Monday, June 26, 2006

Hitler: Authoritarian & Artist?

Imagine if he was admitted to art school...what could have been...

At the age of twelve, Adolf Hitler decided on a career. “How it happened, I myself do not know, the one day it became clear to me that I would become a painter, an artist.” His father, Alois, was astonished; he had taken it for granted that his son would follow him into the civil service. “Painter? Artist?” When that had no effect, he tried brutal rejection. “Artist, no, never as long as I live.” But neither the father’s pleas nor his threats could shake the boy. ‘I wanted to become a painter and no power in the world could make me a civil servant.’ Although Alois gave him a sound thrashing every day, in the end, the disagreement hardly mattered. Alois died a few years later and Hitler’s sympathetic mother, Klara, allowed her son to decide his ill-fated future for himself.

Hitler’s interest in painting was deep and sincere. At school he loved to sketch, a subject in which he earned good grades, and in later years relatives and friends recalled how insistent he was that he would some day be not just a painter but a famous one. In the autumn of 1905, Hitler dropped out of school and went to Munich for several months to study drawing at a private art academy. His mother arranged for him to spend the following May in Vienna to see the paintings in the great Habsburg collections. That experience left him more determined than ever in his choice of a career.

Early in September of 1907, the eighteen-year old Hitler arrived in Vienna to take the examination for entrance into the General School of Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts. He completed in the provincial Austrian towns of Fischlam, Lambach, Leondig, Linz, and Steyr the only structured education he was to receive. One of his teachers was later to describe him as “distinctly talented, if in a rather narrow sense, but he lacked self-discipline, being generally obstinate, high-handed, intransigent, and fiery-tempered,” and he had, according to his own testimony, set his heart upon becoming an artist. His father was dead, his mother in Linz was mortally ill. Hitler was on his own.

The Academy examination was in two parts, and one hundred and sixteen candidates presented themselves. The first part required applicants to perform exercises based upon such subjects as Cain and Abel, the Prodigal Son, Winter, Shipwreck, Joy, and Moonlight. Thirty-three aspiring artists failed this part of the examination; Hitler, however, was admitted to the second phase, the presentation of “sample paintings,” original work that could be evaluated by examiners. Here Hitler did not meet the standards set, and an entry beside his name read, “Test drawing unsatisfactory.” Upon being told that his talents might lie in the field of architecture, Hitler attempted to gain entrance to the Academy of Fine Arts’ Architectural School. He returned to Linz since he did not possess the necessary credentials for admission. Hitler’s mother died in December, and by the following February, he was again in Vienna, where he took painting lessons and prepared again to secure entrance to the Academy. The 1908 examination, however, was a disaster. He failed the first part – the section he had successfully completed in 1907 – and the words “Not admitted to the test” beside his name were both brutal and definitive.

The two rejections tormented him throughout his life. The experience taught him a lesson he would never forgo and instilled in him a resentment he never overcame. He despised authorities and experts, had only contempt for rules and established institutions, and scornfully brushed aside advice and views differing from his own. He withdrew into himself, took solace from the example of the unappreciated artist he saw in the young Richard Wagner and learned to hate. “I owe it to that period that I grew hard and am still capable of being hard.” And “hard” is the word he always used once in power to justify what he himself acknowledged were acts of heartless brutality. He persevered in his resolve to be a painter. And revealed itself that cast of mind which led on to his later successes and defeats. For him, will, destiny, and dreams were reality.

In painting – as in everything he took up- Hitler was an autodidact. He had an ounce of talent – at least in sketching buildings – but what technique he learned he picked up on his own. Like most amateurs, he began 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 – the everyday urban views – that were popular at the time. Cityscapes also coincided with his interest in architecture while other subjects suggested nostalgia for the simple, pastoral life. Such works, handled realistically, required some of the skill necessary for a Romantic dreamscape, a portrait or a genre scene with people. Moreover, he had to paint the sort of thing that an unknown and untalented amateur might be able to sell, namely inexpensive reproductions of familiar places.

In his early years, Hitler looked for inspiration to the works of Carl Schütz, a late 18th century watercolorist, and Rudolf von Alt, the 19th century Central European watercolorist. Both of these artists specialized in near-photographic reproduction of street scenes and nostalgic views of old Vienna. Such straightforward realism, architectural subject matter, meticulous attention to detail and conventionality of treatment suited Hitler’s interest and ability. With craftsman-like precision he did his best to emulate these works down to the last decorative feature. Some of these paintings can be matched to Schütz’s and Alt’s originals, demonstrating Hitler’s respectable effort at duplication. Others lacked such a pedigree, however, and were evidently reproductions of prints, picture postcards and photographs of well-known sites. Subjects ranged from concrete, realistic scenes of urban settings – in particular churches and great public buildings of Vienna – to soft, dreamy country landscapes. The style was always simple and naturalistic. Fascination with detail, especially architectural, spoke through everything. Equally striking is that his was a world largely devoid of people. Although in his life he enjoyed drawing caricatures of faces, like many other topographical artists, he was hopeless at painting figures, and in most watercolors avoided them entirely.

Hitler apparently did not go outdoors with easel and paints but worked in a corner of the reading room at the men’s hostel where he lived. He did one painting a day, almost invariably Viennese scenes. In the morning he sketched it out and after lunch he colored it. Most often it was the Charles Church that he drew or scenes from old Vienna and the Vienna Naschmarkt, recreating saleable subjects a dozen times. Years later, Hitler estimated that he had painted between 700 and 800 pictures during the Vienna years. Some scenes he painted so often, he later told friends he was able to do them from memory.

The subject and style of Hitler’s paintings catered to an unsophisticated clientele who could not afford anything better. Since he rarely got more than three or four krone ($10-12) for a picture, Hitler’s earnings were for a long time meager. He sometimes bartered a painting for a meal. He even falsely claims that he was reduced to drawing posters and advertising graphics for shoe polish, tobacco, wash soap, cosmetics, shoes, women’s underwear, and antiperspirant powder. Most, if not all, of the drawings on which the stories are based are bogus, either forgeries or inventions of detractors. In testimony to the Vienna police in 1936, Otto Kallir, a Vienna art dealer, declared that posters brought to his attention were fabrications.

Despite his earlier failures, Hitler made a third attempt to gain entry to the Academy of Fine Arts. In August 1910, he called on a curator of the Court Museum, Professor Ritschel, and showed him a substantial portfolio of drawings and watercolors of buildings of old Vienna, all with his usual attention to detail. “His work had an architectural quality and were done with such painstaking care that they almost gave the impression of being a photograph,” one of Ritschel’s assistants later recorded. Hitler presumably hoped that on the basis of these he would be reconsidered for admission to the Academy. For whatever reason nothing came of the venture and there could now be no prospect of ever receiving professional training in Vienna. This may have strengthened a determination to leave. Karl Honisch, an occupant of the same homeless shelter who came to know Hitler briefly, commented years later, “I believe that Hitler was the only one among us with a definite long-term plan in mind. He had often told us of his future intentions. He wanted to live in Munich so that he could attend the art academy there and improve his artistic abilities.” In May of 1913, he left Vienna for the Bavarian capital. With him must have gone his early sketchbook of some forty small watercolors as well as a few other paintings – works that were found in the Berlin bunker at the end of his life.

On arriving in Munich, Hitler gave his occupation to the police authorities as Kunstmaler, or artistic painter, and went on as before, painting the same sort of subjects in the same naturalistic style. At first, the impoverished Hitler found it difficult to get established, yet a short time later his career began to improve.

As he made the rounds with his paintings, he found an increasing number of ready customers. Some considered his works attractive; some felt sorry for the strange young man; some bought them for both reasons. “I liked the picture,” one purchaser recalled, “The young artist aroused my pity, so I bought it.” A baker said, “I just wanted to help the young man. He always looked so hungry.” For some, the watercolors had a genuine appeal; having bought one, they ordered more. Gradually, he found a steady outlet for his works.

Hitler painted popular scenes – the Asam House and St. John’s Church, the Hofbräuhaus, the opera house, and similar sites. Commercially, he was prospering. In the beginning, he had asked five marks a painting but in the course of 1914 was sometimes charging as much as twenty ($80). Even if he sold only ten a month, he was earning at least as much as the average worker. Hence, since he lived humbly and paid only twenty marks a month for rent, he achieved a measure of financial security. Beyond that, however, his career was going nowhere. There is no evidence that he took any concrete step to gain entry into an art academy. Hope of ever becoming the great painter of his dreams must have come to seem impossibly remote and at one point he altered his residence registration with the police as “writer.” He was merely painting to live rather than living to paint.

He greeted the outbreak of war in 1914 with a sense of exhilaration. Hitler immediately volunteered for military service and arrived at the front on October 29, to find his unit engaged in the first battle of Ypres, in the course of which most of the regiment was wiped out. However, a few weeks later, at Wychaete, a village in Flanders, he began painting, and a watercolor of a battlefield scene survives.

Sometime after that, his regiment moved to winter quarters near the village of Messines, and there he turned out a number of works. In all, at least a dozen watercolors, nine pencil sketches and five pen-and-ink drawings are known to have come through the war, including a few sketches done in the summer of 1915 of men in his unit. One of these men, Karl Lippert, recalled: “On calm days at the front at Fromelles or Fournes, Hitler spent his time drawing and reading. He sketched almost every man on the regimental staff, some in caricatures.” There is no way of knowing whether Hitler viewed his wartime works as a continuation of his career or a diversion from the war. Yet there can be no doubt that his pleasure in art was unabated. On the two occasions when given leave, he headed straight for Berlin to visit galleries.

In the course of his career as a watercolorist, Hitler had gradually achieved a modest competence at his craft, yet his was a technical ability that any reasonably skilled art student could learn. What was remarkable was that he was self-taught. His style was rooted in the naturalistic German tradition – concrete and identifiable subjects, clean lines and attention to detail. His handling of material was at times heavy-handed and clumsy, at other times technically competent and visually attractive. His repertory was narrow. In his early youth he mostly painted simple, even primitive, landscapes, as is evident in his watercolor sketchbook.

Afterwards his subject was almost exclusively the exterior of buildings. Paintings of interiors and still lifes were extremely rare. His strength was the craftsman-like precision that he learned to instill in his treatment of architectural subjects. Through his repeated portraiture of well-known Vienna and Munich buildings he developed the near-professional eye of an architect. Yet he did not begin to find an interpretive technique of his own and neither embellished nor altered what he copied. As a result, he rarely gave his scenes life or feeling. Nor did he even begin to deal with the problem of light and shadow.

With little or no imagination, much less daring, he produced only timid works. Their most marked failing lay in figures; those inserted, they looked like mannequins and cast a mood of artificiality and crudity over the whole work. The impression left by his watercolors is one of a static and emotionally empty depiction of scenes aspiring to photographic-like quality. However, what is intriguing is that a number of paintings demonstrate a respectable mastery of the medium. Works such as Weissenkirchen in the Wachau of 1910, Old Vienna Courtyard near St. Ulrich’s Church of 1911-12, The Main River Gate of 1913, along with two unfinished wartime works – Haubourdin and The Seminar Church in Hauboudin – manifest a remarkable technical leap. Possibly when he did not try to imitate and worked from nature, he developed a certain innate skill.

Yet even with training it seems unlikely that Hitler would ever have been more than a skilled Sunday afternoon amateur painter. As an artist he was impotent, unable to do what he later did in politics and architecture – create a world instead of merely copying one. The possibility of probing the paintings for insight into Hitler’s character is diminished by the fact that most of them are formulaic works. However, the fact that they are copies of a certain type reveal a basic conventionality of outlook, a longing for a world of order, a narrow idea of beauty and an interest in buildings rather than people. Otherwise there is no overt ideology in his works. They are of interest solely because of who painted them.

Snyder's Treasures: Original Adolf Hitler Artworks
Hitler Historical Museum: Hitler's Art & National Socialist Era Art
Paintings of Adolf Hitler

Cited Sources: Spotts, Frederic. Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics. London: Hutchinson. 2002

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at 11:05 PM


  1. Blogger Hazolat posted at 11:35 PM  
    Wow! Absolutely ultimately wow! I'm amazed at your writing. You're in college you say? This post sure would pass with flying colors as a post graduate journal :-)

    You go girl :-)
  2. Blogger Temetwir posted at 12:14 AM  
    very interesting read

    almost makes you feel sorry for the son of a bitch
  3. Blogger error posted at 2:05 AM  
    are you related? or somethong!
  4. Blogger error posted at 2:07 AM  
    ~thing hehe
  5. Blogger Erzulie posted at 2:28 AM  
    Hazolat: Lol, it's actually part of an essay for my art history class :P I enjoyed researching it so much that I wanted to share :))

    Temi: Yeah I know. Well, this is the ultimate "What if" scenario! Hey, maybe there would still be a Palestine if WWII didn't happen i.e. did not facilitate the migration of Jews...something to think about?

    Error: Strangely enough, Hitler and I have the same monthly and yearly (Chinese) star sign! Something to consider eh? Let's not mess with the Erz :P~~

    The weird thing is that when he was making the most money selling his work, his agents who were helping him out were Jewish. BUT his hatred for the Jews in general probably came from how they were in control of the Arts in the area and hence, he may have seen them as the hindrance to his acceptance into the school and into the art scene.

    You can also see the usage of art as propaganda in the Nazi regime. The gallery of "Degenerate Art" (Entartete Kunst) featured cubist, impressionist, and abstract works; modern art in general. The next day after that gallery opened, the "Exhibition of Great German Art" was revealed and in it you find what Hitler considered as perfection i.e. Classic Greek & Roman architecture and "perfectly" sculpted figures.

    More about Degenerate Art here:
  6. Blogger Sedna posted at 1:34 PM  
    Thought provoking...All I knew was that he "got kicked out of art school". Interesting info Erzulie :)
  7. Blogger 7tenths posted at 8:26 PM  
    That was pretty exhilirating! I didn't know I was capable of reading that much in one go! :P But great read, & very interesting indeed :) I mean it's funny how while reading I'm not sure whether you're calling him an amateur painter with that little spark of magic or a very skilled & detailed architect with no emotion-but then BAM you call his artwork crap! :P It just goes to show that you can go on in life thinking you know what you want until the forces of nature push you into the right direction, in this case tyranny! :P Quit procrastinating & finish your damn essay! ;P
  8. Blogger 7tenths posted at 8:31 PM  
    PS. It's probably a good thing he left the art-world (not necessarily a good thing he entered politics, though!) because I doubt the Parkinson's that would later plague his body would have contributed to his efforts in any positive way :P .. Or would it? Modern art anyone?
  9. Blogger Erzulie posted at 12:36 AM  
    Sedna: Thanks :)

    7tenths: Haha :P Well, I think it would've been a much better thing if he got accepted. His lines are hard and rigid i.e. suitable for architecture but the people he draws are like that too; there is no life in his human figures. Too bad...too late actually!
  10. Blogger Dr.Lost posted at 3:55 AM  
    babe, i left u a comment on ur arnoob post.. didnt get 2 read this new post coz its 4 am and im literally half asleep.. nite nite ;p (ill read it tommorrow inshallah :)
  11. Blogger Erzulie posted at 6:29 AM  
    Dr.Lost: It's a pretty long post :) Get some shut eye, you'll be needing it in years to come :P
  12. Blogger dishevelled posted at 1:01 AM  
    I must say, pretty interesting!
    Never knew he had that in him! Didn't expect it at all! ;P
  13. Blogger Erzulie posted at 11:29 AM  
    dishevelled: Well you know what they say, all artists are crazy :P

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