Friday, January 21

Story. Swastikas and propaganda: Austria exposes cumbersome Nazi art heritage

Anyone who twice failed the entrance exam to the Vienna School of Fine Arts sees his heritage currently “on display” in the Austrian capital, in the strictest sense. But for everyone to see. Until April, the municipal museum Wien Museum MUSA presents in two small rooms this cumbersome heritage of a past long denied by Austria. The exhibition, which is soberly called “Vienna comes to a halt”, shows the artistic policy in the native country of Adolf Hitler, annexed in 1938 by Nazi Germany.

Confronting History

There are posters, pottery or paintings that are prohibited from being placed on the market. The museum decided to show them numbered without completely unpacking them, as if they were an inventory. There is no question of putting them in beauty like in the Louvre: the objects are presented less like art than historical witnesses.

“For us, it was clear that this was not a classic artistic presentation,” explains Ingrid Holzschuh, one of the curators who conceived the project after four years of research. It was necessary that “it makes a little mess”, to avoid “giving an aura” to the whole, she specifies. While any apology for the Third Reich is severely sanctioned in Austria, Ingrid Holzschuh considers that it is time to assume and “face up to History”, because “the gaps to be filled are still numerous”.

Meeting the needs of propaganda

After Austria joined the Reich on March 12, 1938, the regime took control of cultural policy to bring it “in tune with its ideological and racist vision”. Artists had to register with a supervisory authority, the “Reich Chamber of Fine Arts”, which ensured that production conformed to the canons dictated by Berlin.

Few of the Austrians know who the 3,000 members of this association are who have agreed to replace the Jewish and avant-garde creators, considered “degenerates”, to serve a murderous ideology. The little peasant woman portrayed with flat realism by Herta Karasek-Strzygowski or the oil on canvas of a certain Igo Pötsch, immortalizing Hitler’s entry into Vienna, have not changed the history of art. It was then only a question of responding to the needs of propaganda with zeal and fidelity.

Those who refused to comply with the new rules had to flee or were sent to a concentration camp, details the 300-page catalog. After 1945, the relics of this current were archived in the cellar. And Austria presented itself as a victim of Nazism. It was not until the end of the 1980s that a work of memory was undertaken.

The exhibition, which opened in October, attracted more than 4,000 visitors during the first month, a sign for museum spokesperson Konstanze Schäfer of the “great interest” of a public ripe for questioning.

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