Updated: Nov 29, 2020
Readers may recall my article entitled “Trump As Performance Artist” (www.francescorizzuto.com/post/trump-as-performance-artist). Well, as the Covid-19 death toll continually rises in the USA, Trump’s less than sterling performance brings to mind a lesser known artist – lesser known for his painting, that is – but equally accomplished killer: Adolph Hitler.
In February of 2019, a rather unusual event took shape at the Weidler auction house in Nuremberg, the site of some of the most inspiring political rallies of the 1930’s and where the Nazi war criminals were tried for their crimes against humanity in 1945.
Sixty-three paintings attributed to the Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler were to have gone on the auction block at rather modest prices, modest by modern art sales standards, that is, from $21,000 to $50,000. At the last minute, however, the Nuremberg-Fuerth prosecution department appeared with a warrant to confiscate all the art works on offer that day.
The excuse given by the authorities was suspicion that the works were fakes. An investigation had been opened into the chain of ownership, they said, but it seems that the main issue was political correctness. Nuremberg’s mayor, Ulrich Maly, had condemned the proposed sale as being “in bad taste.” With Neo-Nazism on the rise these days, right-thinking Germans quite naturally wish to avoid offering this rabble any free propaganda opportunities.
Politics aside, gallery and auction house owners are usually not artists although many are collectors. They are women and men of business. Their art is making money, while indulging in the realm of aesthetics on a professional level, for profit. I’ve known a few gallery owners in my time. They tend to be quite knowledgeable about art history generally and many are experts in the works of certain major artists.
When collecting, it’s wise to purchase only works that come with a certificate of authenticity issued by an acknowledged expert in the field, usually a university professor with a history of publishing monographs and books on the particular artist whose work one intends to purchase. But even these experts can be fooled by a skilled art forger. While it may look like a duck, waddle like a duck, and quack like a duck, without DNA who can say it isn’t a racoon in a duck suit?
The historical record attests that young Adolph Hitler tried for years to make a living as an artist in his native Austria and produced hundreds of drawings and paintings. The gamut of his subjects run from architecture to landscape to still life to female nudes. He enjoyed working in watercolours and, to be quite honest, displayed a modicum of skill in the medium. Nonetheless, as most wannabe, and a few has-been, artists will attest, trying to make it as an artist is a process akin to death by a thousand cuts. One might eventually see his or her paintings reproduced in a glossy, expensively bound volume gracing the coffee table of somebody of the so-called One-Percent class, but it’s virtually guaranteed not to happen within the artist’s lifetime. Adolph Hitler the artist was no exception.
Vienna Opera House, watercolour, 1912
Hitler, of course, is long dead. That may account for why a watercolour of his sold recently for $161,000. In total, some 14 paintings and drawings signed Adolph Hitler raked in a tidy $443,000 for the Weidler Aktionshaus in 2014. Certainly, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the value of all the art works looted from national galleries and private collections as the Nazi war machine flattened Europe, but it does support the assertion that Hitler’s mere signature on a scrap of paper or canvas adds value. I don’t know any of the buyers personally. But I’m willing to venture a guess that they are of the type that collect memorabilia, not art. Aesthetically speaking, Hitler’s paintings are nothing to scoff at if your criteria is to match the IKEA sofa, and they don’t challenge the eye or the imagination too much. One might even call them 'restful.'
Mother Mary with the Christ Child, 1913
Besides tinting postcards and painting houses to survive, most of Hitler’s pre-WWI watercolours and oils were ironically purchased by Jewish buyers. After joining the army in 1914, he carried paper and canvas and colours with him in the trenches, sketching and painting his way through the murder and mayhem. The art making tapered off after he entered politics in the 1920s. Nonetheless, Hitler commented to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1939 that after the ‘Polish question’ was settled, he planned to go back to painting and a quiet life.
In 1945, all of Hitler’s art works that could be found were seized by the U.S. Army. Many of these works are scattered among a host of World War II museums. Half a century later, a number of paintings that had escaped confiscation and remained in private hands saw their way into some major British and continental auction houses, although they didn’t bring the absurdly high prices one sees with even the most ‘way-out’ of modern artists. Clearly, the interest is in the signature at the bottom of the frame. That’s all the viewer ever sees or the owner cares about. There are plenty of watercolours better conceived than the one that sold for $161,000 that can be picked up in second-hand stores for a pittance.
Most critics concur that Hitler’s paintings are technically sophisticated and somewhat prosaic but lacking in that certain something. Adolph the artist wasn’t a ‘people person.’ His figurative work prefigures the Nazi’s dreamy obsession with a largely mythical German ‘volk’ culture, reminiscent of the musical works of Wagner – Hitler’s favourite composer – but lacking Wagner’s characteristic ‘Sturm und Drang.’ As renderings, his mostly sterile, monolithic architectural subjects are quite acceptable. Maybe young Adolph should have taken the Vienna Academy of Fine Art’s advice when they rejected his student application and entered the school of architecture instead.
As a performance artist and collector, however, Hitler didn’t do badly. Perhaps he’d vowed revenge on the Vienna Academy when he annexed the land of his birth into the Third Reich. In 1945, the Allied forces uncovered a dank cavern in a hillside in Altaunsee, Austria that contained some of Europe's greatest masterpieces such as Van Eyck's 'Ghent Altarpiece', Vermeer's 'The Artist in his Studio', and Michelangelo's sculpture 'The Bruges Madonna'. All in all, Nazi functionaries managed to loot 20% of Europe's art for Hitler's personal museum, the Führermuseum in Linz.
One might even consider Auschwitz as the ultimate expression of a frustrated artist.
Like an overindulged, spiteful child, the German Führer showed his contempt for other artists and human culture in general when, shortly before the liberation of Paris, he ordered explosive charges to be placed around all the city's important landmarks and monuments. If the Allies should come near the city, its governor, General Dietrich von Choltitz was to leave Paris in complete debris. In his instructions to Choltitz and Albert Speer, Hitler demanded that "anything of value," including religious statues, paintings, or any other artistic works were to be destroyed. Fortunately for posterity, Choltitz ignored the 'Nero Order' (Nerobefehl) and surrendered Paris intact to the advancing Allies.
Still, I have to pose the question. Suppose the Vienna Academy had taken him seriously as an artist?
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