Art History in “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” by Erik Larson

To buy the book, click on the cover.

When I checked out the electronic edition of this book, I found myself utterly riveted by Erik Larson’s tales of the day-to-day life in Nazi era Berlin.  From the political intrigue to people claiming that the Nazis weren’t so bad, this book will tantalize you.

Of course, I’m spotlighting this piece of nonfiction because of the art history references found among the political upheaval.  For those aware of the hatred Nazis had for Modern art, Larson cites one instance of this in his book.  Near the beginning, Walter Gropius shows up as one of three examples of excess that the Nazis claimed to despise.  As the story unfolds in both text and photographs, the author allows art and architecture that either originated or took influence from Renaissance and Neo-Classical (this part comes from me speculating) eras to make their presence known.  Such as Albrecht Durer’s Knight, Death, and the Devil.  On the print’s importance, Larson records its role as an offering for Hitler during a ritual.

I wonder if Hitler saw himself as the Knight.

On the photographs containing art and architecture, the book features one of American ambassador Dodd in his workplace.  Behind him, there’s an artwork that seems Neo-Classical and I think depicts the death of the Virgin Mary.  Or a dead woman from Ancient Greece or Rome.  The people rendered in vague mourning positions behind her seems to confirm my suspicions.  Another photograph recorded a personal space belonging to Hermann Göring.  In that space, hung a painting of a naked woman with a body that reminded me of Michelangelo’s women.  However, my personal combination of remembering and quick research revealed that you could find her body type in other Renaissance era paintings.  Where did these works originate?  I really don’t know.  I searched for the photographs found in the sources Larson credited, but I couldn’t find the artists behind them.  I also did some speculation on who did the painting in Dodd’s space, but I threw it out when nothing matched.  Another photograph showed the Reichstag building surrounded by a barren landscape.

Other art history mentions revolved around architecture, such as Larson citing quotes that relayed information about influences on German government buildings and devoting some sentences to the Siegesallee sculpture.  However, if you look at the history of Siegesallee, you will see that not all Classically inspired art earned special treatment in Germany.  Other discussions of architecture came from Martha Dodd, the ambassador’s daughter.

Acting as a bookend to the Gropius reference, more Modern and Contemporary artists would make their appearance courtesy of Martha Dodd rubbing shoulders with some of the big names in photography and art.  In his notes, Larson would mention her collection of modern art, which consisted mostly of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works that she had during her post-Berlin married life.

Final verdict?  Read this book, for it will act as essential reading for anyone interested in World War II era history.

ETA: Had to republish this post on the date I wanted.

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One thought on “Art History in “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” by Erik Larson

  1. Pingback: Art History in “Thunderstruck” by Erik Larson | Art History Ramblings

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