Struggling artists often crave official recognition. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts or designation as a poet laureate doesn’t just help financially — government support can help creative types build a career and burnish a reputation.
Unless that government is the Third Reich, and the patron is notorious Nazi Albert Speer, who took a shine to the work of a sculptor named Josef Thorak in Germany before the outbreak of World War II.
“Thorak worked on statues intended to represent the folk-life of Germany under Nazi coordination; these works tended to be heroic in scale, up to 65 feet,” according to Holland’s German Art Gallery. “… Albert Speer referred to Thorak as ‘more or less my sculptor.'”
Now, one of Thorak’s works has been unearthed in a black-market raid. German police discovered two massive bronze Thorak sculptures, dubbed “Walking Horses,” during an investigation targeting eight suspects in an illegal art trafficking ring, Berlin police spokesman Thomas Neuendorf told the Associated Press. The dealers wanted some $5.6 million for the statues, according to Bild newspaper.
Thorak’s “Walking Horses” — standing 16 feet high and 33 feet long — once guarded Hitler’s New Reich Chancellery in Berlin, planted on either side of the stairs to the building. During World War II, they were relocated and, in the 1950s, popped up on a Red Army barracks’ sports grounds in Eberswalde, a town northeast of Berlin in the communist German Democratic Republic, according to Agence France-Presse. The sculptures showed signs of the battle they had been through, painted gold to mask their bullet holes.
Then when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the horses went missing. Some speculated they were sold by the GDR. Police recently started investigating when they learned someone was attempting to sell them on the black market.
Police raided homes in Berlin, Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, seizing several other pieces of Nazi-era art, including a massive granite relief by German sculptor Arno Breker depicting muscled, shirtless fighters wielding swords in what police called “typical Nazi style,” according to BBC News.
“Typical Nazi style” was an aesthetic championed by Adolph Hitler, a former art student, and Speer, his architect.
“For all departments of art Hitler regarded the late nineteenth century as one of the greatest cultural epochs in human history,” Speer wrote in a memoir, “Inside the Third Reich.” “That it was not yet recognized as such, he said, was only because we were too close to it in time.”
Visual art of the 19th century was free of the Dadaism, surrealism and abstraction the Nazis viewed as degenerate. It was heroic. It was triumphant. And by the 1930s, it was a throwback. Thorak’s stuff fit right in.
“Two enormous naked male figures, models of so-called ‘Aryan’ man with bulging muscles and chiseled faces, stand defiantly side-by-side, one clasping the hand of the other in expression of a unique comradely bond between race brothers and soldier-companions,” Richard Overy wrote in “The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia” of another Thorak work chosen for the German pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937. “… It is a statue of racial warriors.”
Though Thorak had experimented with modernism and was a former left-winger who married and had a child with a Jew, it seemed he wanted to fit in with the boys in brown. Indeed, he disavowed his family to keep in the Reich’s good graces.
“There were many cultural figures who viewed, with good reason, the Nazi leaders as generous patrons,” Jonathan Petropoulos wrote in “Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany.” “The kleptocratic leaders who enriched themselves during the Third Reich subscribed to a trickle-down philosophy with regard to wealth, especially because so much of it involved state funds, not to mention plundered assets.” Thorak, who got what was called a “Fuhrer-Donation” — a tax-free cash gift equivalent to tens of thousands of dollars — benefited from this “trickling-down.”
Until he didn’t. After the war, Thorak “retired to semiobscurity in Bavaria,” as Time magazine put it in 1950. Though he went through de-Nazification, he “continued to travel in radical right-wing networks and remained favorites of old Nazis, whose publications … would frequently feature” the work of Thorak and his neo-classical co-horts, as Petropoulos wrote.
Two years before his death, Thorak even had an art show. It was not well-received.
“One critic suggested that Thorak’s jumbo-sized statues would have been more appropriate as small porcelain figurines to ‘decorate a small table,'” Time wrote. “Said another: ‘It shows how low our taste has become, that this ‘art’ of the dictatorship still finds acknowledgment today.'”
But, to the end, Thorak had kind words for Hitler.
“He understood me,” Thorak told Time, “and if what I do is art, he understood art.”