Please note that this work has been requested for Loss, an exhibition commemorating 75 Years since the Nazi massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar, to be held at the PinchukArtCentre in Kiev, May 2016-January 2017.
"I wanted to destroy it myself. 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, haunting the specter of history; and yet he is unmentionable, irreproducible, wrapped in a blanket of silence." Maurizio Cattelan
"Hitler’s visage is that of a a middle-aged man...but his body is the size of a child’s. His kneeling stance and upward gaze make the incongruity of scale that much more pronounced and contribute to the viewer’s sensation of towering over the sculpture. The viewer is thus placed in an exceedingly uncomfortable position of authority, a position to mete out judgement, including the impossible notion of absolution." Nancy Spector
"Art has always been the object of desire and a victim of the history of humankind. Throughout the history of warfare conquerors have humiliated and conquered, raping their women, torturing their men, and stealing their masterpieces. Hitler, more than anybody else, tried and often succeeded in stealing the best of European art and subsequently destroying the works that he considered ‘degenerate.’ Art has been, and still is, one of the greatest casualties of human folly. Art is a mirror of the human condition, a mirror that most of us enjoy looking into, but too few consider the comparison dangerous." Francesco Bonami
"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
Slowly approaching the childlike figure from behind, one is hesitant to not disrupt what appears to be a small boy kneeling in silent prayer. As the figure is gradually drawn into focus, 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. Unaware of how destabilizing the child actually is, the viewer is drawn closer until they are standing directly above the figure. Staring down at the immediately recognizable and instantly startling face of Adolf Hitler kneeling in quiet supplication, hands clasped and looking skywards as if in prayer the viewer looms above one of the most shocking and disquieting works of art to emerge in the postwar 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 anesthetized” (M. Cattelan, quoted in N. Spector, Maurizio Cattelan: All, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2012, p. 43). 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’s stated of the work. “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, haunting the specter 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” (M. Cattelan, ibid., p. 98).
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,” typified by the square-inch patch of hair over his upper lip that will forever be associated with infinite evil, is positioned in an unexpected if not inconceivable pose of repentance. Cattelan, who often plays with the notion of religion and the profane once commented: “I’m trying to connect images and tensions, to bring together different impulses: I want religion and blasphemy to collide, as they do in our daily life. Just think of any day of your week: you wake up, you might pray and think about some metaphysical truth. And then two minutes later you are stuck in the traffic, cursing and swearing and getting mad and anxious. Our life is based on contradiction” (M. Cattelan in interview with Christie’s, “Everybody Must Get Stoned,” Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art, London, 17 May 2001). Within this unimaginable scenario, the viewer is forced to ask the question, whether forgiveness for the atrocities Hitler committed under his fascist regime could ever be forgiven. That we are asked to encounter the work first from behind, 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.
First presented the year of its creation in the Stockholm alternative art space, Färgfabriken, Him met the world with a great deal of controversy—especially when considering the ambivalent attitude Sweden once held toward the Nazi regime. To this day Him continues to raise debate—though generally in a more constructive sense, creating a dialogue between the power of art, and the atrocities of mankind. In 2010, the mayor of Milan forbade the reproduction of a poster illustrating a black-and-white photograph of Him, citing concerns for the local Milanese Jewish community. While, perhaps most notably, in 2012, the work was publicly exhibited in a Warsaw ghetto. Visible from a hole in a wooden gate, passersby could view only the back of the sculpture trapped within a courtyard. In the city where an estimated 300,000 Jews either died of starvation or disease or were sent to their deaths in concentration camps under Nazi rule, that sculpture was particularly affecting. While the Centre for Contemporary Art’s director, Fabio Cavallucci, who oversaw the installation stated, “There is no intention from the side of the artist or the center to insult Jewish memory. It’s an artwork that tries to speak about the situation of hidden evil everywhere. Every criminal was once a tender, innocent and defenseless child” (F. Cavallucci, quoted in C. Jones, “Controversy over Adolf Hitler statue in Warsaw ghetto,” The Guardian, 28 December 2012, accessed at thegaurdian.com [12 April 2016]). While the Chief Rabbi was consulted before the work went on display, consenting to the “educational value” the work had the potential to provide, many in the Warsaw community vehemently opposed the installation.
“While the image of Hitler is certainly troubling on any account,” explains Nancy Spector, “it does exist in the popular imagination. Countless Hollywood films, documentaries, and fiction and nonfiction books have grappled with his legacy. What is the most disturbing, then, about Cattelan’s lifelike rendering is its petite size. Hitler’s visage is that of a middle-aged man—perhaps the age he was when he committed suicide in 1945—but his body is the size of a child’s. His kneeling stance and upward gaze make the incongruity of scale that much more pronounced and contribute to the viewer’s sensation of towering over the sculpture. The viewer is thus placed in an exceedingly uncomfortable position of authority, a position to mete out judgement, including the impossible notion of absolution” (N. Spector, op. cit., p. 98). Exploring the formal and physical qualities of scale throughout his oeuvre, Cattelan has frequently used the size of his objects to challenge his viewer’s expectations—complicating interpretations in both meaningful and provocative ways.
Within the larger context of his oeuvre, the diminished scale of Him closely relates to Cattelan’s troupe of “mini-me’s”—a body of work that in some respects are a manner of self-portraiture. While Cattelan’s little Hitler is not intended to be seen as a self-portrait, several important similarities exist between Him and the more iconic iterations of the “mini-me’s.” Executed in 1997, Charlie Don’t Surf draws certain parallels to Him in both iconography and approach. Approached from behind, the small hooded boy sits at an elementary school room desk facing a wall. As with Him, the experience of confronting Charlie Don’t Surf is a critical element in the viewer’s relationship with and further understanding of the work. However, quite the opposite of being confronted with the image of a praying Hitler, Charlie Don’t Surf reveals itself to be a scholastic crucifixion, the small boy nailed to his own desk by two sharply erected lead pencils hammered through his hands. In Cattelan’s art, meaning is never black and white. The dialogue that exists somewhere between Charlie and Him seems to question both the notions of inherent evil and the way in which we recognize it within our own society. Confronting the works from behind, the viewer is forced to ask, how is it possible that the praying child so quickly transforms into one of the most recognizably evil people in history, while the boy seated at his desk is being crucified for some sort of heinous schoolyard act? Cattelan reminds us that often times the face of evil is not always immediately recognizable.
Executed a year before Him, La Rivoluzione siamo noi (We are the revolution) emerges as the first of several references Cattelan made regarding World War II in his art—though in a much more subtle and very different manner than seen in later iterations. In this seminal “mini-me,” the artist takes his own mature visage and shrinks it into a similarly reduced scale. Transforming himself into the German artist Joseph Beuys, Cattelan’s statuette is hung from a Marcel Breuer designed coat rack. Immobilized, the figure dons Beuys’s famous felt suit, and while he is clearly being strung up for punishment, the grimace on Cattelan’s face indicates that he is not sorry. Lampooning the legacy of Beuys, La Rivoluzione siamo noi’s relationship to Him is interesting. Stripped of all Nazi insignia, the 1935 knickerbocker outfit that adorns Him closely resembles Beuys’s felt suit. A sort of messiah in German art today, Joseph Beuys was reborn out of the destruction of World War II. Having been both a member of the Hitler Youth and a volunteer in the German Luftwaffe, Beuys had been from an early age associated with the Nazi party. However, on March 16, 1944, Beuys’s plane crashed on the Crimean Front close to Znamianka. It was there that Beuys claimed to have been rescued by nomadic Tatar tribesmen, who aided his recovery by wrapping him in felt and animal fat—two materials that would take on totemic importance in his work. Physically and emotionally shaken following his accident, Beuys began a shamanistic quest to make art that focused on confronting Germany’s uncomfortable past in an effort to reclaim a taboo history.
Perhaps, in his own attempt to reclaim postwar art, Cattelan has modeled Him in a similar suit to the grandfather of postwar European art. Indeed, an artist himself, greatly concerned with the culture of Nazi Germany, Hitler did much to try and destroy the great artistic advances that were thriving in Germany, France and Italy before the war. As Francesco Bonami has explained in his catalogue essay for La Fine di Dio, “Art has always been the object of desire and a victim of the history of humankind. Throughout the history of warfare conquerors have humiliated and conquered, raping their women, torturing their men, and stealing their masterpieces. The examples are endless. …Hitler, more than anybody else, tried and often succeeded in stealing the best of European art and subsequently destroying the works that he considered ‘degenerate.’ Art has been, and still is, one of the greatest casualties of human folly. Art is a mirror of the human condition, a mirror that most of us enjoy looking into, but too few consider the comparison dangerous” (F. Bonami, La Fine di Dio, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, London, 2014). With Joseph Goebbels appointed as Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, the act of cleansing the culture of degeneracy through book burnings, the confiscation of artwork and the dismissal of teachers, curators and artists spread throughout Germany. From July 19th to November 30th over two million visitors lined up to see The Degenerate Art Exhibition organized by Adolf Ziegler and the Nazi Party in Munich. The day before the exhibition opened, Hitler declared a “merciless war” on cultural disintegration, and hundreds of works by Marc Chagall, George Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian became the victims.
Placing Hitler in his own “degenerate” mode of art, Cattelan, like Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Anslem Keifer, Martin Kippenberger, and Marlene Dumas before him, fights to cope with this difficult past and to further the dialogue about the sometimes tumultuous relationship between art and power.
Deeply rooted in his own Italian heritage Cattelan has stated, “The true history of the work is the history of a difficulty repeating itself. I’ve also started to think about the difficulty of being Italian, having a heritage, relationships with other artists, being a member of a community with a history” (M. Cattelan, quoted in N. Spector, op. cit., p. 43). Indeed, Italy’s own involvement in World War II adds an extra level of meaning to Him. A member of the Axis powers under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini, Italy was Germany’s closest ally for much of the war—until the arrest of Mussolini and the removal of the fascist state in July 1943. It is in this conflation of German and Italian history that Cattelan has drawn his subject. Similarly, his 2007 work Ave Maria alludes to this haunting past. Composed of three disembodied arms rigidly extending beyond the surface of the wall, their unmistakable precision recalls the intensely choreographed “Heil Hitler” salute, which was commonly believed to have originated during ancient Roman times. While no text or art dating from Roman times describes the exact gesture, the first painting to depict it was Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii, in which three brothers show their allegiance to their father and to the city of Rome through the act of a single outstretched arm. From then on this type of pledge became widely illustrated in neoclassic works of art and became known as the “Roman salute.” In the early 20th century, it was adopted first by the Italian Fascist Party as a symbol of imperialist aspirations before it became the official salutation of Hitler and the Nazi party in 1926. As with Him, Ave Maria, a play on words between the Catholic “Hail Mary” prayer and the “Heil Hitler” salute, conflates the abuse of power with the question of absolution.
When confronted with the image of Adolf Hitler, most will agree that his very visage is the startling image of “evil incarnate.” However, our own personal histories—German, Italian, American, French, British, Russian, Jewish or Christian, to name only a few—inform our own reactions and our own ways of coping with the piece. For many, the wounds from the Third Reich will never be healed—the catastrophic tragedy made irreversible. And yet, marking the work all too threatening and all too real, the dangerous, anti-Semitic, racist and supremacist ideas perpetrated by Nazism are still in circulation today and continue to threaten social order throughout the world. Though, according to Cattelan, he “never purposely decided to create a scandal, to provoke. …Images sometimes manage to anticipate the future, and maybe that’s what scandalizes the public—not to recognize themselves in what they see” (M. Cattelan, quoted in ibid., p. 83). Yet, it is entirely unsurprising that in a world where the pain of World War II is still very much present, and it is still prohibited to publish Hilter’s 1925 manifesto, Mein Kampf in Germany, the shock of Him is ever present.
To approach Maurizio Cattelan’s Him from a particular perspective –as a Jew or as a Christian, as a Pole, as a German, or as an American – is to limit his universal message, which is that for too many of us, evil is unrecognizable until we face it head-on when it is usually too late to do anything about it.
Who is this lad so slight of build, so neatly coiffed, and so carefully dressed who is kneeling before us? Only when we literally turn to confront Him do we see that he has the face of Adolph Hitler, the visage of 20th Century evil incarnate. Still, too many of us fail to discern evil even when we see it. Within the context of the political, how often does ideology provide the structure – the ‘back’, as it were – for repressive social policies that marginalize those who are most vulnerable, those who are forced to live their lives on their knees? How often do demagogues take the position of their eventual victims to attract followers who will help promote their nefarious endeavors? “We are the downtrodden,” they proclaim.
Cattelan’s lad Hitler, innocent and vulnerable from the back, mocks us with his stance. Though blatantly evil, he cannot be engaged: his eyes are averted, his hands are folded not in supplication but in patient waiting. The artist warns us that we can rest content with the evil that is before us only at our own peril and at the peril of all who love the good too secretly.
Pastor Martin Niemöller was initially a supporter of Hitler’s but quickly realized the evil that Hitler was when he Nazified the churches and set policies discriminating against Jews and other minorities. Niemöller spent six years imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps for his opposition. After his release in 1945, he became a vocal pacifist and anti-war activist. Reflecting on his failure to recognize Hitler for who he was from the beginning, Niemöller observed: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Edmund Burke wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” With Him, Cattelan insists that we look beyond what seems to be to see what really is so that we can confront the evil in our midst.
Rabbi Lee Friedlander, 2016