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Vienna (AFP) – In a museum in Vienna, Nazi-era art piles up two small pieces, some still in storage boxes. A painting from the Vienna opera house features Nazi flags, a swastika is woven into a tapestry.
The pieces are part of an exhibition in the Austrian capital aimed at shedding light on the politics of art under the Third Reich – one of the last ways Vienna seeks to address its complicated wartime past .
Austria, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, long considered itself a victim after being annexed by Nazi Germany. It is only in the past three decades that the country has begun to seriously consider its role in the Holocaust.
The curators of the exhibition hope their research will help in this process, but they have been careful not to give the works too much of an “aura”.
Austria had a Jewish population of 200,000 before Nazi Germany annexed the country in 1938. More than 65,000 of them were killed in the Holocaust, which wiped out six million Jews.
Instead of being displayed on the large walls of the museum, the works are crammed into just two rooms, like in a warehouse.
“It cannot be like other exhibitions in the classic sense (…) it had to be split,” Commissioner Ingrid Holzschuh told AFP.
The exhibition came about after four years of research by Holzschuh and his curatorial colleague Sabine Plakolm-Forsthuber, who combed through the membership files of 3,000 artists who officially belonged to the Reich Art Association after the annexation nazi.
The artists have all been carefully selected and closely watched.
“Aspiring members had to meet the artistic, political and racial criteria of the Nazi regime,” the show’s material reads.
“Political dissidents and Jewish artists have been banned.”
Under the regime, Viennese artists who broke the new rules were forced to flee or murdered in concentration camps, according to the show’s catalog.
“The Nazi regime took control of the art world and ruled it in accordance with its ideological and racist vision,” he says.
Along with biographical details of some of the artists, the exhibition features their paintings, sculptures, textiles and pottery – most of them preserved by the city of Vienna for decades.
The exhibition, titled “Vienna Falls in Line. Art Politics under National Socialism”, is part of a larger trend to come to terms with an ugly chapter in Austrian history.
“Since the end of the 1980s, a great change of mood has taken place … a great process of reflection has taken place,” said historian Gerhard Baumgartner, director of the Austrian Resistance Documentation Center.
The discovery of the art of the time is part of this movement and is a way to learn more about the artists behind pro-Nazi works, about which little is often known.
“There is a great need to come to terms with history. There are still many gaps, and these gaps must be filled,” said conservative Holzschuh.
“Culture of remembrance”
It’s not the only way the city is dealing with its complicated past.
Vienna recently announced that it will be launching an art competition to contextualize a statue of the former anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger who inspired Hitler, which has been repeatedly disfigured.
The city has also reassessed street names in honor of anti-Semitic or otherwise tainted historical figures – most recently galvanized by the Black Lives Matter movement and protests around historic landmarks.
Already in 2012, after much controversy, part of the Ringstrasse – a circular boulevard in the city – previously named after Lueger was renamed.
Holzschuh and Plakolm-Forsthuber also wanted to reveal how some of the artists remained influential long after WWII, such as sculptor Wilhelm Frass.
Frass, who professed his loyalty to the Nazis, continued to work after the war and even had his works commissioned by the city of Vienna.
Holzschuh and Plakolm-Forsthuber’s research resulted in a 300-page catalog – with the exhibition itself.
The exhibition, which opened in October and will run until April, drew some 4,000 visitors in its first month – “great interest”, according to museum spokeswoman Konstanze Schaefer.
So far he has stayed away from controversy, with the exception of a biting comment in the Austrian daily Kurier, which criticized money spent to preserve Nazi art.
But city councilor Veronica Kaup-Hasler said shedding light on the past is “a good basis for decisions about the future.”
“A culture of remembrance and the treatment of its own history play an important role in the city’s cultural policy,” she told AFP.
© 2021 AFP