In the Dutch 's-Hertogenbosch the time is turned back to National Socialism in a large exhibition. 275 objects will show from Sunday that design was a defining part of Nazi ideology and was used specifically to seduce the masses and terror. Such an overview has never been seen in a museum, it is said, and the reservations are great. Do you have to show the "design of evil", as museum director Timo de Rijk puts it? Including photos of Adolf Hitler in victory pose, steel helmets and repeatedly swastikas?
Historian de Rijk wants to exhibit this "underexposed part of design history" because he disseminated racist ideology. Included are films by Leni Riefenstahl and the 1936 Olympic Games, official propaganda posters, flags and uniforms, but also "Volksempfänger" radio and cutlery. A large part of the exhibits comes from depots of German museums.
MIRROR: They show Nazi dishes, Riefenstahl films and Hitler portraits – so extensive that it scares you at the sight. Is that allowed?
Timo de Rijk: If it is done in a historical context and the intention is clear – of course.
MIRROR: And what is your intention?
De Rijk: To understand how at that time everything was controlled by the National Socialist ideology – from the VW Beetle to the matchbox. As a historian, I want to understand what happened then. I consider it my duty to show that design and art are not always exalted, but can also be abused.
The design of evil
MIRROR: Which aesthetics was concretely misused?
De Rijk: Nazi design draws on three trends: the classicism, which was reflected in monumental architecture and the aesthetics of mass events. Then National Socialists used the folklore, this is about the connection to the regional, to the homeland. And finally, modernity is also part of it, believing in the future and technology. All this was appropriated by the Nazis and interpreted. The masses should be seduced by applied art: billboards, architecture, photography – but also the construction of the highway, the direction of congresses or the staging of the Olympic Games. Really everything should spread the ideology.
MIRRORThe German company Hugo Boss also contributed to Nazi success by sewing impressive uniforms for senior SS officers. Can one still speak of good design?
De Rijk: No, certainly not of 'good' design, because that would be an ethical assessment. But the uniforms were considered stylish, you have to recognize this artistry. One can not condemn the design for being misused for evil. Nazi symbols and logos were brilliant. They just worked.
Marjo van de Peppel-Kool / Design Museum Den Bosch
Timo de Rijk is an art historian and director of the Design Museum Den Bosch. Until 2016 he was Professor of Design History at the TU Delft and Leiden University and lectured at the University of Amsterdam. He curated several exhibitions, was editor-in-chief of the Dutch Design Yearbook and chairman of the Association of Dutch Designers.
MIRROR: The sight of so many swastikas and Hitler in victorious pose is very painful for many people. Opponents of the exhibition have announced demonstrations.
De Rijk: These things can only be shown in a historical context, and we classify that very thoroughly. Each exhibit has a specific purpose in the narrative of the story that ended in the Holocaust. We consulted extensively with the Israel Information and Documentation Center.
MIRROR: The issued sideboard by Albert Speer with the noble inlays from the office of Adolf Hitler sounds more like Nazi memorabilia.
De Rijk: No. We do not show it because it's beautiful – that would indeed be a glorification. In addition to products for the masses, who should spread the racist idea, there was of course the luxury for the rulers. At that time, the elite was almost imitating courtly life. That too has to be shown – not just the propaganda for the people.
MIRRORIf one has to fear to glorify the Nazi era, that is a difficult mediation task.
De Rijk: Yes, because design is something positive and you like the evil sides of it like. The same people did beautiful things and designed gas chambers. This ambiguity is hard.
MIRRORHow did you solve that?
De Rijk: For example, by not hanging up flags, but spreading them into showcases. As a result, they lose their effect. Monumental films are shown on small screens, not on canvas. We present everything in sober, documentary light. There is nothing to experience in the exhibition – just to learn.
MIRROR: Can you prevent it from becoming a destination for neo-Nazis?
De RijkFirst of all, anyone who knows how to behave may see the exhibition. But we have a strict door and many security forces. No photos may be taken, and we have hired additional staff to monitor that nothing appears on social media.
MIRROR: Would this exhibition be conceivable in Germany?
De RijkOf course, Germans have a much harder time to work up the subject. We did not specifically ask whether German museums want to show the exhibition. But they were happy about the topic and supported us a lot with the loans. Maybe this will eventually be possible in Germany, also in the US there is interest. We should close this gap in art historiography.
exhibition: Design of the Third Reich,
Design Museum Den Bosch
. 's-Hertogenbosch Netherlands, 8th September to 19th January 2020