ART AND DICTATORS: Cagnaccio, Mussolini and Hitler

12/13/2018 20:43

Three naked ladies, all identically alike, rest in different positions on what appear to be two grey and rust-brown carpets. The cold, sharp rendering deprives them of their personality. Behind them is a green drapery. The environment is sterile and impersonal. A hotel? A theatre scene? Playing cards, two champagne bottles, two very skilful executed glasses, a cuff, a still burning cigarette and one remarkable detail - a bowler hat and two white glacé gloves placed on a red pillow. No furniture. The scene gives the impression of being completely static, though after looking at it for while I discover what I interpret as some kind of movement. It appears as if the three women are making a circular movement. I am increasingly convinced that the female figures are representations the same woman. At the far right, she rests in an open position. Then she turns her back towards the viewer. She has begun cower until she in the background has ended up in a foetal position. Is it as if a violated woman turns in on herself? In shame? To protect herself? A futile attempt to return to an earlier, innocent unharmed way of being?

The title of this strange painting is provocative - Dopo l'orgia, After the Orgy. The playing cards, the champagne bottles, the bowler hat and the cigarette all indicate that it is not a Roman orgy. This is a contemporary scene, which was previously emphasized by the cuff button, it is now red, but in 1928, when the painting was rejected by the Exhibition Committee for the Venice Biennale, the button was engraved with the Fascist Party's fascis.

Are the women asleep? Or are they drugged? Has a crime been committed? The mood is reminiscent of Gregory Crewdson's staged photographs, which often depict committed, or anticipated wrongdoings.

Could the artwork maybe hint at Fascist perversions? The contempt for fellow human beings that lurked behind Fascist ideology and a power exercised in collusion with capitalists and the bourgeoisie (indicated by the champagne bottles, the bowler hat and the glacé gloves). Perhaps a satirical commentary on Il Duce´s, The Leader's, licentious double life? It was common knowledge that Mussolini was subjected to an unrestrained sex drive. Despite a family life under his authoritative wife Rachele and with their five children, Mussolini had an array of affairs with different women, and in any case before he gained his absolute political powers Mussolini was a frequent visitor to brothels and fathered at least two illegitimate children. Their mothers had in vain sued Mussolini to make him recognize his paternity. It happened that Mussolini openly bragged about his sexual virility and after the war his personal catalogue in which he in a classification system, which was quite difficult to decipher, assessed the nature and results of his erotic escapades.

One may wonder what made the artist Cagnaccio di San Pietro submit his painting to an exhibition committee which leading member was Margherita Sarfatti, a lady with great influence over Italy's cultural life. She was Mussolini's more or less official mistress and also a patroness who had made Cagnaccio famous and was favouring his career. Could not Cagnaccio have imagined that Sarfatti would not look with mild eyes at an artwork suggesting a perverted back side of fascism and perhaps even of Il Duce himself? The painting was not even aesthetically pleasing, rather it radiated a quite chilly and unpleasant aloofness. The sterile environment makes me associate with the demonic undertones of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, with its red room populated by evil spirits and perverted doppelgänger.

After its rejection, the painting disappeared, sixty years later, an Italian emigrant family resident in Venezuela sold it to the gallerist Claudia Gian Ferrari, who exhibited it in her Milan gallery during a show that attracted much attention. Dopo l'orgia has since been considered as one of Novecento's absolute masterpieces, even if Cagnaccio never was a member of this art movement.

Novecento Italiano, the Italian Twentieth Century, was introduced in 1923 through an exhibition in Milan and the group of artists who had signed the movement's manifesto was in 1924 benefitting from an entire exhibition pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Their rapid success was largely due to the patronage of Margherita Sarfatti. She was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish lawyer and businessman and had grown up in one of Venice's most beautiful palaces, tutored by private teachers and becoming a highly cultivated lady. However, at an early age she had become fascinated by socialism and eighteen-years-old she left home to marry, against her father´s will, a thirteen years older lawyer and socialist.

Sarfatti had several children, but refused to live like a typical housewife. She worked as a journalist and art critic. Through her wealth and literary salon Sarfatti had in Milan soon gathered a host of radical young artists around herself. Several of them were later engulfed by World War I, among them the eighteen-year-old Cagnaccio, who at that time became acquainted with the fiery futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and under whose influence Cagnaccio created some futuristic works combining Marinetti's onomatopoetic poetry with futuristic fireworks, as in his Explosion of a Grenade, which interspersed letters with strong colours and dynamic movement.

However, several of the young artists soon realized that the reality of war was something completely different from liberating, futuristic ecstasies preached by poets and propagandists like Marinetti and D'Annunzio. They left their modernist experiments and under the slogan "back to order" they wanted to return to the devout balance and serenity of masters from the early Italian Renaissance. Artists like Piero della Francesca, Carlo Crivelli and the Lorenzetti brothers. The designation Novecento was a tribute to former Italian art directions, which commonly were referred to as centuries – Trecento, The Fourteenth Century and Quattrocento, The Fifteenth Century.

Margherita Sarfatti lost her beloved son Roberto, who eighteen-years-old died in a battle just before the end of the war. The shock made her scorn the modern art movements she had previously acclaimed – futurism, cubism and expressionism. Instead she enthusiastically supported artists who inspired by the German New Objectivity's depictions of modern society combined it with lessons learned from early Italian Renaissance art. Among these so-called verists, actually the name of a literary movement, we find Cagnaccio de San Pietro, who now began to paint with a razor sharp, flawless realism, occasionally combined with milder, nostalgic tributes to his childhood town of San Pietro in Volta on the island of Pellestrina, located between the sea and the Venetian lagoon.

Margherita Sarfatti had in 1911 become acquainted with the three years younger, energetic twenty-eight-year-old Benito Mussolini, chief editor of the socialist movement´s main publication, Avanti. They soon embarked on an intense love relationship, not weakened by Mussolini's constant pursuit of new erotic adventures. Mussolini also joined the war and was soon severely wounded. He recovered, but was declared unfit for further service. Unlike so many other ex-soldiers, Mussolini did not become a pacifist, instead he became increasingly violent.

Mussolini founded a newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia, Italy's People, an extremely nationalist, populist publication in which he preached a revolutionary socialism that ought to be manifested through violent actions. He founded fasci di comabattimento, black dressed combat groups who attacked pacifist socialists and/or Communists who preached international class struggle. What mattered to him now was: "Italy first!" Margherita Sarfatti became an enthusiastic supporter of Fascists´ attempt to rationalize and radicalize old, tired Italy. She neglected their unprecedented violence against all opposition and intended to make art a tool for Fascism.

Mussolini had artistic ambitions. He played the violin: "It leads me to a glimpse of eternity and when I play the world slips from me." He played without refinement, but with an impressive fervour that appeared to release an anxiety that he otherwise tried to conceal. From time to time he closed the doors behind him and could for hours play his favourite pieces by Wagner, Schubert and Verdi.

Mussolini was also a book worm and his literary taste was far from being unsophisticated. He read French, German and English, classical works as well as philosophy and even modern literature, such as Hemingway's novels and Sholokhov’s Quite Flows the Don. His books were filled with underlinings and paper slips. Occasionally, Mussolini acknowledged that his great dream was, and had always been, to become a writer: "I? I am not a statesman. I am more like a mad poet." However, he knew he was not a poet, nor did he imagine he was a great writer, even though he wrote a lot, including a novel and several dramas. His novel L'amante del Cardinale (Claudia Particella), The Cardinal's Mistress (Claudia Particella), was published in 1910 and tells a story from the 17th century. It is a Church bashing love story between a cardinal and his young mistress. The novel distinguishes itself by being spiced with large doses of "sadistic, undisciplined physicality". Sarfatti translated it into English, but found it to be "a clumsy hash without head or tail, a flashy film of long footage."

Violence and drama are also prominent in Mussolini's biography of the Czech Reformation preacher Jan Hus, Giovanni Huss il Verdico, Jan Hus, The Truth-teller, which he wrote in 1912. Together with the popular playwright Giovacchino Forzano, he did in the thirties write three historical dramas – Giulio Cesare, Villafranca and Campo di Maggio, the latter despite too extensive declamations, became an international success under the title Napoleon: The Hundred Days. The play was in 1935 made into a well-received German movie, with rousing battle scenes and star performance by the popular Gustaf Gründgens in one of the leading roles. Gründgens is now mainly known trough Klaus Mann´s novel Mephisto and István Szabó´s Oscars-winning screen adaption of it, which won an Oscar in 1981.

Despite his great interest in literature, movies, classical music and theatre, Mussolini freely acknowledged that he was not an art connoisseur, he left that to Margherita Sarfatti. Mussolini became occasionally irritated by the fact that she presented her favoured Novecento artists as faithful Fascists. According to Mussolini, they were far too heterogeneous and in general somewhat too unconvinced about Fascism´s benefits (if not more or less critically inclined). Like many other dictators, Mussolini liked monumental expressions; huge marble palaces, big gestures, sumptuous homages to a virile, vigorous regime. He disapproved of "exaggerated" experimentation, the pursuit of originality and refined aesthetics that required a certain measure of acquired taste. Nevertheless, Mussolini was remarkably tolerant when it came to artistic freedom and deviations from his own aesthetic predilections. Unlike Adolf Hitler, who considered himself to be a foremost art connoisseur and wanted to force everyone to agree with him when it came to aesthetics.

When Mussolini and Hitler together visited the Uffizi Galleries, the German dictator was quite shocked by Mussolini's lack of interest and when he displayed the same disinterest during their visit to Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, Hitler became openly annoyed: "When he had looked at three pictures he could not bear anymore. Consequently I saw nothing of them myself."

Mussolini could not understand why Italians became upset when he freely gave away treasured works of art, essential portions of Italian cultural heritage, to Göring and Hitler. The latter was for example immediately bestowed with Myron's famous Discobolus, after he had expressed his admiration for it.

Mussolin's fascist regime largely confined itself to favour art through state-sponsored exhibitions and contributions to private galleries, but unlike the dictatorships that at the same time held Germany and the Soviet Union in a paralyzing iron grip, the art of Mussolini´s Italy was not censored, despite the fact that several influential Fascists, like the fanatic Roberto Farinacci, would have preferred to force all artistic expressions to praise and abide to   Fascist ideas.

Fascist art policies largely followed a direction Mussolini presented in his speech at the opening of the first Novecento exhibition in 1923:

It is far from my idea to encourage anything like a state art. Art belongs to the domain of the individual. The state has only one duty: not to undermine art, to provide humane conditions for artists, to encourage them from the artistic and national point of view.

The exhibition was part of a massive propaganda effort leading up to Fascist victory in the 1924 year's general elections. By the end of October 1922, Mussolini had by the hard-pressed and mentally unstable king Viktor Emanuel been appointed as prime minister of a coalition government that Mussolini managed to manipulate towards the decisive elections. A consequence of Mussolini's great triumph was that he let his lover Sarfatti, who had lost his husband the same year, to pen a well-written biography about him. It was first published in England under the title of The Life of Benito Mussolini and was the following year issued in Italy as Dux and subsequently translated into eighteen languages.

Although he generally left the field open for artistic expressions, Mussolini did nevertheless encourage and officially sanctioned a personality cult under the slogan "Il Duce is always right!" This pathetic worship of a common mortal, gradually transformed Mussolini into a thing. A rigid fetish, a superhuman marble statue elevated above all human inadequacy. An abomination that littered every corner of Italy and seemed to fossilize Mussolini himself. He appeared to have lost his ability to divorce himself from the dreamt-up image he had created, on all sides being surrounded by syncopates and artistic tributes. The Mussolini cult quite often found its expressions in schmaltz and kitsch, though could occasionally be quite impressive, for example this conspicuous decoration of the Roman Fascist headquarters (nowadays Rome's city museum).

Mussolini's considerable international popularity, no less than Winston Churchill declared that "If I were an Italian I would don the Fascist Black Shirt", soon turned into general disdain. Especially after the Italian army's unscrupulous attack on Ethiopia, during which 500 tons of mustard gas was released on both military and civilian targets, not the least on Red Cross hospitals and ambulances. After Addis Abeba's fall in 1936 Italian troops carved out Mussolini's features on a rock close Adua.

The German artist John Heartfield (Herzfeld), who lived in exile in England, immediately divulged a picture commenting on this grotesque monument. Heartfield's picture clearly demonstrates how the power-drunk Mussolini had lost all concepts of decency and compassion.

Sarfatti came to suffer from Mussolini's changed persona. He became gradually annoyed by connections made between him and the vigorous, intellectual lady. In 1932, he dismissed Sarfatti from Popolo d'Italia and she went to La Stampa instead. As a Jewess Margherita Sarfatti was well aware of Hitler's anti-Semitism. Accordingly, when Hitler came to visit Mussolini in 1934, Sarfatti became very upset and when she openly criticized Mussolini for his Abyssinian war, initiated in 1935, he lost all patience with her. Until the mid-thirties, Sarfatti had visited Mussolini several times a week at his Roman headquarters by Piazza Venezia, though in 1936 their relationship came to a complete break and she was definitely shut out from Palazzo Venezia. Clara Petacci, who was almost as interested in the arts as Sarfatti, took over the role as Mussolini´s practically official mistress.

Mussolini's mounting indifference to Sarfatti may partly be due to the fact that she over time became quite sturdy and thus not entirely different from Mussolini's dominant wife Rachele. Despite a large amount of photographs and portraits of Sarfatti, it is difficult to obtain a clear perception of her appearance. Even the photographs seem to represent different women.

We may glimpse her and her daughter Fiametta on one of the frescoes in the Roman Grand Hotel Palace's elegant dining room. These were in 1927 completed by the Venetian artist Guido Cadorin, who had been recommended by Sarfatti. She had high expectations of the Frescoes, which depicted the créme de la créme of the current Roman High Society.

"He will make me and Fiametta immortal," explained Sarfatti, and she was certainly disappointed with the result. The frescoes are not bad at all, but it is not easy to spot Margherita Sarfatti and her daughter in the midst of the fashionably dressed people moving around in the halls of Hotel Ambasciatori, as it was called at the time when Cadorin painted his frescoes. The Sarfattis, with rather strained smiles, may be glimpsed in the background of one of the smaller, now fairly unknown frescoes.

Sarfatti´s fame also waned, but in recent years she has been reappraised and increasingly appreciated as instrumental for the survival and originality of Italian art during the time of dictatorship. Several big expositions, for example a current comprehensive one in Milan, have been dedicated to her contributions and the artists she promoted. Several biographies have been written about her. Already in 1999, Susan Sarandon played Sarfatti in Tim Robbin´s movie Cradle will Rock, where she in one of the scenes is confronted with Ruben Blades´s Diego Rivera.

Rivera: You´re quite a piece of work. A Jewish fascist!
Sarfatti: And you, a wealthy communist!
Rivera: When did you stop supporting art?
Sarfatti: I support your art but that does not mean that I must support your revolution.
Rivera: It´s the same thing.

Mussolini ultimately gave in to Germany's persistent demands and imposed the disgraceful "race laws", which deprived Jews of their civil rights and exposed them to the same awful treatment as they suffered in Nazi Germany. At the last moment, Sarfatti succeeded in escaping to Montevideo, well aware that the man whom she had supported with her love and wealth would be capable of delivering her to a secure death in the hands of the Nazis. In Montevideo, Sarfatti engaged in supporting the arts and as a journalist she attacked Mussolini, Hitler and their increasingly murderous regimes. She returned to Italy in 1947 and resumed her contacts with the artists who enthusiastically welcomed her back.

Sarfatti had been the a unifying force behind the Novecento artists, and when she was forced to leave the country the group collapsed and was formally dissolved  in 1943.

Cagnaccio di San Pietro had died the year before Sarfatti returned to Italy. During her time as Novecento's mentor, she had in vain attempted to persuade Cagnaccio to join the group. However, despite his isolation, increasing poverty, aggravated by an extremely painful disease that slowly consumed him, Cagnaccio refused to become a member of Novecento and made no secret of his disgust for fascism. Cagnaccio was in fact known to be in constant opposition to whatever he considered to be falsehood and compliancy. His actual name was Natalino Bentivoglio Scarpa and Cagnaccio di San Pietro, what he wanted to be called and how he signed his paintings, actually means the Mongrel from San Pietro.

He spent most of the time in the village of San Pietro and painted its fishermen, craftsmen and pious old ladies. Like several northern Italian artists he was influenced by the German New Objectivity movement, Neue Sachlichkeit, though not its left-leaning, radical  and harsh social criticism, or the inventive expressiveness of for example Max Beckman. Caganaccio were closer to Kanoldt´s, Schrimp´s and Schad's intimate and more politically neutral style. In addition, these artists had often stayed for longer periods in Italy and had had a great influence on Novecento's artists.

Cagnaccio was a skilled craftsman and distinguished himself from the German artists by his often perfectionist chilliness. Several of his paintings are almost creepy in their crystal clarity and nearly otherworldly perfection.

Cagnaccio was a stranger in his time, far from being a party-associated social critic. Just as he refused to belong to any artist group, he would not like to be associated with neither Communists nor Fascists. The latter he avoided like the plague. When Sarfatti and others demanded that at least for his own good and out of self-preservation he ought to obtain a membership card from the Fascist Party, Cagnaccio claimed that he was far too unbalanced to be able to make such a life-changing decision.

When Cagnaccio was persecuted by fascist Squadristi, i.e. the fanatic black shirt section of the Fascists, who were accusing him of airing subversive opinions, he obtained admission at San Severo, Venice's mental hospital. There he was able to obtain a certificate stating that he was mentally unstable. However, this did not prevent Cagnaccio from risking his life by hiding well-known anti-fascist partisans in his home at Calle Zucchero, not far from the Academia di Belle Arti in Venice.

Several of Cagnaccio's works depict the suffering of poor people. No one smiles or laughs in his paintings. Despite his apparent sympathy for those who struggled and suffered, Cagnaccio's manner of depicting them is so detached and cool that it bestows an almost abstract impression. For example – contemplate his picture of two barge haulers, who during a clear summer´s day are toiling hard in a clinically clean environment.

Then compare Cagnaccio's representation of these haulers with Telemaco Signorini's anonymous group of similar drudgers, painted sixty years earlier. Signorini's protagonists are contrasted to a little girl and her valet. None of them are individualized, though the social message is clear-cut – proletarians are born into a life of constant toil, while the little girl is expected to relish a future characterized by privileged convenience.

Ilya Repin's famous barge haulers are twelve individuals, close to breaking down of fatigue, hard labour and heat while they laboriously push themselves forward in chafing harnesses, with one exception - a young man who stretches his back to correct his leather strap. Repin's haulers were real people painted from life, including three men of whom one had been a soldier, another a painter while a third had once been a priest, he is the leader of the work team. The two men struggling next to the defrocked priest seem to have been brutalized by poverty and hard labour. The haulers are all dressed in rags.

Thirty-two years old, Cagnaccio was in 1929 smitten by cancer. The ailment plagued him horribly, at times the pain seemed to abate, only to return with even more strength. He underwent several operations and his life became a painful Calvary, especially after the cancer had developed into malignant neoplasia. Cagnaccio found comfort and relief in religion and painted until his last moments in life. Through a sensitive treatment of colour and light, his intimate, religious images of heartfelt piety are saved from the banality so often affecting such imagery, with their guardian angels and praying children. Cagnaccio's emotionally charged depiction of a praying girl does for example skilfully combine various shades of grey and white.

Cagnaccio's late still lives are imbued with an atmosphere of magical realism, enhanced by his earnest piety. As the image below, with its thorny twig, bread, wine, white cloth and a bowl of water with a floating, burning candle, it reminds us of Christ's presence in the Holy Communion.

Like in several of his other paintings Cagnaccio is referring to classical paragons, like the bodegóns of the French 16th century artist Lubin Baguin, which often allude to the Lord´s Supper.

A remarkable coincidence brought together the rebellious Cagnaccio's work with Adolf Hitler. On the fourteenth of June 1934, Hitler and Mussolini met for the first time. The atmosphere was tense. A month earlier, Austria's dictator Engelbert Dollfuss had changed the constitution in accordance with an Italian model. Dollfuss had established his dictatorship with Mussolini's support, while the Italian dictator had promised to support Austria in its pursuit to maintain its independence vis-á-vis the threatening Nazi Germany.

Hitler felt awkward when his plane had landed at Padua's airfield and he was received by Mussolini, elegantly equipped in a dress uniform making Hitler's brown gabardine coat and crumpled fedora look pathetic. Mussolini conducted himself with imperial self-assurance and when the formal reception was followed by private deliberations, Hitler felt even more intimidated by the fact that Mussolini spoke German while he did not understand a single word of Italian. Finally Hitler's demeanour evaporated and he burst into one of his infamous, uncontrolled harangues, which finished with him shouting at the top of his voice: " It is my will, and the indomitable will of the German people, that Austria becomes an integral part of the Reich!"

The next day, Mussolini brought his guest to Venice and his patience was put to a severe test by Hitler's rampant ranting. Completely ignorant of his surroundings, Hitler endlessly droned on about his, in Mussolini's opinion (at least at the time) senseless theories about race and German superiority, interleaving his chatter with long-winding quotes from his Mein Kampf, which according to Mussolini was "a boring book which I never have been able to read." The gloomy tension abated somewhat when Mussolini brought the art-loving Hitler to the Biennale, where the German dictator became impressed by Cagnaccio's, in my opinion worst painting, Il Randagio, the Tramp. A depiction of a begging, blue-eyed youth, embarrassingly close to the trashy art you may find in market places and tourist traps, which for some incomprehensible reason often has a penchant for portraying poor people and miserable children. Hitler asked Mussolini if he could not buy the artwork. A confused Mussolini turned to his entourage wondering who the artist was. Hitler listened to the incomprehensible Italian palaver until Mussolini turned to him with an off-putting message:

- It is impossible. It is a work by an artist who is indebted head over heels. The painting is mortgaged and cannot be sold unless the artist has paid off his debts, if he cannot do it the painting can only be sold at a public sale.

The already annoyed Hitler lost his temper:

 - That's incredible! Something like that would never occur in Germany! I want to buy the artwork immediately! Name a price!

Mussolini muttered:

- I'll fix it. The painting will be gift from me to you.

Already the next day, Mussolini had paid off Cagnaccio's debts, the mortgage was lifted and Cagnaccio´s painting was brought to Hitler's hotel. Perhaps this gift contributed to warm up the political cold, though the aftertaste of the meeting continued to be bitter. When Mussolini later was asked about his impressions of the German dictator, he responded:

 - A mad little clown. He´s just a garrulous monk.

One and a half months after the dictators' meeting in Venice, Dollfuss was deadly wounded during a Nazi coup attempt, while his wife and daughter were visiting Mussolini. The Italian dictator became furious, calling Hitler a

horrible sexually degenerate creature, a dangerous fool, Leader of a National Socialism, which is a travestied and brutalized imitation of Fascism and a  barbarous and savage system, capable only of slaughter, plunder, and blackmail!

Just over four years later, Austria had been annexed by Germany and soon Mussolini had completely ended up in the hands of the “little clown”, especially after an official visit to Germany in 1937 having been shamelessly adulated by Hitler and Göring and blinded by German efficiency, well-organized military parades, sumptuous banquets and ecstatic crowds.

Hitler assumed he was endowed with an artist's soul and a conviction that art was his true calling. He soon realized that it would be impossible for him to reconcile his artistic ambitions with an unscrupulous pursuit of power. Perhaps his dual ambitions had the same origin? Since his early years, Hitler had been a dreamer and loner. He wanted to become an artist and a composer, but was constrained by his inabilities and deficient technique, or rather lack of patience to acquire one. He immersed himself in books, art and music, trying to convince himself and the few who had patience to listen to him about all the wonders he was going to achieve within the field of aesthetics. Shortly before he died in his Berlin bunker, Hitler summed up his life by stating that he had sacrificed himself for an ungrateful Germany, attempted and to certain degree succeeded to free the world from the Jews, though he had not been able to realize his artist dreams.

Hitler had for a time tried to learn to play the piano, but gave up. He started writing an opera, but had no patience to learn to read notes and gave up. To the astonishment and delight of his admirers, he was able to whistle classical pieces, and during nightly gatherings at his huge mansion, Berghof, he lectured a devotedly listening audience about music and played the gramophone for them. Furthermore, in his youth Hitler produced lots of watercolours. If he slavishly copied a model, a photograph or lithograph, he could be quite successful:

However if he painted directly in front of his motives:

or, worse yet, free from his imagination:

the results were quite awkward. He sometimes tried out portrayal, like his rendering of a girl he met as a soldier in France, though the result was not particularily satisfactory:

His favourite pastime was to browse through art books and to loose himself in grandiose dreams about amazing architectural feats. He made a vast amount of sketches of buildings that would be erected in a reconstructed Berlin, and in the town of his childhood and early youth, Linz, which he wanted to turn into a European cultural centre. During long sessions, he presented and discussed his sketches with his favourite architects, Hermann Giesler and Albert Speer, who created extensive, detailed models of Hitler's dream cities. He often visited Speer's model of the future Germania, which would be Berlin's new name, kept in a hall under The Reich Chancellery.

During his last days in the bunker, Hitler made daily visits to a room where Giesler's model for a future Linz was kept.

For half a year, Hitler did in Vienna share a room with August Kubizek. They had met during a performance of a Wagner opera (Rienzi) in Linz and Kubizek had since then been accepted by Vienna´s prestigious music conservatory, The Imperial Academy of Music and the Performing Arts. Kubizek was fascinated by his passionate, albeit often nerve-wracking, roommate.

Adolf recognized my musical talent without the least envy, and rejoiced or suffered with me in my successes or setbacks as if they were applicable to himself. […] He was at odds with the world. Wherever he looked, he saw injustice, hate and enmity. Nothing was free from his criticism, nothing found favour in his eyes. Only music was able to cheer him up a little.

While Kubizek pursued his composition studies, Hitler pretended to study architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts (he had applied for admittance but failed).

All this time he was ceaselessly busy. I had no idea what a student at the Academy of Arts was supposed to do – in any case, the subjects must be exceedingly varied. One day he would be sitting for hours over books, then again he would sit writing till the small hours, or another day would see the piano, the table, his bed and mine, and even the floor, completely covered with designs. He would stand, staring down tensely at his work, move stealthily on tiptoe amongst the drawings, improve something there, muttering to himself all the time and underlining his rapid words with violent gestures. Woe betide me if I disturbed him on these occasions. I had great respect for this difficult ad detailed work, and said I liked what I saw of it.

Hitler apparently had to accept that he could not keep up appearances anymore and the impossibility to cling to the lie about his architectural studies. He left his roommate and slipped into a marginal existence; slept in men´s dormitories and homeless shelters, while trying to get through by selling self-produced postcards, occasionally finding temporary work as a helper to brick-layers and house painters. To avoid being drafted, Hitler moved to Munich in 1913, but there he changed his mind, possibly forced to do so by his abject poverty, and did in 1914 join the German army as a volunteer.

How was the taste of the art-loving Hitler? He was deeply moved by Cagnaccio's somewhat kitschy rendition of a young tramp, though it was far from being the only work of art he was bequeathed by Mussolini, who shamelessly retrieved his gifts of art from Italian museums and private collections. After his grand reception in Germany in 1937, Mussolini did half a year later, in May 1938, honour Hitler with an even more triumphant Italian welcome. The two dictators were now best of friends. Hitler had during many years admired Mussolini, as much as a narcissist can admire another, while Mussolini during his German visit had realized how strong Germany and its military force really was, in particularily if compared with the actual state of affairs in Italy. Accordingly, his contempt for Hitler changed into a reluctant appreciation.

For six days, Hitler visited Rome, Naples and Florence and Mussolini could not avoid noticing the great artistic interest of the German dictator, willingly giving in to Hitler´s constantly being on his back about his appetite for art. The German dictator thus managed to obtain one piece after another of the valuable Italian cultural heritage. On several occasions, Hitler mentioned his great admiration of a somewhat exaggeratedly overloaded triptych by the Austrian artist Hans Makart, depicting the plague in Florence. Unfortunately, the artwork was owned by the wealthy Jewish Landau family, who kept it in their Florentine villa. When a furious Hitler 1940 visited Florence to scold Mussolini for his recent attack on Greece, something Hitler had strongly advised against. Mussolini attempted to appease his German visitor by giving him Makart´s Plague in Florence. Backed by his abominable racial laws Mussolini had simply ordered the expropriation of Landau's villa and its art treasures. When Hitler left Florence, he was pleased to witness how Makart's triptych was loaded into a boxcar to accompany him back to Germany.

The contrast is great between Cagnaccio's Tramp and Makart's Florentine plague. However, Hitler's taste was quite split, something that became evident in his Alpine palace, Berghof, outside Berchtesgaden, where megalomanically spacious salons share space with kitschy, cosy and rather bizarre chambers.

Above one of the fireplaces in the stately salons we find Adolf Ziegler's "neoclassical" painting The Four Elements, a group of clinically cool and naked ladies.

However, in Hitler's more comfy, private living quarters we also find naked women on the walls, though here they come in the shape of Sepp Hilz´s folkloristic peasant girls.

So within Adolf's aesthetic universe Cagnaccio's Tramp could get on well with Makart´s sumptuous beauties. A similar mix could be found in the home of Göring, this Gargantuan criminal and art collector who in the opulent halls and salons of his Karinhall exhibited an exquisite collection of European masterpieces, expropriated, stolen or bought by himself or his minions.

Last Christmas a friend gave me a French book that in black and white photographs reproduced no less than 1 137 paintings from a catalogue compiled at Göring´s Karinhall. A genuinely high-quality selection of European art. Most common among the paintings were nudes by Lucas Cranach and Francois Boucher, though there was also a wealth of exquisite early Flemish masters and lots of works from the Dutch Golden Age, not the least Rembrandts and Vermeers.

There were masterpieces from almost every European art epoch, though a threshold could be discerned roughly around the mid-eighteenth century, what followed after that time were mostly hunting scenes and “modern” kitsch, the latter quite akin to the ones Hitler used to decorate his private quarters. Such nooks were also present in Göring´s Karinhall; quite tiny, but overloaded Biedermeier hideouts.  

Already in 1943, Göring felt that a German defeat would be possible and sent three long train sets filled with his most valuable art for storage in a salt mine, Altausse in Austria. When the Red Army approached Karinhall, Göring on the 20th April 1945 send additional train loads to underground tunnels outside Berchtesgaden, where Hitler already had stored lots of stolen, given and purchased art. Everything could not be loaded into the freight wagons, and because nothing would end up in Russian hands, Göring ordered Karinhall to be blown up. Much of Göring's mighty art collection has been saved, but a lot of invaluable artworks from both his and Hitler's vast collections have nevertheless been lost.

In his youth, Hitler dreamed up a large art museum. In some of his imagined halls he collected works by his favourite artists, others he reserved exclusively to his absolute darlings - Arnold Böcklin:

Hans Makart:

Anselm Feuerbach:

Moritz von Schwind;

Franz von Stuck:

All recognized German masters from the 19th century. Somewhat odd was maybe that even Eduard von Grützner received a room of his own, within this dreamed-up art palace. Grützner´s specialty was depictions of fat, jovial monks drinking either beer or wine. It was probably through his appreciation of Grützner´s art that the abstemious vegetarian Adolf Hitler's revealed his fundamentally petty bourgeoisie taste.

Even the more modern Hans von Marées was provided with a room within Hitler's imaginary museum, something that may seem a bit strange since that artist later was stamped as a degenerate artist.

It was probably von Marée's earlier war depictions that had attracted Hitler.

Warfare was constituted a significant part of Hitler´s private art collections, some of it stolen, though much of it had been purchased by using the considerable revenues he received through sales of his Mein Kampf. This political autobiography was close to being compulsory reading for most Germans and profits amounted to several million Reich marks. Not all of these war paintings were as heroic as Conrad Hummel's depictions of super soldiers, some were strangely enough depicting defeat and worn-out soldiers, like Franz Eichhorst's Stalingrad paintings. Did Hitler in fact, more or less consciously, admit to himself that the days of his imagined millennial kingdom were counted?

Beside depictions of war, Hitler estimated heroic renderings of the numinous attraction of Nazism by artists like Paul Herrman and Arthur Kamp.

Or a kitschy blend of symbolism and realism as in Friedrich Kalb's huge canvases, greatly admired by Hitler.

However, more than by any other art Hitler appears to have been attracted by landscape painting and then in the form of rather bland depictions by artists like Aenim Reumann, Oscar Oestreicher and Hermann Gradl.

and/or representations of folkloristic and harmonious agricultural families conveyed through Sepp Hilz´s and Adolf Wissel's realistic paintings.

Adolf Wissel strangely enough found his roots within Die Neue Sachlichkeit, which artists were generally abused or neglected by the Nazis. Their works were stamped as entartete, degenerate, several of their paintings were burned publicly, while many of their creators were being dismissed from schools and academies and prohibited to exhibit their work. In most cases, it was likely that men like Hitler and Göring disapproved of their art because the political opinions of most adherents to the New Objectivity were radical, if not outright Socialist or Communist. If artists such as Wissel, or Burrmann, the latter known for his terribly ugly peasant hags, did join the Nazi party and changed their most extreme approaches to their motifs, they could often be rewarded almost immediately with fine jobs and income-generating tasks.

One example was Werner Peiner, who, despite continuing his style of painting in the often cold, impersonal style of the Neue Sachlichkeit, became Göring´s favourite artist. He bought a lot of Peiner´s artwork, equipped him with a personal art school and remained an unwavering supporter, even after Peiner made an extended visit to east Africa and returned filled with inspiration, producing not only a vast amount of hunting motifs, highly appreciated by Göring, but also naked African ladies, who were not supposed to appeal to high-ranking coryphées paying exclusive homage to Aryan beauties, but were nonetheless bought by Göring.

Over time, Hitler had been seized by the same collecting frenzy as Göring. His goal was to realize his dream of an incomparable art palace in Linz. The magnificent Ghent Altarpiece by the van Eyck brothers was expropriated and sent to the salt mines outside Berchtesgaden in anticipation of taking its place in the Linz Führermuseum.

The same fate befell Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges.

Thankfully, these immortal masterpieces were after the war found in the salt mines, though many Flemish and Italian Renaissance masterpieces disappeared forever. Vanish did also lots of modern art. Hitler´s insanity did not only manifest itself through the persecution and extermination of those who did not belong to the “Aryan Master Race”, like Jews, Russian prisoners of war, Slavs, Romani People, as well as those suffering from mental shortcomings, “Lebensunwertes Leben, life unworthy of life”, gay men, and Freemasons, Hitler also wanted to wipe out all expressions of an art that did not fit into his distorted aesthetics. The paint splattering hack Adolf Hitler became not only the Third Reich's chief champion when it came to art criticism, but also its almighty judge deciding what kind art that was going to be allowed to exist.

The Germans lost the war and Hitler's aggressive war tactics had not mitigated that outcome. Certainly, Italian Fascism created a brutal and murderous regime, but under the uninterested Mussolini Italian art flourished and evolved (even the abstract and expressive art that Hitler loathed), while German art stagnated, its vitality broken under the rule of the "art-loving" Hitler.

Adolf Hitler dreamed that he would astonish the world through his artistic and musical skills, though that proved to be impossible. However, he managed to drive Germany and Europe into the abyss, an apocalyptic hell of unprecedented dimensions. While he sat in his bunker slurping soup, complaining about everything and everyone, stumbling in to have a look at his models of utopian cities and lamenting his stalled artist ambitions, Hitler had nevertheless acquired himself a name of eternal fame. However, not as a great artist but as an archetype of incarnate evil and ruthless narcissism. If an artist is a creator, Hitler certainly was certainly one - a creator of hell on earth.

Accatino, Alfredo (2017) Outsiders: Storie di artisti che non troverete nei manuali di storia dell´arte. Firenze/Milano: Giunti Editore. Bignami, Silvia and Paolo Rusconi (2012) “Le arti e il fascismo: Italia anni Trenta”, Artedossier no. 291. Cannistraro, Philip och Brian R. Sullivan (1993) Il Duce´s Other Woman: The Untold Story of Margherita Sarfatti, Mussolini´s Jewish Mistress. New York: Morrow. Dreyfus, Jean-Marc (2015) Le Catalogue Goering. Paris: Flammarion. Hibbert, Christopher (1975) Benito Mussolini: The Rise and Fall of Il Duce. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. Kalder, Daniel (2018) The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy. New York: Henry Holt. Kubizek, August (2011) The Young Hitler I Knew: The Definite Inside Look at the Artist Who Became a Monster. New York: Arcade Publishing. Löhr, Hanns Christian (2016) Das Braune Haus der Kunst: Hitler und der Sonderauftrag Linz. Berlin: Mann. Michalski, Sergiusz (2003) New Objectivity, Neue Sachlihkeit: Painting in Germany in the 1920s. Köln; Taschen. Ross, Alex (2018) “The Hitler Vortex: How American racism influenced Nazi thought,” in The New Yorker, April 30.  Schwarz, Birgit (2011) Geniewahn: Hitler und die Kunst. Wien: Böhlau Verlag. Valkeiner, Elizabeth Kridl (1990) Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art. New York: Columbia University Press.



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