Review of “The gallery of miracles and madness”: the triumph of illness
Whenever I read Hitler’s childhood dream of becoming an artist, I imagine an alternate story in which the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts accepted his application to study there. But the august academy said no to the future Fuhrer not once but twice, and Hitler himself said that the academy’s rebuff struck like “a thunderclap”.
Yet, as journalist Charlie English shows in his penetrating column “The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Madness, Modernism and Hitler’s War on Art” (Random house, 304 pages, $ 28), even such a shattering blow to the ego that it did not deter Hitler from his artistic ambitions. Instead, they got bigger and bigger. By coming to power, he shaped himself as the “artist-Führer”, destined to sculpt a new German culture and a “pure” Aryan race. And the manic path Hitler forged to realize that vision, argues Mr. English, began with his war on modern art and the degeneration he condemned in modern culture.
Mr. English traces this trajectory in fascinating and exhausting detail. Hitler’s outrage against modern art was first fueled by the increasingly abstract, distorted, and angst-filled works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the years leading up to WWI, and particularly in its devastating aftermath in Germany, the exaggerated colors, expressive brushstrokes and bloody subjects served to reflect the choppy aesthetic of the time, societal uncertainties. and economic and political crises. These dynamic canvases contrasted starkly with the emotionless “pleasant little pictures” that a friend recalled having painted by Hitler when he was applying to the academy.
By 1919, Hitler may not have fully formulated his twisted ideology of confusing the degeneration of art with the eugenic-based pseudo-science of racial degeneration. But the research of the German psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn, who in that year began to study the art produced by the mentally ill, would over the following decades fuel Nazi propaganda and his own incendiary hatred and prejudice. ‘Hitler.
From his post at the University of Heidelberg Psychiatric Hospital, Prinzhorn was amazed at the variety and quality of art produced by the patients he supervised there. So much so that he has collected around 5,000 examples in psychiatric establishments in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and elsewhere. In these works he discovered unfettered inventions using not only sketchbooks and ink, or canvases and paint, but “pieces of newspaper, cloth, old bags of sugar, toilet paper and the contents of wastepaper baskets, ”writes Mr. English. “The sculptures were cast from chewed bread or carved from pieces of old wooden furniture.”