With the former US President George W. Bush admitted that he may not be “a great painter” – yet still exhibiting more than 24 portraits of world leaders that he met while president at his presidential library in Dallas, and continuing to make headlines for his new-found love of painting, even though – or perhaps because – he is terrible at it – it comes as something of a revelation that many other world leaders harbour a secret life-long desire to be great artists. This, it seems is by no way a recent trend amongst the politically powerful – as it appears that certain individuals who have changed the course of world history, secretly yearned to change art history instead.
None more so than the opposing leaders and lead political protagonists of the Second World War: Adolf Hitler, and Winston Churchill. Both world leaders penchant for the painterly has recently been under the spotlight, firstly with a century old painting by Adolf Hitler, that was finally auctioned off at the Weidler auction house in Nuremberg. The work went under the hammer for £102,000. The watercolour painting dated from 1914 or 1915, the titled of which is ‘The Old Town Hall’ and was a depiction of the Munich registrar’s office, it was put up for sale by two elderly sisters, whose grandfather bought the artwork in 1916, when Hitler was in his 20s. The work was snapped up by – unsurprisingly – an anonymous buyer.
Then it was the turn of Churchill with the world leader’s 1932 canvas ‘The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell’, which carried a pre-sale estimate of £400,000 to £600,000. The auction at Sotheby’s resulted in five prospective buyers eagerly raising paddles, with the price quickly escalating, smashing the earlier record for a Churchill work at auction. The British leader only started painting at the age of 40, and was in fact a prolific painter for a somewhat ‘busy’ political leader, completing over 500 oil paintings in his lifetime.
Modern art was the bane of the third Reich. Adolf Hitler was a frustrated art student, rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. This was to have a profound effect on his future as a politician and a leader. It also influenced his desire to rid the world of Modernism and create a return to the heyday of German Romantic painting and classicism. Hitler even stated passionately in one of his many fervent speeches that “works of art which cannot be understood in themselves but need some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence will never again find their way to the German people”. Although he would go on to introduce the unsuspecting German people to his own works of art.
The Nazis staged two high profile exhibitions in Munich designed to ridicule Modernism. The Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibitions were hung with the ‘deliberate intention’ of prompting a negative reaction from the public; over 1 million people attended the exhibitions in Munich, and many ridiculed or spat on the works on display. The exhibition was used in propaganda and toured around Germany, where it was seen by another million visitors. I doubt Hitler’s own paintings would have inspired such a response, unless the viewer had successfully fought back their tears – although whether these would have been ones of laughter, or despair – we will never know [However George W. Bush’s portrait of Tony Blair may well draw a direct parallel in the viewers reaction to it, not so much Entartete Kunst, as Entartete Politiker].
Yet regardless of good taste, several paintings by the Nazi leader have come to market at Weidler over the years. The remnant of the fuhrer’s failed art career. Of the five works previously sold at the auction house, the second most recent painting was purchased by another anonymous buyer, a Slovakian collector in January 2012 for £25,000. The sale of Hitler’s artworks, of which there about 800 examples known to exist, is permitted unless a piece includes any kind of Nazi imagery. The sale of Churchill’s works hold no such sanction, and the price of a painting by the British wartime Prime Minister is always higher; the value of which may have more than victory as its cause.
So, aside from the fact that the history of art is written by the victor, which of these two historical giants, and would-be masters of art is the better painter?
It is true that a work by Churchill may be free from the constraints of social politics and taste in a way that Hitler’s work is not; but the Nazi leader’s painting is considered to be collected for historical value rather than its quality. There are few critics in the world of art that consider Hitler’s work of any real artistic value aside from the generally historical. In fact Hitler’s art was published in the form of a coffee table book during the Third Reich, several million copies of which were printed for the German people – the banality of which was so great – that it is surprising Germany didn’t immediately give up on Aryan superiority upon viewing it.
Winston Churchill on the other hand had the advantage of not merely being a self-taught hobbyist, having studied under professional artists, including his friends, Irish portraitist John Lavery, and British artist William Nicholson. The latter leader’s use of paint is a far more expressive affair than Hilter’s ironically subdued emotion. It would seem that Churchill had some genuine ability, which can be seen in works such as the recent record breaking ‘The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell’ – that if a little turgid in hue, has a slight Monet-esque quality in terms of brush stroke. As Churchill himself put it: “…experiments with a child’s paint-box led me the next morning to produce a complete outfit in oils.”
Encouragement to persevere with his hobby stemmed from an amateur prize which he won for “Winter Sunshine, Chartwell,” a bright reflection of his Kentish home, and a location he would continue to be inspired by. The British leader sent five paintings to be exhibited in Paris in the 1920s. Four of which were sold for £30 each. But it was the sheer delight of painting that accounted for Churchill’s devotion. For the Paris test of his ability he hid his identity under an assumed name: Charles Morin.
Once asked if he intended to hold an exhibition of his paintings, Churchill derided the idea immediately: “They are not worth it. They are only of interest in having been painted [this with was said with a mighty guffaw] by a notorious character! If Crippen had painted pictures no doubt the public would flock to see them.”
It is for that very reason that Hitler’s banal works of art still hold interest, but with Churchill’s paintings there is a genuine sense of a strong amateur artist exploring his ability. In fact Churchill’s first word of advice to other budding artists was “audacity.” So it would seem that to the victor go the [art-critical] spoils as well.
Words: Paul Black Photo: Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler at Madame Tussaud’s London by SunOfErat Creative Commons