A Black Lives Matter protest by members of the group Warriors in the Garden at the entrance to the Brooklyn Public Library in the summer of 2020 (photo by and courtesy Francesca Magnani)
This article was originally published by Hyperallergic (May 24, 2023).
During the 2020 uprisings prompted by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, protestors and rebels asserted power by holding space. In Minneapolis, they started George Floyd Square; in Seattle, they created the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) — formerly known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) — and in New York, they founded Abolition Park. In Brooklyn, they claimed the public library. While the building itself was closed, the plaza outside the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch became a rallying hub. Activists gave impassioned speeches, hundreds took a knee and raised their fists, and musicians performed “Amazing Grace.”
All of this happened in the shadow of the library’s iconic entrance artwork: a grille with gilded sculptures above the doorway and two massive columns on either side etched with glimmering reliefs. As part of its response to the uprisings, the library added large letters spelling “BLM” to the three windows above the entrance. While statues and monuments across the country and around the world were being challenged for perpetuating colonialism and white supremacy, this piece of public art blended into the background of the racial justice protests.
What was not known at the time was that the column reliefs were designed by a Nazi sympathizer. In 2021, a reporter for Der Spiegel revealed that German-born American sculptor Carl Paul Jennewein, who created the gilded bas-reliefs on the library’s 50-foot limestone pylons, exhibited sculptures in the first three Great German Art Exhibitions, organized by the Nazi government as propaganda events. The Nazis used these shows, held annually in Munich from 1937–1944, to demonstrate the supremacy of a supposed “Aryan” art style over “degenerate” modern art. In fact, the first exhibition was timed to overlap with the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937, which took place nearby.
Adolf Hitler, who fancied himself an artist, personally oversaw the shows and was its largest patron. Among the works he purchased for himself from the shows were three 1938 female nude bronzes by Jennewein: “Tänzerin (Dancer),” “Komödie (Comedy),” and “Rast (Repose).” Jennewein made around $87,000 (in today’s currency) from these and other sales of his art at the shows.
Letters from Jennewein’s papers at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art suggest that he was enamored with the exhibitions. After visiting the inaugural show, he wrote to a friend, “At last I have found out the answer to: ‘What is wrong with American Art,’” which he believed was infected by Modernism. Jennewein thought that “the modern abstract style nullified art and destroyed its integrity and purpose,” writes Shirley Reiff Howarth in her 1980 biography of the artist.
During this time, Jennewein belonged to a milieu of American art-world reactionaries whose views on modern art bore striking similarities to those of the Nazis. Jennewein sought out Nazi literature on modern art, according to a letter his secretary sent to a rare book dealer, buying books like Wolfgang Willrich’s Cleansing of the Temple of Art (1937), which directly inspired Joseph Goebbels to create the Degenerate Art Exhibition. He supported the Society for Sanity in Art, which saw modern art as “madness” created by “savages,” and participated in its first Sanity in Art Exhibition in 1939. Contemporary art critics “readily recognized the parallels” between the “rhetorics and aesthetic agendas” of the Society and the Nazis, according to Judith A. Barter in American Modernism at the Art Institute of Chicago (2009). Jennewein seemed to have been aware of the overlap; he sent the Society’s founder a magazine from Germany “showing,” in his words, “the interest they are taking in the same subject.” He also praised the writings of Confederate monument sculptor Frederick Ruckstull, who warned that modern art was a “Bolshevist” conspiracy. In The Unveiling of the National Icons (1998), art historian Albert Boime speculated that “Ruckstull’s publications found their way into Hitler’s hands,” given the “remarkable coincidence of rhetoric and tone” and shared view of modern art as Cultural Bolshevism between Mein Kamph (1925) and Ruckstull’s pseudonymously published Bolshevism in Art (1924), which he discussed with Jennewein.
Jennewein had a passion for classical Greek and Roman art (another obsession he shared with the Nazis), which he saw as the origin of Western civilization. His oeuvre evinces a belief in the superiority of the Western tradition and a not-so-subtle support of colonialism.
Jennewein’s 1932 frieze for the west wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, appropriately titled “Western Civilization,” features sculptures of ancient Greek gods. It was meant to contrast with a planned frieze depicting Eastern civilization on the opposite wing of the museum. Art historian Susan Rather notes in Archaism, Modernism, and the Art of Paul Manship (1993) that John Gregory, the sculptor of the Eastern frieze, has once said: “The passage of time is a matter of no consideration to the Oriental mind … There exists none of the energy and animation so characteristic of Western civilization.” Gregory’s pediment was never completed due to Depression-era financial issues; Howarth notes that Jennewein later tried to raise money to install it.
A year later, Jennewein designed a panel for the British Empire Building in New York City’s Rockefeller Center, featuring figures personifying the industries that enriched the British monarchy: an English coal miner, an Australian shepherd, an Indian man chopping sugarcane, and a half-nude African woman picking cotton. This piece was not an anti-imperialist critique. At the bottom of the panel is a sun, representing the notorious phrase: “The sun never sets on the British empire.”
Jennewein created other colonialist artworks, such as a statue memorializing the Pilgrims commissioned by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Some of his art has even been publicly called out. In 2020, his statue of colonial governor John Endecott in Boston was graffitied with the hashtag #LandBack.
In 1938, the Brooklyn Public Library commissioned Jennewein to sculpt reliefs on the two pylons at the entrance of its planned central branch. At the same time, Jennewein was participating in the Nazi exhibitions, though it is not known whether the library was aware of this. The reliefs include a mix of ancient and modern figures meant to evoke the evolution of the arts and sciences: Plato, Athena, a Roman orator, a coal miner, an electrical worker, and a sculptor. Comparing these figures with the non-White people he depicted on the Rockefeller Center building makes clear that Jennewein intended to portray only White Westerners as advancing the arts and sciences. And while the men in this piece are engaged in sculpting, philosophizing, and orating, the women are nude and take on passive or maternal roles.
Jennewein didn’t design the other part of the entrance artwork: the grille with gilded sculptures between the two columns. That was the work of Thomas Hudson Jones, who depicted famous American literary figures and characters including Moby Dick, Walt Whitman, Tom Sawyer, the Raven from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, and Natty Bumppo from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales series (1827–1841). All the authors are White, and all but one, the author of Little Women (1868) Louisa May Alcott, are men.
In addition, as Indigenous scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz explains in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014), these writers helped define an American literary canon that “remains read, revered, and studied in the twenty-first century” as patriotic, not imperial. Characters like Natty Bumppo, Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “created the narratives that captured the experience and imagination of the Anglo-American settler, stories that were surely instrumental in nullifying guilt related to genocide and set the pattern of narrative for future US writers, poets, and historians.”
While many American institutions at the time embraced colonial and white supremacist ideologies and iconographies, public art created by Nazi-linked artists was rarer (though not unheard of). But these Nazi-American connections were not aberrations. Tens of millions of Americans during the 1930s tuned into Charles Coughlin’s radio sermons, where he defended Nazi state-sponsored violence like the Kristallnacht pogroms. Close to 900,000 people voted for William Lemke, a Coughlin-backed candidate, in the 1936 presidential election. The same year that Jennewein completed the columns for the library, 20,000 Nazi supporters rallied at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden.
Not only did many Americans take an interest in Nazi Germany, but the Nazis also looked to the United States for inspiration. Manifest Destiny was a model for Lebensraum, the Nazi’s settler-colonial vision for Europe. Nazi lawyers studied America’s system of racial segregation when crafting the Nuremberg Laws, which legalized the persecution of Jews.
At any rate, the Brooklyn Public Library’s entrance artwork propagates a colonialist, white supremacist vision that is inseparable from Nazism. Anticolonial thinkers like Aimé Césaire have argued that the Nazis were an example of the “boomerang effect of colonization.” The Nazis, Césaire wrote in Discourse on Colonialism (2000), “applied to Europe procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘n*****s’ of Africa.” Following Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler told his inner circle: “What India was for England, the territories of Russia will be for us.”
The other apparently confusing part of this story is the association of a colonialist and white supremacist piece of art with a public library, which many view as an archetypal democratic institution. But public libraries are embedded within the American capitalist, settler, white supremacist state. Library catalogs tend to reinforce heteronormativity, white supremacy, colonialism, and other intersecting systems of oppression. Librarianship is overwhelmingly White. And library security makes these institutions unwelcoming and unsafe spaces for marginalized groups.
These critiques of libraries do not diminish their vital importance. As a lifelong bookworm and a part-time employee at the Brooklyn Public Library itself, I have a lot of love for them. And in a time when my library is, like others across the country, fighting off fascist book-banning efforts and austerity budget cuts, we must come to its defense. But it is just as important to articulate a vision of libraries that is truly emancipatory by “decoupling libraries from their avowed goal in propping up and strengthening settler democracies,” as critical librarian nina de jesus emphasizes.
Jennewein’s installation is beloved by the Brooklyn Public Library community. And it is not easily removable; it is literally etched in stone. But by uncovering the Nazi behind the façade, we now have an opportunity and an obligation to openly discuss what should be done.
Daniel Fernandez is a researcher and student pursuing a BA in History at The New School.