Hitler’s aesthetic roots unearthed in WCMA exhibition

“Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics and Hitler’s Early Years in Vienna 1906-1913,” an exhibition currently on view at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), investigates the formative influence of fin-de-siècle Vienna on Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Deborah Rothschild, curator of exhibitions at WCMA, produced the exhibition as part of this summer’s “Vienna Project” in the Berkshires. The exhibit takes the unusual but persuasive stance of analyzing Nazism as an aesthetic movement, and therefore it investigates its roots in the culture and arts of late-19th and early-20th century Vienna, where Hitler spent several years as a young man.

The exhibit shows a young Hitler who dreamt of becoming an artist, a man who spent his days marveling at the ostentatious architecture of the Viennese Ringstrasse and his nights enthralled by the grandiose operas of Wagner. Although Vienna at that time was the site of some of the most advanced artistic production in the Western world, especially in music and painting, it also had strong cultural ties to the pomp and circumstance of 19th century imperial culture and the medieval fantasies of Wagner. Hitler, despite his love of music and art, was not drawn to the avant-garde, but rather to more conservative and easily digested aesthetic movements, where he found a ready outlet for his adolescent imagination.

Hitler thus became fascinated with a culture that promoted a kind of thrilling and grandiose artistic pulp. The exhibit does an excellent job of documenting this aesthetic sensibility and connecting it to examples of Hitler’s own political and artistic endeavors.

The Austrian emperor Franz Josef and Karl Lueger, the mayor of Vienna during much of Hitler’s stay in the capitol city, were both masters of public spectacle, and Hitler seems to have taken careful notes. The photos of Josef’s massive Festzug parades and Hitler’s own productions in the 1930s show exactly how closely Hitler followed Josef’s formula, just as he followed Lueger’s example of monumental building projects and powerful, grandiose oratory.

The section on Wagner shows how Hitler came by the aesthetic sensibility that defined the Nazi movement. It is perhaps unfair to Wagner, and certainly to Gustav Mahler and Alfred Roller, the conductor and set designer for the Vienna Court Opera, to associate them too intimately with Hitler’s vision, but the exhibit argues that Hitler latched onto certain elements of operas such as “Tristan and Isolde,” using these elements as inspiration for his own productions. Events such as the Nuremberg Rally, Nazi military parades and even elements of Nazi uniforms and unit standards all owe something of their monumental scale and awe-inspiring regimentation and dehumanization to these Wagner productions. Beyond the visual influence, the exhibit also credits Wagner with having an ideological influence on Hitler, promoting an ideal of Nordic racial superiority and myths of powerful Teutonic heroes.

Although he is best known for his fascination with public spectacle, the exhibit also investigates Hitler’s interest in more mundane art. There are several paintings on display by the academic genre artists that Hitler admired, including Eduard von Grutzner’s carefully crafted paintings of drunken monks and Rudolf von Alt’s precise paintings of Viennese buildings. Hitler rejected the Viennese avant-garde of Klimt and the expressionists as degenerate and offensive, and instead embraced an insipid and tame artistic sensibility that was then reflected in his own attempts at artwork.

In fact, Hitler initially came to Vienna hoping to become a painter and twice tried to enroll in the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts. Although he was rejected both times, he continued to do some paintings, mostly postcards and landscapes, while in Vienna. The exhibit has two original paintings by him and a number of reproductions of his sketches and postcards. They reveal a decent technical ability and little imagination – he seems to have copied many of his pictures from other postcards. There is, however, a certain thrill to standing a few inches from a painting done by the great monster of the 20th century, not only because his hand personally created it, but also because it is so very unimpressive and mundane.

Indeed, the most interesting part of this exhibit may be the way it reduces Hitler to human scale. He becomes less a creature of transcendent evil and more a pathetic and uninspired man who never really outgrew his adolescent fantasies of power and order. His artistic tastes are those of an ignorant and fundamentally frightened man who could not deal with the chaos, anxiety and alienation that came along with modernity. Rather than face these issues head on, as the “degenerate” artists in the show such as Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka did, he retreated into crude adolescent fantasies and comfortably conformist genre painting, and he created a nation based on these aesthetic ideas.

In the far corner of the gallery is a photograph of Hitler taken shortly before his suicide in 1945. Taken as the Allies continued their march across Europe, the photograph depicts Hitler sitting at a table in his underground bunker staring at an architectural model for the renovation of Linz, his childhood town. It had been his dream to construct a city there that would be the center of art and culture for the whole world, a place of orderly, uncomplicated beauty and magnificence, and in his final days, he sat and stared at it constantly. Hitler seems to have never outgrown the comforting fantasies of his Vienna days, and as this exhibit makes clear, those fantasies are a key to understanding him and the catastrophe he produced.

It may seem at first that making Hitler seem so small and human risks downplaying the magnitude of his evil, but it doesn’t work out that way at this exhibit. Rather, it makes Hitler seem much more possible; if one places him on a pedestal of supreme evil, he becomes very distant, a mythical creature almost, and therefore less dangerous. By showing Hitler as a human, scared of what he did not understand and attracted to easy fantasies, “Prelude to a Nightmare” makes one aware of just how easy it is for another Hitler to be created.