Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Hitler as painter

Could Adolf Hitler paint and do we care either way?

Adolf Hitler had always wanted to be an artist. Drawing was the only thing he was good at at school. His authoritarian, somewhat philistine father opposed this ambition of course but after his death in 1903 young Adolf applied for entry to the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He made it to the last thirty-three out of 113 original applicants. After two tough, three-hour practical drawing examinations twenty-eight were given places within the School of Painting. Adolf  Hitler was not amongst them.

When he sought an explanation as to why he had not been admitted he was told that although unsuitable for the School of Painting his work showed some talent for architecture. Despite this advice, Hitler reapplied the following year and was again rejected. It was the end of his hope of  ever training as an artist.

In 1908 Hitler - now nineteen - moved to Vienna with little money and no immediate prospects. By Christmas, 1909 he had reached rock bottom. He was thin and bedraggled, wearing lice-ridden clothes and living in a doss-house in Meidling. 

As Ian Kershaw elegantly puts it: 'The twenty-year-old would-be artistic genius had joined the tramps, winos, and down-and-outs in society's basement'. (Kershaw. Vol.1 p.52)

Vienna, 1900 by Maximilian Lenz

By 1908 Vienna was a city of over two million people and  renowned for its Modernist culture. This was the height of the Viennese Sezession with artists such as Gustav Klimt, Max Klinger, Eugene Grasset, Arnold Bocklin, Oska Kokoschka and Egon Schiel creating the new European avant-garde. It was also the home of Sigmund Freud and the musicians Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schonberg.

Mother and Child - Gustav Klimt

Architects like Adolf Loos, Joseph Hoffman, Joseph Olbrich and Otto Wagner were also slowly transforming the neo-classical architecture of 18th Century Vienna with their new, provocative and revolutionary architectural buildings.

 Railway station by Otto Wagner

In 1908 Adolf Hitler met Reinhold Hanisch - a rather dodgy character living under an assumed name and wanted by the police. They shared bread in the doss house and soon became friends. It was Hanisch who encouraged his new companion to paint small scenes of Vienna which he then helped sell locally.

By February, 1910  Hitler and Hanisch had earned enough to move to the Men's Home in the north of the city. It was a step up from the sordid doss-house in Meidling.

Hitler was usually able to complete one small picture a day but he was lazy and often copied other people's work. Each small canvas or water-colour drawing sold for about 5 Kronen, split between him and his 'dealer', Hanisch. It never occurred to either of them to reproduce the work. Perhaps they never had enough money to print copies but it would have made more commercial sense than selling the original work each time.

Interestingly, many of the people Hitler sold his works to or who helped him as part-time art dealers were Jewish - despite Adolf's rabid anti-semitism. It would seem that he could conceal or at least put aside his bigotry when it served his purposes. This period also sees him exposed to a wide range of extreme right-wing political activity and invariably anti-semetic literature available everywhere in Vienna. His development as a political animal starts here - as an impoverished 'artist' living on his wits.

When not painting, Adolf wandered around Vienna, visiting museums and admiring Vienna's great buildings. This fascination with architecture is not only evident in his paintings but in the grandiose schemes for rebuilding his home town of Linz that later occupied much of his time as Fuhrer, even as the war drew to its end and all was clearly lost.

It would seem, however, that in the few years that he lived in Vienna as a young man the avant-garde Jugendstil architecture of - for example, Otto Wagner - passed him by completely, as did the equally provocative art of the Sezecssion artists then very much in vogue.

Hilter's actual drawing skills were limited and yet one wonders what might have happened to his art had he obtained a place at the Academy. He would have acquired new skills and been exposed, perhaps, to the progressive art that much later he and the Nazi Party would notoriously outlaw. Perhaps his interest in politics might not have developed as it did during those rough years living in an affluent yet hugely decadent Vienna.

Some paintings are more ambitious than others but Adolf  remained fixed in his ways, lacking even the most basic range of techniques used by competent water-colourists. These are very much pencil drawings later coloured in, sometimes crudely as in the buildings above - it looks more like camouflage than the play of light on ivy or brick and plaster.

Even his interiors have a naivete and overall 'flatness' that gives them each a cold, somewhat insipid quality. There are hardly ever people in Hitler's paintings and even then they are only distant figures in a crowd. His lack of figure-drawing was noted by the Rector at the Vienna Academy when he sat that first examination.

Very occasionally he will try something more dramatic - as in this painting in which the street lighting behind the gate is painted a startling green. It is a rare example of a work that has at least some element of originality and painterly daring.

Adolf mostly worked in water colours but occasionally, if funds permitted, he would try his hand at oils. This picture (above) of a sailing boat has a lively surface texture in which the paint has been applied with a certain freedom. It is almost Expressionist. Who knows how this might have developed had Hitler had proper training.

In April 2009 thirteen paintings by Adolf Hitler were sold for a total of £95,589. These works were first found in 1945 by a British soldier serving in Essen. They had lain forgotten in a garage for sixty-four years.

According to Hitler himself, he sold nearly a thousand landscapes in those few years in Vienna. Later, he gave up painting altogether. His best paintings were eventually (self) published in a glossy, coffee-table book but thereafter it was forbidden for others to reproduce any of these early paintings.

Who knows what other paintings might emerge in the coming years? However, none I suspect will show Adolf Hitler as anything other than a mediocre painter whose talent was, at best, limited.

Mike Healey

The best account of Hitler's life is by  Ian Kershaw, published in two volumes by Penguin (1998)

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