, architect Egon Eiermann juxtaposed big photomurals with bulky industrial machine tools, cranes, and pulleys; functional steel beneath steely black-and-white photography. Soldiers marched and tanks rolled beneath ceiling-mounted fighter planes arched as if diving to strafe the viewers.

Cesar Klein’s abstract stained-glass window in the 1934 Hall of Honor suggested chevrons or symmetrical troop formations, ultimately excising any swastikas and figurative elements that appeared in Klein’s earlier sketches, though he also created a Nazi eagle in mosaic for the Hall. In a 1935 exhibition, artist Ludwig Gies created a plaster relief of an eagle whose feathers were a pattern of semiabstract marching figures. Modern art was exhibited in factories, as curator Otto Andreas Schreiber advocated a greater range of expression in his “mass-produced” (multiples) exhibitions than the conservative Nazi hierarchy embraced. Yet even works tame to our eyes met opprobrium in the Nazi debates on “decadent art”; Erich Emma Roesteutscher’s modular display system for the shows is of more lasting interest to later designers than the exhibited artworks.

Just as Stefant Lorant of the pictorial Münchner Illustrierte Presse left Germany in the 1930s for the US and inspired Henry Luce’s LIFE magazine, a plenitude of photography was used in Nazi modernist exhibitions. Photomurals filled an exhibit “The Camera: Exhibition for Photography, Printing and Reproduction”.  Did connoisseur-of-the-mechanically-reproduced Walter Benjamin attend?  Before emigration to the U.S., architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius worked on the Hall of Energy and Technology in 1934, which they could probably argue was apolitical, its “international style” comparable to corporate industrial displays in the U.S. that might be covered in Henry Luce’s business magazine FORTUNE.  Other exhibit designers applied Protestant church layouts or picture-book metaphors attentive to visual and spatial dynamics to grand environments of photomurals to honor Nazi Germany’s accomplishments in engineering and industry. At least one designer was influenced by the Ford Rotunda at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, a building later installed at Detroit and burning to the ground in 1962.

Space, image, and attention fragmented in the famous “Decadent Art” exhibition in Munich, 1937, and other anti-Semitic extravaganzas depicting “the Jewish-Bolshevist Enemy”, in gigantic faces of surly, growling bankers and notables like Freud, or a (go figure) reconstructed Freemasons’ Lodge with skeletons, skull and crossbones. Like the hero of Joseph Losey’s film Mr. Klein (1976), one wealthy and influential French politician shown insisted he wasn’t Jewish, his image then removed from future venues of the traveling exhibition around occupied France. The galleries in such exhibitions were as intentionally claustrophobic as Cabinet of Dr. Caligari sets, as decentering as a Dada collage, may have included reconstructed Soviet hovels or sweeping painted murals in a style that parodied Diego Rivera and his socialist contemporaries.  Propaganda was made massive and invasive, through impressive stagecraft.

Author Michael Tymkiw concludes Nazi Exhibition Design and Modernism by charting what elements from this era continued, for better and worse, in postwar German exhibition design. His text is clear, efficient, elegant, effectively documenting an underexamined realm. And therefore chilling. An historical realm of powerful and terrible design. It’s good, and damned.