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Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Art & Entertainment ... History ...

I read a short article in the NY Times the other day about an auction of various artwork painted by Adolph Hitler, from his earlier years. Turns out that there are quite a few extant paintings from Hitler (he might have created over 2,000 drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings), and there is an active market for them. You’d think that no one outside of a government archival office or an historical institution would have any interest in artwork by Hitler. But to the contrary, art investors from around the globe shell out upwards of $100,000 or more per painting.

At first this seems like nothing more than a morbid fascination on the part of certain people who have more money on their hands then they know what to do with. But given my own historical and semi-morbid interests, I decided to take a look at some of Hitler’s artistic expressions. Here is a site, and another site, and another, where you too can see what I’m talking about.

OK, first impression: this is actually credible artwork; certainly not genius level, but better than what the average amateur could do. It reminded me of two American styles — first off, much of Hitler’s subject matter and painting techniques have a lot in common with the works of the “painter of light”, the late Thomas Kinnade. There is a certain sentimentality that both Hitler and Kinnade try to capture, a dream-like quality, an emphasis on the bucolic and idyllic. And Kinnade also had his dark side, although certainly nothing on par with Hitler’s utter madness. Still, despite the “wholesomeness” of Kinnade’s drawings, he died at age 54 from an overdose of booze and Valium, while going thru a divorce.

As to the second similarity — there is also an urban realism to some of Hitler’s paintings, which very much reminds me of the works of the American “Ashcan School“. This group of artists was most active at about the same time that Hitler faced the canvas — i.e., from just before WW1 until the mid-20’s. Some of Hitler’s paintings could fit right in with an Ashcan show, especially given the de-emphasis of fine technique on the part of most Ash Canners (e.g. John Sloane, William Glackens, George Bellows, George Luks, etc.).

Well, I suppose that this just goes to show what a complex piece of work Hitler himself was, a bundle of contradictions. There was his fantasy of an Aryan paradise, his “vision” of a wholesome and healthy society made possible by ethnic purity. And yet he gained power and prominence in the cities, in workman’s neighborhoods amidst the factories. He had the benefit of a crafty urbane intellect, of a keen awareness of social trends and evolving thought. Furthermore, some of his paintings reflect a third major factor in his life: his bitterness over the outcome of World War 1. You can see Hitler’s paintings of damaged buildings, burned out tanks and broken guns, wandering refugees — the scars on the Fatherland from a mindless war that for Hitler became a noble and lost cause, a victim of craven betrayal.

So, in a handful of paintings and with some rough historical facts, you can gain a powerful image of Adolph Hitler’s inspirations, contradictions and inner torment. Perhaps through a process of mental retrojection, perhaps in trying to make some sense of the injuries that he sustained as a battlefield corporal in a war without reason, Hitler formed a vision of “the great German nation” and its supposedly “noble tradition”. This grandiose nationalism somehow merged with his attraction and sentimentality for nature; Hitler could be called a naturalist, a man who loved animals, a man who felt at home in the woods, a man who would not eat meat. Germany, despite its cities and mighty industrial regions, still had a lot of forests and farmland, and that seemed to be where Hitler’s heart (to the degree that he had a “heart”) was. That was the wellspring for the Aryan pureness that he sought to enforce upon his country.

This almost makes Hitler seem like not such a bad guy; how bad could a vegetarian aspiring painter be?. But of course he WAS a bad guy; he chose to bring about HIS vision by ruthless and inhuman methods, including corrupt and exploitative politics, domestic terrorism, and eventually military aggression. A madman needs an enemy as a foil against which he can illuminate his supposed virtue, and the Jewish community in Germany met all of the requirements. The Jews were mostly urban dwellers, under-represented in the hills and farmlands; they were educated and worldly, independent thinkers, not subject to rhetorical manipulation. They had their own strong cultural tradition and their international ties, and didn’t depend as much as others upon a notion of “the great fatherland” for their identity or livelihood.

So, given that Hitler must have been extremely emotionally reactive and high strung, a man in dire need of a cause and a purpose, someone willing to break all the rules in order to bring about what he felt was a wholesome, cleansing vision of a better Germany, we see in these paintings the various elements that came together in the 1920s and 30s. The whims of fortune gave Hitler an especially fertile set of economic and political circumstances, and he was eventually able to convince a nation that he was their man of destiny. Unfortunately, this nation had to find out (along with millions of other victims from within, such as the Jews and Gypsies, and from without, i.e. all the other European peoples that suffered and died because of the Nazi project) that his destiny was that of massive destruction and death.

It’s interesting that the man who was most responsible for stopping Hitler (on the western flank, anyway — yes, I mean Winston Churchill) was also a very good painter. Interestingly, many of Churchill’s works were done in the 1920s, not long after Hitler had his most creative period. Unfortunately, while Churchill painted, Hitler was working hard in the beer gardens and veterans halls to motivate and organize a growing wave of German discontent. Today, we similarly have clashes of world vision; we have our modern western techno-industrial society with its semi-democracy and semi-liberal values, squaring off against an ancient, barbaric and ruthless theocratic / apocalyptic movement (ISIS, al Qaeda, Boko Haram, etc.), along with some semi-modern industrial socialist-strongman states that are increasingly asserting their military prowess (China and Russia). They all have their leaders, and from what I can tell, there’s not a painter in the bunch. Despite the ironies and contradictions of Hitler’s artistic side, I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:21 pm      

  1. Jim, I think you’ve about said it in this post: The complexity of the man who was Hitler. I checked out the sites with his paintings. Don’t know if this is the same thing as you said or if it’s slightly different – maybe slightly different?: I tended to think that many of the pix that had government buildings or civic types of buildings were beautiful, well structured, kept well; especially on the 3rd site the pix of homes where it seemed to me people actually lived were all wrecks of one kind of another. Strangely enough (or not?), the interior of homes was empty of people, although some of the pictures in the second site showed well-kept homes but lacking people. Or so it seemed to me.

    This made me wonder if this was an expression of his idea of what government was/should be and what the home was. I look toward my feelings when I study pictures and found that it seemed Hitler was saying that the inside of him was a wreck, destroyed, a mess; the outside government that controlled things in the country was strong and well structured. I found myself wondering if he was, unknowingly, depicting his own self very vividly.

    The pix that were of vases of flowers (and other similar types of things) were, as you say, more sentimental than anything else. Sentimentality has little to do with the reality of life.

    While on the one hand one cannot say the entirety of the pictures depicted devastation, even on the first site you mention, as the pix continue, even the idyllic pix, the government pix, the landscapes, etc., were all of destruction. Again, a presage of what he was eventually to accomplish? The total destruction of everything that even he saw as a beautiful thing.

    Not to diminish the horror of what he did, I find myself asking: Could these pictures in some way show that at some point in his life there *was* a desire for something good? Or perhaps it was all simply a matter of depicting what he would eventually destroy.

    In some way I also think his pictures show the complexity of any human being, even one who may be listed among the worst.

    I must say that I’m very surprised that these pictures are going for prices as high a $100,000! I’d doubt they are worth that. And I’d wonder who would want to pay even a small amount for what these pictures show? Perhaps the only place for such pictures would be a museum? or a place that studies how painting depicts the sub/unconscious of the person?

    An interesting post. I find myself saying, “Who knew?” altho I did once know (but had forgotten); now with the Internet one can actually see what his paintings were, which was not really an easy thing to do in years past; the most one could know was that he painted at one time. However, Hitler’s actual accomplishments overwhelmed and destroyed, as he himself depicts in his paintings, any possible talent he may have had. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 25, 2015 @ 3:13 pm

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