Aspects of Art Under Totalitarian Regimes

written by art historian & curator

Mihaela Manolache

Art has served politics, monarchs, and kings since the birth of civilisation. Artistic creations showcased their political power and impressed their subjects for devotion and loyalty purposes. Impressive architectural constructions, majestic wall paintings, gold sculptures, and mosaics depict the leader’s wealth, adoration, and holiness. Today we are amazed by its beauty and impressive technological performances, so it’s hard to tell what impression would have made in the past upon simple people.

However, politics can sometimes have a divisive effect on art. In certain circumstances, governments may attempt to control artistic expression to serve their own agendas. As artistic mediums can reach all social classes, art has been used as a tool for political propaganda that promoted ideas with negative repercussions in the long term. In its turn, politics can also provide inspiration for artistic expression. It is known the fact that artists have used their works to comment on social issues, advocate for justice, and even critique political systems or their commissioners. It’s enough to look at the 1930s and evaluate how leaders twisted art with ideology and determined certain social behaviours. Italian Fascism, Russian Sovietism, and German Nazism are typical examples of totalitarian regimes which turned art into their favourite mass manipulation tool.

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In these cases, the value of art may be diminished, as it becomes a mere vehicle for political messaging rather than a form of genuine creative expression. As the relationship is complex, the impact of politics on art can vary depending on the specific circumstances and the artist’s intentions. We will have a look at the most popular totalitarian regimes that attempted to control or worse, to censor artistic creations according to their political beliefs.

Fascism in Italy

The Fascist regime in Italy sought to control and manipulate various aspects of society. This included promoting a particular aesthetic style that reflected their ideological purposes. Fascism in Italy used art to reinforce their authority, art that often reflected nationalist and militaristic values. This led to the development of what is often referred to as “fascist aesthetics” or “fascist art.”

Fascist art depicted idealised figures, strong and muscular bodies, glorifying the nation. Artists inserted symbols of power and dominance that reflected the cult of the leader. Architectural projects, such as public buildings and monuments, were also used to convey a sense of grandeur and strength. Fascist regimes tightly controlled artistic expression, promoting only the art that aligned with their political agenda. Thus, Fascism suppressed any art forms and artists that they deemed subversive. Artists who did not conform to the official aesthetic were often persecuted or forced into self-censorship.

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Victory Monument

The Victory Monument of Bolzano was erected by the direct orders of the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, replacing the previous Austrian arch. The monument is a token of independence, commemorating the union with the Italian country after WWI. The construction is 19 meters wide and is made in pure Fascist style featuring a central statue of a soldier, various reliefs depicting fascist symbolism, glorifying scenes of war, and inscriptions celebrating the regime.

However, in comparison to other totalitarian regimes, Fascism in Italy did not apply all regulations and offered some space for artists to express themselves. This empowered artists to create genuine artworks while not sharing political views.

Nazism in Germany

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party had a specific vision for art that aligned with their notions of racial purity, Aryan superiority, and the glorification of the Nazi state. As a consequence, art under Nazism in Germany was heavily manipulated to serve the regime’s ideological and propagandistic purposes.

More than that, the Nazi regime issued a policy of “degenerate art“, which embodied any art forms that they deemed as morally corrupt, politically subversive, or contrary to their ideals. Modern and avant-garde art movements, such as Expressionism, Dadaism, Cubism, and Surrealism, were labeled as degenerate and thus condemned. The Nazis promoted art that celebrated traditional and conservative styles while idealising the Aryan race. The propaganda messages enclaved in the artworks were promoting Nazi values. While the Italian regime provided more freedom to art, the Nazi regime controlled all aspects of cultural production, including visual arts, literature, music, theatre, and film.

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Arno Breker, Di Partei via Reddit

Arno Breker was one of the most famous German sculptors and architects whose works glorified Nazi values. Die Partei represents the spirit of the party in a monumental and idealised shape. Another important artist involved in the party’s political and artistic activity is Adolf Ziegler, whose compositions exalted the Nazi state and depicted mythological scenes with Aryan figures.

During 1937 and 1944 a German art exhibition with propagandistic content was held in Munich. The ”Great German Art Exhibition” displayed artworks under the Nazi ideals while a separate section of it showcased degenerate art to mock modern art. Some artists, such as Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, and Oskar Kokoschka, were labeled as degenerate artists but continued to create their work in defiance of Nazi ideology.

Nowadays, the study of Nazi-era art serves as a reminder of the abuse of art for political purposes, as well as the importance of safeguarding artistic freedom and resisting oppressive ideologies.

Communism in Eastern Europe

When we speak about communism and socialist art in Eastern Europe, we mainly include cultural aspects of countries such as East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. This movement was emergent during the Cold War period and the art produced before the 1990s was closely tied to the principles and propaganda of the communist parties. Just like Fascism and Nazism, in this part of Europe art served too as a tool for promoting socialist and communist ideology.

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via Twitter

Socialist art was represented by a wide diversity of artistic mediums from painting and sculpture to architecture, mosaics, and posters. Its purpose was to depict the communist ideology regarding the working class and showcase the state’s power. The main values promoted by socialist art were industrialisation, collective equality, and agricultural technology and progress. The main style of the official painting was realistic, representing in a positive light all the achievements of socialism.

”Bread for the People” by the Romanian painter Alexandru Ciucurencu shows a group of farmers harvesting wheat, with a focus on female workers. The image celebrates the importance of agriculture in the socialist economy and the role of women in the workforce. The falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 meant obtaining the freedom that the West benefited from after WWII and art was finally liberated.

Political Pop

Political Pop, also known as Political Pop Art or Cynical Realism, was an art movement that emerged in China during the 1990s. This artistic movement was a significant response to the social and political changes that occurred in China following the Cultural Revolution and its economic reforms.

Political Pop artists sought to address the complex relationship between politics, consumerism, and popular culture in China. They used a combination of Western pop art techniques, such as appropriation, irony, and satire, with traditional Chinese artistic elements and imagery. Through their work, they often commented on the contradictions of the rapid socio-economic transformations in Chinese society. The artists incorporated familiar icons and symbols from both Chinese and Western cultures, juxtaposing images of political leaders, celebrities, and historical figures.

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By Wang Guangyi, from series ‘Great Criticism’

Wang Guangyi created in 1993 a series of paintings titled “Great Criticism” that featured Mao Zedong and socialist slogans juxtaposed with Western consumer brands. By doing so, he highlighted the tension between socialist ideology and Western influences. Political Pop art was also part of a broader movement of contemporary Chinese art that emerged after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. It offered a platform for artists to express their concerns, and observations about the rapid changes happening in China while navigating the restrictions and censorship imposed by the government.

The link between art and power is like a never-ending love story but with many faces. Love can be altruistic, self-sacrificing, and never judging. Art requires altruist personas that are leaving bits of their soul and mind, sacrificing themselves for universal masterpieces. Love can also be possessive, dangerous, and selfish. Similarly, art can depict negative societal features and influence decision-making. The relationship between art and politics is complex and has encapsulated political beliefs, challenged social norms, and promoted change. 


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