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 Posted Sunday, May 9, 1999

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Paintings from Hitler's private art collection, on show in Weimar. Their banal themes are also evident in a display of East German art, and remained popular in the West after the war

The Times
May 8, 1999

Taste for kitsch outlasted Hitler


HITLER'S private art collection, best described as totalitarian kitsch, went on display yesterday for the first time since the war, prompting a discussion about the banality of the cultural tastes of dictators.

Working girls happily returning from the fields, a dutiful mother dishing out soup to her ten children in lederhosen, and a number of naked blondes as asexual as Claudia Schiffer are on view in Weimar from this weekend.

The curiosity of the paintings is how Hitler's tastes shaped a generation long after the collapse of the Third Reich. This can be seen in Weimar: alongside Hitler's collection - 118 out of 705 works which were found by the Americans in a disused mine shaft near Alt Ausee in Austria - Weimar is showing exhibitions of "degenerate art" (Modernist paintings abhorred by Hitler) and of East German Communist art.

The themes from the Communist era are almost interchangeable with Hitler's. Muscular peasants who never sweat, village scenes without a speck of visible mud and above all young women who seem to be passing the time, in various states of undress, waiting for their chance to bear children for the Fatherland.

But as the 52-year-old psychoanalyst Gudrun Brockhaus remarks, the taste for such themes was not unique to the East. "It was only when I went to an exhibition of Third Reich art that I realised my family's furnishings and paintings directly reflected the aesthetic mood of the Third Reich."

Similar revelations are expected during the course of this exhibition. Even now it is difficult for Germans to see the crude romanticism favoured by Hitler as kitsch; it is just part of the backdrop. Visitors to Rhineland pubs can see the very same bellowing stags as those admired by Hitler.

The Nazi leader's dream was to build a vast gallery for his collection in Linz; judging by the Weimar display it would have been full of bathing Dianas and other mythological themes transplanted to a tidy Bavarian setting.

One of the pictures, by Ivo Saliger, captures the depressed, mediocre spirit of the collection. It is a version of the Judgment of Paris: youth in short trousers, standing in an evidently German landscape, tries without much enthusiasm to choose between three naked Aryan women who are, thanks to the artlessness of the artist, virtually identical.

Hitler did not like paintings that posed questions or choices. The Czech satirist Milan Kundera, writing of communist art, said: "In the world of totalitarian kitsch the answers are known in advance and eliminate the need for questions."

Unsure of the connection between Hitler's taste and his abysmal deeds, German authorities preferred to store his collection in a sealed Munich warehouse. Now, with the paintings on display in the city designated Europe's cultural capital, the real message emerges: Hitler was uniquely evil but did not have uniquely bad taste. His view of what was good in art was shared by millions and not only because his line was dictated to them.

Hitler wanted to build a gallery in Linz for his collection

Goering was an even more voracious collector - stealing or buying at very low prices from dealers profiting from the destruction of Jewish households; but he seemed to have a more sophisticated eye. Hitler had a feel for minor German Romantics.

Changing tastes are reflected in market values. The 118 paintings from Hitler's collection are insured for £300,000 - hardly worth breaking into the gallery for. The 200 paintings from the nearby "degenerate art" exhibition are insured for £160 million.

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