Wednesday, January 11, 2017
The Guggenheim Museum’s showing of the work of one of Germany’s greatest artists exceeds all expectations. To see his complete oeuvre, from his days at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts to his final Mountain Meditations, constitutes a feast for the eyes and the intellect. I had walked into the museum with respect; I left with a feeling of awe.
In the biographical material gleaned by art curator Angela Thornhill we learn of Hitler’s difficult journey. He was nearly rejected as a student at the Academy. The depictions of the streets and buildings of Linz and Vienna which he submitted dispense altogether with perspective and seem ungrounded in space. The judging committee saw this as indicating a lack of talent. One professor — Wilhelm Wasserstein — lobbied for his admittance and encouraged him in where he was taking his art. Except for this single benefactor, Hitler felt isolated, an outcast.
He left the Academy after two years and entered a period of extreme poverty; he was relegated to staying at the Asylum for the Homeless. It was during this time that he tried to survive off his art. In the exhibit there are twenty postcard size watercolors he drew of buildings in Vienna. These architecturally precise (but lifeless) renderings were meant to be sold on the street to tourists, or in taverns, and as such are rote work. Hitler felt thwarted; to a friend he wrote, “It is with trepidation that I feel myself being possessed by bitterness.”
When World War I broke out Hitler enlisted. He had openly stated that the war was madness, but he knew he would be called to serve; also, in the army he would have food and shelter. He became a dispatch runner; it involved relaying messages from one section of the front to another. The mortality rate was very high: two runners would be sent with the same message in case one didn’t make it. Hitler was hospitalized for a wound to the thigh from shrapnel; later he was exposed to a chlorine gas attack, which caused blindness. This, of course, was terrifying for Hitler. Gradually he began to discern dim shapes; though his sight would be restored, his vision was always impaired. This second episode marked the end of his military service, and the end of the war soon followed. Hitler received a number of medals, including the Iron Cross for outstanding bravery; in a letter from that time he writes that he promptly pawned all of them. He also states that, though he carried a revolver, he never fired it.
Strangely, the war served as an impetus to his art. Between episodes of terror, a soldier has much free time on his hands, and Hitler sketched and did watercolors. The museum has a dozen of the forty that survived. “The Sunken Road at Wytschaete” is done in dark, heavy strokes; all that is discernible are branchless trees silhouetted against the sky; the forefront is a jumble of ruination. Hitler seldom included people in his work, but in his “On the Road to Cannes” he shows a group of walking soldiers (including Hitler’s only depiction of himself); there’s a carefree, even jaunty rhythm to this drawing. It reflects Hitler’s statement as to what the war meant to him personally: “There was a sense of comradery that I had never before experienced.”
Hitler returned to Munich and stayed in the barracks. He had lodging and food, plus time to recover his strength. He became an odd sight prowling the streets: tall, thin, stooped, with a scraggly mustache. He would be seen staring at a scene for hours. At night he transferred what he had absorbed to canvases. In these city-scapes (which were rendered in oil, the medium he would thereafter use exclusively) Hitler captured the dislocation and instability of a defeated nation. His buildings tilt at precarious angles; the terrain, having no perspective, is unnavigable; the sky suggests an imminent storm. His colors are variations of darkness interrupted by streaks of reds, greens and blues. I’m describing a stylistic approach, not a uniformity; each scene in the dozen paintings from this period retain a character different from any other.
Here occurs a turn of good fortune that would change Hitler’s life. He took his paintings to art dealers. He met rejection until he entered a gallery owned by Jacob Altenberg. Altenberg was impressed. It was his belief that although there was no market for Hitler’s work in Germany, there was in France, where the ideas about the limits of art had been expanded. Altenberg was in touch with a dealer in Paris; he shipped him ten of Hitler’s paintings, and this resulted in a show that garnered much attention. The paintings sold; Leo and Gertrude Stein, notably, bought two; being at the forefront of the expatriate cultural community, they were able to expand Hitler’s audience. His work became known in the United States, England and, eventually, even in his home country. Of Altenberg Hitler wrote that he “opened the door to the rest of my life.”
Hitler’s years of impoverishment were over. He became part of the cultural community in Munich — no longer was he the wandering outsider. And, with Eva Braun, he found love. Yet around him Germany was falling deeper into chaos and despair: the worsening Depression, the decadence of the Weimar years, ominous political upheavals. His work became even more forceful as the fabric of society crumbled. He supplemented his brushes with tools such as putty knives; paint is applied in definitive slashes. In “An Unknown Street” we look down a passageway in which the building on each side have come together in a struggle that has destroyed both. Even the clouds in the tumultuous skies seem to be engaged in battle. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold” is rendered with a startling directness.
When the Nazi Party came to power, Hitler’s friends George Grosz and Thomas Mann fled Germany and urged him to do so too. But he chose another form of withdrawal: he moved with Eva to a small cottage in the Bavarian Alps. There the couple — with Eva’s terrier Negus and Hitler’s German Shepherd Blondi — lived humbly. The Nazis considered his work to be “decadent art.” Goebbels is quoted as saying that it would have been better for the world if Hitler had been permanently blinded in the chlorine attack. A public bonfire of all such paintings (including work by Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne and other masters) was contemplated; but, because they were seen as a possible source of revenue, they were confiscated (often from the private collections of Jews) and put in vaults, where they survived the war years.
Hitler’s art moved into its final phase. He turned from the activities of the world to look upon the mountains. They became his only subject. He never referred to the paintings as “Mountain Meditations,” as they became known when the world discovered them. They are nameless pieces. The same range of mountains is depicted in the four seasons, at four times in the day: dawn, noon, sunset, night. Sixteen paintings, done over four years. Though the scene is identical, they differ radically in mood, in the play of light, in the slopes covered by vegetation or snow. Most striking is the vibrant use of colors; even at night the mountains are drenched in moonlight. The serenity of these last paintings constitute an affirmation.
In Hitler’s final letter, he tells Grosz that in his life he was allowed to do what he was meant to do, and for that he was grateful beyond words. Two days later Eva describes how, on one of their walks with their dogs, Hitler put his hand to his forehead, and said, “I have a terrible headache.” He fell to the ground, dead from a stroke.
He is buried in the village cemetery at Erwald, Austria. On his gravestone are the dates of his birth and death, and the words: