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Serving Hitler's state

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REVIEW: Taking Positions: Figurative Sculpture and the Third Reich At the Henry Moore Institute, The Headrow, Leeds, until 26 August

British collections of inter-war sculpture have tended to avoid works from Germany, not only on political grounds but also because British curators' predilection for abstraction was rarely fulfilled.

Much more prevalent in German sculpture from the period was the realist school, extending the Maillol tradition. Moreover, monumentalism was required in works commissioned by the Nazi state to embellish new public buildings or urban spaces.

Much of this work, which has come to characterise sculpture from the period, has been destroyed and is familiar now only through photographic images, so this immaculately curated exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see figurative works of modest scale from such apparent extremes as 'official state sculptor' Arno Breker to exBauhaus teacher Gerhard Marcks.

Such pluralism helps dispel other myths:

first that cultural attitudes within the Weimar Republic halted abruptly after Hitler's accession to power in 1933; second, that a Nazi dictatorship prescribed 'monotheistic' cultural values to all sculptural output.

In the event, monumental realists from the Nazi regime, such as Klimsch, Kolbe and Schiebe, were prominent during the Weimar period; when Hitler came to power they were aged 63, 56 and 54 respectively and Breker had come under the influence of Maillol during his sojourn in Paris from 1927 to 1933. Internal wrangling between Joseph Goebbels and Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg led to confused messages from the state on preferred cultural output, but a free art market nevertheless prevailed, even if racially and politically cleansed.

Forever much more prominent than painting during the Third Reich, sculpture's primacy was boosted substantially by a Nazi decree that all public buildings should incorporate sculptural works as an integral component of the fabric. Consequently, sculpture became a huge, state-supported 'industry'; Breker employed 43 assistants in his studio and a second 'factory' employed several hundred, for whom a training school and accommodation were planned on site.

To be an officially recognised sculptor during the Third Reich was also highly profitable; apart from his considerable fee income, Breker received from Hitler a restored castle as his official residence, befitting his status as 'official state sculptor'.

Whether by 'official' sculptors or not, all the exhibits at 'Taking Positions' reflect a long-standing German figurative tradition with common roots in Greek antiquity and it was therefore an easy transition for most sculptors to produce a Nordic equivalent to express state-approved values of heroism, loyalty and honour.

The tall, broad-shouldered, narrowhipped nude male therefore became celebrated, surprisingly, within a context of state-sanctioned homophobia. Conversely, the female nude celebrated Nazi values of fertility and motherhood.

But the most profound aspect of this exhibition is its exposure of those sculptors such as Marcks who maintained an independence without succumbing to the Nazi sculptural stereotype; in marked contrast was Breker, whose Maillol-inspired work increasingly assumed an exaggerated, brutal hardness as he absorbed Nazi ideology.

Refreshingly, 'Taking Positions' also avoids the crude 'tradition-versus-Modernism' divide that generally pervades any discussion surrounding Third Reich art;

instead it offers an unfamiliar vision of progressive sculptors who, in a state of 'inner emigration', practised their art despite a prevailing Nazi cultural policy antipathetic towards Modernism.

Nevertheless, this situation only obtained for those of acceptable race and political persuasion; three of the exhibitors met their fate in Hitler's concentration camps.

Peter Fawcett is Professor of Architecture at the University of Nottingham

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