Starving Artist Gone Mad
Interpersonal relationships impact our impressions and expressions.
I came across this fascinating painting of Mary and Jesus recently. “Mother Mary with the Holy Child Jesus Christ” (oil on canvas, 1913) was unlike any other painting I have seen on the subject. The artist’s vibrant colors and the scenery was impressive as well. Mary is often dressed in royal or pale blue with white. This particular interpretation piqued my interest and desire to know more about the artist. In my search for the artist, I found one of his quotes:
“No more than a famous master can be replaced and another take over the completion of the half-finished painting he has left behind can the great poet and thinker, the great statesman and the great soldier, be replaced. For their activity always lies in the province of art. It is not mechanically trained but inborn by God’s grace.”
It may shock you to know that the artist is none other than the German Nazi Party Leader, Adolf Hitler. In his lifetime, Hitler painted over 2,000 works of art. From a young age, he had a passion for art and even sang in the chorus at the Catholic church. He was physically abused by a strict, absent father who disapproved of his aspiration to be an artist. Hitler’s father expected him to follow his career path and become a customs bureau executive. His dream of becoming a professional artist was shattered when he was rejected twice by the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Although he passed the entrance exam, the admissions committee refused him, stating that his drawing skills were “unsatisfactory.”
The fourth of six children of Alois Hitler and Klara Pölzl, Adolf, was born near the German Empire border in Austria-Hungary. He suffered significant loss and trauma throughout his childhood, which impacted his life through adulthood. Three of his siblings died in infancy.
The tragic death of his mother, rejection from the military, being declared “unsuitable for combat and support duty, too weak, incapable of firing weapons,” and poverty eventually drove him into a state of confusion and desperation. He eventually became homeless and began copying art on postcards, selling them on the streets.
Hitler was starving for love and acceptance. He was a rejected child living in an adult body that found a family in a very destructive place. After his exposure to anti-Semitic ideologies, Hitler embraced these beliefs and went down the path of politics. His initiation of World War 2 in Europe began with Poland’s invasion, which he led in 1939. Throughout the war, Hitler was intimately involved with the operations of the military, which positioned him to perpetrate the Holocaust, killing an estimated 6 million Jews and others he presumed "undesirable." Rejection ultimately is no excuse for evil, despicable behavior.
Immediately after rising to power, he set out to rid Germany of its arts culture. Museum curators lost their jobs, being replaced by Nazi Party members. Musicians and artists were fired from teaching positions and book burnings organized. Modern art was abhorrent to Hitler. The Party followed suit by looting and destroying thousands of artworks by renowned artists. To “cleanse” the culture, he established the Reich Culture Chamber (Reichskulturkammer) – an organization of German artists, to dictate and monopolize the arts culture praising what he deemed to be beautiful and defaming art that he viewed as harmful and unhealthy to German culture. It was the Führer’s mission to eradicate modern art from society. It seems difficult to imagine how someone so given to the destruction of art could have ever been an aspiring artist himself.
The Degenerate Art Exhibition (Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst”) was a thrown together show comprised of 650 works of art seized from German museums, to defame and condemn the unacceptable “degenerate” art and artists. “Anyone who sees and paints a sky green and fields blue ought to be sterilized,” said Hitler.
The Party hired actors to criticize and ridicule the art in order for the public to react negatively. The exhibit was intentionally staged simultaneously with Hitler’s sanctioned Great German Art Exhibition. Artists were ostracized, and their careers destroyed, some committing suicide. An estimated 2 million people attended the Degenerate exhibition. However, a significant fraction of that number attended Hitler’s Great German Art exhibition. The arts were a painful reminder of a dream unfulfilled and became a ruse to obliterate culture. During his reign, he had most of his art destroyed, with only a few hundred surviving. The hopeful artist became the eradicator of his own art.
Pondering a different narrative
Suppose instead of the beatings, instead of forcing Adolf to attend to a secondary school – that Alois showed interest in Adolf, and even stood up for his son when the Vienna School rejected him? “The rejection struck me as a bolt from the blue,” he wrote in his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf. Imagine Hitler’s heartbreak when his roommate was accepted into a conservatory to study music or the grief he experienced when his mother, the only support he had, died of cancer. What if his father embraced his dream? Would Hitler have followed such a destructive path?
Interpersonal relationships impact our impressions and expressions.
John Steinbeck in East of Eden wrote, “The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world, to a large or small extent, has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger, some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt—and there is the story of mankind. I think that if rejection could be amputated, the human would not be what he is.”
As an aspiring artist from a very young age, I too experienced abuse and rejection from an absent father, which sent me into a downward spiral. Despite the pain, I persevered. Being raised by a single parent, one of six children, I was not without struggles. It took years to understand the depth of God’s love for me, and I am still learning. The dysfunctions I experienced equipped me to follow the call of ministry to artists whose stories are not unlike that of Hitler’s or mine, helping them embrace a Christ identity at the core of their creativity.
Jesus’s rejection and his willingness to embrace ours is an unfathomable comfort. The Living Bread feeds our starved souls and nourishes us with grace. His love is boundless and endless – more than we could comprehend, and more than we deserve.
“May you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should,
how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.
May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully.
Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power
that comes from God.”
Copyright 2020, William S. Barnett
Mother Mary with the Holy Christ Child: Public Domain