CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

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Canonising Modernism During National Socialism and the Cold War

Session 21 Connecting Art Histories and World Art

University of Amsterdam


This paper discusses how a profound shift in the attitude towards Modernism took place during the National Socialist and Cold War period, when the political situation was instrumentalised in order to influence the assessment of art in the West. This process started in the 1930s in the USA, when the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Alfred Barr Jr., used the cultural-political situation in Nazi Germany to promote modern art. His political argument continued to be asserted after 1945 in Western Europe, but it was adapted to the circumstances of the Cold War, when totalitarian systems were diametrically opposed to the self-image of the West.

The history of art is dominated by the view that during the post-war period abstraction prevailed in the West and realism in the communist Eastern Bloc. In addition, however, it is also frequently claimed that promoters of art in the West intended to rehabilitate all of Modernism after its defamation by the National Socialists. This raises the question if and why trends other than abstract art were canonised or rather marginalised.



Gregor Langfeld is assistant professor of the History of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Amsterdam. He did extensive research into the reception of modern German art in the Netherlands, focusing predominantly on the manner in which it was initially collected. All the major Dutch modern art museums participated in the research resulting in the publication of the book and the corresponding exhibition Duitse Kunst in Nederland: Verzamelen, tentoonstellen, kritieken, 1919–1964 (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague / Groningen Museum). His Ph.D. at Leiden University was primarily concerned with the procedures relating to canonisation in modern art. The subsequent dissertation was entitled Die Kanonisierung moderner deutscher Kunst in New York, 1904–1957, and it was later published in 2011 by Reimer Verlag (Deutsche Kunst in New York: Vermittler, Kunstsammler, Ausstellungsmacher, 1904–1957) and in 2015 in English by Amsterdam University Press (German Art in New York: The Canonization of Modern Art, 1904–1957). In 2015, he edited the catalogue for the exhibition The Stedelijk Museum and the Second World War, resulting from his earlier research on the provenance of the museum's collection.