Arno Breker (* July 19, 1900 in Elberfeld (now a district of Wuppertal); † February 13, 1991 in Düsseldorf) was a German sculptor and architect. He had experienced artistic imprinting and first successes in France, before he developed from 1936 in Germany to one of the most prominent artists of the national socialist state, protected directly by Adolf Hitler.
On Hitler's behalf, he worked primarily on sculptures for the planned world capital Germania. His striking style became formative for the aesthetics of the Nazi system. In 1944, Hitler arranged for Breker's name to be included in a list of artists who had been blessed by God.
Despite the great importance of his work and person for the Nazi regime, Breker was classified only as a fellow traveler after the end of the war (1948). Still highly controversial for the rest of his life, he was particularly accused of a lack of remorse.
Before and after the Nazi era, the artist made a name for himself primarily with the design of portrait busts. They brought him international recognition, especially among fellow artists such as Aristide Maillol, Ernst Fuchs, and Salvador Dalí.
Life and work of Arno Breker
Arno Breker was born in Elberfeld in 1900, the eldest son of Arnold Breker, a master stonemason and gravestone artist, and his wife Luise. Hans Breker, who was also to become a sculptor, was his younger brother. Arno Breker attended the Oberrealschule, learned the stonemason's trade at an early age in his parents' business, attended the Handwerker- und Kunstgewerbeschule Elberfeld and studied the works of Auguste Rodin and Michelangelo.
After he was unable to realize a collaboration with the artist and professor Adolf von Hildebrand (Munich) for economic reasons, Breker began studying at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1920. There he met the revolutionary artists of the Young Rhineland, from whom, however, he distanced himself after some time.
Rodin became his role model because a sculpture by the French sculptor had left a strong impression on him. He studied architecture with Wilhelm Kreis and sculpture with Hubert Netzer, a student of Adolf von Hildebrand.
He successfully participated in several architectural competitions and competitions for honorary monuments, for example in 1922/23 in a competition for the design of the cemetery of honor of his hometown Elberfeld (mother-son group, Pietà type). The Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen commissioned him to design annual gifts.
In 1924, shortly before the end of his studies, he made his first trip to Paris, the center of modern sculpture at the time. There he met the writer and painter Jean Cocteau, the film director Jean Renoir, the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and the art dealer and publicist Alfred Flechtheim. He also met Pablo Picasso there. Flechtheim took Breker under contract and made him known in the Paris art scene.
In 1925, Breker completed his studies in Düsseldorf. The monumental figure of the reclining Aurora on the roof of the Ehrenhof in Düsseldorf, commissioned by Wilhelm Kreis for the GeSoLei exhibition, illustrates Breker's talent for building-based sculpture. Arno Breker was awarded the traveling prize of the government president in Düsseldorf.
Arno Breker in 1926-1934
In 1927 Breker was commissioned by the town of Budberg (Rheinberg/Lower Rhine) to design a war memorial. A monument near Kleve-Kellen, inaugurated in 1928 to commemorate assaults by Belgian troops during the occupation after World War I (1918-1926), also came from a studio. These were works that he probably owed - like the Aurora - to the mediation of his former teacher Wilhelm Kreis.
This was followed by portrait busts, such as that of the painter Otto Dix, or a government commission for a bust of Friedrich Ebert, the first president of the Weimar Republic, who died in February 1925. He undertook a second trip to Paris, where he met Alexander Calder, among others.
Breker decided to settle in Paris. He established numerous contacts - including lifelong friendships - with artists and intellectuals such as Aristide Maillol, Charles Despiau, Maurice de Vlaminck, Robert Delaunay, Emile Antoine Bourdelle, Constantin Brâncuși, Jules Pascin, Jean Fautrier, Isamu Noguchi, and Man Ray, and traveled through North Africa.
While doing so, he met the Greek Demetra Messala, known as "Mimina", who became his companion for life. Demetra was the daughter of a Greek diplomat who had already posed for Pablo Picasso and Aristide Maillol.
Breker made a sculpture of her in 1933, and produced numerous sketches and drawings as well as the etching and lithograph series Tunisian Journey. In 1927, he exhibited together with Alf Bayrle, who also lived in Paris. This resulted in a long-lasting friendship, which is also evidenced by a lively exchange of letters.
Breker's sculptural works during this period were strongly influenced by Aristide Maillol, Charles Despiau, and Auguste Rodin. In his nudes, torsos, and portrait busts, Breker attempted to blend the different styles, including surface treatments, of his models.
He also developed the casting process of pure form - without unevenness on the surfaces of his figures - which later became characteristic of his representations during the National Socialist era.
However, the connection with Germany did not break off. Thus he received commissions for a large sculpture for the Matthäikirche in Düsseldorf and for the monument to Conrad Röntgen in Remscheid. Exhibitions of his works took place, he participated in competitions in Germany, including the competition of the city of Düsseldorf for a Heinrich Heine monument (location since 1983 in front of the Kurtheater Norderney).
In 1932 he received the Rome Prize of the Prussian Academy of Arts. This prize was accompanied by a scholarship that brought Breker to the Villa Massimo for a study stay of seven months, from October 1932 to May 1933. Here one of his Jewish acquaintances, the artist Felix Nussbaum, was his studio neighbor.
During his stay in Rome, Breker designed, among other things, a reconstruction of the first version of Michelangelo's Pietà, which also found mention in professional circles, and participated in a competition for a military cemetery in France (Fricourt/Departement Somme). Breker himself saw his time in Rome as "preparation for the monumental work of great magnitude that awaited me."
Study visits to Florence and Naples followed in 1933. The inspiration taken here from ancient and Renaissance sculpture - especially Michelangelo's - had a lasting influence on Breker's middle period of National Socialism, known as the Classical period.
Arno Breker in 1934-1945
In 1934, Breker left France and returned to Germany. According to Breker's own account, it was the urging of Wilhelm Hausenstein, Grete Ring and Max Liebermann that persuaded him to leave Paris to settle in Berlin. Liebermann arranged for Breker to use the studio of the sculptor August Gaul, who died in 1921, at his new residence. A bust of Liebermann was created. On his death in 1935, Breker took the death mask from him.
Breker was initially considered by the National Socialists to be decadent and too France-oriented, and so in the first period after his return he mainly received portrait commissions from industrialists, the military or even fellow artists.
He carried out his first public commissions in 1935: the national emblems on the Berlin Ministry of Finance, stone reliefs on the building of the Nordstern life insurance company in Berlin-Schöneberg, figurative decoration on the main portal of the German Experimental Institute for Aviation, Berlin-Adlershof, the sculpture Der Flieger for the main building of the Dresden Air War School, but it was not until 1936 that he began his rapid rise to become the most prominent sculptor of the Third Reich.
On September 10, 1937, he applied for membership in the NSDAP and was admitted retroactively to May 1 (membership number 5,379,989).
Breker produced a lion's head relief for the reconstruction of the tomb of Henry the Lion in Brunswick Cathedral, which was carried out from 1936 to 1938.
His design, which he submitted on the occasion of a competition to design the gate pillars of the Dietrich Eckart open-air stage on the Reichssportfeld, was purchased. Subsequently, Breker was commissioned to create two monumental figures for the House of German Sports (decathlete and champion), which attracted Hitler's attention in particular.
For both figures he received the silver medal of the International Olympic Committee in the sculpture competition at the Olympic Art Exhibition in Berlin in 1936.
For the design of the 1936 Olympic Games, the Nazi government decided on a stylistic orientation towards antiquity. Breker's reference to sculptures from Greek antiquity was in line with these efforts. In his figures, the National Socialists saw the aesthetic ideals of their racial doctrine, the "healthy, Aryan type of man," symbolized.
Thus Breker's form of expression was proclaimed as a "shaped attitude, a world view that had taken shape," as pointing the way for the new German style. In retrospect, Breker himself described the year 1936 as the turning point of his existence.
In the period that followed, he was appropriated by Nazi propaganda, stylized as the "most important German sculptor of the present day," even as a champion of the National Socialist revolution, since his monumental figures seemed eminently suited to make the struggle of the New Reich against the signs of decay in art (Degenerate Art) and in society as a whole visually tangible.
Breker gained increasing influence in art policy committees. For example, he was a juror for the sculpture department of the first Great German Art Exhibition, held in July 1937 (then annually until 1944) at the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich. At the side of the president of the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts, Adolf Ziegler, Breker made the selection of sculptural works.
According to the state's instructions, only artists who did not work in the spirit of degenerate art were admitted. Breker himself was represented at the exhibition with four sculptures. By the end of the war, he was able to show forty-two of his works at this most important exhibition of National Socialist art.
Thus Breker not only adapted his own style to the artistic ideal of the regime, but in his capacity as juror he also promoted those artists who worked in the spirit of those in power.
Further public commissions followed, for example for the large sculpture Prometheus for the Ministry of Propaganda in Berlin, the Icarus for the Dresden Air War School, the Rosseführer for the buildings of the Wehrmacht in Dessau, and the Löwen am Maschsee for the city of Hanover.
In the same year Breker was appointed professor of a sculpture class at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Berlin. He married the Greek Demetra Messala. At the end of 1937 he received the commission for the two monumental figures Party and Wehrmacht for the courtyard of honor of the New Reich Chancellery (inaugurated on January 9, 1939).
At the same time he worked on five figures (Wager, Wäger, Anmut, Psyche, Eos) and two marble reliefs (Genius, Sieger) for the Round Hall of this building. These commissions marked the beginning of the close personal collaboration between the sculptor and Albert Speer, since January 30, 1937, general building inspector for the Reich capital, who was to plan and carry out the "redesign of Berlin into the capital of the Greater Germanic Empire".
Breker was given the task of decorating the new buildings with his sculptures. Breker's rise was probably promoted by Wilhelm Kreis, Breker's former teacher of architecture at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, with whom Breker maintained a close friendship throughout his life.
Breker's designs for the fountain at Runden Platz, reliefs for the planned Soldiers' Hall, for a 240-meter-long relief frieze on the planned north-south axis, a series of heroizing depictions with the titles Torchbearer, Victim, Avenger, Sentinel, Retribution and Comrades, then reliefs for the Great Arc de Triomphe and the Führerbau were created.
For this task, the Nazi government had Breker set up an open-plan studio in Berlin-Dahlem, which was built on Käuzchensteig from 1939 to 1942 according to plans by Hans Freese, but Breker only used it for a little less than a year because of the approaching war front.
The Berlin Senate placed the preserved building under a preservation order in 1990. Since 2015 it has been the Kunsthaus Dahlem, in whose garden two marble sculptures by Breker were found in 2020 during construction work. One of them shows a larger-than-life image of a Roma boy, the Romanichel, created in 1940 (at a time when deportations of Sinti and Roma began).
In the spring of 1938, the exhibition German Sculptors of the Present, featuring Breker, Georg Kolbe, and Richard Scheibe, was a great success in Warsaw and Krakow. In 1940 Breker became the first visual artist to receive the Mussolini Prize at the Venice Biennale. In 1941 Breker became vice president of the Reichskulturkammer der Bildenden Künste.
On June 23, 1940, one day after the signing of the armistice agreement with France in the forest of Compiègne, Breker, in the entourage of Adolf Hitler, together with the architects Albert Speer and Hermann Giesler, took part in a visit to occupied Paris that lasted only a few hours.
They visited the Paris Opera, Champs Elysées, Trocadéro, Eiffel Tower, Invalides Cathedral (burial place of Napoleon I), Panthéon and Sacré Cœur. A little later, Breker received - presumably mediated by Speer - the Aryanized luxury apartment of Helena Rubinstein on the Île Saint-Louis (Quai de Béthune 24) at his disposal.
For Breker's 40th birthday, in 1940 Hitler had given him the former Rittergut Jäckelsbruch in Eichwerder (Wriezen) as a gift in "grateful recognition of his creative work in the service of German art." The gift included the castle with park as well as the entire furnishings of the house and a new studio built by the architect Friedrich Tamms. The interior decoration was based on designs by Paul von Waldthausen.
In April 1942, Hitler mentioned during a dinner conversation that he had personally arranged for Breker's annual income of one million RM to remain at a tax rate of 15%. In Wriezen, there had been a large factory site with a rail siding and a canal port since mid-1941 - the Steinbildhauerwerkstätten Arno Breker GmbH. The endowment had a value of 800,000 Reichsmark.[
The stone sculpture workshops were a facility of the General Building Inspector for the Reich capital Berlin, which enabled Speer to award commissions of any size directly to Breker without an approval process. The workshops produced sculptures for the redesign of Berlin and for the party conference grounds in Nuremberg.
In the following years, the workshops were continuously expanded at a cost of millions. Towards the end of the war, up to 50 prisoners of war and forced laborers were used to work on the figures.
In neighboring Wriezen, the National Socialists even wanted to establish their own artists' colony, whose selected artists would produce monumantal works for Berlin, Munich, Nuremberg and Hamburg. The first halls for this purpose had already been completed in 1941, and after the war they were partially preserved until the 21st century. Stones for the planned large orders had already been quarried in Franconia and transported by ship across the Oder to Wriezen.
In addition, four large looms intended for the production of large tapestries were discovered in an inn in the village after 1945. In total, about 10,000 people were to work in this colony on the glorification of Nazi rule.
In May 1942, the Vichy government opened a solo Arno Breker exhibition in the Orangerie of the Tuileries Gardens in occupied Paris with a state ceremony - attended by Abel Bonnard, Fernand de Brinon, Jacques Benoist-Méchin, Georges Scapini, numerous French artists, such as Charles Despiau, Jean Cocteau, the German ambassador Otto Abetz, and other representatives of the German occupying power, and other selected guests.
Minister of Education Abel Bonnard and Secretary of State Jacques Benoist-Méchin gave the official speeches at this event.
Further solo exhibitions during the war took place in 1943 at the "Haus der rheinischen Heimat" in Cologne and from June to September 1944 at the Potsdam Garrison Museum Lustgarten - organized by Albert Speer and the Gauleiter for the Mark Brandenburg, Oberpräsident Emil Stürtz.
In 1944, Breker accepted a call to the Prussian Academy of Arts as head of a master studio and was elected to the Academy's Senate. Also in 1944, the documentary film Arno Breker - Harte Zeit, starke Kunst. (Director: Arnold Fanck, Hans Cürlis; Production: Riefenstahl-Film GmbH, Berlin).
In view of these numerous activities, the sculptor was included by Adolf Hitler himself in the special list of the Gottbegnadeten list of "irreplaceable artists," which meant for him exemption from military service.
Numerous monumental sculptures by Breker were destroyed by the effects of war, other works disappeared in depots or are in private collections, but some of his works still stand on pedestals in museums, in parks or at portals and squares without being recognized at first glance as sculptures by Arno Breker.
From mid-1944, when the air raids on Berlin became too fierce, the working team for the reconstruction of bomb-damaged cities sought shelter in a barracks camp in Wriezen.
Numerous illustrated books and photo postcards were produced during this period, photographed by Charlotte Rohrbach.
Breker moved to Wemding in Bavaria during the last fighting in the spring of 1945.
In 1948, despite his massive artistic commitment to the National Socialist state, Breker was classified as a fellow traveler during denazification by the Spruchkammer Donauwörth in the then U.S. occupation zone of Bavaria, since he had demonstrably supported persecuted artists. According to his own account, he had saved the painter Pablo Picasso from the Gestapo in Paris during the German occupation; Picasso, a communist sympathizer, had thus escaped deportation to a concentration camp.
One of Arno Breker's achievements was the rescue of the German publisher Peter Suhrkamp, who had been imprisoned on urgent suspicion of resisting Adolf Hitler. Breker had visited Suhrkamp in prison and successfully lobbied Albert Speer and Hitler for the publisher's release.
It is assumed that Arno Breker, who was staying in Wriezen, was well informed about the post-war plans through his contacts to the circle of the General Building Inspector or the Working Staff.
After Friedrich Tamms had been appointed head of the Düsseldorf city planning office in 1948 and subsequently began, in close cooperation with Rudolf Wolters, to move more former employees of the General Building Inspector of the Reich capital Berlin to Düsseldorf, Arno Breker obviously also thought the time had come to move his residence here.
So Breker settled in Düsseldorf in 1950, where other former employees of the reconstruction staff - such as Friedrich Tamms, Wilhelm Kreis, Helmut Hentrich, Rudolf Wolters, Hans Heuser, Karl Piepenburg, Hanns Dustmann, Kurt Groote, and later Julius Schulte-Frohlinde - had already re-established themselves.
Arno Breker's brother Hans, sculptor like Arno, and like him active for the Nazi regime (bronze relief of the naval memorial in Laboe 1935/36, Ährenlesergruppe and Sämann for the exhibition Schaffendes Volk in Düsseldorf 1937, sculpture for the Nazi mother home in Meisenheim am Glan 1939), also moved to Düsseldorf in 1954.
Arno Breker moved into the former studio of the animal sculptor Josef Pallenberg at Niederrheinstraße 239 in Düsseldorf-Lohausen, and in 1958 - two years after the death of his first wife Demetra - he married Charlotte Kluge, 26 years his junior, with whom he had two children (son Gerhard, b. 1959, and daughter Carola, b. 1962).
After 1945 Breker received hardly any public commissions, but numerous private ones: He portrayed influential industrialists - such as Hermann Josef Abs, Hugo Henkel, Günther and Herbert Quandt, Rudolf-August Oetker, Paul Girardet and Gustav Schickedanz -, politicians - such as Konrad Adenauer, Ludwig Erhard -, artists - such as Jean Cocteau, Jean Marais, Salvador Dalí, Ernst Jünger, Ezra Pound - or art collectors such as Irene and Peter Ludwig, and reportedly received fees of up to 150,000 marks.
He was friends with Salvador Dalí and Ernst Fuchs. About the friendship of the three artists, called the Golden Triangle, Dalí said: "Breker-Dalí-Fuchs. You can turn us any way you want, we're always on top." Of Breker, whom he considered a great artist and whom he praised on his television program about artists, he said, "Breker captured my soul."
His Lion was a study for the Monument to the Liberation of Africa, which Breker had been working on since 1970 at the request of King Hassan II of Morocco, to be placed in the Great Square of the United Nations in Casablanca.
He had received the commission through the mediation of Jacques Benoist-Méchin, who was a friend of the king. After the assassination attempt on the king in 1971, in which Benoist-Méchin and Breker were also present and in which they, like the king, narrowly escaped death, the monument was not built.
Breker retained his preference for portrait busts and athletic, mostly male bodies. Until the 1980s, he, who by his own account "could never get enough of muscles" (Breker 1980), worked from models of athletes. The decathlete Jürgen Hingsen, the high jumper Ulrike Nasse-Meyfarth, and the swimmers Walter Kusch and Peter Nocke were his models. Hingsen was immortalized as the "Greek Apollo".
Together with the poet and philosopher Rolf Schilling, the joint work "Days of the Gods" was created, which contains numerous drawings by the sculptor. For the deluxe edition of the publication, he dedicated the original lithograph Orpheus with the Harp to Schilling. Schilling was also a guest at the Figurine Studio as well as Breker's museum.
Arno Breker as an architect
Breker had been involved with architectural projects throughout his life. According to Albert Speer, his earlier specialist studies in Düsseldorf were also helpful for the plans for the redesign of Berlin.
After 1945, he was involved in the design of the Gerling corporate headquarters in Cologne, among other projects. Because of the monumental character of the buildings, which evoked memories of Albert Speer's colossal buildings, the ensemble of buildings was soon called the "Little Reich Chancellery" by the population.
Here Breker came under criticism simply because the architects and construction managers involved (Kurt Groote, Karl Piepenburg, Helmut Hentrich, Hans Heuser), like the supporting experts Friedrich Tamms and Hans Mehrtens, had already been leading figures in the "Third Reich".
After dissonances with Hans Gerling, the son of the group's founder Robert Gerling, the architects Helmut Hentrich and Hans Heuser resigned their commission and the building was completed by Hans Gerling on his own under Breker's formal direction.
Breker was actively involved here as a sculptor. The figures on the central fountain at Gereonshof are by him, as are several reliefs mounted on the walls of the buildings: depictions of the Magi, St. George and St. Martin, St. Christopher, and other groups of figures.
In 1955/1956, Breker designed the now landmarked office and residential building for the Gerling Group at Körnerstrasse 45 in Hagen, and in 1957 he designed the Jägerhofstrasse 21 office building in Düsseldorf-Pempelfort, which is also landmarked today.
After German reunification, Breker filed claims for restitution related to the Rittergut Jäckelsbruch, but did not revisit the property. The claims were rejected, and the property is owned by the town of Wriezen, except for the actual studio building and the residence of Breker's parents.
Arno Breker's Honors, Appreciations
According to a report in Stern magazine, Breker accepted the Golden Ring of Honor from the far-right German Cultural Association of European Spirit in the 1970s. In 1986, Breker praised the "culturally sophisticated style" of the far-right journal Deutsche Monatshefte and published an article on the French sculptor Aristide Maillol here in issue 12. After Breker's death, the anti-Semitic paper Die Bauernschaft (publisher Thies Christophersen) mourned the loss of its reader Breker.
Controversial in person and work, Breker also received multiple appreciations far beyond the National Socialist intellectual world, especially by fellow artists and art connoisseurs. The following can be cited:
- Charles Despiau: "Breker opens up new dimensions in the representation of man." (1937)
- Aristide Maillol: "Breker is the German Michelangelo of the XX century." (1942)
- Ernst Fuchs: "Arno Breker is the true prophet of the beautiful." (1972)
- Salvador Dali: "God is beauty and Arno Breker is its prophet." (1975)
- Peter Ludwig: "I think Breker is an interesting artist, a great portrait artist. He is also one of those whose achievement is simply pushed aside with buzzwords." (1986)