Toeing the party line

Danny Hammill reviews 'Art and Power: Europe under the dictators 1930-45' at Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre (October 26 1995 - January 21 1996, £5, £3.50 concessions)

THIS EXHIBITION is a fascinating study of the relationship between art and the state, and of the role of the artist in the political process. This is achieved by focusing on Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany and Spain during the civil war.

One of the first things which strikes the viewer is the remarkable degree of ‘convergence’ in artistic styles or conventions, even when the artists were operating in an entirely different political context. For instance, the idealised Aryan family portrayed ad nauseam in Nazi art - seen as an expression of “true German art” by the fascist ideologues - bears an unsettling similarity to the hyper-idealised ‘proletarian’ family of Soviet art, which by the 1930s was utterly subordinated to the ‘official’ cult of so-called Socialist Realism.

On the other hand, you cannot fail to notice the divergent influences and contrasting artistic schools and theories of the fascist regimes, sometimes even within the regime itself. The oppressive, inhuman neo-classicism of Nazi art and architecture contrasts sharply with the almost ultra-modernist, neo-Futurist experimentation which was popular during the first decade of Italian fascism. Unlike Nazi Germany, an extremely high number of Italy’s most talented writers, artists and architects were incorporated into the regime and became its most enthusiastic supporters. Even more significant, they played a key role in constructing a myth of nationalist fervour, optimism, efficiency and vigour.

Interestingly, the exhibition demonstrates how Italian fascist art inevitably ended up mimicking the artistic regime of its ‘patron’, Nazi Germany. Rome was home in 1932 to the exhibition Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista. This had a wild ‘revolutionary’ message which strongly paralleled Russian Constructivism at its most daring. However, five years later Rome was exhibiting the Mostra Augustea della Romaita, which was dominated by overbearing, monumental classicism. At the same time Berlin was holding its exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’, which poured unrelenting scorn on all avant-garde, ‘modernist’ movements and trends, as represented by artists like Max Beckmann, Paul Klee and Oskat Kokoschka.

The vast majority of the paintings in the Soviet section are devoid of almost any aesthetic content or sensitivities.

In 1934 Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s chief cultural commissar, decreed that all artists and architects must follow the creed of ‘revolutionary romanticism’ and become ‘engineers of the human soul’. 

Hardly surprising, the uniformity and conformity of the material is quite depressing; under the guise of ‘Socialist Realism’ the officially sanctioned art deployed the most fantastically utopian imagery - made all the more sinister, if I can use that word, by the awareness that life in the Soviet Union at that time was more akin to hell on earth than the socialist idyll depicted in the paintings.

Danny Hammill