Appropriating Hitler: The Chapman Brothers

Today one of my students was telling me about a comparatively recent exhibition by brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman. Titled If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be, the exhibition ran at the White Cube gallery during May 2008. In preparation for this show, the Chapman brothers bought several watercolors by Hitler. Then, the two brothers painted the backgrounds of Hitler’s watercolors with rainbows, smiley faces, floating hearts, and psychedelic skies.

This idea of appropriating the work of another artist is nothing new to the contemporary art scene. When hearing about this exhibition by the Chapman brothers, I was immediately reminded of John Fekner’s X Americana X series (1985), in which Fekner painted over “found” kitsch paintings.

But this exhibition by the Chapmans is different than Fekner’s series. Why? Well, because it’s Hitler’s art. The Chapman brothers insist that they are not trying to profit from Hitler’s notoriety with their exhibition, but simply try to explore Hitler’s psychology. Personally, I think that first claim is ridiculous. Of course these artists are trying to get attention and profit because of the connection with Hitler – there’s no way around that fact. If they were purely interested in the “psychology of the artist,” I think they could have explored that idea without publicizing Hitler’s name. Granted, Hitler does need recognition for his contribution to the show. And yes, the psychological connection with Hitler is terribly interesting. But one can consider the “psychology of the artist” with pure visual elements, without knowing who created the work of art.

As you can imagine, this exhibition caused quite a bit of controversy. Some find Chapman’s work to be unethical and unrespectful, while others feel like Hitler’s art deserves to be defaced. You can get a sense of some previous discussions on the topic here.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with these paintings being “tweaked” by the Chapman brothers. (But I know this reaction is because I’m not that excited about Hitler’s artwork in the first place.) I would have been bothered if Chapmans additions had defaced the bulk of Hitler’s compositions and figures, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The work of the original artist is still there, but the context and meaning has changed.

What do others think?

  • heidenkind says:

    It's a stunt. Actually I don't care about that though, I'm more annoyed that it seems like they don't have anything to say with the work other than pointing out the obvious. They could have taken this idea and done a lot with it, but instead it sounds kinda yawntastic.

  • M says:

    Yeah, I can totally see what you are saying, heidenkind. One of the reasons I'm interested in Fekner's "X Americana X" series is because Fekner brings creates very interesting, new meanings through his use of appropriated images. The Chapman brothers have created some new meanings, but like you said, they could have taken this idea and done much, much more.

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    I'm with Heidenkind. It doesn't seem to do anything interesting with the material–the extreme contrast between somewhat banal architectural watercolours and psychedelic sunsets and rainbows just seems obvious and uninteresting. Not to mention too obviously ironic. (It screams out "Peace, love, and Hitler?!" or "Say what you like about Hitler, but at least he could draw properly!!") Their appropriations and re-imaginings of Goya were a lot more successful, I think.

    Apart from the 60s references, are we supposed to think that there's a "degenerate" or Kandinsky-ish feel to some of the additions. See "Cossacks," the Tate's Kandinsky, for one such rainbow.

    In terms of the complicated relationship between Hitler & avante-garde art, I'd recommend the film "Max" with John Cusack (not Cossack!). As Walter Benjamin famously put it, fascism was concerned with making politics aesthetic. And as is widely known, Nazi propaganda assimilated aspects of modernism, even while the Nazis publicly condemned degenerate art.

  • M says:

    Ben, that's an interesting thought about the Kandinsky/"degenerate" nature of these paintings. (Though perhaps that is giving the Chapman brothers a little too much credit? Maybe they didn't even think to make a statement that interesting! Ha!)

    The film "Max" sounds really interesting. Thanks for the recommendation. I'd love to explore how Nazis were actually influenced by modernism, despite how much the party stated otherwise.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Interesting post M. I have to wonder about their stated motives – if you were not really after publicty and promoting ticket sales, whould they reallyhave promoted it like this?

    If they wanted to simply make a statement about defacing Hitler's art they could have simply done it online via a tumblr (etc) and also invited user sumbissions so the whole world could participate…not unlike those Hitler subtitling parodies you see on YouTube.

    Doing it this way, their focus is somewhat more self centred, surely?

    Kind Regards
    H

  • 13e7d7c0-79bb-11e0-9746-000bcdca4d7a says:

    Really, they only kinda analyzed Hitler's art because they knew that they would gain a LOT more publicity if they did. Like heidenkind said, it is just a stunt.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.