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History of Western Society II Course Project

Parkland College HIS 102-940 | Fall 2004 Semester | Dr. Marsh Jones, Instructor


Expatriates from Nazi Fascism and their Influence on Modern Art and Architecture in the US

The rise of the National Socialists (Nazis) in Germany in the early 1930s led to an exodus of the country's most talented architects and artists fleeing Hitler's repression and racism. Many of these exiles eventually found their way to America's shores. In the accompanying essay we explore their extent of their influence on the movement within the arts toward 20th-century modernism in the US, focusing especially on architect Miës van der Rohe and artist Roberto Matta.

by Daniel J. Bornt

New Year's Day 1900 ushered in the twentieth century, closing a century that had seen astounding changes — not only in the nations that comprised the core of what traditionally has been known as the "Western world," but across the entire globe. There were very regions and the societies and cultures therein that had not felt the influence of the West. The tentacles of its commerce, and its hegemony over the territories it gathered into its fold, engendered changes that fractured traditions and opened the doors to modernity: It was during the 19th century that the economic strategy of "colonialization" — begun as the race for territorial expansion following the voyages of discovery starting in the 15th century — began its transformation into the early stages of the economic and cultural phenomenon that we now recognize and label as "globalization."

For the peoples of the West, the 19th century represented the triumph of the machine. Invention and discovery spurred each other on to greater and more dizzying heights. Due to the rise of machine technology, hardly any aspect of human life —outside of isolated pockets of extremely remote and inaccessible regions - could be said to have been the same at the end of the 19th century as it was at its beginning. Looking back on this century of achievement should have inspired a renewed faith in the ability of humanity, when given the right tools, to eventually attain the perfect society that 18th century proponents of rationalism had believed was possible.

Yet, ringing in the new year of 1900, an event that has been traditionally seen as an annual moment for personal renewal and optimism for the future, was a new century approached with trepidation in the intellectual circles of Europe. The artistic and intellectual communities of the Continent had felt the impact of the blunt edge of industrialism's ravages of "Craft" and "Work," and reacted to it with vigor. The Arts and Crafts movement[1], as exemplified by William Morris, attempted to reverse the course of industrialism's dehumanization and monotony in the workplace. Although the movement's success in countering the all-encompassing industrial juggernaut was limited, it laid the groundwork for the rejection of Beaux-Arts classicism[2] within the arts, and the subsequent birth of modernity.

The world of art during this period produced dark and mystical visions preoccupied with the simple, natural and "primitive," reflecting the foreboding that was felt with the coming approach of a new century. Known as the fin de siècle, or "end of the age[3]," this trend in intellectual and artistic thought just prior to 1900 (and continuing up until the advent of WWI), was a response to the momentous changes that had occurred in the last hundred years - industrialization, wars of dynasty and revolution, and the rapidly unfolding investigations and discoveries in science and medicine that had paradoxically led to a loss of faith in humanity's traditional worldviews while providing new insights into human behavior. This distinct unease about the direction these changes would take and how they would affect humanity in the 20th century brought about the realization that these newly created conditions and institutions of society needed new solutions to deal with them: it was in this fashion that 20th century "Modernism" was called into being.

Throughout the Continent, men of arts and letters began searching for new vocabularies to express the essence of the spirit of the new age and to reflect the social conditions they were now a part of. Through fitful starts and stops in the spreading branches of modernism's tree, art and architecture slowly grew new idioms of expression. Especially in art, this new vocabulary that had begun in 1840s in some cases appeared as a forceful rejection of the classicism of the past, with a new emphasis on romantic and realistic themes; in other cases, it involved an almost reinvention of the language of art as artists renounced the traditional picture plane altogether in creating art that moved into the dimensions of space and time. Architecture, slower than art in the transition to modernity[3A], nevertheless by the 1920s was shedding the Beaux-Arts tradition of an ad-hoc historicism by envisioning buildings whose forms starkly expressed their functional usage.

In the dark clouds of the future dimly foreseen by the fin de siècle, the seeds planted by the age of mechanization and industrialization came to fruition in the devastating storm of WWI. The horrors of the savagery in war, exacerbated by the new mass-produced killing machinery of modern industrialization, seemed to know no bounds in the potential for aimless unrelenting slaughter such as was seen in the brutal trench warfare of WWI. By war's end, the perception that humanity, despite all the technological and scientific achievements of the past century, was not only unable to escape the scourge of war but had taken it to new and horrific levels, left a palpable, and bleakly nilhistic assessment of the human condition. The years following the Great War were indeed the age of angst and the search for meaning. Art in the 1920s and 1930s reflected that anxiety in dark "expressionist" visions. And now, another gathering storm was brewing over Germany in the growing menace of Hitler's National Socialism.

State sanction of art had already been underway since the early 20s within the Soviet Union, as the Stalinists sought to expunge any residue of bourgeois taint that remained from their Tsarist past by appropriating art for ideological advancement and demanding its conformity to such purpose. In the process, Russian artists fled for more tolerable climes[4]. The Nazis in Germany followed the same path as the Soviets in realizing the dangers that free artistic expression presented to tyrannical ambitions by encouraging an individualism counter to the aims of the state.

When Hitler seized power in 1933, the Nazis immediately began to implement the ultimate aims of Hitler's totalitarian rule: the complete domination and collectivization of the German people and the expunging of all of the "deviant" and "racial" elements in German society that Hitler and his minions deemed undesirable. From then on, the power of art to inspire the individual was directed away from promoting freedom in intellectual thought — becoming instead a tool the Nazis utilized to the utmost in propagandizing the glory of the Fuhrer and his totalitarian German state. As their grip not only on art, but on all of Germany's cultural and social institutions tightened during the decade's advance, they engaged in a concerted effort to rid the country of the influence of this "degenerate" art — art the Nazis feared, like the Soviets before them, for its individual expressionist content and its corresponding connotation promoting rejection of, and threat, to Hitler's collectivism.

The Nazi war on art culminated a few years before actual war in Europe with simultaneous art shows in 1937 in Munich of "acceptable" and "unacceptable" art. The Große deutsche Kunst-ausstellung (Great German art exhibition), showcased art acceptable to and honored by the Reich, while the infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art)[5] displayed the so-called "degenerate" art — art confiscated from German museums[6] consisting of those multivalent works in the contemporary stylizations of budding modernity by Jews and other artists of the abstract and expressionist schools. Nazi racial intolerance toward Jews immediately condemned and rejected any work by those known or suspected of being of such ethnicity; but many of the others who found their work banned were actually of German or Austrian extraction who had produced work apparently personally disliked by Hitler, or who had opposed his regime's rise to power[7].

Even before the Entartete Kunst, the recognition of the extent and intentions of Nazi fascism was sinking in with shocking clarity into German artistic and intellectual circles, and the emigration of European artists away from the sphere of Nazi influence was beginning in earnest[5A]. The desire to maintain one's profession and dignity with some degree of artistic integrity — no matter that the underlying motives may have been opportunistic, opposition to Nazi politics, fear of one's personal safety, or a combination of these factors - soon gathered steam to create an exodus to more tolerant regions.

Such was the case of the Bauhaus (1919-1933)[8], the innovative Dessau school that under the leadership of Walter Gropius had initiated a programme to create a new synthesis of the arts and the crafts in a modern direction, exploiting the potential of the 20th-century materials and processes[9]. [9A] Soon after Nazi consolidation of the government, storm troopers precipitously arrived to shut down the institution[10], seen as the "germ-cell of bolshevism"[11]. Both Gropius and Ludwig Miës van der Rohe, the last director of the school, remained in the country while attempting some accommodation with the Nazis through Gleichschaltung, (assimilation into the status quo) but eventually saw that their opportunities were limited, indeed[12]. In the midst of the inhospitable, repressive atmosphere that had earlier ensured the school's demise, their well-known reputations as proponents of modern architecture led to invitations to serve in positions at universities here — Gropius in a professorship at Harvard's Graduate School of Design in 1937 and Miës in 1938 to head up the program at the fledgling Armour Institute (Illinois Institute of Technology) in Chicago. In this fashion the United States became a haven for not only Gropius and Miës, but other well known European masters in the architectural realm as well.

Architecture's transformation into a modern idiom in the United States had already been tentatively underway in the 1920s, as can be seen in the early-modern "art-deco" skyscrapers and tall buildings such as Raymond Hood & John Meade Howells' Chicago Tribune Tower, Chicago (1924), or William Van Alen's Chrysler Building, New York (1930). Although the Bauhaus-inspired vision of functionality had taken root to some degree in the US, its primary impetus and official christening as "The International Style" occurred in 1932 with the Museum of Modern Art's Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, and its accompanying publication of the "International Style" by architect Philip Johnson and critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock[13]. This seminal event crystallized modern architecture's focus: the rational expression of a structure's functionality without the artificiality of ornamentation and decoration, thereby opening the door leading to an embrace of Bauhaus-inspired principles and creating a favorable climate for the emigration of modern architecture's progenitors[13A].

As they settled into new positions of pedagogy and practice, expatriate architects fostered and nurtured the forward thrust of modernism. Its chief mentor, Miës, produced an oeuvre that eventually defined the movement. Built upon his leadership at ITT[14], the thrust of modern architecture reached its apotheosis in the cultured elegance of Miës' and Johnson's 1957 Seagram's Building in New York. In the process, a new urban landscape of towering "glass boxes" was spawned that have since defined the skyline of every major American city. However, the émigrés' visible and acknowledged influence on architecture was not to be duplicated to the same degree in the fine arts.

Although the predominance of European artists working in the various modernist genres such as expressionism and surrealism had been felt across the Atlantic in the pre-WWII years, a direct connection from their work while in American exile (especially for those who had settled in the New York area) on the further development of American modern painting seems to have been tenuous at best. The reasons for this are couched in the very conditions of the exile itself: Living in exile, and assimilation into the American culture, was not the easiest of transitions for some. Also, as special immigrants who had been sponsored by American patrons in the arts, their entrance into the country under strict immigration laws was predicated upon their established intellectual or artistic reputations. Unfortunately for many, those "international" reputations that had preceded them had been developed in the earlier decades of the 20th century, which placed them in a older generation and perhaps somewhat out of touch with the newer trends in modernist theory. Finally, their unique status as exiles "placed" or "sponsored" by benefactoring institutions such as museums and universities tended to either band them together in cliques or in solitary efforts of personal engagement[5B].

As artist Robert Motherwell reminiscences,

...I mean everybody now knows that the European artists in exile were here during the way and they all assume that these artists were everywhere and that everybody saw them. It wasn't that at all. The Europeans mainly saw The Museum of Modern Art people and society people, not especially because they wanted to but they were sort of taken in hand that way. They were very alienated and very frightened. During the first three years of the war it looked as though the Nazis might very well win and that all of European civilization would collapse. On the other hand, the Americans had been on the WPA. Nobody would buy one of our pictures for seventy-five dollars when a Dufy would sell for several thousand dollars. So on the American side there was a lot of bitterness and discontent...[15]

The most tangible link between the émigrés and the native American artists appears to have been through the Surrealist Roberto Matta. Unlike many of the other émigré artists, Matta was not a European native. Born and raised in Chile of a well-to-do family with Spanish and Basque roots, he was schooled as an architect, and traveling to France in 1933, worked as a draftsman in the studio of another famed Bauhaus alumnus, L'Corbusier. Associating with the French Surrealists, it was through their influence and "Marcel Duchamp's theories of movement and process, [that] Matta began to explore the realm of the subconscious and to develop an imagery of cosmic creation and destruction." Forced to leave Europe with the outbreak of war, Matta arrived in New York in the fall of 1938[16].

Matta's friendship with American Robert Motherwell in New York during this period, which included a trip to Mexico together in 1941, built a bridge between the expatriates and the natives. Motherwell describes this "bridge": "...In fact it's hard to describe now but Matta from the European side, and I from the American side, were sort of liaison officers between these two camps which really didn't intermingle at all...[17]" Viewing the era of exile in New York in this fashion, the tenuousness of the émigrés' influence upon the Americans could be a logical conclusion.

Again, Motherwell elaborates:

...Matta wanted to start a revolution, a movement, within Surrealism. He asked me to find some other American artists that would help start a new movement. It was then that Baziotes and I went to see Pollock and de Kooning and Hofmann and Kamrowski and Busa and several other people. And if we could come with something. Peggy Guggenheim who liked us said that she would put on a show of this new business. And so I went around explaining the theory of automatism to everybody because the only way that you could have a movement was that it had some common principle[18].

Automatism, an introspective drawing on and release of subconscious imagery for artistic creation, formed the basis of the genesis for the creative masterpieces of the so-called "New York School" — which included the abstract expressionism of Motherwell, Pollack, deKooning, and the other artists mentioned, even though the "School" itself was actually loosely defined in terms of artistic cohesiveness[19].

...The idea of automatism was a key element of the Surrealist movement, which emphasized the suppression of conscious control over a composition in order to give free reign to the unconscious imagery and associations. Matta used automatism in a manner that allowed one form to give rise to another until unification was achieved or until further elaboration destroyed the composition. These "chance" compositions are exploited with a fully conscious purpose. The artist takes over[16A]...

Indeed, these young American artists did take over, and their creations subsequently have defined modernism in the 20th century.

(total word count: 2627; word count excluding major quotes: 2249)




(Above Right) Hitler poster, courtesy of German Propaganda Archive, Calvin College <> (7 September 2004).

(Above Left) Entartete Kunst poster: "The Nazis staged a massive exhibition of "degenerate art" in Munich in 1937. Rather awkwardly, it drew more visitors than the exhibit of approved art. This poster announces the exhibition." Courtesy of German Propaganda Archive, Calvin College. <> (7 September 2004).

(Below Left) Roberto Matta practicing "automatism", painting as fast as possible to reveal the subconscious. Photo courtesy of Tim Rock: Art of Matta website. <> (7 September 2004).

Below (Right) Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany. Photo courtesy of Bauhaus (1919-1933) ~The Building of the Future~ ,
<> (7 September 2004).


(As a humanities project, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) has been used for documentation in this paper.)

[1 ] Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, "Arts and Crafts Movement," The Arts & Crafts Museum <> (6 Sept. 2004)

[2] Franz Schulze, "The Bauhaus Architects and the Rise of Modernism in the United States," in Exiles and Emigrés, The Flight of European Artists from Hitler, ed. Stephanie Barron with Sabine Eckmann, (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, & New York: Abrams, 1997), 226: "...The traditional Beaux-Arts system of education, with its emphasis on the application of the classical orders to the decoration of buildings based on axiality and symmetry of plan, had for decades been appropriate to an architecture whose construction methods were attuned to the time-honored forms of wall-bearing masonry. With the preeminence of steel and glass in an age increasingly informed by machine technology, however, the Beaux-Arts system seemed more and more irrelevant..."

[3] Horst De La Croix, et al., Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 9th ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987), 939

[3A] Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson (with a new foreword and appendix by Henry-Russell Hitchcock), The International Style (1932, New York: Norton, 1966), 68: "It were better that the world build only according to the rigid anti-aesthetic theories...than that nineteenth century debauchery of design should continue...The continuence of this superficially novel decoration which the half-moderns originated most effectually distinguishes the mass of American modern architecture from that of Europe."

[4] Marilyn Rueschemeyer, et al., Soviet Emigre Artists, Life and Work in the USSR and the United States, (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1985), 6

[5] Stephanie Barron, "European Artists in Exile: A Reading Between the Lines," in Exiles and Emigrés, The Flight of European Artists from Hitler, ed. Stephanie Barron with Sabine Eckmann, (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, & New York: Abrams, 1997), 13

[5A] Ibid.

[5B] Ibid.

[6] Vivian Endicott Barnett, "Banned German Art: Reception and Institutional Support of Modern German Art in the United States, 1933-45, in Exiles and Emigrés, The Flight of European Artists from Hitler, ed. Stephanie Barron with Sabine Eckmann, (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, & New York: Abrams, 1997), 275

[7] Ibid., 279

[8] World Heritage Site Brief description by UNESCO: "Between 1919 and 1933, the Bauhaus School, based first in Weimar and then in Dessau, revolutionized the architectural and aesthetic concepts and practices inherited from the Renaissance. The buildings put up and decorated by the school's professors (Walter Gropius or Hannes Meyer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy or Wassily Kandinsky) launched the Modern Movement which has shaped much of the architecture of the 20th century." World Heritage Site <> (7 September 2004).

[9] Stephanie Barron, "European Artists in Exile: A Reading Betweeen the Lines," in Exiles and Emigrés, 25: "...The guiding principle of the Bauhaus was to unify all aspects of art making - painting, sculpture, handicrafts - as elements of a new kind of art, erasing the division between "high" and decorative art..." -

[9A] Franz Schulze, "The Bauhaus Architects and the Rise of Modernism in the United States," in Exiles and Emigrés, 226: "...The importance of the Bauhaus...should not be underestimated. Its curriculum represented the clearest, readiest, most radical alternative to the Beaux-Arts. Gropius had encouraged the various arts to unite in their efforts to produce creative work that was derived, most prominently in the famous Vorkurs (preliminary course), from the nature of modern materials freely experimented with..." -

[10] Vivian Endicott Barnett, "Banned German Art: Reception and Institutional Support of Modern German Art in the United States, 1933-45, in Exiles and Emigrés, 273.

[11] Sheri Bernstein, "Purism and Pragmatism" in Exiles and Emigres, 254.

[12] Peter Hahn, "Bauhaus and Exile: Bauhaus Architects and Designers Between the Old World and the New" in Exiles and Emigrés, 211-223.

[13] Ibid., 221

[13A] Franz Schulze, "The Bauhaus Architects and the Rise of Modernism in the United States," in Exiles and Emigrés, 225: "...A sympathy with the new architecture and even a measure of achievement in it were already sufficiently established on this side of the Atlantic to warrant the institutional invitations that enabled the European masters to find refuge here..."

[14] Martin Pawley, "Introd. and Notes," Miës van der Rohe, Library of Contemporary Architects, ed. Martin Pawley, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970), 16: "Here at ITT he [Mies] developed the final precision of his steel-framed modern vernacular, the 'teachable' style with which his name will always be associated."

[15] Paul Cummings, "Interview with Robert Motherwell," Nov. 24, 1971, Smithsonian Archives of American Art
<> (7 September 2004).

[16] Tim Rock, The Art of Matta, <> (7 September 2004).

[16A] Ibid.

[17] Paul Cummings, "Interview with Robert Motherwell"

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.: [Robert Motherwell quote] "...I mean ultimately at the end of 1949 and the beginning of 1950 I invented the term 'School of New York'...and in trying to find common denominators among the various people (including some people that we now would not regard as abstract expressionist), I realized that one couldn't make aesthetically a common denominator; but that what everybody did have in common in the sense that there was a School of Paris or in those days a Boston School of Jewish Expressionist painters, there was a New York School. But the word "New York" was meant in another sense. There is no such thing as abstract expressionism. They're collection of individuals working with certain aspirations or whatever..."


Related Sources (on this website):

Ludwig Miës van der Rohe and the Seagram's Building

Robert Motherwell and Elegy to the Spanish Republic #34

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"Expatriates from Nazi Fascism and their Influence on Modern Art and Architecture in the US"
website project for Parkland College HIstory 102 course ©2004 by Daniel John Bornt
History 102-940 fall semester 2004 - Dr. Marsh Jones, Instructor