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In Museum Arnhem, Wilders haunts the mind

Our intended prime minister wants to abolish almost all cultural subsidies. Only art that can be properly understood by 'real Dutch people' still deserves financial support. Wilders targets cultural subsidies from an ideological background. Anyone visiting the exhibition 'Art in the Third Reich - Temptation and Distraction' at Museum Arnhem cannot escape seeing disturbing comparisons.

Wilders sees art as a tool to strengthen Dutch identity. It is part of his radical right-wing ideology. Obviously, Wilders is no Hitler, but their views on art are like two drops of water. Hitler deployed art ideologically for his National Socialist ideology, as shown in Museum Arnhem.

The exhibition 'Art in the Third Reich - Seduction and Distraction' shows some ninety propagandistic artworks by about sixty artists. They are divided into the themes of 'people and countryside', 'industrial development', 'body culture' and 'military propaganda'. The exhibition is controversial: in these polarised times when the far right is so prominent, should you show such art? Personally, I don't think this is a problem at all. The artworks on display lack any power of persuasion, so I cannot imagine anyone getting 'brown' ideas as a result. 

During my visit, the place was packed with all decent people who - I guess - neatly voted Green Left. They were probably walking around bewildered with the same question in mind: how is it possible that such largely superficial art has been such an important part of world history?

Fear of glorification

Compiling the collection took a lot of effort, which partly accounts for its political innocence. From 1937 to 1944, Nazi Germany held annual propaganda exhibitions - Große Deutsche Kunstausstellungen - attended by hundreds of thousands of people. After World War II, US soldiers took over 8,500 exhibits, as they were seen as a possible security risk. Most of them have since been returned to Germany and included in the collection of the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin: lender of the collection in Arnhem.

450 less innocent works are still stored in vaults at the Fort Belvoir military base. These include portraits of Hitler, images of soldier worship, camaraderie and heroism. Fear that this art contributes to glorification of National Socialism still stands in the way of restitution. Given developments in America itself and the strong democracy that Germany has become, this seems a pretty outdated position.

Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung

It does ensure that only a few canvases featuring soldiers can be seen in Arnhem: a dying soldier giving his last hand grenade to a comrade, advancing infantry, an army column making its way through the mud. As the war years progressed, the emphasis shifted to the sacrifices made by the German soldiers. A good example is Adolf Reich's painting 'The greater sacrifice', where a soldier on crutches with an amputated leg makes his way through the streets, watched by a few passers-by. The look of the watching lady at the centre of the painting expresses more pity than pride.

Potty high or low

A short film at the beginning of the exhibition interprets the historical context. It makes it clear that the art shown in the Kunstausstellungen (the artists were well paid for it) had to be simple, accessible, traditional - in short, populist. So we see many peasant landscapes, a bombastically painted factory by Ria Picco-Rűckert - 'Establishments of Labour' from 1944 - and quite a lot of blonde female nudity, referring to the Aryan origin of the German people.

Potty high or low is 'The Judgement of Paris' from 1939 by Ivo Salinger in which a young man dressed as the Hitler Youth as the king's son of Troy has to point out the most beautiful of the three goddesses Hera, Athene and Aphrodite.

Wandering through the exhibition in Arnhem is an alienating experience, enhanced by a historical depiction of visitors viewing the same paintings during the Nazi period. You step, as it were, in their footsteps. The mediocrity of the art makes it barely worth looking at, but it still fascinates because the whole time the question plays through your mind of how it is possible that the depictions of eagles or the pilgrims of Tannhäuser could have manipulated people so much.

Meadows with cows

At the Große Kunstausstellung in 1937, 'entartete' art was exhibited and mocked in a nearby building. This exhibition then toured Germany and Austria. It was the best-attended travelling exhibition of the time. It is a pity that hardly any attention is paid to this in Arnhem. After all, forbidden art was also part of the Third Reich.

Over coffee afterwards, Wilders once again pops up around the corner. Actually, he has been a constant presence in the back of my mind. What would his ideal art exhibition look like? Pictures of windmills, meadows with cows, only white people, cars racing along the motorway at 140 km/h, Dutch flags flying? Art and ideology: they are not compatible. Above all, let it stay that way.    

The exhibition 'Art in the Third Reich - Temptation and Distraction' is on display at Museum Arnhem until 24 March.

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Onno Weggemans

At CulturePress, I combine my passion for culture with my love of writing. I have a broad cultural interest and target a wide audience. I like to choose a personal angle and like to experiment occasionally in terms of form.View Author posts

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