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Beyond time : An unfortunate artist called Adolf Hitler

Koral Dasgupta @KoralDasgupta

Updated: August 25, 2015, 10:59 AM IST
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In my columns earlier I have explored how art and artists represent time, as they reflect upon the social, political, economic and ideological status of an era. History however, has also witnessed such unfortunate stories where art, or rather the failure of an artist has resulted in devastating aftermath! The past mourns the flow of events and wishes that things were different from what they had been. But then, the damage has already been done! What I am writing today, is probably a tale that many haven’t heard of, or didn’t think of this possibility even if they read about it. And hence, it’s worth sharing the psychological effect of art, when an aspiring artist is neglected and his works are not valued by the critics of a century. It eventually lead to ruins, consequences of which didn’t stay restricted to that particular time or geography!

The father retiring from civil services was not a welcome news for the household. He was dominating and abusive, and the kids residing in the country-side of the German borders wished that they and their mother were better protected from a violent, stay-at-home dad. Watching the ruthless father bringing about miseries for a lovely mother and her children was still not so much pain, as was losing one of the brothers to measles! The young boy would stare endlessly from his window at the cemetery where he was buried, or sit outside the boundaries of the graveyard and stare blankly at the sky for hours. No one knows what exactly influenced that sense of art in him! He certainly didn’t inherit any bit of that interest. Rather it was probably the innocent escape of a young mind from the brutalities that life had thrown at him otherwise. The father tried to force him to join civil services soon after, and this caused further rifts. The boy’s rebel got strengthened each time his father pressurized him and he detested the idea of daily work with its necessary submission to the authorities! Perhaps what he was revolting against was not that daily job, but anything that had any close or far resemblance to his father.

The year was 1905. At sixteen, he dropped out of high school. With his father dead now, the boy was free to follow his heart. His indulgent mother patiently urged him to learn a trade or get a job. But the boy’s vision for himself was not so mundane. He spent his time wandering around the city of Linz, Austria, visiting museums, attending opera, and sitting by the Danube River with dreams of becoming an artist. He’d sleep till late and go out in the afternoon, often dressed like a young relaxed gentleman with high tastes and carried a fancy little ivory cane. He’d return home late, and stay up well past midnight reading and drawing. His only friend was another young dreamer and aspiring musician called August Kubizek. They met at an opera in Linz. Kubizek turned out to be a patient listener and offered good and only audience to the fiery speeches of the boy, complete with wild hand gestures and explicit with elaborate details about his hopes and dreams. Those speeches were strong and rigid, and would not tolerate any difference of opinion! His words were to be appreciated and agreed to, just like it happens with big, successful people; they were deemed to be absolute and not meant to be corrected. These teenage years free from responsibility were the happiest days of his life. In his mind and through his lifestyle, he had already transformed into that great painter he aspired to be. Now it was only left to the world that they discovered his genius and celebrated his presence in the world of art.

On hindsight, he was perhaps too much in a hurry to escape from a troubled childhood. He just wanted it all too fast, without giving himself a reality check or the cushion of proper training; not that he possessed enough resources to train himself appropriately! He borrowed large numbers of books from the library on German history and Nordic mythology. He was also deeply inspired by the opera works of Richard Wagner and their pagan, mythical tales of struggle against hated enemies. After watching Wagner's opera "Rienzi," he behaved like a possessed. He would walk atop a steep hill and speak in a strange voice of a great mission through which he would lead the people to freedom, similar to the plot in the opera. His view of the world, also based on fantasy, had begun to significantly take shape around this time. And his feelings for Germany, though rigid and orthodox, were truly patriotic. He took strong pride in the German race and all things German, and nurtured a simultaneous disapproval for the Hapsburg Monarchy and the non-Germanic races in the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire which had ruled Austria and surrounding countries for centuries.

At the age of seventeen, the young man took his first trip to Vienna, capital city of the empire and one of the world's most important centers of art, music and old-world European culture. With money in his pocket provided by his mother, he aspired to see operas and study the famous picture gallery in the Court Museum. Instead, he found himself enthralled by the city's magnificent architecture. He would draw detailed pictures of a building he had seen only once. He would also investigate in his mind, how to improve existing buildings, make them bigger and more beautiful, and streamline them as per the city layouts. He stood for hours gazing at grand buildings such as the opera house and the Parliament building, and looking at the Ring Boulevard. A young man now, he decided to attend the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Being a great enthusiast of fine arts, he studied music, opera, painting, sculpture, and architecture. While living in Vienna under poor economic conditions, he read voraciously and managed to spend whatever meager money he had in attending lectures, concerts, opera, and the theater. Even when he was struggling to survive, he refused to compromise on the tools of art and purchased the best paints, brushes, paper, and canvas even if that meant going without food. In October 1907, he withdrew his inheritance from the bank and went to live and study in Vienna. The mother then was suffering from breast cancer and had been unsuccessfully operated upon few months back. But the boy’s driving ambition to be a great artist and his need to run away from anything that connected him back to the miserable childhood, felt stronger than his responsibilities for a dying mother.

Confident and self-assured, he took the two day entrance exam for the academy's school of painting. But failure struck him like nothing else had ever done! He had passed the preliminary portion; which was to draw two of the assigned iconic or biblical scenes, in two sessions of three hours each. The second portion was to provide a previously prepared portfolio for the examiners. It was noted that Hitler’s works contained “too few heads”! His drawings were thus judged unsatisfactory and he was denied admission, which shook him inside out. The academy explained that his drawings lacked the talent required for artistic painting notably with a lack of appreciation for the human form; however, they agreed that architecture might employ his skills with better results. But without the required high school diploma, architecture didn’t seem to be a viable option. He resolved to take the painting school entrance exam again next year and left Vienna to return home where his beloved mother was dying, only to depress him further. In 1908 however, he was rejected again by the academy!

The two consecutive failures had shaken up the self-definition that the young man had so fondly created in his brain. But he still believed that his place was in front of the canvas. Poor, neglected, jobless and foodless, he still produced hundreds of works and tried to sell his paintings and postcards featuring scenes and buildings of Vienna, to earn a living for more than five years. During this period, he frequented the artists' cafes in Munich with a faint hope that established artists might recognize his talents and help him with his ambition to paint professionally. But tough luck! Critics had always judged his work as quite calculated when representing architecture in his paintings. Instead of progressing in his artistic influence, his works copied other artists of the nineteenth century. He claimed to be employing the elements of multiple artistic movements in his art but the matter of fact was, he drew primarily from Greco-Roman classicism, the Italian Renaissance, and the Neo-Classicism. He liked the technical ability of these artists, and appreciated their uncomplicated symbolism. Also, critics noted that he rarely painted people. From the few human figures he had in his drawings, a profound disinterest in people was quite evident! He loved referring to Rudolf von Alt as his best teacher! He tried to replicate Alt’s vision of colour and subject, but while Alt clearly focused on the fantastic landscapes and nature, the young man’s brush seemed restricted to copying the architecture.

In August 1914, in the age of 25, when Germany needed volunteering patriots for World War I, this man gave in, partly to source his daily food and partly because of his conservative political ideologies through which he believed that the country would stand protected. Even then, as a part of the military, he carried his paints with him to the front and spent his idle hours working upon wartime themes including farmers' houses, the dressing-station, etc. Also, around this time, he contributed instructional drawings and cartoons to the military newspaper. He worked as a private during World War I, and this gave him something that the world of art could not. A sense of belonging; the importance of being! His political ideas and opinions were also getting polished and sharpened around this period, though not refined! And a near death experience during World War I made him drive home a thought that his life was not that mundane and it was meant to serve a specific cause. His passion for art soon took a back seat and he went on to become one of the most infamous political figures in history.

Name of this unfortunate artist is Adolf Hitler!

In the days to come, he wrote with blood what he couldn’t achieve with the paint on canvas. He made sure that he was noticed and known – even if infamously, terrifying if not respected and certainly not ignored! He killed, ruined, challenged, destroyed and finally blew himself up in the Berlin bunker in 1945. But during his growth and reign as a political personality and leader eventually, Hitler never hesitated to use art to his advantage. From July to November in 1937, the Degenerate Art Exhibition was organized by the Nazi Party in Munich as a counterpoint to the Great German Art Exhibition. Over one million viewers is said to have attended the exhibition in the first six weeks. The collection had almost 650 works of art that were extracted from German museums and displayed as “degenerate art” because they were perceived to insult Germany, didn't apply natural form or classical style, showed weakness in characterization, depicted mental disease or racial impurity, etc. The paintings were hung close together in uncomfortably small rooms, and were captioned with hand written labels with information that were often inaccurate and possessed condemning remarks.The political goal of the exhibition was to discourage the movement of modernism. It was meant to project such art as a conspiring strategy by those who were against Germany. Hitler often considered the Jewish-Bolshevist community responsible for modernist ideologies and felt they needed to be uprooted and eliminated. He defined Nazi Art as racially pure, easily comprehended, and representing people who spoke highly the German race.

This strange pattern of life which flew so unpredictably gets one to think, what would have happened had Hitler succeeded as a painter? Wouldn’t history sound pleasantly different without a cruel and ruthless mass murderer? For sure there wouldn't been World World II with about six million Jews dead! In August 1939 before the outbreak of World War II, the British War Blue Book published a conversation where Hitler reportedly told British ambassador Nevile Henderson that he still believed that he was an artist and not a politician; and once the Polish question was settled, he wanted to die as an artist! Richard Westwood-Brookes, Mullocks auctioneers' historical documents expert, had commented: 'It's curious to say the least how an artist, whose interests at this stage of his life should be in such peaceful and bucolic subjects, could turn into the monster he became in later life. There's absolutely nothing here to suggest how his mind could have turned in such a way.” Author Birgit Schwarz discussed Hitler’s thoughts as a painter in her book, Genius Delusions: Hitler and Art. The book insists that Hitler's rejection by art school increased rather than decreased his self-perception as a genius, only that he considered himself an unrecognized one. He collected works by lesser-known artists as a result.

In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine, Schwarz had said, "The extent to which Hitler considered himself an artistic genius has been, underestimated! Many of his actions were driven by this self-perception and his overheated artist's ego. His love of art led to the heart of evil." It is popularly believed that Hitler was against nudity in art, but he didn’t really stop painters and sculptors from producing both male and female nudes. Male nudes during his times were depicted with elements to project them as responsible, heroic and powerful while female nudes were neat, clean, and full breasted while having a flat belly, long-muscled thighs, and slim shanks. These were often Nordic, probably because the natural beauty of Nordics attract attention, but sometimes they were brunette as well.

Though most critics and viewers had judged Hitler’s art as amateurish and weak in execution of skills, Frederic Spotts’s book Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, treats Hitler’s artistic side rather seriously. As per the book, “He (Hitler) had a modicum of talent —— at least in sketching buildings —— but what technique he learned he picked up on his own. Like most amateurs, he began by painting simple landscapes. With neither innate originality nor professional training, he went on to imitate the watercolors and prints of the south German school and the postcard scenes —— everyday urban views —— that were popular at the time. Moreover, he had to paint the sort of thing that an unknown and untalented amateur might be able to sell, and that was inexpensive reproductions of familiar places.” Another magazine on Hitler’s Art mentions, “Perhaps the notion of an artist becoming a political seems strange in the current era where politics are dominated by professional politicians, it was Hitler's profound artistic vision that translated from his dreams into reality the Autobahn, Volkswagen, Rocket Science, and in the general the groundwork for a prosperous people and flourishing culture before this was lost in World War 2.”

In his lifetime, Adolf Hitler is estimated to have created between 2000 and 3000 drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings. Even from behind the front lines in World War 1, he continued to paint as and when he found time and this patronage continued throughout his leadership of Germany. His subject included detailed building plans, furniture design, city planning, and monuments. He considered the progress and innovation in architectural designs and layouts to be an important torch-bearer for the cultural character of his era and didn’t take kindly the lack of architectural standards. In his autobiography Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote, “In the 19th Century our cities began to lose the character of cultural centers and became simply human settlements. When Munich was a city of 60,000, it wanted to be one of the major German centers of culture. Today nearly every industrial city claims this honor, usually without being able to show any significant accomplishments of its own. They are nothing more than collections of houses and apartment buildings. How can such an insignificant place have any appeal? No one will have particular loyalty to a city that lacks any individuality at all, that avoids anything resembling art. Even the big cities are becoming poorer in real works of art even as they increase in population. The modern era has done nothing to increase the cultural level of our big cities. All the glory and treasures of our cities are the inheritance of the past.”

A number of his paintings were recovered after World War II and have been sold at auctions for tens of thousands of dollars. Others were seized by the U.S. Army and are still held by the U.S. government.

Art is a strange spirit; and artists live through its blessings or curse! Hitler’s rise and fall are both weirdly connected to his pursuits of art, which probably had grown even more rigid than they originally were, through rejection. Psychology says when you hear a “no”, either you lose your confidence or you stubbornly work harder to make it a “yes” unwilling to give up on yourself. Hitler obviously chose the latter! Unfortunately perhaps, every “no” that came from anyone in the days to come reminded him of the “no” of the art college or of his father; desperately and ruthlessly hence he wanted to wipe off every idea or ideology that challenged his chain of thoughts. And once he walked in this direction, he couldn’t have stopped! While art has always been perceived as beautiful and soul-touching, here’s one disgraceful story where an art-enthusiast turned into a devil and History would never forgive this life for the sufferings he brought upon the world!
First Published: August 25, 2015, 10:09 AM IST
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