Hitler as Artist: How Vienna inspired the Führer's dreams

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Hitler as Artist: How Vienna inspired the Führer's dreams

Postby admin » Mon Jan 15, 2018 10:49 pm

Hitler as Artist: How Vienna inspired the Führer's dreams.
by Peter Schjeldahl
The New Yorker
August 19, 2002 Issue

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Adolf Hitler was an artist—a modern artist, at that—and Nazism was a movement shaped by his aesthetic sensibility. Cosmopolitan Vienna incubated his peculiar genius as well as his hideous ideas. These views have been in the air recently, and a trenchant scholarly exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art, in Williamstown, Massachusetts—"Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics, and Hitler's Early Years in Vienna 1906-1913"—advances them. The show's curator, Deborah Rothschild, was inspired by "Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship," by Brigitte Hamann (1999). A forthcoming book, "Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics," by Frederic Spotts, promises an interpretation of Hitler as "a perverted artist." Earlier this year, a show at the Jewish Museum, in New York, "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," featured mediocre conceptual work that addressed the Third Reich with lame-brained allusions to commerce and sex. By trial and error, a special analysis is in progress. It won't alter our moral and political judgments of Hitler, whose crimes remain immeasurable, but it sure shakes up conventional accounts of modern art.

Hitler was eighteen years old when, in 1908, he moved from Linz and took up residence in Vienna. He walked the same streets as Freud, Gustav Mahler, and Egon Schiele, but he did so as one of the city's faceless, teeming poor. He often slept in a squalid homeless shelter, if not under a bridge. Intent on becoming an artist, he twice failed the art academy's admission test; his drawing skills were declared "unsatisfactory." A thin, sallow youth, he wasn't cut out for physical labor. With help from a friend, he earned a meagre living drawing postcard views of Vienna and selling them to tourists. Jews were among his companions and patrons. Although he was fanatically pan-German—caught up in visions of an expanded Germany, which would incorporate Austria—he had laudatory things to say about Jews at the time. He proved, however, an apt pupil of the city's rampant strains of anti-Semitism, which exploited popular resentment of the wealthy Jewish bourgeoisie that had arisen under Franz Josef I, the conservative but clement—and, effectively, the last—Hapsburg emperor. Hitler studied the spellbinding oratorical style of the city's widely beloved populist, anti-Semitic mayor, Karl Lueger.

The young Hitler was wild for Wagnerian opera, stately architecture, and inventive graphic art and design. His taste in painting was—and remained—philistine. He swore by Eduard von Grützner, a genre painter of jolly, drunken Bavarian monks.

In Germany, during the first decade of the nineteenth century, for instance, when the heyday and confusion of seeking, experimenting, destroying, promising, surmising, and hoping was sweeping in currents and cross-currents over the land, the thinking middle-classes were right in their concern for their own security. It was then quite right of them to dismiss from their minds with a shrug of their shoulders the omnium gatherum of fantastic and language-maiming philosophies, and of rabid special-pleading historical studies, the carnival of all gods and myths, and the poetical affectations and fooleries which a drunken spirit may be responsible for. In this respect they were quite right; for the Philistine has not even the privilege of licence. With the cunning proper to base natures, however, he availed himself of the opportunity, in order to throw suspicion even upon the seeking spirit, and to invite people to join in the more comfortable pastime of finding. His eye opened to the joy of Philistinism; he saved himself from wild experimenting by clinging to the idyllic, and opposed the restless creative spirit that animates the artist, by means of a certain smug ease—the ease of self-conscious narrowness, tranquillity, and self-sufficiency. His tapering finger pointed, without any affectation of modesty, to all the hidden and intimate incidents of his life, to the many touching and ingenuous joys which sprang into existence in the wretched depths of his uncultivated existence, and which modestly blossomed forth on the bog-land of Philistinism.

There were, naturally, a few gifted narrators who, with a nice touch, drew vivid pictures of the happiness, the prosaic simplicity, the bucolic robustness, and all the well-being which floods the quarters of children, scholars, and peasants. With picture-books of this class in their hands, these smug ones now once and for all sought to escape from the yoke of these dubious classics and the command which they contained—to seek further and to find. They only started the notion of an epigone-age in order to secure peace for themselves, and to be able to reject all the efforts of disturbing innovators summarily as the work of epigones. With the view of ensuring their own tranquillity, these smug ones even appropriated history, and sought to transform all sciences that threatened to disturb their wretched ease into branches of history—more particularly philosophy and classical philology. Through historical consciousness, they saved themselves from enthusiasm; for, in opposition to Goethe, it was maintained that history would no longer kindle enthusiasm. No, in their desire to acquire an historical grasp of everything, stultification became the sole aim of these philosophical admirers of "nil admirari." While professing to hate every form of fanaticism and intolerance, what they really hated, at bottom, was the dominating genius and the tyranny of the real claims of culture. They therefore concentrated and utilised all their forces in those quarters where a fresh and vigorous movement was to be expected, and then paralysed, stupefied, and tore it to shreds. In this way, a philosophy which veiled the Philistine confessions of its founder beneath neat twists and flourishes of language proceeded further to discover a formula for the canonisation of the commonplace. It expatiated upon the rationalism of all reality, and thus ingratiated itself with the Culture-Philistine, who also loves neat twists and flourishes, and who, above all, considers himself real, and regards his reality as the standard of reason for the world. From this time forward he began to allow every one, and even himself, to reflect, to investigate, to astheticise, and, more particularly, to make poetry, music, and even pictures—not to mention systems philosophy; provided, of course, that everything were done according to the old pattern, and that no assault were made upon the "reasonable" and the "real"—that is to say, upon the Philistine. The latter really does not at all mind giving himself up, from time to time, to the delightful and daring transgressions of art or of sceptical historical studies, and he does not underestimate the charm of such recreations and entertainments; but he strictly separates "the earnestness of life" (under which term he understands his calling, his business, and his wife and child) from such trivialities, and among the latter he includes all things which have any relation to culture. Therefore, woe to the art that takes itself seriously, that has a notion of what it may exact, and that dares to endanger his income, his business, and his habits! Upon such an art he turns his back, as though it were something dissolute; and, affecting the attitude of a guardian of chastity, he cautions every unprotected virtue on no account to look.

-- -- David Strauss, The Confessor and the Writer, by Friedrich Nietzsche


Hitler's own stilted early efforts were the work of a provincial tyro who was ripe for instruction that he never received. (The show includes a rather nice watercolor of a mountain chapel, from a commission that was secured for him by Samuel Morgenstern, a Jewish dealer.) As with any drifting young life, Hitler's might have gone in a number of ways. The most exasperating missed opportunity was the possibility of working under the graphic artist and stage designer Alfred Roller, a member of the anti-academic Secession movement whose sets for the Vienna Court Opera's productions of Wagner, which were conducted by Mahler, foreshadowed Nazi theatricality. With a letter of introduction to Roller, Hitler approached the great man's door three times without mustering the nerve to knock. As it turned out, he seems never to have consorted with anyone whose ego overmatched his own. Grandiose and rigidly puritanical, he was a figure of fun to many of his mates in Vienna's lower depths. He accumulated humiliations on the way to becoming a god of revenge for the humiliated of Germany. Meanwhile, his adopted city fired his imagination. In "Mein Kampf," he recalled, "For hours, I could stand in front of the Opera, for hours I could gaze at the parliament; the whole Ring Boulevard seemed to me like an enchantment out of the 'Thousand and One Nights.' "

"Prelude to a Nightmare" affords a revelatory view of Vienna's glory days, just before the First World War. (The period is being celebrated concurrently by other shows in the Berkshires. The Clark Art Institute, also in Williamstown, is exhibiting landscapes by Gustav Klimt, designs by Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstätte, and architectural plans by Otto Wagner; the Berkshire Museum, in Pittsfield, is showing choice posters from the Secession.) The Williams show anatomizes Hitler's responses to the city—his enchantments and disenchantments—with well-written wall texts and judiciously selected art works and artifacts. It documents scenes of imperial pageantry which, darkened and streamlined, would be echoed in Nazi rallies; and it sketches movements and individuals in the arts and politics as they must have appeared to the young man. Among the political voices are the racialists Guido von List, who, beginning in 1907, helped popularize the swastika as a sign of Aryan purity, and von List's crazy disciple Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, who believed that Aryan women, if not forcibly segregated, would inevitably fall for the demonic virility of inferior races. Hitler imbibed it all.

The show also features works by Klimt, Schiele, and other Secession artists who would later enter the Nazi lists of degenerate art. Hitler despised them for their insults to classical ideals of human beauty and for what he called, in another context, "liberalistic concepts of the individual." But he embraced cleanly abstracted and geometric styles, which later informed his own design work (notably, the stunning Nazi flag) and his shrewd patronage of the gifted youngsters Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer. In lengthening retrospect, it becomes harder to credit categorical distinctions between Nazi aesthetics and those of redoubtable modern movements in architecture and design, including the Bauhaus. They share roots in avant-garde Vienna.

Hitler's rise remains mysterious— if only as to the precise amount of dumb luck involved—but it makes unnerving sense when viewed in terms of an eager artist's capacity to assimilate, synthesize, and apply the influences of his time and place. "I used to think it could have been anyone," Deborah Rothschild has said, referring to the leader of the Third Reich. "But I don't think that anymore." Indeed, the show leaves no doubt that Nazism was a singular invention and that Hitler was its indispensable author. Without him, Fascism might well have succeeded in Germany, but nothing foreordained Nazism's blend of dash and malice, its brilliant technology and skulking atavism. It seems clear that Hitler employed artistic means—hypnotic oratory, moving spectacle, elegant design—not just to gain power but to wield it in the here and now. Meanwhile, he needed a political line—a cause, an enemy—that would be more dynamic than pan-Germanism. The fact that he came by the cult of Aryanism and anti-Semitism belatedly suggests that they developed as much in service to his artistic ambition as the other way around. All racism, on some level, is aesthetic, as a projection of "the ugly." Nazism, in a horrible way, was a program to remodel the world according to a certain taste.

Culture is, before all things, the unity of artistic style, in every expression of the life of a people. Abundant knowledge and learning, however, are not essential to it, nor are they a sign of its existence; and, at a pinch, they might coexist much more harmoniously with the very opposite of culture—with barbarity: that is to say, with a complete lack of style, or with a riotous jumble of all styles. But it is precisely amid this riotous jumble that the German of to-day subsists; and the serious problem to be solved is: how, with all his learning, he can possibly avoid noticing it; how, into the bargain, he can rejoice with all his heart in his present "culture"? For everything conduces to open his eyes for him—every glance he casts at his clothes, his room, his house; every walk he takes through the streets of his town; every visit he pays to his art-dealers and to his trader in the articles of fashion. In his social intercourse he ought to realise the origin of his manners and movements; in the heart of our art-institutions, the pleasures of our concerts, theatres, and museums, he ought to become apprised of the super- and juxta-position of all imaginable styles. The German heaps up around him the forms, colours, products, and curiosities of all ages and zones, and thereby succeeds in producing that garish newness, as of a country fair, which his scholars then proceed to contemplate and to define as "Modernism per se"; and there he remains, squatting peacefully, in the midst of this conflict of styles. But with this kind of culture, which is, at bottom, nothing more nor less than a phlegmatic insensibility to real culture, men cannot vanquish an enemy, least of all an enemy like the French, who, whatever their worth may be, do actually possess a genuine and productive culture, and whom, up to the present, we have systematically copied, though in the majority of cases without skill.

Even supposing we had really ceased copying them, it would still not mean that we had overcome them, but merely that we had lifted their yoke from our necks. Not before we have succeeded in forcing an original German culture upon them can there be any question of the triumph of German culture. Meanwhile, let us not forget that in all matters of form we are, and must be, just as dependent upon Paris now as we were before the war; for up to the present there has been no such thing as a original German culture.

-- David Strauss, The Confessor and the Writer, by Friedrich Nietzsche


The Williams show rebuts the comfortable sentiment that Hitler was a "failed artist." In fact, once he found his métier, in Munich after the First World War, he was masterly, first as an orator and then as an all-around impresario of political theatre. He was also deluded. He had no vision of the future apart from ever grander opera. He met his end—which, as a deep-dyed Wagnerian, he might have anticipated but apparently did not—as a quivering wreck of the boy who had been so awed by imperial Vienna. A photograph in the Williams show catches a puffy Führer in his last days, as Berlin lay in ruins, gazing rapturously at a tabletop model of Linz, which he envisioned as the cultural center of Europe, remade as a modern Valhalla. It is an appalling image, which suggests that the Second World War was incidental to a downtown redevelopment project. Rothschild, in a wall text, draws this moral from her show: "The union of malevolence and beauty can occur; we must remain vigilant against its seductive power." I disagree. We must remain vigilant against malevolence, and we should regard beauty as the fundamentally amoral phenomenon that it is.
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