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French Art of the Present in Hitler's Berlin

Article excerpt

On June 5, 1937, an exhibition of French modern art, Ausstellung Franzosischer Kunst der Gegenwart (French Art of the Present), opened at the Preussische Akademie der Kunste in Berlin.l It featured works by, among others, Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck, Georges Braque, and Fernand Legerpainters officially designated "degenerate" by the Nazis. Hermann Goring attended the opening of the show, and Adolf Hitler visited it in the company of the French ambassador to Germany, Andre Francois-Poncet.

On the surface, such an event, cosponsored by the French and German governments, appears astonishing. The Preussische Akademie der Kunste, responding to Nazi directives, had recently expelled its "degenerate" members (including Ernst Barlach, Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Oskar Kokoschka). That same year the Nazis' notorious exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) opened in Munich. And the artists so courteously received by Nazi officials in Berlin in 1937 had had their works removed from the German museums that owned them, starting in 1934.2

On closer examination, the apparent contradictions of the exhibition disappear. Documentation shows that each government used the occasion of an outwardly cordial gesture to further its own propagandistic ends. The French ultimately hoped to interest Germans in visiting the costly Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques scheduled in Paris for the spring and summer of 1937 (it opened May 24, 1937), while presenting a "healthy" all-French image to their frightening neighbor. The Germans sought a quid pro quo-an exhibition of German sculpture to be held in the prestigious venue of the Jeu de Paume-as well as to demonstrate to their populace the harmlessness of the French as potential foes and, by contrast, the vigor of the German national racial tradition. Ausstellung Franzosischer Kunst der Gegenwart thus contributes a new perspective on the Socialist government of Leon Blum and sheds new light on the Nazi reception of non-German modern art.3

French officials viewed the exhibition as a testing ground for rayonnement culturel, or cultural radiance, the French answer to the aggressive propaganda tactics that totalitarian regimes, particularly Nazi Germany, were using so successfully as a weapon for their cause.4 "For its defense, a country cannot depend exclusively on an army. Its rays can shine abroad through the press, the radio, the word, or natural beauty," reads a report by the deputy Ernest Pezet to the French Chambre des Deputes dated March 28, 1935.5 During the rule of the Popular Front, the Socialist government led by Leon Blum from May 1936 to June 1937, the "defense and illustration" of French culture became a focus of the government's attention. Rayonnement culturel, with its connotations of spiritual enlightenment, remains one of the legacies of the Popular Front to this day.

Jean Zay, French minister for national education in the Blum government and the moving force behind rayonnement culturel, conceded the political dimension behind it:

In the realm of what is called "propaganda"-a word to be proscribed-the Ministry for National Education, with the Action Artistique, organized in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ... extensive theatrical tours ... exhibitions of French art ... the shipping of books to universities in foreign capitals, etc.... Many other decisions were taken, whose character might seem purely technical, and yet had a political dimension.6

In several respects, rayonnement culturel was a new term for an old idea, for there had always been a cultural dimension to colonialism. What gave the concept a new urgency was the context. In 1937, the European democracies suffered from economic depression, high unemployment, and political turmoil, their political values threatened by competing forms of government-Communism, Fascism, Nazism. All these factors placed them on the defensive. Thus, for France, at least in theory, the political aims of rayonnement culturel were caught up in defending democracy against totalitarianism, using democracy's most vital symbol, freedom of expression in art and literature. …