Linz is taking on a lot. On New Year's Eve the Austrian city will kick off a three-day opening festival with fireworks and drum rolls, to celebrate its year as Europe's 2009 Capital of Culture. Under the direction of Martin Heller, it's planning an intensive program of exhibitions, concerts, festivals, theater performances and readings.
There is almost as great a desire to deal with the city's past as to highlight its great cultural traditions. Composer Anton Bruckner was the organist at Linz Cathedral, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein went to school here and for 25 years ARS Electronica has been one of the most important festivals in the world for digital art.
However, there is also a dark side to the city's past. The idea of Linz as a "cultural capital" is far from new. Adolf Hitler wanted the city where he had spent nine years of his childhood to become one of the five "Führer Cities" of the Third Reich. Along with Berlin, the Reich's capital; Munich, the capital of the Nazi movement; Hamburg, "The Gateway to the World"; and Nuremburg, "The City of Party Congresses," Linz was scheduled for refurbishment as the "City of the Führer's Youth" -- completing a series of ideological centers upon which the Nazi regime was based.
The exhibition consists of two parts: The general portion deals with the Nazi doctrine of art and the plans and models for the planned art megalopolis. Hitler's "Special Project: Linz" envisaged a bombastic museum on the banks of the Danube in the image of the Uffizi in Florence, with an inventory that would outshine the Louvre in Paris, London's National Gallery or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
The "Führer Musuem" alone would have taken up a building 1,100 meters long. Around 16 million works of art were to be housed there, the vast majority taken from private Jewish collections. It would also include works plundered by German special commandos from museums, churches and castles throughout the German occupied territories. The so-called "reserve of the Führer" was a legal instrument that allowed Hitler to grab whatever he wanted.
In addition, Linz was to be the location for the so-called Adolf Hitler Hotel, as well as a 162-meter high bell tower which was to house the remains of Hitler's parents, a parade ground with space for 100,000 followers and a festival hall that would accommodate 30,000 people. The plans included a 36-meter wide main axis to bring together all the different elements.
However, even the so-called Nibelungen Bridge and its two clunky gates never made it off the drawing boards. Granite statues of the Germanic warriors Siegfried and Gunther and their vigorous wives Kriemhild and Brunhild that had originally been planned for the bridge were never mounted. In the end two plaster copies of the figures graced the bridge briefly on the occasion of a visit by Hitler.
Bombastic Vision, Provincial Reality
The second part of the exhibition is more concrete. It contains numerous examples of everyday cultural life in Linz at the time. There are samples of visual art, literature, music and theater -- from harmless pastoral scenes, straightforward portraits, nude studies and mellow landscape paintings to representations of the war that stuck to the party line. The artistic avant-garde never quite arrived in the Upper Danube. "Even before 1938 modern art had hardly any presence in Upper Austria," the exhibition organizers soberly announce, "and neither had Jewish artists."
There are no desperate self portraits by artists that were branded as "decadent," no apocalyptic landscapes, no ugly scenes from the war. It's an exhibit of work shown between 1939 and 1944 in exhibitions by the Artists Association of the Upper Danube. "With a few exceptions, no writing, paintings or performances were banned. That means that there was an extremely high degree of continuity between both the period before 1938 and that after 1945 in the area of the arts, as well as in the area of cultural policy," the exhibition organizers conclude.
The show also concentrates on the music and theater that stuck to the Nazi party line: the Bruckner cult in the Third Reich, and the works of Goebbels protégé and operetta composer Franz Lehár, including "The Merry Widow." The exhibition also shows a few works of literature that were banned and burned after 1938 as "damaging and undesirable" -- but not without showing works that were expressly encouraged and admired under the Nazi regime.
Of course, it's hard to revisit the past without re-creating it. The show claims to want to educate the public, but it repeatedly refers to exhibitions that kept in line with Nazi doctrine. The entire undertaking of "The Culture Capital of the Führer" is therefore awkward, if not questionable. One can only hope this major exhibition won't become some kind of mecca for die-hard reactionaries.
"The Culture Capital of the Führer -- Art and National Socialism in Linz and Upper Austria" runs from Sept 17, 2008 to March 22, 2009