Avant-Garde Fascism: The Mobilization of Myth, Art, and Culture in France, 1909-1939

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Investigating the central role that theories of the visual arts and creativity played in the development of fascism in France, Mark Antliff examines the aesthetic dimension of fascist myth-making within the history of the avant-garde. Between 1909 and 1939, a surprising array of modernists were implicated in this project, including such well-known figures as the symbolist painter Maurice Denis, the architects Le Corbusier and Auguste Perret, the sculptors Charles Despiau and Aristide Maillol, the “New Vision” photographer Germaine Krull, and the fauve Maurice Vlaminck.

Antliff considers three French fascists: Georges Valois, Philippe Lamour, and Thierry Maulnier, demonstrating how they appropriated the avant-garde aesthetics of cubism, futurism, surrealism, and the so-called Retour à l’Ordre (“Return to Order”), and, in one instance, even defined the “dynamism” of fascist ideology in terms of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage. For these fascists, modern art was the mythic harbinger of a regenerative revolution that would overthrow existing governmental institutions, inaugurate an anticapitalist new order, and awaken the creative and artistic potential of the fascist “new man.”

In formulating the nexus of fascist ideology, aesthetics, and violence, Valois, Lamour, and Maulnier drew primarily on the writings of the French political theorist Georges Sorel, whose concept of revolutionary myth proved central to fascist theories of cultural and national regeneration in France. Antliff analyzes the impact of Sorel’s theory of myth on Valois, Lamour, and Maulnier. Valois created the first fascist movement in France; Lamour, a follower of Valois, established the short-lived Parti Fasciste Révolutionnaire in 1928 before founding two fascist-oriented journals; Maulnier forged a theory of fascism under the auspices of the journals Combat and Insurgé.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“If there is an avant-garde within the historiography of modern European culture, then Mark Antliff is one of its luminaries. This remarkable book contributes in a scholarly and exciting way to the history of ideas, art, visual culture, and politics, while enriching comparative studies in both modernism and generic fascism. The complex and ideologically sophisticated fascist milieu of inter-war France has finally been released from the prison of intellectual history: French fascism’s distinctive personality is revealed as a nexus of visionary artistic, social, and cultural schemes to regenerate the nation’s productive dynamism in a way that would heal the degeneracy of the age and place the nation at the cutting edge of modernity.”—Roger Griffin, author of Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler

“This outstanding study adds an important dimension to our understanding of French fascism. Mark Antliff deftly identifies a variety of ways in which fascists in France and elsewhere activated myths of the past to propel challenging yet seductive visions of achievable futures. This approach is not only crucial to a better grasp of the real causes of fascism’s success in the early twentieth century; it also implies a similar alertness to the threats—and the appeal—posed by the fundamentalisms that seek power in apparently democratic societies today.”—Terry Smith, editor of In Visible Touch: Modernism and Masculinity

Ihor Junyk

“The book is superb on cultural politics and the various fascist discourses on art and culture in the interwar period. . . . Avant-Garde Fascism is an important and accomplished work, and it is definitely required reading for anyone interested in either fascism or modern art.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822340348
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Antliff is Professor of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Inventing Bergson: Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde; a coauthor of Cubism and Culture; and a coeditor of A Cubism Reader: Documents and Criticism, 1906–1914 and Fascist Visions: Art and Ideology in France and Italy.

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Avant-Garde FASCISM

The Mobilization of Myth, Art, and Culture in France, 1909-1939

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4034-8

Chapter One


The terms "fascism" and "modern art" used to seem comfortingly opposed to each other, but the last two decades of scholarship in history, art history, and literature have radically revised that postwar complacency. An understanding of the profound interrelation of these two terms is now a precondition for an appraisal of modernism in any historicized sense. This has led historians to examine the relation of both avant-garde art and fascism to broad socioeconomic, cultural, and philosophical trends pervading European society in the wake of the industrial revolution. For example, in her introductory essay for the 1991 exhibition catalog "Degenerate Art": The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, Stephanie Barron rightly identified the 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition organized by the Nazis as "the most virulent attack ever mounted against modern art." At first glance such a statement seemed to confirm the common assumption that fascism and modernism were mutually exclusive and that the Nazis' concerted efforts, after 1933, to vilify modern art evinced an unbridgeable chasm between fascists and the European avant-garde. Barron, however, tells a more complicated story, noting that attempts to condemn pictorial abstraction as evidence of the "degenerate" condition of its creators were countered within the Nazi movement by those who valued the art of such modernists as Ernst Barlach and Emil Nolde as "regenerative." This latter camp praised German expressionism as attuned to the spiritual values of the German folk, claiming that this avant-garde art embodied a Nordic artistic heritage with roots in the Gothic era. Indeed, Nolde, who became a charter member of the North Schleswig branch of the German National Socialist Party in 1920, saw no contradiction between Nazism and modern art. No less a figure than Joseph Goebbels-future minister for public enlightenment and propaganda in the Third Reich-actively sided with German expressionism's defenders, and, as Barron notes, Nolde's art met with rejection in Nazi circles only after Hitler's September 1934 condemnation of modern art at a party rally in Nuremberg. Thus, before 1934 some factions within the Nazi movement seemed in tune with the cultural politics of Italian fascism under Benito Mussolini, finding in German expressionism an artistic counterpart to the Italian fascists' promotion of all strands of modernism, from the Le Corbusier-inspired architecture of the Italian rationalists to futurism and the art of the Novecento.

Such complications are further compounded when we consider the incorporation of modernist formal aesthetics into the design of household goods under the Third Reich. As John Heskett concluded in his study of modern design in Nazi Germany, the Nazis' closure of the Bauhaus in 1933 has obscured the relation of Nazi industrial design to that developed under the Weimar Republic and the degree to which the Nazi regime actively embraced modernity. Espousing "blood and soil" tribalism even as it constructed autobahns, engineered the Volkswagen, and developed advanced methods of factory organization, the Nazi regime-like its Italian counterpart, and fascist movements in France-looked to a mythic past and a technological future in a manner that seems highly contradictory. The pivotal role of modern art in that matrix will be the focus of this chapter as I examine new approaches to modernism through the lens of fascism's cultural politics. This historiographical overview will set the stage for the chapters that follow, whose focus will be on the development of fascist aesthetics in France.

Central to this problematic is the function of both fascism and modernism in the development of modernity, that is, the socioeconomic transformation of Europe and the world following the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the birth of democracy in the wake of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution of 1789, and the subsequent globalization of capitalism. Scholars now recognize the role of both fascism and modernist aesthetics in the emergence of anti-Enlightenment movements opposed to the democratic tradition that was the heritage of Enlightenment thought. Indeed the rise of fascism in Europe responded to a widespread search for spiritual values and "organic" institutions capable of counteracting what was considered the corrosive effects of rationalism (and capitalism) on the body politic. As Pierre Birnbaum notes, democracy's opponents repudiated the Enlightenment principle of a rationalism inherent in human nature and the legitimizing principle of "one man, one vote." In its stead they posited ethnic, regional, and religious forms of national identity, antithetical to political democracy's universalist and rationalist precepts. The Enlightenment's adversaries also came to associate capitalism with the homogenizing effects of rationalism, since the only value recognized by capital was that of quantifiable monetary exchange. In this regard, Marxists Michael Löwry and Robert Sayre have configured fascism as one manifestation of what they call "Romantic anti-capitalism," an umbrella term for an opposition to capitalism in the name of pre-capitalist values on the part of intellectuals associated with a broad political spectrum, including Marxism, anarchism, and socialism. They associate this worldview with hostility toward a "capitalist present" that reduced human relations to a matter of "exchange value" with no regard for the social divisiveness and alienation resulting from monetary competition. For Löwry and Sayre this worldview precipitated a "nostalgia" for a "pre-capitalist past, or at least for one in which capitalism was less developed." Capitalism had reportedly stifled our imaginative capacity by immersing human subjectivity and emotions in a system based on "extreme mechanization," and "quantitative calculation and standardization," thus instigating a "yearning for unity" both with "the universe of nature" and "the human community." The marshaling of "human values" identified with that past served either to resist a capitalist present or as a springboard for "a dreamed-of future beyond capitalism" inscribed "in the nostalgic vision of the pre-capitalist era." This appeal to past values in the name of a noncapitalist future society is a key characteristic of fascism, though Löwry and Sayre fail to recognize this when they claim that fascism-as exemplified by German Nazism-was predominantly hostile to the "modern world" and fully restorationist in orientation.

Indeed, fascists, though opposed to Enlightenment ideals and capitalist precepts, were eager to absorb those aspects of modernity (and modernist aesthetics) that could be reconfigured within their antirational concept of national identity. Thus, historian Jeffrey Herf has documented the Nazis' thorough acceptance of modern design and industrialism, which has led him to coin the term "reactionary modernism" to describe those thinkers and ideologues under the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich "who rejected liberal democracy and the legacy of the Enlightenment, yet simultaneously embraced the modern technology of the second industrial revolution." As Paul Jaskot points out, the use of technocratic systems of organization and accountancy reached a horrific extreme with the mobilization by the Schutzstaffel (SS) of forced labor in the mass production of dressed stone for Albert Speer's monumental building campaigns; in like fashion, Barbara Lane has analyzed the Nazis' adaptation of Bauhaus design techniques to industrial construction in response to Hitler's call, in 1933, for an architecture of "crystal clear functionalism."

Emilio Gentile has reached similar conclusions with regard to Italian fascism, noting that Mussolini and his allies among the futurists cast themselves as "antagonists of that perverse modernity that stemmed from Enlightenment values of liberal reason." Claiming that the principle of democracy valued individual freedom to the detriment of "spiritual" values with the capacity to unify Italy's body politic, the Fascists gave "absolute primacy" to notions of "national collectivity as organised by the totalitarian state." Zeev Sternhell, in an important anthology devoted to this issue, outlines what was at stake for the Enlightenment's adversaries:

The Enlightenment was the age of criticism.... The principal ideas of the modern age-progress, revolution, liberty, democracy-ensued from criticism. It was the rational criticism of certitudes and traditional values-and in the first place religion-which produced the theory of the rights of man, the primacy of the individual with regard to society. ... It was the rational criticism of the existing order which allowed society to be conceived as an aggregate of individuals and the state as an instrument in the hands of the individual.

To contravene this new social and political order, the Enlightenment's critics turned to alternative philosophical strands from which they constructed new social systems attuned to the industrial revolution, yet opposed to the democratic tradition. Antirationalist philosophers and activists such as Maurice Barrès, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Sorel, and Henri Bergson, as well as antidemocratic sociologists such as Gustave Le Bon and Vilfredo Pareto and racial theorists such as Arthur de Gobineau, inspired the anti-Semitic "blood and soil" politics of the Nazis, the creation of fascist myths under Mussolini, the socioeconomics of corporativism, and the theatrical mass politics of fascist regimes and movements throughout Europe. Moreover, concepts associated with modernist aesthetics-including regeneration, spiritualism, primitivism, and avant-gardism-were integrated into the anti-Enlightenment pantheon of fascist values, with the result that many artists found common ground with these new movements. Over the course of the 1990s historians of fascism began probing this cultural matrix, and journals such as Modernism/Modernity (founded in 1994) and the Journal of Contemporary History (begun 1966) have played a seminal role in providing art historians, literary critics, and historians with a forum in which to examine the specifically modernist dimension of fascism's cultural politics. In short, we now recognize that many of the paradigms that spawned the development of modernist aesthetics were also integral to the emergence of fascism, and that the internalization of these paradigms as operative assumptions were a stimulus for alliances between modernists and anti-Enlightenment ideologues throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Common denominators uniting modernist aesthetics and fascism include concepts of cultural, political, and biological regeneration; the avant-garde techniques such as montage; notions of "secular religion"; primitivism; and anticapitalist theories of space and time. I will treat these five themes separately, considering the implications of each paradigm for the study of modern art and architecture while recognizing their synergetic confluence within the matrix of fascism's cultural politics. The principal framework in which I will situate fascist modernism will be the definition of generic fascism outlined by Roger Griffin in his book The Nature of Fascism. In that volume Griffin developed a heuristic model for the study of fascism's internal workings; scholars have found this approach compelling because it lends coherence to the vast and disparate writings on fascism and has proven to be constructive in subsequent evaluations of fascist aesthetics. As we shall see, the above categories gain conceptual consistency when analyzed from the perspective of Griffin's definition of fascism as "a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism." I will begin by considering Griffin's definition of myth before exploring the ramification of "palingenesis" (rebirth) for the first of our categories: that of regeneration.


By claiming that fascism possessed a "mythic core" Griffin highlights the irrationalism behind fascist ideology and the function of myths as motivating factors among fascism's adherents. He turns to the theory of myth propounded by French political theorist Georges Sorel to define the fascists' specialized use of this concept-an appropriate association, given Mussolini's self-professed debt to the author of Reflections on Violence (1908) and the impact of Sorel's views in Germany between the wars. Sorel concluded that the revolutionary transformations instigated by religious sects and political movements arise from the emotive impact of their core myths, defined as those visionary principles that inspire immediate action. For Sorel, myths were decidedly instrumental; rather than providing people with a social blueprint for a future to be created incrementally through political reform and rational planning, myths presented the public with a visionary ideal whose stark contrast with present reality would agitate the masses. In his Reflections on Violence, Sorel underscored the emotive and intuitive nature of myth by defining it as "a body of images capable of evoking all the sentiments which correspond to the different manifestations of the war undertaken by socialism against modern society." Having condemned parliamentary socialists for employing rational argumentation to promote social change, Sorel lauded the mythic power of the French anarchosyndicalist vision of a general strike for its ability to instill revolutionary fervor among the working class. If all workers believed their strike action would spark similar acts throughout France and that the proliferation of such strikes would result in the downfall of capitalism, then the evocation of such an apocalyptic general strike would inspire workers to engage in heroic forms of violent resistance to the capitalist status quo. Sorel viewed the general strike as only the latest manifestation of the power of mythic images to transform individual consciousness and ultimately, whole societies. Other examples included the Christian belief in Christ's imminent return; the various utopic images that had inspired the citizen-soldiers of France to defend the Revolution of 1789; and Giuseppi Mazzini's visionary call for a united Italy, which had motivated the common people to take up arms during the Risorgimento (1861-1870). In each case, myth makers drew a strong contrast between a decadent present, rife with political and ethical corruption, and their vision of a regenerated future society, premised, in no small part, on the spiritual transformation of each individual within the body politic.


Excerpted from Avant-Garde FASCISM by MARK ANTLIFF Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations     ix
Acknowledgments     xiii
Introduction     1
Fascism, Modernism, and Modernity     17
The Jew as Anti-Artist: Georges Sorel and the Aesthetics of the Anti-Enlightenment     63
La Cite Francaise: Georges Valois, Le Corbusier, and Fascist Theories of Urbanism     111
Machine Primitives: Philippe Lamour and the Fascist Cult of Youth     155
Classical Violence: Thierry Maulnier and the Legacy of the Cercle Proudhon     203
Conclusion     247
Notes     255
Bibliography     323
Index     345
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