Adolf as an Artist
By Kimberly Koller-Jones, Executive Director
Typically when I curate an exhibition at the Hoyt, I will immerse myself in the topic by watching documentaries, videos or movies, listening to podcasts, talking to experts, and reading anything I can get my hands on to develop a good frame of reference for pulling it all together. It was no different when it came to curating The Art and Objects of WWII. In fact, I’m pretty sure my family will declare war if I submit them to another docu-series!
On one such podcast, the narrator had referenced Hitler’s early ambitions to be an artist. Of course, this piqued my interest as a member of the profession. I was aware of the Nazi looting and destruction of cultural treasures over the course of the war portrayed in such films as The Monuments Men (it’s worth seeing, if you haven’t, btw), but I was less familiar with Adolf Hitler’s personal pursuits to be an artist. In fact, it’s been said he created upwards of 300 paintings. I began to wonder if the destruction of these cultural treasures was motivated by jealousy fueled by unfulfillment, or if it was intended to reinforce the Aryan ideal. What I learned is that it was a bit of both.
As a child, young Adolf wanted nothing more than to be an artist. While his doting mother was happy to oblige, his abusive father disagreed and pushed him towards civil service by enrolling him in technical college. Hitler’s passive aggressive reaction was to fail at his studies in an attempt to force his father to allow him to come home and pursue his dreams. It did not work. His father’s fatal heart attack, however, did and he was freed to drop out of school at the age of 16.
With his mother’s support, Adolf applied to the esteemed Academy of Fine Arts Vienna in 1907. It was a two step process. While he made it through the preliminary round, he failed the second half of the review. Noting he had some talent in rendering buildings, it was recommended that he apply to the School of Architecture instead. However, the drop out did not have the required secondary degree and was forced to return to the side of his doting mother. He lived idly off her support until she succumbed to cancer in 1908. Adolf’s inheritance was enough to move to Vienna to once again apply to the Academy. Again he was rejected, but this time without even making it through the first round. In his autobiography Mein Kampf, Hitler admitted that he was so sure he would be accepted that the rejection hit him like ‘a bolt from the blue’.
At first glance, Adolf’s paintings are not half bad. Take the watercolor of Neuschwanstein Castle, for example. (I picked the best version. He painted it many times.) The average person would be proud to produce such a painting, and this one was in fact commissioned.
However, upon closer inspection, Adolf’s work is almost always technically flawed in some way, as he copied them from a very narrow genre of classic scenes and artists with no understanding of what he was doing. As a result, his work lacks energy, imagination and feeling. This is what moves an artist from mediocrity to mastery.
One can thus imagine Adolf’s resentment of the impressionists, expressionists and other modern boundary pushers that were being accepted, exhibited and esteemed in the Academy, galleries and museums, while he and his inflated ego were not. In fact, his grandiose and puritanical rigidity in his view and practice of art, caused many of his peers to poke fun at him.
Out of money, Adolf eventually had to find a job. Yet, his body was not well suited to labor and his attitude towards work was much like that he exhibited towards school. If he was interested in the subject, he did well. If he was not, he did not. This inconsistency eventually left him homeless. With help from a friend, he began to replicate popular attractions (mostly buildings) from postcards in watercolor and oil for the tourist trade in 1909. He made enough to move out of the homeless shelter and, with more assistance, got some commissions. Ironically, many of his frequent buyers were Jewish… and he liked them. However, he grew to love the expanded idea of Germany more, and began siding with the strong antisemitic views of the city’s mayor, Karl Lueger to achieve them.
In 1913, Adolf decided to relocate to Munich, Germany selling similar work in shops and beer gardens. He began to build a rather decent client base until the Munich police tracked him down a year later for failing to register for the military draft in his hometown of Linz years earlier. Ironically, Adolf failed the physical examination to be admitted to the Austrian Army as he was declared “unsuitable for combat and support duty, too weak, incapable of firing weapons”.
Perhaps in defiance of that assessment, Adolf enlisted in the Bavarian army instead, whose standards were significantly relaxed following the outbreak of WWI. He was 25. While Adolf left with paper and paint in hand to continue sketching on the front, this experience marked the somewhat competent copycat’s shift from artistic pursuits to political ones.
Fast forward to the 1930s, Hitler’s political career is rising. There is a fusion of art and politics in Germany led by modern artist George Grosz who used his art to spread his own political ideas, criticize those in power and, well, mock Hitler. In response, Hitler railed against the “degenerate art” that threatened the German national identity. Nazis rounded up some 16,000 works that met this definition from German museums in 1937. Grosz was included. A few hundred were put on display in an obscure warehouse in an attempt to degrade the creators, while simultaneously hosting an exhibit of Aryan art in a prestigious museum. Yet, the degenerate exhibit ended up humiliating Hitler as more than 2 million flocked to see it. Much more than those who attended the other. Some of the stolen work was sold abroad to fund the Nazi cause. Most were later burned in a bonfire held in the court of the Berlin fire department.
Curiously enough, Hitler also assigned a fellow by the name of Ernst Schulte Strathaus to locate, collect and destroy the majority of Hitler’s own paintings. Despite which, numerous examples still survive. Strathous was appointed Art Consultant to the German Embassy in Vienna in 1937.
While Hitler did not understand what was needed to become an artist, he did understand the power of symbols and imagery to influence and rally the masses. In fact, Mein Kampf describes how Hitler designed the flag for the newly created Nazi party as a ‘blazing torch’ to lead the movement. Hitler also designed the party badge, its stationary, the masthead for the party newspaper and the standard used at party rallies – all featuring an eagle carrying a swastika in its talons. These were crucial in selling the Nazi brand and ideology through propaganda, but perhaps that’s a story for another day.