Nazi Art on Display at Grohmann Museum

Nazi associations of collection “not relevant” says founder of new museum

The art on show includes works by artists collected by Hitler and displayed in exhibitions sponsored by the Third Reich

the Grohmann Museum with its nine-foot sculptures of labourers on the roof and the

In praise of workers: the Grohmann Museum with its nine-foot sculptures of labourers on the roof and the “Kaiserdom” inspired by Sir Norman Foster’s addition to the Reichstag in Berlin

NEW YORK. The new Grohmann Museum, which is dedicated to art showing “the evolution of human work”, has been called to account for failing to display any information about the art’s association with the Nazi regime. The institution opened in October at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE).

While the school celebrated the opening of its first cultural asset, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel asked why works of

art produced under the Third Reich are displayed without texts explaining their historical background.

The museum houses more than 700 paintings and sculptures, most by little known 20th-century German and Northern European artists, but includes works attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Jan van Goyen, Max Liebermann and Frederic Remington. Subjects include farming, mining, glassblowing, construction, iron and steel production and heavy industry.

SS Guards - Painting by Ferdinand Staeger
[ SS-Wache (SS Guards) – Ferdinand Staeger. Oil painting. Year unknown

The museum’s founding benefactor is MSOE regent and Milwaukee industrialist Eckhart G. Grohmann, 71, who was born in Silesia, Germany (today part of Poland) and emigrated to the US in 1962 where he bought a small foundry that he built into Aluminum Casting & Engineering Co.

He joined the board of MSOE in 1974 and donated his “Men at Work” collection in 2001, stipulating that none of the works ever be exchanged or sold. He also provided funds to purchase and renovate the museum that bears his name, and acquired an adjacent building providing rental income that will support the museum. Mr Grohmann named John Kopmeier, an engineer whom he knew socially, to serve as director.

The three-storey brick building, originally an automobile dealership, has a new glass turret inspired by architect Sir Norman Foster’s addition to the Reichstag in Berlin. Mr Groh­mann says this “Kaiserdom” was his idea, as was the rooftop phalanx of a dozen nine-foot bronzes that he commissioned based on statues of muscular workers in the collection, and the ceiling paintings of inventors and a stained-glass window depicting workers commissioned for the atrium. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s verdict is that: “the effect is rather like Old World Berlin as reinterpreted by Walt Disney”.

Mr Grohmann amassed his collection over four decades, buying from auction houses in Germany and Switzerland, as well as various other sources. “I have very little competition because [the paintings] are not the sort of things you hang over your sofa,” he says.

The most heavily represented artist, with 81 works, is Erich Mercker (1891-1973) whose images of German industry were endorsed by the Third Reich and exhibited in the annual Nazi-sanctioned “Great German Art Exhibition” in 1937. The museum labels cite only his name, dates and titles and the museum website does not refer to his Nazi ties either. Other artists in the Grohmann collection known to have worked with the Nazis are Ferdinand Staeger—whose work was collected by Hitler—Ria Picco-Rückert, and Otto Hamel. All of them participated in the annual Nazi exhibitions. The collection also includes work by Magnus Zeller, a German who opposed the Nazis.

The art on display includes a Mercker painting of a U-boat building facility (left) and a 1942 Picco-Rückert picture of Nazi steel manufacturing, but Mr Grohmann denies that any of his paintings glorify the Third Reich. “Propaganda pictures would show flags and swastikas,” he contends, apparently ignoring scholarship that suggests otherwise. Art historian Mark Antliff, for example, has written that “the Nazis propagated a ‘myth-image’ [through] imagery devoted to ‘the sanctification of creative work’,” and cites Staeger and Picco-Rückert as portraying workers engaged in their “‘sacred’ effort to create ‘the eternal Germany.’” Others have noted that labourers depicted in Nazi paintings are likely conscripts from concentration camps.

Mr Grohmann and Mr Kopmeier say that historical context is irrelevant to the museum. “The mission is to educate MSOE students primarily about art, what industry was like years ago, why we are where we are right now,” says Mr Kopmeier, adding that Mr Grohmann is responsible for the institution’s content. “He’s the one that collects the art, and what goes on the wall is a decision he would make,” he told The Art Newspaper. “We don’t know that any was actually commissioned by the Third Reich,” says Mr Grohmann, “and to be honest I wouldn’t care. It is a totally subject-oriented collection for the purpose of teaching at the technical university. I don’t politicise pictures.”

US Jewish organisations have not voiced strong objections to the museum, but some have asked for disclosure of provenance and historical context. University president Hermann Viets says he is not concerned with the allegations of whitewashing the artists’ Nazi pasts. “We are perfectly open about it,” he says, citing a catalogue that includes more information than appears on the museum walls. Asked if he personally condemns the Nazi regime, Mr Grohmann replied: “I do not make any political statements. I just don’t do it.”

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