Munich is a city that has no choice but to face down its own history. Traditionally the deeply-conservative home of Bavarian culture – a juxtaposition of stiff-shirted militarism and ruddy-cheeked bawdiness – Munich became both the Capital of German Art and the Capital of the Movement (Hauptstadt der Bewegung) under Hitler, bound to the Nazi mythos from day one.
Munich’s reputation nowadays is one of drunken Autumn revelry, Vorsprung durch Technik, and Robert Lewandowski scoring 40 goals a season. However, it doesn’t take much snooping under the surface to find Hitler’s grubby fingerprints. The modern city is littered with landmarks, from the Munich Conservatoire to the Hofbräuhaus, that were either constructed or immortalised by the regime in some form or other.
One such building stands out from the rest: the Haus der Kunst. Designed by Hitler’s favourite architect, Paul Ludwig Troost, to be the cultural centrepoint of the Third Reich, it is the greatest existing archetype of the Nazi vision, and was Hitler’s Temple of German Art.
A spurned and unsuccessful artist, Hitler resented the modernists and expressionists who had denied his own artwork any acclaim, and so coveted this gallery space – every work exhibited was subject to arbitrary personal inspection, and stayed true to his traditionalist, neoclassical sensibilities.
Nowadays, the Haus der Kunst has deliberately been transformed into one of the most radical spaces on the planet for contemporary art, and makes no attempt to hide its past. In a room to the right of the main hall, the Haus confronts its original purpose, to be the Haus der Deutschen Kunst, giving frank details of the kind of art that would – or more relevantly, would not – have been exhibited.
Once more, the inherent chintziness of Hitler’s tastes is on show: all comically-styled bronze warriors and middling still lifes. There was, after all, a reason that Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts had no interest in Hitler’s watercolours.
Alongside Hitler’s exhibition in 1937, in the nearby Institute of Archaeology, was the exhibition of Entartete Kunst – degenerate art – replete with expressionists and Dadaists and surrealists, shown to be laughed at by the Bavarian middle-classes.
The Haus der Kunst informs you of the prejudices held against these works, the derisory slogans painted around them, and the fate of those artists who diverged from the monoculture that German fascism pursued. “We have a responsibility to deal with the building’s history,” Anna Schneider, one of the Haus der Kunst’s curators, told us.
Their current exhibition, Blind Faith: Between the Visceral and the Cognitive in Contemporary Art, is a proud affront to the building’s first use: avowedly political, forward-thinking, and endlessly challenging. Featuring artists from all over the world, Blind Faith questions the role and relationship of the mind and body in the information age.
It is a paean to provocation; a non-stop assault on the senses. Works such as God’s Reptilian Finger (2015), by the acclaimed Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, use light and sculpture to meld Mormon mythology with the conspiracy theories of David Icke.
Aside from the more conventional methods like drawing and sculpture, Schneider tells us, is the bleeding edge of modern art: high-concept, high-technology works like Ed Atkins’ video installation Safe Conduct (2016), and Cécile B. Evans’ Sprung a Leak (2016). Sprung a Leak is particularly esoteric – described by the exhibition’s handbook, accurately, as an automated performance “between two humanoid robots, a robot dog, a fountain, and a chorus of human “users” that must deal with the information copiously leaking from a network represented by 27 screens.”
To stand in the exhibition space as robots fret and mutter, screens flicker, and a kind of still, sanitised chaos rumbles on around you, is quite unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. It has to be seen to be believed.
“Our start-point was the discussion around post-truth in the 2016 Presidential elections, coupled with the lurch to the Right across Europe that has been happening before and since;” Schneider told us, “a reaction of people wanting more security, but making misinformed choices.”
The pertinence of this kind of discussion – challenging falsehoods, demagoguery, uniformity of thought – happening in a building built for propaganda illustrates the maturity of modern-day Munich. “We want to show how international the art world here in Germany is”, says Schneider.
The Haus der Kunst still has some battles over its past – last year, the British architect David Chipperfield, who is in charge of the gallery’s refurbishment, had his initial renovation plans rejected by the city, due to his idea to clear the linden trees that mask its façade, effectively restoring its 1937 form. But as the city’s premier space for both contemporary art and Nazi architecture, the Haus deserves commendation for its frankness and fearlessness. Munich may not have control over its past, but exhibitions like Blind Faith show a bright future for Bavarian culture.
Kieran Morris is Junior Editor at Amuse. Keep up with him on Twitter.
‘Blind Faith: Between the Visceral and the Cognitive in Contemporary Art’ will be running at the Haus der Kunst until the 19th August 2018. Find out more information on their website.