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August 15 2012

Crazy golftime for Hitler

A model of Hitler on a crazy golf course at Grundy Art Gallery has been called 'tasteless' by a Jewish organisation. But shouldn't artists have the right to offend?

Hitler golf? Now that's what I call crazy. An exhibition called Adventureland Golf that has just opened at the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool (where else?) features crazy golf course obstacles created by artists who include David Shrigley, Gary Webb, and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Can you guess which of them is responsible for a lifelike statue of Hitler's head and torso, its arm poised to rise in a Nazi salute every time the ball goes through a hole between its legs?

Take a bow, Chapmans. Or give a salute, whatever.

In a bit of national publicity that must be welcome to any exhibition opening in the middle of August, Michael Samuels of the Board of Deputies of British Jews has condemned the Chapman brothers' piece, calling it "tasteless" and declaring that it has "absolutely no artistic value whatsoever".

Is it worth him making those comments? What has been gained by them? The exhibition is in the news as a result. The Hitler artwork will be seen by many more people than would otherwise have attended the Grundy. Surely this is an object lesson in how not to criticise art you find offensive.

Artists have the right to offend. We do not have the right, as citizens, to be free from every image that upsets, shocks, or even disgusts us. To call this crazy golf representation of Adolf Hitler "tasteless" is a bit like calling the Colossus of Rhodes "colossal". Does anyone think the artists were trying to be anything other than tasteless?

I only hope Mr Samuels is never exposed to the Chapmans' much more ambitious (and famous) work Hell, which features thousands of melted, melded and otherwise abused toy Nazis enacting an apocalyptic vision of torture and death.

But when does an image of Hitler become offensive? Hitler as a crazy golf statue apparently offends. But what about Basil Fawlty doing his funny walk, Mel Brooks's Hitler musical in The Producers, or the bizarrely characterful portrayal of Hitler in the film Downfall?

Why should the Blackpool Hitler be seen as an outrage too far, when this vicious mass murderer is such a familiar, even comic image in our culture?

The trouble seems to lie in our belief that statues are honorific. To make a statue of someone, even as a proposal for an imaginary crazy golf course, is – we assume – to praise and ennoble them. That's why statues get toppled in revolutions and wars. The exhibition in Blackpool also includes an image of dictator Saddam Hussein. Is that praising him?

Does the crazy-golf Hitler have artistic value? As an exercise in causing offence, it is apparently quite effective. That may not be the highest artistic achievement, but it's not bad for mid-August.


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June 08 2012

Hitler's Berlin by Thomas Friedrich, translated by Stewart Spencer - review

A detailed survey of Nazi architectural dreams

The 20th century is littered with the febrile architectural dreams of megalomaniacs: Mussolini's modernist recreation of imperial Rome, Saddam Hussein's Mother of all Battles mosque and the Arc of Triumph, the monumental kitsch of Kim Jong-Il's horrific Ryugyong hotel to name but a few. But there are none more deranged than Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer's vision of Germania. Hitler wanted to tear down Berlin to rebuild his world capital, poring over the architectural plans for hours on end. Chillingly, Speer wanted to make sure the buildings would also make great ruins. The realisation of Germania would have made Haussmann's reconfiguration of Paris seem cosmetic.

At the end of Albert Speer, the David Edgar play based on Gitta Sereny's Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, Speer says: "The BBC never fails to delight in the irony that all that remains of my vision for Germania are the ruins of a stadium, two lavatories and some street lamps." Thankfully, the allied bombers got there before the Nazis could begin building their 1,000-year capital.

The plans for the Great Hall (Volkshalle) were kept from the public until 1943, though Hitler hinted at its size when he said in 1938 that Berlin Cathedral, which had seating for 2,450 people, "should hold 100,000 people ... we must build ... as big as today's technical possibilities permit, and above all we must build for eternity!" It would have been the largest enclosed space in the world, holding up to 180,000 people – there were worries that the exhaled breath of the audience could create its own precipitation. This inhuman scale only made sense in terms of Berlin being made a global capital. Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome (and especially its oculus), it was essentially a temple to Hitler.

It's a shame that the photograph of the model showing Speer's plans for the creation of a north-south axis for Berlin in the endpapers have the 7km-long, 120m-wide central thoroughfare and Triumphal Arch obscured by the fold of the book, for this is the very centre of Germania. The arch in front of the new South Station was to be dedicated to the German dead from the first world war and, writes Friedrich, "It made sense that the Great Hall marking the northern boundary of the north-south axis should ensure that Hitler's rewriting of history should find its architectural counterpart in a quasi-religious edifice celebrating the victory of the troops of the 'pan-German Reich' in the coming world war under Hitler's supreme command."

If Berlin is indeed the abused city of the title, then Friedrich has written a kind of autopsy report, a brilliant examination of the way Hitler used the city, treating it as a "lab rat on which he could try out his architectural experiments and ideas on urban planning". Hitler's Berlin is a comprehensive account of the rise of the National Socialism that details precisely how it emerged from within the city itself rather than being imposed from outside, and how Joseph Goebbels as the Gauleiter used violence, propaganda (especially in his newspaper, Der Angriff) and the incitement and blame of the communists to further its reach.

Friedrich argues that scholars have read too much into a handful of quotations from Mein Kampf that suggest Hitler "never liked Berlin" and was forced against his will to leave Munich. He challenges the biographer Joachim Fest's view of Hitler that he "despised its greed and frivolity … he stood baffled and alienated by the phenomenon of the big city, lost in so much noise, turbulence, and miscegenation". Hitler hated the Weimar decadence, and no doubt the lack of party-political success he had there played its part, but what, asks Friedrich, of his visits to Luna-Park; his praise for the Tiller Girls, his cinema-going and enthusiasm for cars? Is this a man terrified of the urban jungle? Rather, Friedrich argues, Hitler had an "instrumental relationship" to Berlin, first regarding it as "wonderful" in its "visible power and grandeur", but ultimately as a place where "antisemitic attacks could be staged, Nazi rituals could be rehearsed and the conquest of the public arena could be planned in detail".

Friedrich quotes from postcards Hitler sent from Berlin to his friend Eric Schmidt in his 20s and articles he wrote, to paint an intriguing and detailed picture of how his conception of Berlin evolved. When he was younger, Hitler saw himself working as an architect there, "fascinated first and foremost by the buildings", especially of the neo-baroque and neo-classical type. At a meeting in 1933 he announced that Unter den Linden, the palace and their immediate vicinity were "the only monumental buildings", marking "the high point of the city both culturally and in terms of its urban design", having earlier railed against "a thousand superficial impressions – cheap neon advertising, sham politics everywhere you look".

Perhaps the most disturbing monument to Germania and Hitler's plans is a huge circular concrete block weighing more than 12,000 tonnes in the Tempelhof district – the Schwerbelastungskörper – that was put there to test whether the sandy soil could take the vast weight of the proposed Arch of Triumph. Friedrich writes with weary pathos that this "massive and mysterious concrete building … continues to weigh figuratively on Berlin ... a symbol of the way in which the city remains oppressed by Hitler's legacy".

• Chris Hall contributed to Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard, published by HarperCollins in September.


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May 05 2011

Archive of artworks stolen by Nazis goes online

Catalogue launched to help historians and families trace art looted during Hitler era

Despite a reputation for reaching for their revolvers at the merest mention of culture, the Nazis were among the most ruthless, avaricious and methodical art collectors ever to cast a greedy eye and thieving hand over other people's property.

"Use every means of transport to get all works of art out of Florence … [save] works of art from English and Americans," ran one of Heinrich Himmler's orders. "In fine get anything away that you can get hold of. Heil Hitler."

That appetite for the most beautiful and precious works of European art saw thousands of pieces stolen from their owners between 1933 and 1945 and entire collections raided, scattered and lost.

The quest to recover them and, where possible, return them to their rightful places has been under way for almost seven decades.

Now, thanks to a deal between some of the world's leading archives and museums, an online catalogue of documents has been created to help families, historians and researchers track down the missing artworks.

Under an agreement signed on Thursday by organisations including Britain's National Archives, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, the US National Archives and Records Administration (Nara) and Germany's Bundesarchiv, the records will be available through a single web portal.

The records include files documenting the systematic expropriation of Jewish property, Adolf Hitler's plans to establish a Führermuseum crammed with looted art in his Austrian hometown of Linz and the interrogation of art dealers.

The British documents, which cover the years 1939 to 1961, also lay out the efforts made to identify the stolen works and reunite them with their owners.

Among them is a report from a British art expert and RAF intelligence officer who was dispatched to Switzerland in 1945. The paper may have faded to yellow, but Douglas Cooper's exasperation with the Swiss authorities remains fresh to this day.

"Until I arrived here five weeks ago, practically nothing had been done," he writes. "And still no steps have been taken by the Swiss government to put the looted pictures in security. This means that it is still possible for any of the present holders to dispose of them."

Cooper concedes that "a new spirit seems to have made its appearance" since his arrival, but appeals for Foreign Office support in ensuring that dispossessed owners do not have to make individual claims through the Swiss courts "because the issue is a moral one".

The National Archives and the Commission for Looted Art in Europe have worked together for two years to catalogue and digitise more than 128,000 pages of information, ranging from seizure orders and inventories to images of looted works and reports of the transfer of stolen pieces to neutral countries.

All the original British government files have been scanned in colour and are searchable by name, place, subject and date.

The aim of the enterprise, according to Oliver Morley, chief executive and keeper of the National Archives, is to provide unprecedented access to the past.

"By digitising and linking archival records online, researchers will be able to piece together the stories of what became of cultural objects, be they books, paintings, sculpture, jewellery or any other stolen artefacts from evidence fragmented across borders and languages," he said.

Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said that while records from the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, the US, and Ukraine were now accessible online, other countries – including Switzerland, Poland and Italy – also held documents that could help families and historians.

"It's been enormously difficult for families to access these records because before you had to physically go to them," she said. "But now they're all digitised and you can search by the name of the victim, the perpetrator, the artist and the artwork. It will dramatically change the possibilities for people, but there's still more to come."


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May 27 2010

The stuff of nightmares

Painted with the kind of conviction that scorns humanity, is this key work of Renaissance art actually a harbinger of fascism?

Is this the scariest painting in the world? The Battle of Issus by Albrecht Altdorfer – known in German simply as the Alexanderschlacht or Alexander battle – is a wonder. It has something about it of an object in a cabinet of curiosities: as if it were contrived specifically to induce feelings of puzzlement, perplexity and unease.

In a landscape created with hypnotic spatial conviction, yet located in a spiralling, outer-space vista of blue and silver sky and sea, a world at once real and bizarrely transformed, illuminated by both sun and moon, and with a classical inscription hanging uncannily in the heavens, two vast armies fight for the future of the world. Uncountable legions fill the rocky plain beneath towering mountains.

It is the quintessence of German Renaissance art: every mountain a colossus, every ray of sun an apocalyptic beam of fire from heaven, every cloud a glimpse of the infinite. This is war as unholy spectacle, but where is the humanity? Where is the pity?

"Seriously, old man," says Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man, looking down from Vienna's big wheel at the crowds below, "would you really care if one of those dots stopped moving?" The multitudes who mass the Alexanderschlacht do not make us care – we do not mind if they stop moving. Indeed, they are not moving: this is a stilled vision, a frozen prophecy.

It was painted in 1529 as part of a cycle of history paintings commissioned by the duke of Bavaria: today these works hang together in their own room in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, dominated by the entrancing horror and beauty of Altdorfer's masterpiece. Connoisseurs of culture wars may note that it portrays a classic confrontation between east and west, when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian king Darius in 333BC.

The reason it frightens me is that it feasts so magnificently on the inhuman slaughter it portrays. This is war seen by a boy knocking over an array of toy soldiers, or an apocalyptic preacher – the myriad vulnerable bodies are just part of the dazzlement of it all. From the Alte Pinakothek – truly one of Europe's richest art collections – you can walk through Munich to the House of German Art, built for Adolf Hitler, today a benign contemporary venue. Hitler made Munich his art capital. As it happened, he also showed as little humanity as this painting does when told of vast casualties in the war he created. Anti-war paintings tend to focus on the intimate horror of close-combat; in seeing soldiers and their victims from a distance as ants, this painting anticipates the worst of 20th-century fascism.


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