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University of Missouri

The Trouble with Nazi Art

MU professor studies the challenges of categorizing Nazi art.

Plowing by Julius Paul Junghanns

Plowing, an oil-on-canvas painting by Julius Paul Junghanns, is an example of the agricultural theme common in German art produced during the Third Reich. Photo from Kunst und Propaganda: im Streit der Nationen 1930-1945 (Sandstein Kommunikation, 2007)

In 20th-century terms of man’s inhumanity to man, the Third Reich is unparalleled. But when it comes to the humanities, the art of Nazi Germany is a bit harder to evaluate.

James van Dyke, associate professor of modern European art, focuses on two areas of German art: modernism and its politics, and art made between 1933–45. He plans to write a book titled The Challenge of Nazi Art.

“Art historians tend to love and identify with what they study, but you can’t do that with Nazi art,” van Dyke says. “The challenge of Nazi art is to be an art historian and look at art that is, directly or indirectly, connected to genocide.”

Unlike modernism, Nazi art tends to be conservative and uncritical with a sense of “unofficial realism,” van Dyke says. Common subjects include nudes (especially the female body portrayed in racial terms), farmers harvesting or sowing, construction of the Autobahn, and heroically positioned soldiers.

“Nazi art is something we usually neglect, marginalize, repress, abhor or regard as mere propaganda,” van Dyke says. “My work is intended to take it seriously.”