Anna Fusick

ART 335

Book Review

Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany. Jonathan Petropoulos. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014. 407 pp.).

In his book, Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany, Petropoulos boldly declares that modernism was not destroyed by fascism and continuously argues that modernism excelled under Hitler’s regime. His argument maintains the idea that modernism is defined as the rejection of “verisimilitude and traditional historicist idioms” (xi) and the process of abstraction, and non-realistic art components.   Throughout his argument the author expands the definition of modernism. He argues that modernism itself has a very loose definition and later uses his unique interpretation of said definition in his argument. His analysis applies this definition to the specific perspective on daily life, culture, resistance, and collaboration by the Third Reich. Petropoulos discusses both groups of artists who succeeded in the Nazi Regime and artists who tried but failed to find support. Those artists who did fail were not actually interested in working for the Nazi party but just wanted to continue practicing their craft safely.

Petropoulos creates a sound argument by organizing in three main sections which together highlight ten exemplary artists. First he reviews the history of the relationship between modernism and the Third Reich. In this section he discusses specific art exhibits such as the Degenerate Art Exhibition and the Thirty German Artists. Joseph Goebbels, the “cultural czar” of the Nazi party, is introduced in this section. Goebbels is an important figure in Petropoulos’ argument, as he organized most of the art exhibits under Hitler’s reign.  In this section Adolph Hitler’s management style regarding the arts is defined to the reader. Hitler himself was an anti-modernist yet he allowed his higher-ranked officials to fight his “design wars”. In the second section of his argument the author reviews five artists who tried but failed to continue working under the Nazi regime. The last section reviews five more artists who continued to work under Hitler and even adapted to the ideals and goals of the Third Reich. Throughout the entire book, Petropoulos continues to go against the more conventional argument that Nazi culture was too constraining for modernism.

Most notably in the first section, Petropoulos emphasizes the support given to the modernist movement from senior Nazi officials. Many of the older Nazi officials, such as Joseph Goebbels, were collectors of modernist works. Goebbels himself is said to have collected work from Ernst Barlach, an “unsuccessful” modernist sculptor. While this may be true, many of Barlach’s pieces were later put in the Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937 because they didn’t align with the Third Reich’s ideology. All degenerate art was banned from the grounds, despite having a senior official’s aesthetic approval. The author explains that there was a great deal of tension within the art community at this time, resulting in a lot of “grey area” when it comes to what was considered degenerate. . This “grey area” holds little weight when discussing the regime as a whole. He argues that because higher officials admired modern artwork themselves, they represented the true ideals of the party. If the party as a whole condemned certain works, historically, these decisions of a handful of senior officers do not pull much weight in the argument.

Artists such as Richard Strauss, Gustaf Gründgens, and Arno Breker were successful through the Nazi regime, and considered themselves modernist artists. I believe that Petropoulos fails to look critically at these artists through a historical lens. Despite his argument that these artists were expressionists, which was a “Nordic” form of modernism, these artists are truly expressionists and not completely categorized as modernists. These artists were more passionate supporters of Hitler than their unsuccessful counterparts, and were still loosely considered modernists. One of Petropoulos’ main arguments for these artists highlighted Breker’s support of Picasso. Despite this support, Breker actually altered his original style to align with the Nazi ideal. His new style was more violent and powerful than before. Even though he made these changes to fit the Nazi ideal, Petropoulos argues: “Breker hailed from a truly modernist milieu and never entirely gave up that identity, even after 1935, as he rose to the pinnacle of the Nazi cultural establishment.” (262).  Due to this change in style there are holes in the author’s argument. This reinforces the conventional conversation discussing the rejection of traditional modernism during the Nazi regime.

Despite his unique and sound argument, Petropoulos’ argument is easily disputable. Even though there were a select few successful modernist artists working under the Third Reich, the regime as a whole rejected modernism. Because of Hitler’s own opinions and decisions regarding art during this time, all other officials’ opinions were not relevant. Hitler himself essentially controlled all aspects of his party so his beliefs were the beliefs of the party as a whole.   Also many of the successful artists discussed in the author’s argument would not have been historically categorized as modernists. It is important to note that the goal of Petropoulos’ argument was to create a deeper understanding of these artists and their work in a historical lens. Overall his analysis offers an interesting and worthwhile perspective on the effect that fascism had on design, most notably during the Nazi regime in Germany.



Extra Credit: John Heartfield

Often credited as the founder of modern photomontage, John Heartfield is one of the most well known progressive and Dada artists during World War 2. Heartfield confronted Adolf Hitler using the new montage technique. By using this technique he successfully attracted viewers to his work and bold statements. He started his career as a landscape painter before exploring new mediums such as photomontage. Many of his photomontage pieces reflect politics that were happening at that time, especially Hitler and the Nazi party.

One of Heartfield’s most famous and successful pieces is Adolf Hitler Swallows Gold and Spits Junk (Rubbish). This piece is a portrait of Hitler with a transparent chest allowing the viewer to see the gold coins going from his mouth down to his stomach. It is apparent to the viewer that they are getting a visual of Hitler’s internal body parts as his ribs show a pattern of shadow across the figure. His facial expression is similar to the one he uses when he gives a speech. Hitler is shown with a swastika as his heart, representing his followers and their message. Heartfield uses a sans serif font at the top and bottom of some prints to write the title of the piece, to make it even clearer and bolder to his viewers. This piece directly addresses the dangerous combination of capitalism and fascism.

The main problems that John Heartfield faced in his career and life were the dangerous topics he commented on. By directly joining the anti-Nazi movement, he angered many powerful people. During his life he was physically attacked and kicked out of Berlin for his controversial work. Despite these problems that come with attacking topics like this, Heartfield still inspired many artists throughout history. His new technique of photomontage was bold enough to catch the eye of his audience. He also utilized print and mass production, which also widened his audience. Heartfield’s work operates similar to the existing plakastil, or poster style, that had become popular in the early 1900s in Germany. However, he takes this work to a new level by incorporating his montage and photographs. Bold, sans serif lettering is highlighted in many of his pieces by highlighting the main point he is making in that piece.

With further exploration of medium, current graphic designers could enhance their impact on their audience much like Heartfield did in his career. Rather than dwelling on the “norm”, or more accepted artwork, Heartfield stepped out of his boundaries and created work that shocked those who saw it. Modern day artists could more effectively comment on current events, such as the recent election, by using unique ideas and taking a different perspective on their arguments. Many artists already use their work to cope with negative current events and they could take this a step further and use more refreshing mediums. A main issue facing designers today is the potential of their work becoming stale, and repetitive. If current designers and artists would take more inspiration from John Heartfield’s life they could redefine what design means in modern society.

Lucian Bernhard

Lucian Bernhard was a German designer and graphic artist from the early 20th century. He studied at the Munich Art Academy and later moved to Berlin and New York to pursue commercial work. The Beggarstaff Brothers, and British artists William Nicholson and James Pryde mainly influenced him in his work in advertising and modern design. His client list included names such as Cat’s Paw, Westinghouse, Bosh, Priester, Manoli, and many more. Before Bernhard started his work, posters in Berlin were more ornate and wordy; Bernhard’s posters simplified design. The style of Berhard’s work is most clearly described from his quote: “You see with your eyes, not your brain”. He emphasized working by instinct, and his work reflected that.


Early on in his career Berhard did very simple design work, making pieces that would change the history of poster design. When he won the Priester Matches Company poster contest he created the first Sachplakat, or object poster. This piece highlights the match company with minimal bold letters and a plain image. The companies name along with a simplistic image of matches is placed in the center of a black background. These two features are both shown in bold color. The only other subject matter on the page is Bernhard’s usual signature, bold BERN and HARD in the lower left corner of the frame. Later in Bernhard’s career, he turned towards early German gothic poster style. During World War 1, he worked for the German government making poster propaganda. His work during this time is recognized by its stark images and bright colored letters to highlight important words, like in his poster: This is the way to peace—the enemy wants it that way. This piece in particular, and others during this period, are more dramatic than his earlier work, and used an older-looking textura font.


During his career, Lucian Bernhard shaped the style of product and advertising posters. He’s one of the most important German poster artists in history, being very influential in the development of the Sachplakat, or object poster.