Approaching the kneeling figure from behind, one is hesitant, not wanting not to disrupt what appears to be a small boy in silent prayer. As one nears, his eerie schoolboy attire, freshly shorn raven hair and slightly scuffed boots cast the boy out of the present day and into an era circa 1935.
Bound to Fail, 8 May at Christie's New York
Then, standing directly above the figure, one encounters the instantly startling face of Adolf Hitler, looking skywards as if in prayer, his hands clasped together in supplication. It is quite simply one of the most shocking and disquieting works of art to have emerged in the post-war era.
Claiming only to hold up a mirror to society, Maurizio Cattelan has long refused the title of artist-provocateur. ‘I actually think that reality is far more provocative than my art,’ he has long attested. ‘I just take it; I’m always borrowing pieces — crumbs really — of everyday reality. If you think my work is provocative, it means that reality is extremely provocative, and we just don’t react to it. Maybe we no longer pay attention to the way we live in the world… We are anaesthetised.’
‘Hitler is everywhere, haunting the spectre of history; and yet he is unmentionable, irreproducible, wrapped in a blanket of silence’
However, even for Cattelan, his diminutive wax effigy of Adolf Hitler, unassumingly entitled Him, can at times be all too challenging. ‘I wanted to destroy it myself,’ he says. ‘I changed my mind a thousand times, every day. Hitler is pure fear; it’s an image of terrible pain. It even hurts to pronounce his name. And yet that name has conquered my memory, it lives in my head, even if it remains taboo.
‘Hitler is everywhere,’ the artist continues, ‘haunting the spectre of history; and yet he is unmentionable, irreproducible, wrapped in a blanket of silence. I’m not trying to offend anyone. I don’t want to raise a new conflict or create some publicity; I would just like that image to become a territory for negotiation or a test for our psychoses.’
Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960), Him, 2001. Wax, human hair, suit, polyester resin and pigment. 39 3/4 x 17 x 25 in. (101 x 43.1 x 63.5 cm.) This work is the artist's proof from an edition of three plus one artist's proof. Estimate: $10,000,000-15,000,000. This work is offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s in New York
One in a sequence of sculptures by the artist that places modern and contemporary figures such as President John F. Kennedy and Pope John Paul II in situations that provoke contemplation or debate, Him focuses on the presence and nature of evil. Here the image of ‘evil incarnate’ is positioned in an unexpected if not inconceivable pose of repentance.
Cattelan has repeatedly played with the notion of religion and the profane. Within this unimaginable scenario, the viewer is forced to ask the question: could the atrocities Hitler committed under his fascist regime ever be forgiven?
By asking us to encounter the work first from behind so that we are positioned high above the fallen foe, Cattelan has created a combination of imagery and experience that provides his viewer the opportunity for reflection — on the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust, on an individual’s power to create evil and on our own personal and societal responses to past, present and future horrors.