A sign warning about a guard dog is posted on the high brick wall that shields the wooded property from prying eyes. But upon ringing the bell at the front gate, it opens swiftly with an electronic whirr. I enter and find myself surrounded by massive bronze figures looming over well-tended lawns. Largely shielded from public view for over more than half a century, these are the surviving works of Hitler’s official sculptor, Arno Breker.
Many Germans consider Breker’s house and studio, with its collection of over 50 sculptures, the cultural equivalent of a nuclear waste depot. For a small minority, the secluded site is a hallowed pilgrimage spot.
Five years after his death at the age of 90, Breker’s family patiently awaits his artistic rehabilitation. They eventually plan to turn the house on the outskirts of Düsseldorf into a fully fledged museum. “We’re taking our time, because time is on our side,” says his daughter, Carola Breker, a 33-year-old art historian. “In a few years, then perhaps the work rather than the politics will be in the forefront.”
For now, a small trickle of visitors finds its way to the last home of the artist Hitler called his Phidias. Although his name is missing from most volumes of 20th-century art history, Breker still has fans. His widow Charlotte, dressed in pale blue and pearls, says she periodically gives tours to “womens’s groups and Rotarians.” A sitting room located off the main gallery contains rotating postcard racks, filled with black-and-white images of his works. Bins of Breker lithographs are on sale.
My visit here comes soon after the London opening of the Hayward Gallery exhibition Art and Power: Europe under the Dictators 1930-45. Frau Breker grimaces when I mention the title of the show, where her husband’s 1937 bronze Prometheus is on view, obtained not from her but from a small private museum in Bitburg, Germany.
Another museum, the Berlinische Galerie, recently asked to borrow pieces from her collection for its mammoth current exhibition Berlin-Moscow, part of which compares the art of the Third Reich with Stalinist Socialist Realism. Frau Breker refused the request, saying she feared damage to the sculpture during transport. Her daughter interjects that the family is also loath to display work with any text explaining the historical context in which they arose. It’s not hard to imagine why.
Like the film maker Leni Riefenstahl who has outlived him, Breker never voiced remorse for helping supply the aesthetic trappings of the Third Reich. Frau Breker staunchly defends him and, initially at least, insists that his art is devoid of political content. “My husband worked up until his death and the period he worked for the Third Reich lasted ten years,” she says. “One cannot take ten years out of a life and then demolish an artist.”
But as soon as the hardy, blue-rinsed widow starts to show me around the collection, it becomes clear that its potent ideological content has not dissipated since its creation. “From now on, young man, you will only work for me,” Hitler told Breker after seeing his statute for the 1936 Olympics, a 12-foot-high Dionysus. A year later, on Hitler’s birthday, Breker was named “Official State Sculptor,” and began turning out monumental stuatuary to decorate the showplaces of the Nazi Party and the German state.
Breker delivered propaganda tools of considerable handicraft but limited artistic value. In 1940, with Europe enveloped in war, Germany’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale showcased a Breker colossus unsheathing its sword. Such work met his patron’s desire for testimony to the supposed superiority, beauty and health of the German Volk. What remains in the D’sseldorf garden are patinated relics of ‘bermenschen: muscled, fearless and battle-ready. In contrast to statues of classical antiquity and the Renaissance that Breker called his inspiration, these idealised figures have a lifeless feel of overdone perfection. The faces of his Teutonic warriors are stamped with cruelty and arrogance; their female counterparts equally naked but somehow still chaste Aryan maidens. “This type is the symbol for our new age,” Hitler proclaimed.
Filling the main gallery are busts of the artists Breker admired; among them Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Ezra Pond, Richard Wagner, Ernst Jünger and Jean Cocteau. His love of France — the sculptor served as Hitler’s guide when he made a lightning tour of Paris after its occupation in 1940 — is visible in a gilded Baroque bookcase jammed with hundreds of volumes of French literature.
Several of the busts were cast shortly before Breker’s death in February 1991. His skill as a portraitist remained in demand after Nazism’s collapse although he was scorned by Germany’s post-war cultural establishment. Forbidden to sculpt for five years after the war by an Allied de-Nazification commission, Breker lived more than comfortably on commissions from collectors like Peter Ludwig and Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza as well as writers and painters, some of them former Nazi collaborators, with whom he stayed in contact.
In the garden outside, Frau Breker leads me past a group of female allegorical figures representing Psyche, Flora and Grace, originally cast for the Round Salon in Albert Speer’s marble-lined chancellery in Berlin. She explains that about a dozen of the other titans here were first shown at the Orangerie in Paris during the Occupation, only to be seized by the French government after the liberation. (“The great hand of Michelangelo’s David has guided you,” an ecstatic Cocteau wrote in the exhibition catalogue.) Breker managed to buy the war booty back at auction in 1961.
When we come upon a steely male nude with his head cocked as if hearing a distant clarion, she mentions its title, “The Calling.” I ask about the nature of the call. Frau Breker, a 69-year-old retired nurse, seems not to have heard the question. I repeat it and in reply get only a puzzled look from a woman reluctant to discuss the summons to which Breker’s work is itself the response.
Walking back towards the house, she points out a series of maquette reliefs intended to embellish a great arch in Berlin. Hitler envisioned the monument, easily dwarfing the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, to celebrate his second world war victory. Now affixed to a modest brick wall, the central panel shows two men in mortal combat, one a warrior on horseback attacking a cowering victim below. Perhaps this blunt image prompts Frau Breker to abandon the apolitical pose. When I ask about an eerie nearby statue of a muscular body with an eagle’s fierce profile atop its shoulders, she answers that Breker cast it in 1978 under the title “Europa.” Quoting her husband she murmurs, “Europe is still without a head. We must wait.”