Exhibition Text

Woman Made of Plaster

Nude by Nazi sculptor Kurt Schmid-Ehmen

Woman Made of Plaster marks the start of a series of exhibitions in which an item from the collection is introduced along with its history.

The find

When we rediscovered this life-size female nude in the town archives, we initially had no idea that it would take us back to one of the darkest chapters of German history. This account of our enquiries is longer than a normal exhibition text, for instead of just an explanation, it’s actually a complete narrative.

At first, the female figure was nameless. It has many flaws and only one arm. It was cast in plaster, which is why it’s so fragile. At first sight, its strict design gives it an almost Greek appearance, with face and hair formed in sharp lines. Woman Made of Plaster is beautiful in the classical sense, but lacks individual features: rather than the image of a real person, it represents an ideal. The artist’s name and the date are somewhat obscured on the base: ‘Schmid-Ehmen 1939’.

The artist

Kurt Schmid-Ehmen was born in October 1901 in Torgau. He was fourteen when the First World War broke out. The son of a civil servant, he dreamed of a career as an officer in the navy. However, by the time he left school, the war was over and all German ships had been disarmed. Instead, Schmid-Ehmen chose art, moving to nearby Leipzig to study sculpture. After a few years at the local art academy, he became an apprentice sculptor and stonemason in order to practise his craft. But he really wanted to be an artist, not a stonemason, and like many others of his ilk he felt drawn to the long-standing Munich Academy of Art.

Schmid-Ehmen enrolled as a master-class student of Bernhard Bleeker, who became his artistic role model. Bleeker, twenty years older than Kurt Schmid-Ehmen, actively championed the preservation of conservative aesthetic values in art. This was one of the factors which made him an expert in the planning and design of war memorials and military cemeteries. Bleeker’s master class produced an astonishing number of sculptors who received both fame and public commissions during the Nazi regime. Bleeker joined the Nazi Party in 1932, by which time Kurt Schmid-Ehmen and his wife, concert pianist Hetty Haelssig, were already members.

The eagles

To explain why they’d joined the Nazis, the Schmid-Ehmens would later cite their hardship during the Great Depression; although “completely apolitical people”, they’d succumbed to Adolf Hitler’s “hypnosis”. Be that as it may, immediately after the Nazis seized power in Germany, Schmid-Ehmen received his first commission from Paul Ludwig Troost, Hitler’s favourite architect.

A monument was to be erected at Feldherrnhalle (‘Field Marshals’ Hall’), a huge loggia in Munich. Schmid-Ehmen fashioned an eagle with a wreath and a swastika in its claws rising up above a gilded bronze plaque bearing the names of the insurgents killed in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s failed coup. This was the start of a career in which Schmid-Ehmen rose to become the ‘eaglemaker’ of the Nazi regime. He designed the national emblems for almost all the Nazis’ monumental construction projects, including the Führerbau (‘The Führer’s Building’), the square known as Königsplatz, and Haus der Deutschen Kunst (‘House of German Art’), all in Munich, as well as the Nazi Party rally grounds in Nuremberg and the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Schmid-Ehmen’s eagles are nowadays preserved
at The German Museum in Munich since after the war the swastikas they bore could
be easily removed.

Schmid-Ehmen’s biggest success (in both respects) was probably the eagle on the German pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exposition. The bird alone was more than 5 metres tall, while the building below it designed by Albert Speer had a height of nearly 58 metres. This made the ‘German House’ 6 metres taller than the Soviet pavilion standing opposite, which was topped by a giant sculpture of a male worker and a female peasant holding up a hammer and a sickle. The fact that the German pavilion symbolically exceeded the height of the Soviets’ exhibition hall was not a matter of chance, for Speer had managed to obtain the Russian architects’ plans beforehand.

The regime

With the eagles under his belt, Schmid-Ehmen also received commissions for portrait busts of high officials and also figurative depictions, such as our Woman Made of Plaster. She wears literally nothing at all to indicate a clear ideological message – so is the work really just a female nude in the classical style? Bear in mind that Schmid-Ehmen’s oeuvre features an awful lot of state commissions, national emblems and swastikas for an “apolitical artist”. What were in fact his real convictions?

If the state awards commissions to a sculptor or an architect and then presents them with high honours for their artistic achievements, they can’t be declared politically guilty. – Kurt Schmid-Ehmen 1946

Kurt Schmid-Ehmen was part of the ‘war youth generation’ born between 1900 and 1910. Although he didn’t experience frontline action in the First World War, he grew up in an atmosphere of mounting nationalism marked by hero worship, military fever, and exaggerated images of ‘enemies’ designed to whip up hatred. Organizations with a military flavour and nationalistic beliefs had a strong attraction for his generation. One example was the SA or Sturmabteilung (‘Storm Detachment’), often referred to as the Brownshirts, who acted as the paramilitary unit of the Nazis. They emanated discipline, strength, and the image of traditional masculinity. Violence against political dissidents, church associations and Jewish institutions was overtly part of the SA’s agenda. When Kurt Schmid-Ehmen became a member of the Nazi Party, he also joined this paramilitary wing. He ascended through the ranks from Scharführer (‘squad leader’) to Obersturmführer (‘senior assault leader’), casting doubt on the claim that any dealings Schmid-Ehmen had with the Nazi regime (as both artist and citizen) were merely superficial.

Immediately after the Nazi seizure of power, Schmid-Ehmen’s career as an artist took off. In the first year alone, Hitler himself visited Schmid-Ehmen’s studio twice to see how the eagle for Feldherrnhalle was coming along. It was at about this time that Schmid-Ehmen was first mentioned in the press. His prominence was growing.

In 1935, Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and President of the Reich Chamber of Culture, appointed Schmid-Ehmen to the Presidential Council of the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts. Schmid-Ehmen accepted.

That same year, Schmid-Ehmen was promoted to the Reich Cultural Senate of the Reich Chamber of Culture. This was the political body actively responsible for standardizing and monitoring all artistic and cultural life in Germany. And Schmid-Ehmen accepted.

He received honours and a professorial title from Hitler personally, and was invited to the Reich Party Congress in 1938 as a guest of honour. Once again, Schmid-Ehmen accepted.

Hitler purchased Schmid-Ehmen’s Spearwoman, a female nude executed in bronze, for 18,000 Reichsmarks. And Schmid-Ehmen thanked him.

Schmid-Ehmen became one of the frontrunners among artists funded by the Nazi regime, just behind Josef Thorak and Arno Breker. He was invited to large propaganda exhibitions and commended for his vehement rejection of modernism, which coincided with the Nazis’ cultural ideology. Over 17,000 works, mainly by modern artists such as Max Beckmann, Lovis Corinth, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and many others, were confiscated from German museums on account of being “sick” and “racially inferior”. The campaign against everything progressive in art reached a climax with the travelling propaganda exhibition Degenerate Art, which was first held in Munich in 1937.

Purposely held simultaneously, the Great German Art Exhibition at Haus der Deutschen Kunst presented works of art funded by the Nazis. Keen to participate, Schmid-Ehmen’s entry was an eagle with a national emblem – albeit a small one – held aloft by a naked female figure. Although it was rejected for the exhibition, busts of Nazi officials by Schmid-Ehmen were still included.

The nudes

Immaculate naked bodies were popular under the Nazis as a symbol of purity, strength, beauty and racial superiority. Nudity represented the return to a mythical naturalness and the struggle against the freedom and individuality of modernism. Female figures embodied ideology and mythology, whereas male figures personified military bravery.

We have a strong, simple, monumental will for a public sphere transcending the individual. No longer the portrait of a person, but the symbolically powerful human form as a parable of a higher order; not the individual, but the myth – this is the inner goal to which the sculpture of our time also aspires. – Völkischer Beobachter

This is where Woman Made of Plaster comes in. In more recent photos, it’s usually referred to simply as a “female nude”. Yet it wasn’t just a nude, it was symbolic, too – but symbolic of what? Although her hand is now missing, older pictures show that the woman originally held a branch – but this doesn’t tell us much. The only way to identify her was to look for some older pictures in the archives. A 1939 issue of the Nazi art magazine Das Bild and a 1940 issue of Illustrierte Zeitung were both found to contain a photograph of a design for a bronze figure by Schmid-Ehmen. It’s astonishingly similar to Woman Made of Plaster – and it was intended to be displayed in a very prestigious location.

Albert Speer built a huge Golden Hall on the Nazi Party rally grounds in Nuremberg which was to be used for the first time at the ‘Rally of Peace’. This major event, which in hindsight had a disturbingly cynical name, was planned to be held from 2 to 11 September 1939, but cancelled at short notice. Instead, the German Reich invaded Poland on 1 September, triggering the Second World War. The Golden Hall was never completed, for four monumental figures were missing.

But Schmid-Ehmen had already designed them: two male and two female nudes, ideological symbols of faith, struggle, honour and victory. The Woman Made of Plaster was the design for the commemoration of the dead. Cast in bronze, the figures would have been twice life-size. However, they were never produced. We don’t know whether the plaster model in Starnberg was created as part of the design or might even have been an attempt to reuse it later. What we do know is that it’s not a finished work of art, but a preliminary design.
The citizen of Starnberg Woman Made of Plaster probably came to Starnberg with her creator. His career ended with the Nazi regime – at least for the most part. The eagles he had created were taken down, and his huge golden swastika on the Nazi Party rally grounds was blown up. He was summoned to a court hearing to clarify his role in the Nazi regime.
The sculptor, who had risen to fame as an emblematist of the Reich, was found to be “marginally incriminated”. Proceedings against him were dropped once he had paid a fine of 200 Deutschmarks.

The Schmid-Ehmens moved to Starnberg in 1947. They played an active part in the Buzentaur Art Society founded in 1950, Kurt Schmid-Ehmen giving several lectures there. But was the Buzentaur Art Society really the right place for a new beginning? Rudolf Zirngibl, the long-time chairman, recalls in his autobiography that it had been “originally set up by artists who had been successful in the Third Reich and who had come together in the Starnberg district after the war.”

Schmid-Ehmen remained true to the old values. He sympathized with the neo-fascist DKEG (German Cultural Foundation of the European Spirit), which had also been founded in 1950 by Herbert Böhme, a former Brownshirt and head of the Reich’s professional association for poetry. The DKEG was supposed to be a “community aware of and loyal to the people” in the campaign against all modernism in literature and art. Kurt Schmid-Ehmen and his wife Hetty regularly participated in song recitals, festivals of culture, and congresses – he with works of art and lectures, she as a pianist. Schmid-Ehmen produced a bust of Herbert Böhme – possibly in belated gratitude, for Böhme had written poems in praise of Schmid-Ehmen’s eagles during the Nazi era.

The ranks remained closed; the networks continued to operate. In his lectures and writings, including for the Buzentaur Art Society, Kurt Schmid-Ehmen remained an artistic ideologue through and through. He sharply attacked modernism and other contemporary movements, which he viewed as sick and confused. Outside the realm of art, he described himself as frightened and lost. He entitled a draft essay and a post-war sculpture The Plight of the German Soul. He didn’t or chose not to see the plight of all the others, of all the victims of persecution or the relatives of those murdered in the war. He experienced the period after the collapse of the Nazi regime as an acute personal downfall and the victory of the modernism he so hated. And he sought security in old values and old-boy networks.

Kurt Schmid-Ehmen died in Starnberg on 15 July 1968.
Woman Made of Plaster was probably part of his estate.