A Forcing of Barriers

by Per-Oskar Leu

A staged encounter between two German artists: a dead state sculptor and a late degenerate painter.

"A Forcing of Barriers" was first presented as a performance at Appartement, in Berlin, on July 16, 2010, with the actor Daniel Schrader as Arno Breker and Georg Springer as Otto Freundlich. The performance was presented as part of "Sender, Carrier, Receiver," a series of public programs in Paris, Berlin, and Sarajevo, organized by Triple Canopy with Nine Eglantine Yamamoto-Masson. It was commissioned by Triple Canopy as part of its Internet as Material project area, with support provided by the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston.


Arno Breker (1900–1991) was a German sculptor known for his monumental figurative works, which were endorsed by the Nazis as the antithesis of so-called degenerate art. After visiting Paris twice in the mid-1920s he settled there and joined a milieu that included Constantin Brancusi, Isamu Noguchi, and Man Ray. Breker returned to Germany in 1933, began to receive commissions from the Nazis, and cultivated friendships with Albert Speer and Adolf Hitler, who in 1937 made Breker “official state sculptor,” granting him a large property and one thousand assistants. His twin sculptures The Party and The Army were placed at the entrance to the Reich Chancellery. (These sculptures, like most of Breker's numerous public works, were destroyed by the Allies after the war.) In 1948 Breker was designated a Nazi “fellow traveler” by the Allied Control Council. His eventual rehabilitation led to a backlash among anti-Nazi activists; exhibitions in Paris and Berlin in 1981 were met with protests. Breker’s admirers insisted that despite having been a member of the Nazi Party he had never supported its ideology, but had simply accepted the state’s patronage.

Otto Freundlich (1878–1943) was a German-Jewish abstract painter and sculptor. After World War I he joined the November Group, a leftist collective of expressionist artist and architects that took its name from the month of the Weimar Revolution. In 1919 Freundlich and Max Ernst organized the first German Dada exhibition in Cologne. Freundlich moved to Paris in 1925 where he later joined the Abstraction-Création group, which was established in order to counteract the influence of the Surrealists. In Germany, the Nazis condemned his work and removed it from public display, except works included in the infamous Nazi exhibition of degenerate art. His sculpture Der Neue Mensch (The New Man) was photographed unsympathetically and used as the cover of the exhibition catalogue. (Der Neue Mensch disappeared after the exhibition and is assumed to have been destroyed.) With the outbreak of war, Freundlich was interned by the French authorities. Picasso secured his release, but he was arrested again in 1943, deported to the Majdanek concentration camp, and killed upon arrival.

It is not known whether Breker and Freundlich met in Paris.

Adolf Hitler’s sketch of a triumphal arch to be built in Berlin, mid-1920s.




Breker and Freundlich are seated on opposite ends of a table in a nondescript room, at an indeterminate time, illuminated by a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling above them. A third man sits between them.

Do you believe in beauty, and in the artist’s responsibility to represent it?

BREKER: The origin of my sculpture is the beauty of the human body. My human forms are always perfect. I’ve come to realize that the person who is outwardly perfect is also inwardly beautiful. Shouldn’t the artist show the inner beauty of the human form above all else?

FREUNDLICH: Perhaps beauty is neither an eternal idea nor eternal will, but merely a human construct; likewise, perfection is not an eternal idea, but merely a human desire.

BREKER: But the shaping of the human being is the work of the Almighty. “And God created man in His image.” So says Moses in the twenty-seventh verse of the first chapter of Genesis. And in the thirty-first verse: “God looked at what He had made and saw that it was good.”

Per-Oskar Leu, Lieber Otto, 2010, original poster signed by Arno Breker, typed letter, stamp. (Breker’s Kameraden, depicted in the poster, was created for Berlin’s unbuilt triumphal arch.)

Do you think abstract forms have meaning? Talk about the relationship between form and human spirit.

BREKER: The foundation of my work is loyalty to nature and tradition, which are my pillars. I work toward overcoming the disintegration of the image of the human being that we are experiencing today, and which is undoubtedly a manifestation of decadence. For me, the human being is, now as before, the greatest miracle of creation. It is, therefore, also the worthiest thing in art. The impulse to form man ever anew, to re-create creation, is as old as mankind itself. The unity of spirit and form achieved a new image of mankind in the art of antiquity. The works of the sculptors of that time still hold us in their spell today. It remains completely immaterial to me if my convictions run counter to the spirit of the times.

Per-Oskar Leu, Lieber Arno, 2010, original edition of Die Aktion (1918), typed letter, stamp.

FREUNDLICH: The spirit of the natural world, as perceived by man, is a false one, serving his exploitative character, enabling his rapture to be seen as some victorious slaughter. The human spirit, exploitative from the outset, has ransacked and destroyed the quarries, the coal mines, the silver and gold veins running through the earth, burdening the earth with its waste. What has remained? Only man has remained. Man in the stone, man in the tree, in the leaf and in wood, man in the cloud, in the air, in water and earth.

How did you first decide on the subject matter for your work?

FREUNDLICH: If you look closely at these likenesses of man, and at the border between humans and other creatures, you may uncover the secret of those creatures; you may suspect that they are addressed in another language, that they receive a reply from the world, while man does not. Then you may finally recognize the impoverishment of man’s spirit and his methods, with which he fails to do anything but bury the dead.

How do you expect viewers to respond to this work?

French delegation visits Arno Breker’s studio in Jäckelsbruch, October 1941. Photographer unknown.
Arno Breker holding a photograph of Joseph Beuys, 1988. Photo by Gottfried Helnwein.

FREUNDLICH: Since I began my career as an artist, I have cultivated an inner conviction that required me to reject tradition. People were suspicious of me, since I didn’t subscribe to cubism or any of the subsequent, systematized forms of art. I was intoxicated by the spiritual revolution that occurred in Paris when I was there. The artist, without formal training in politics or sociology, had discovered that any painting includes certain conventions, and that in imitating nature the painting not only expresses the talent of the artist but the collective will of a social class, which imposes its own intent. Why did these artists fall out of grace with this class? Apparently, because it wished to safeguard its own status. The artists had recognized, in the imitation of nature, the adherence to perspective, and physicality of the image, the emergence of a dictatorial society.

BREKER: After World War I, there was a great global spiritual crisis, especially in Europe. People shifted the responsibility for the catastrophe of 1914—18, blaming it on the past. The past must be broken. People wanted to burn down the museums. And then someone came along with a new concept. Hitler was an artist by nature. (He had no reservations about French culture, as many people believe he did.) If fate hadn’t driven him to politics, he would have become a painter. The measures he took in the area of the arts had purely political motives. You have to understand how things were: As a politician, he wanted to bring art closer to the people, and he could only do that with the help of artists who had a perfect image of the human form. He turned away only from those who transformed the image of the human form, to an extent destroying it, occasionally disintegrating it. He resisted this. His mistake was to have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

FREUNDLICH: The romantic view of nature liberated artists from structural rigidity, which was like an invisible skeleton, making up the bony frame of the image, around which the soft tissue (i.e., colors and natural shapes) was constructed. But ignorance, exaggerated individualism, and the abandonment of social and historical responsibility ultimately led to that final and most vacuous romanticization of nature: kitsch. Kitsch embodies humanity at its hollowest and most irresponsible, without a modicum of structure in private or social life, stealing like parasites in times of prosperity, lacking moral resilience in times of crisis. The artist must protest against kitsch and the type of person who delights in it.

What role does memory play in your work?

FREUNDLICH: The artist is a barometer of transformations. He senses them in his acts and his thoughts before they are realized in the world. When he detaches himself from conventional forms and truths, he executes the edicts of a new reality. A forcing of barriers—social, political, spiritual—begins every historical period. Our own period will, for the first time, achieve the union of man and the entire earth, thus putting an end to nostalgia and the desire for distant things.

BREKER: The drive to render the human body goes back to man’s primal urge to represent the miracle of divine creativity. We owe all art to that phenomenon. Today people work with all kinds of materials. Someone takes a piece of railroad track and sets it on a lawn, and that’s supposed to be art?

I wanted my sculptures to have an impact on the public. In order to do so they required architecture. I found my ideal in the Greeks: A sculpture captures light and shadow through volume. The impulse toward monumentality became a part of me. The monumental is my sickness.

French delegation visits Arno Breker’s studio in “Deutsche Wochenschau” (German newsreel), no. 586, October 1941.

Do you think of your work as political?

FREUNDLICH: The aesthetic of clearly defined objects or surfaces corresponds to the the civil service and bureaucracy: Everyone must fill out his form, while the remainder of his life—his passion and his need for freedom—don’t matter and are suppressed.

BREKER: I have never intended to glorify any system of government through my artistic work. If I glorify anything, it is beauty. For me, there is no disgrace in beauty.

FREUNDLICH: It is difficult to resist the temptation to compare the visible, decaying world, familiar to us for thousands of years, and the emerging world, still incomprehensible in its totality. We should not yield to this urge. It is a matter of one spiritual epoch replacing the other. One must immerse oneself in this phenomenon, recognizing it as one’s destiny, distinguishing between what is coming and what has passed, not as arbitrary but as necessary, as the promise of freedom, of the full realization of each individual. There is no law of art that applies here, but rather the process of creating new bodies and discarding the old, unusable organs.

BREKER: I do not exist! I will always be guilty. But fifty years from now, when someone looks at my sculptures, they will be seen for how I depicted arms and legs, and human beings in general. And then I will be understood. Cocteau once said to me: “Your work contains the fire of the image of man—like the Phoenix.” I believe in this light. It will not be extinguished.

FREUNDLICH: The work of the artist is the sum of constructive acts. The cultivation of artistic values is, and has always been, the same: preparation for the future.

Arno Breker, Junge Venus, 1979.
Otto Freundlich, Der Neue Mensch, 1913. From Hamburger Tageblatt, November 1938. Photo by Peter Leu.
Per-Oskar Leu, 3-D rendering of Der Neue Mensch, 2010.
Per-Oskar Leu, Der Neue Mensch, 2010, cast bronze taken from a sculpture by Arno Breker.

An appeal to the French government to purchase two works by Otto Freundlich for the National Museum of Modern Art in order to support the destitute artist, signed by twenty friends and fellow artists, 1938.