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How a Nazi Infiltrated L.A.’s 1930s Art Scene

An archival black and white photo depicts people raising a large Swastika sculpture on a pedestal at a park.
Participants raise a Swastika for a German Day celebration at Hindenburg Park in 1936. Ferenz co-produced annual Swastika-draped picnics in Hindenburg Park in the 1930s. | Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, Community Relations Committee Collection, Part 2, Special Collections and Archives, University Library, California State University, Northridge
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Richard Neutra's Lovell Health House (1929) and David Alfaro Siqueiros's mural "América Tropical" (1932) are two of the most famous, and arguably most influential, modern artworks created in Los Angeles in the last century. Less well-known is the fact that the man who helped Neutra spread his ideas and who commissioned "América Tropical" was none other than L.A.'s "Nazi Propagandist No. 1."

Let's pause a moment here to take in the ideological dissonance. Built by a Jewish architect, the Lovell House would inspire generations of modern homes including, via Neutra's apprentice Gregory Ain (also Jewish), designs focused on improving the lives of regular people. Painted by a communist who fought fascists in the Spanish Civil War, "América Tropical" is a monumental anti-imperialist statement that, despite being whitewashed, has inspired generations of muralists to make public art in pursuit of social justice.

What possible place did a Nazi have in that milieu? How did such alliances occur? And who on earth was Ferenz?

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1889, Francis Kotausek emigrated to the United States in 1914. By 1919, Kotausek had become Ferenz, an importer of art books and co-founder of the Ferenz-Martini Art Atelier in New York's Greenwich Village.

Coming to maturity in the city of Adolf Loos and Gustav Klimt, Ferenz rejected the distinction between 'fine' and 'applied' arts. As an April 1919 Pearson's Magazine article put it: "Mr. Ferenz believes all art must be useful and he wishes to induce American businessmen to employ 'art' in their business activities." Demonstrating his goal, in 1919 Martini edited and Ferenz published "Applied Art – Vol. 1." Favorably reviewed, the book presented fifty plates of modern adverts, interiors and illustrations alongside Peruvian ceramics and motifs.

A photo scan of a passport application indicates record of Franz Ferenz's intention to visit Germany. At the bottom of the left page is a photo of Franz Ferenz.
A 1922 passport application submitted for Franz Ferenz records his intention to visit Germany. | Courtesy of Janet Owen Driggs

By 1922, Ferenz was selling arts and crafts that he purchased in Europe. Was he introduced to Nazism on a buying trip? Possibly. A 1922 passport application records his intention to visit Germany where, from 1920-23, Hitler spoke often. If Ferenz did not see Hitler in action firsthand, however, perhaps he heard about him from his sister-in-law, "a member of the Nazi underground movement in Vienna."

It is unclear what caused Ferenz to leave New York for L.A., but in 1928 he opened the Los Angeles Academy of Modern Art; and in January 1929 he attended Mrs. Frank C. Walmsley's "Salon of Ultra Modern Art" in Hollywood, where Rudolf M. Schindler was the speaker.

Either Ferenz was not yet the fanatical anti-Semite he would become, or he was too much of an opportunist to snub the Jewish architects, and fellow Viennese expats, Schindler and Neutra, who were then sharing Schindler's West Hollywood home.

An archival black and white photo depicts a group of people huddled over reinforcing bars laid on the ground. A man in the group is gesturing at one of the bars with a roll of paper. The photograph is from 1929, so everyone is dressed in 1930s American fashion.
Neutra at the Lovell House construction site in 1929 with students of his "Practical Course in Modern Building Art," which was offered at Franz K. Ferenz’s Los Angeles Academy of Modern Art. From right to left: Gregory Ain, Harwell Harris, unknown, Richard Neutra (holding plans), Annita Delano, unknown, unknown, unknown, unknown, Barbara Morgan (kneeling) and Franz K. Ferenz. | Willard Morgan

On Jan. 31, 1929, Neutra began teaching at Ferenz's Academy. His "Practical Course in Modern Building Art" was organized around the Lovell House construction. Likely the first steel-framed home in America, the Lovell House would, writes Esther McCoy, participate "in the legend of the modern movement in Southern California."

A photograph of Neutra's class visiting the Lovell construction site suggests that it too had an impact. Like a snapshot of the moment when a stone hits the pond, the image shows Neutra gesturing toward reinforcing bars. Future architects Gregory Ain and Harwell Harris stand beside him. Annita Delano, who will influence generations of artists over a 40-year UCLA career, is on his right. Barbara Morgan, who will cofound the anti-fascist American Artists' Congress in 1936, is kneeling. A dark-suited man with center-parted hair stands behind Morgan. This is Ferenz.

In October 1931, Neutra spoke on "New Architecture" at Ferenz's new space, the Plaza Art Center (PAC), in conjunction with an exhibition curated by Pauline G. Schindler, estranged wife of the architect. Occupying the second floor of Olvera Street's Italian Hall, the PAC was part of Christine Sterling's effort to transform "one of the dingiest parts of the downtown district into a picturesque and colorful Mexican market." It would, said the L.A. Times, include galleries, a three-branch of Ferenz's Academy and a club offering "tango teas." In addition, R.M. Schindler would remodel the shops.

Although Schindler's remodel never materialized, the PAC opened on Sept. 1, 1931, with L.A.'s first large exhibition of contemporary Mexican paintings. Curated by artist Juan Crespo de la Serna, it presented 135 works by 28 artists, including David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Siqueiros himself arrived in Los Angeles in 1932. His first mural in the city, "Street Meeting" at Chouinard Art Institute, provoked controversy for its egalitarian depiction of Black and white workers. Eager for the publicity that a second mural would generate but concerned about Siqueiros's politics, Ferenz and Sterling commissioned "América Tropical." As Siqueiros noted at the time: "It has been asked that I paint something related to tropical America, possibly thinking that this new theme would give no margin to create a work of revolutionary character. On the contrary, it seems to [me] that there couldn't be a better theme to use."

A photo of a mural depicting a a crucified Indigenous worker. Above, a screaming eagle is perched on top of the cross and crouching snipers aim at the bird. The mural is painted in shades of reds, yellows, creams and a hint of forest green.
Commissioned by Franz Ferenz and Christine Sterling and created by David Alfaro Siqueiros in 1932, "América Tropical" is a 98-foot wide fresco mural on view above Olvera Street in the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. | Robert Garcia

With little money available, Ferenz secured donations and loans of materials and tools, including scaffolding, cement and industrial spray guns. With their help, América Tropical was revolutionary in both form and content. At its October 1932 unveiling, where Ferenz introduced the artist, the audience gasped at Siqueiros's image of a crucified Indigenous worker, a screaming eagle on top of the cross and crouching snipers aiming at the bird.

An indictment of U.S. imperialism that also promised retaliation, the mural developed an iconography of "Indianism…removed from picturesqueness" that was new to U.S. eyes. In addition, Siqueiros' experimental use of spray guns to apply paint to wet cement, and his approach to dynamic spatial movement led the way toward a future of muralism that continues to unfold today.

For PAC teacher Lorser Feitelson, "América Tropical" "made everything else…look like candy box illustrations." For Sterling, who wanted a candy box, the mural had to go. Ferenz may have been more ambivalent. Forced to paint over the area visible from Olvera Street, he "saw to it that a harmless covering was used."

In January 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and Ferenz became director of the Hollywood Art Center (HAC) (This was not the same institution as the Hollywood Art Center, which was directed by Henry Lovins). The two events appear unrelated until, on May 7, 1933, the HAC hosted Dr. Konrad Burchardi, a local physician, eugenicist and future author of L.A. Times article "Why Hitler Says Sterilize the Unfit," who gave a lecture in German on Germany's political situation. S. McClatchie spoke on "Germany's Resurrection" on June 14, and one-week later Jewish physician Dr. F. J. Gassman spoke on "The Jewish Question in Germany."

Couching Hitler's efforts to systematically remove what he called "the cancer of democracy" as a "resurrection," McClatchie's talk would almost certainly have praised new laws that let the Nazi government act without parliamentary approval (March 23, 1933); fired Jews and political opponents from government employment (April 7, 1933); abolished trade unions and collective bargaining and saw union leaders imprisoned in the new Dachau concentration camp (May 2, 1933). Presumably less evangelical than McClatchie, Dr. Frederick Gassman's talk may well have attracted some of the 12,000+ demonstrators who gathered in downtown L.A. on March 29, 1933 to protest anti-Jewish violence in Germany.

But Ferenz's abrupt turn from art to politics was not the work of an impresario looking to grow his audience; it was a product of his absolute support for the Third Reich.
Janet Owen Driggs

American public interest in German affairs was high in 1933, but Ferenz's abrupt turn from art to politics was not the work of an impresario looking to grow his audience; it was a product of his absolute support for the Third Reich. From mid-1933 when he publicly hatched as a Nazi, to early 1942 when he was jailed for sedition, Franz K. Ferenz's "every activity was directed toward the promotion of Hitler and Nazi Germany."

In 1934 for instance, he published "Hitler – What Every American Should Know About the Man Whose Influence is Felt the World Over." He sold the swastika-embellished book at his new venue, the Continental Bookstore on West 7th Street, alongside pro-Nazi literature, records, and bronze relief plaques of Hitler. One such plaque hung in a black velvet shrine in the lobby of the Continental Cinema, which Ferenz opened on 24th Street in 1936. Today, the building is home to the Velaslavasay Panorama, but 75 years ago, incoming patrons customarily gave the Hitler salute, which Ferenz would return.

As Steven J. Ross describes in "Hitler in Los Angeles" (2017), the Continental and other theaters managed by Ferenz offered Hitler-supporting Angelenos "an exuberant participatory experience." Audiences cheered the latest Nazi films and newsreels, sang Nazi songs and let their anti-Semitic feelings rip. Following a scene in "Kosher Slaughter" (1938) for example, in which a steer is ritually slaughtered, several patrons shrieked: "Let's do the same thing to the Jews."

Ferenz quickly became the Nazi's main West Coast propaganda distributor. He also lectured, wrote letters to the press, co-produced an annual Swastika-draped picnic in Hindenburg Park, staged a mock-impeachment trial of President Roosevelt and practiced bullying and intimidation.

A black and white archival photo of a park with large flags draped across an empty field. The left most flag has a Swastika on it. Booths are set up along a tree line and attendees are spaced out in the park.
A Swastika-draped picnic at Hindenburg Park in Crescenta Valley. The Crescenta Valley was a magnet for German immigrants in the early part of the 1900s century, and Hindenberg Park hosted many German cultural celebrations. | Historical Society of Crescenta Valley

In March 1941, for example, an amateur spy network led by Jewish attorney Leon Lewis reported that Ferenz was trying to stop adult education teacher Sam Evans exposing Nazi propaganda tactics to his students. When heckling his classes failed to silence Evans, Ferenz and 75 associates made what the L.A. Times described as "a cauldron of noise" at a Board of Education meeting demanding Evans' immediate dismissal. Requesting a police escort, Mr. Evans said, "this is merely the beginning of Mr. Hitler's trying to reach his long arm into Los Angeles."

Although enemy tanks never rolled along its boulevards, Los Angeles was a key World War II battleground. In addition to hosting the Hollywood propaganda machine that could sway U.S public opinion and keep America out of the war, Los Angeles was a major aircraft manufacturer that provided the U.S. Pacific Fleet with its home port. Add in the anti-Semites who already called California home, and from Berlin's perspective Los Angeles was the perfect locus for subversion.

Ferenz's public works made him a useful Nazi tool in the battle for Los Angeles, but it was his clandestine activities that almost turned him into a deadly weapon. With U.S. authorities paying scant attention to pro-Nazi circles in the years before Pearl Harbor, it was a Lewis spy who exposed a grisly plot to execute 20 well-known Angelenos, including choreographer Busby Berkley and Lewis himself. Timed for New Year's Eve 1935, the simultaneous murders were meant to provoke a nationwide pogrom against Jews. The chief plotter stated: "Berkley will look good dangling on a rope's end." It is beyond doubt that Ferenz, one of the intended executioners, agreed.

This plot and others unraveled due to the work of Leon Lewis and his spy network, but Ferenz continued to scheme until 1942, when he was imprisoned in San Quentin for violating state anti-subversion laws. He was released in June 1945 after an appeals court ruled there was insufficient evidence he had advocated violent overthrow of the government. Returning to his MacArthur Park store, Ferenz sold phonograph records with his new wife Dorothy until he died in 1956.

A black and white archival photo depicts a mugshot of Franz Ferenz. It's a composited photo, duplicating Franz in two positions. The first is Franz looking directly to the camera while the other is a profile shot. He's holding an identification card that reads "San Quentin Prison, 6902, F. Franz. Age 52, Via subversive organization resistance, Sacramento, Nat Austria, Oct -28-1942.
An identification photo of Franz Ferenz taken in 1942 for violating state anti-subversion laws. | California State Archives

Today Ferenz has largely been forgotten. Occasionally he is named as commissioner of "América Tropical," less frequently he is also identified as a future Nazi propagandist. But the extent to which he was instrumental in furthering first modernist and then fascist ideas in Los Angeles has not yet been identified.

Reporting on Ferenz's 1942 trial, the Los Angeles Daily News stated that "Mrs. Pauline S. Schindler of Los Angeles, testified she once refused to shake hands with Ferenz in a Los Angeles theater on grounds he was a Nazi agent." Records suggest that the witness was Pauline (Sophie) G. Schindler. Perhaps, like the outspoken, left-leaning Mrs. Schindler, the L.A. artworld has turned its figurative back on the odious Ferenz for the past 70 years?

That art histories of L.A. have diminished a Hitler-loving supporter of genocide to the point of erasure is not necessarily a bad thing. But recent political events indicate that now is the time to remember exactly how, and how far, a fascist could permeate even the allegedly liberal realm of modern art in the run up to World War II.

Editor's Note: Readers may associate fascist Ferenz’s HAC with that of the Jewish Henry Lovins, who ran an organization of the same name for decades, and who owned copyright to the name. A clarifying sentence was added Nov. 15, 2021 to make a distinction between Ferenz's and Lovins' HACs.

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