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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How do you solve a problem like the Fuhrer?

By Norman Lebrecht / May 28, 2008

In February 1945, as the Russians closed in on Berlin, Adolf Hitler ordered his second-favourite architect, Hermann Giesler, to build a scale model of his home-town Linz and instal it in his bunker.

One of the last photographs of Hitler shows him sitting at a low table, studying the Nibelungen Bridge he had thrown across the Danube as a prelude to more grandiose constructions. In his final will and testament, Hitler bequeathed Linz his personal art collection. Linz, in Hitler’s fantasy, was going to be Europe’s capital of culture.

Next year, that dream will be fulfilled. By some quirk of Brussels chicanery or a triple ironic bypass after a liquid lunch, Linz has been chosen to succeed Liverpool as Europe’s artistic hub for the year 2009. It’s a decision beyond satire, or reason.

Even if there were cultural grounds for celebrating Linz – and there are some – someone on an EU salary should surely have spotted that 2009 is the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s war and the 120th of his birth. No year with a 9 in it is a good time to talk about the genius of Linz, regardless of the passage of time.

In Linz itself, there is no getting away from the H word. The Nibelungen Bridge still spans the river and you can’t miss the town hall balcony from which the Fuhrer gave his first mass rant on marching into Austria in March 1938. Cheap homes that he built for industrial workers in the Nazi boom are still known as ‘Hitlerbauten’. Although he was born in the outlying village of Braunau and there are no plaques on any wall, Linz is Hitler’s town as Salzburg is Mozart’s and Stratford Shakespeare’s.

Ever since it was named Culture Capital, I have been anxious to see how Linz would handle the challenge – the more so since culture, for Hitler, was contiguous with politics and race. For Linz to escape the stigma, it would have to deconstruct and redefine the meaning of culture in a heterogenous society – but how can that be done?

Last week, I found out. The first act of Linz09 will be a public exhibition on ‘Linz: the Führer’s Culture Capital,’ displaying Hitler’s blueprints and the art he planned to hang in the biggest museum in Europe. Opening this September and running for eight full months, the Hitler show will underline the stifling mediocrity of Third Reich art, a process augmented by a comparative array of four 1930s Austrian sculptors – Barlach, Kasper, Thorak and Wotruba.

‘The only way of dealing with Hitler is to be completely honest,’ says Linz09 artistic director Martin Heller, sounding as if he has asked himself the question many times before. Heller, a Swiss post-modernist, noticed on arrival that there was no public transport link between Linz and the nearby concentration camp of Mauthhausen. ‘We are going to include the camp in the cultural programme and put on a shuttle,’ he pledges. ‘The mayor is supportive. There is nothing we cannot discuss.’ A disused web of tunnels beneath the town, wartime hiding places and storage vaults, will be brought into the heart of the programme as a metaphor for silenced memory.

Exposing the past, however, is not enough. Heller, who ran Zurich’s design museum and the Swiss national Expo in 2002, brings to Linz09 the lexicon of post-modern irony and the language of pop art. His advertising slogan is a fried egg beside an inverted comma. Don’t ask for meaning: it has none. Heller aims to fragment the perception of culture to the point where it loses any political dimension.

‘At one point I said, “Let’s not even call it City of Culture,”’ he told me on the eve of launch. ‘Let’s just say we want to be interesting. We’re not Salzburg or Vienna. Linz is going to be different - it has to be.’

A key test of iconoclasm will be Anton Bruckner, the monumental symphonist born locally in the village of Ansfelden and buried in the crypt of St Florian’s monastery, which Hitler planned to convert into ‘Bruckner’s Bayreuth’. Second only to Wagner in the Fuhrer’s musical loves, Bruckner was on the radio at all moments of Nazi solemnity. Integrating Bruckner to Linz09 is almost as tricky as neutralising Hitler.

Salzburg, in its 2006 Mozart year, staged the complete operas. Linz, instead of performing 11 symphonies and sundry masses, has commissioned a synthetic synopsis – all of Bruckner in an hour, or Bruckner’s greatest hits. The aim is both laconic tribute and ironic commentary. Reduced to an hour, Bruckner will either acquire a contemporary immediacy or implode in fits of public giggles. It’s all a question of context.

Instead of imitating Liverpool’s showcase exhibit of the over-exposed Klimt, Linz is raiding Austria’s national museums for an ad hoc show that may put a devotional medieval woodcut beside a Paul Klee nude, suggesting a continuity of culture that overrides transient epochs of faith and ideology.

Heller knows that this, too, will not rehabilitate Linz. Expanded by Hitler from market town to heavy-industry hub, Linz remains predominantly blue-collar and increasingly multicultural, with a visible Islamic minority. Rather than impose monolithic notions of culture, Heller and his curators have solicited public contributions.

More than 1,700 ideas flooded in and many form part of the programme – organ tours, new bus routes, rooftop art. There are the obligatory new public buildings – a new centre for Ars Electronica, a world leader in techno-art, and an opera house by the London architect Terry Pawson – but the driving aim in Linz 09 is to get away from the corsets of official culture and make space for creative possibilities.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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