Tuesday 13 December 2016

Hitler as a Young Artist

Even as a child Adolf Hitler had an exalted opinion of himself, a self-regard that was both nurtured and encouraged by his adoring mother, Klara. His father, Alois, an ill-tempered man, was not so amenable to his son’s whims and had already determined that he should follow him into the Civil Service, or to be more precise become a Customs Officer like himself. But young Adolf wanted to be an artist, and not any old artist, but a great artist. As a result relations were strained and attempts by Alois to beat some sense into his son only made matters worse.

Although his grief was genuine enough his father’s death in January 1903 also came as a great relief for he could now pursue his ambition unrestrained; and it wasn’t as if he was without talent, his ability to draw had already earned praise and with practice, and a little imagination, he might have earned passage into the ranks of the artistic milieu he so desperately sought to be a part of, not that this alone would ever have been enough.

But then dedication wasn’t required - for a genius need not partake of hard work.

Supported by his mother who had been left financially secure by her recently deceased husband in 1906, Adolf went to live in Linz where he lived like the artistic gentleman of leisure he thought he was spending his time in idle musings, attending concerts, and visiting the opera where he made the acquaintance of the aspiring musician, August Kubizek.

Kubizek was to write of the time he spent in the company of the future Fuhrer in his 1955 book ‘The Young Hitler I Knew’ and the portrait he drew was a complicated one of neuroses,ambition, and an emerging megalomania - Hitler was a difficult young man to get along with, someone who even as a youth approached every problem with ‘a deadly earnestness.’

He was to describe Hitler’s personality as ‘violent and high strung’ but nonetheless it was a friendship he would never relinquish even in light of events.

Despite concern for his mother’s health which had taken a turn for the worse Adolf withdrew what remained of the inheritance left to him by his father and in the summer of 1907 went to live in Vienna where he applied for admission to the Academy of Fine Arts.

In October he was shocked to be told he had failed the entrance exam and demanded to know why?
 The Academy informed him in no uncertain terms that he lacked talent as a painter but did have some technical ability which might be better suited to a career in architecture.

Much like the opera he so enjoyed, Hitler considered architecture to be art on a grand scale which suited well his mindset but even so the rejection was difficult to bear. Nonetheless, there was little time to dwell on the matter as his mother’s rapidly deteriorating health forced him to return home.

Surgery the previous January had failed to prevent the spread of breast cancer and despite the best efforts of Eduoard Bloch, the family’s Jewish doctor, Klara’s condition only worsened. Informed that his mother would not recover Hitler descended into depression.

Dr Bloch was to remark that upon receiving the news Hitler was ‘the saddest man I had ever seen.’
Adolf remained with his mother during her final months cooking for her, doing the household chores, and tending to her every need but her demise was only a matter of time.

On 21 December 1907, Klara Hitler died.

 Adolf was distraught and Dr Bloch was to say that he had never seen anyone so overcome with grief. Later, when he visited Dr Bloch to pay the medical bill he told him - I shall be grateful too you forever – he was later to prove as good as his word.

Following his mother’s death he had no desire to remain in Linz and so in February 1908, he returned to Vienna, the city he considered the centre of European culture, to pursue once more his desire to be an artist.

Not long after his arrival he was reunited with August Kubizek whom he had asked to join him and clearly delighted greeted at the station with a handshake and a kiss.

In October he tried for a second time to enrol in the Academy of Fine Art but was denied permission even to sit the entrance exam and disappointment soon became a bitter resentment towards the Jewish Professors of the Academy he believed had thwarted his artistic ambitions.

Life had turned sour and his sense of victimisation was only made worse when Kubizek gained entry to the Vienna Conservatory. That November Kubizek returned to the apartment they shared to find that Hitler had moved out leaving no forwarding address.

Hitler’s life now proceeded on a downward spiral.

The money he had received as his inheritance had run out and by December 1909, he was eating at soup kitchens and living in a homeless shelter.

 He would spend the cold days in libraries where he assiduously imbibed Nordic, Aryan, and anti-Semitic literature. On more clement days he would walk the streets sketching buildings and street scenes but it all felt very hollow and he had come to hate the city he had once so admired but had so brutally rejected him - a mongrel city, the capital of a mongrel Empire.

Ostensibly reliant upon hand-outs he did make a little money as a day labourer shovelling snow and carrying bags for commuters at the railway station but it rarely lasted more than a few hours; physical labour and working for another was abhorrent to him – but he could still draw.

He was persuaded by Reinhold Harmisch, a fellow resident at the Poor House where he was now living, to sketch the famous landmarks of Vienna which he would then hawk around the city on his behalf.

Hitler agreed, but they soon fell out and in August 1910, believing he was being swindled Hitler testified against Harmisch in a court case that saw him jailed.

In 1938, following the Anschluss with Austria, Hitler would order Harmisch’s murder.

Hitler did better selling his own drawings, which now included copies of postcards he offered to tourists, and paintings he sold through an acquaintance, Joseph Neumann, a Jew, who used his connections to sell them to mostly Jewish shopkeepers.

To avoid conscription into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire he had come to despise in May 1913, he fled to Munich in Germany where he continued to sell his drawings though his life was barely any better than it had been in Vienna, even if he may have considered the air more pure.
His life remained aimless his day-to-day existence a drudge, so when war was declared on 1 August 1914, it came almost as a relief, now he would have a purpose.

He wrote in Mein Kampf:

“For me, as for every German, there now began the greatest and most unforgettable time of my earthly existence. Compared to the events of this gigantic struggle, everything past receded into shallow hollowness.”

Soon after mingling with the enthusiastic crowds in Munich Town Square he enlisted in the 6th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment.

His career as an artist was at an end, that of a politician yet to begin.







Saturday 15 October 2016

William Powell Frith: Victorian Chronicler

Already a successful artist his breakthrough to becoming one of national renown was a painting that upon being exhibited received at best mixed reviews, not so much for its aesthetic qualities but its choice of subject matter.

Life at the Seaside (1854) his depiction of working people enjoying a day out with their families frolicking on the beach at Ramsgate Sands may seem uncontroversial today but at the time when the working class were either portrayed as toiling in the fields or destitute and queuing up for the Workhouse the image of them sober, behaving responsibly, and having fun in places that had previously been before the expansion of the railways been exclusive to the better-off were seen by many as positively vulgar and an incitement to others to do the same.

It was nonetheless exhibited at the Royal Academy and the criticism soon ceased when it received the endorsement of Queen Victoria, who with a fondness both for Ramsgate and portraits of her people happy, purchased it for the tidy sum of 1,000 guineas putting it on display at her home, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Frith followed up the success of Life at The Seaside four years later with a painting that caused a sensation and is now widely considered to be his masterpiece – Derby Day.

The Epsom Derby attended by Royalty and the highest in the land was the highlight of the sporting calendar but Frith taking evident delight in his subject matter portrayed the other side of the event, the thousands of working people who massed on the hill far away from the grandstands to eat, drink, gamble, and roister the day away.

Accused of bringing a noble event into disrepute the outrage was even greater when upon closer inspection it was seen to depict thieves, con artists, and scenes of seduction.

It was a sensation and when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy it required a rail to separate it from its over-enthusiastic audience and a police guard, only the second time this had ever happened (the other had been David Wilkie's, ‘Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch’,  35 years earlier).

Frith now began to see himself as the new Hogarth for a modern age, the Chronicler of Victorian life, and like Hogarth and his Rake’s Progress he now also produced a series of paintings portraying man’s fall from grace in his Road to Ruin and Race to Wealth.

The juxtaposition of rich and poor in his paintings often highlighted the inequalities of the day much as the mocking tone he adopted towards many Victorian institutions sought to undermine the standards they professed to represent, not that he was a model of moral rectitude.

In fact, he was the living embodiment of Victorian hypocrisy for he shared his time between his wife Isabelle and their 12 children and his mistress Mary Alford and their seven children.

The fact that he maintained two seemingly respectable middle class families less than a mile down the road from one another and kept it a secret for so long was in itself a remarkable achievement.

When the scandal finally broke it became the subject of gossip the length and breadth of the country but even in a society that rarely shirked from condemnation it did little to dent his popularity.

William Powell Frith having lived throughout the reign of Queen Victoria, both before and beyond, died on 9 November, 1909, aged 90.

Monday 4 July 2016

The Somme: First Day and Beyond

"Now God be thanked who has matched us with this hour and caught our youth and wakened us from sleeping."

The words were those of the deceased Rupert Brooke but it was a sentiment that might have been shared by the many who rushed to form Pals Battalions and become part of Kitchener's Volunteer Army that would go over the top on that misty summer morning.

On 1 July 1916, Lord Kitchener's well-trained but as yet untested Army launched their first major offensive on the Western Front in the region of Picardy along the banks of the River Somme. It was designed to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun.

During the week preceding it 1.7 million shells were fired in a preliminary bombardment intended to devastate the German front-line defences with the booming of the guns able to be heard as far away as London.

It was impressive and for the German troops hunkered in their deep shelters a nerve-shredding nightmare of dust, darkness, and fear but many of the shells were of low calibre, defective, or contained shrapnel useless against fixed positions.

The German defences were damaged but not destroyed, the barbed wire remained uncut.

At 07.27  British troops left their trenches and advanced into a hail of shell and machine gun fire - it wasn't meant to be.

By the end of the day 21,053 lay dead and a further 40,000 had been wounded. Yet despite the more than 60,000 casualties no first day objective had been obtained.

But nonetheless the battle was to continue for a further 141 days and by the time it finally petered out 95,675  British and Commonwealth troops had been killed, 324,000 wounded, and 57 Victoria Crosses awarded. They had advanced just 6 miles.

Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson, First Devonshire Regiment, killed on the Somme, 1 July, 1916.

"And when the summons in our ears was shrill, unshaken in our trust we rose and flung but a backward glance and carefree still went strongly forth to do the work of men."

As the whistles were blown and the orders given to go over the top Captain Wilfred Nevill of the East Surrey Regiment kicked four footballs into no-man's-land offering a prize to the first man to pass one all the way to the German trenches.

Last seen calmly smoking a cigarette he was killed in the assault as were 60% of Officers leading their men that first day.

The Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish Regiments, both Pals Battalions recruited mostly from the pit villages of the North-East advancing towards La Boiselle to the scurrl of the bagpipes were decimated. Of the 3,000 men who set out 2,909 became casualties.

Some of the 726 men of the Newfoundland Regiment 658 of whom were killed or wounded on the first day of the Somme battle. Their Commanding Officer wrote:

"It was a magnificent display of discipline and valour and it failed of success because dead men can advance no further."

Men of the Lancashire Fusiliers take cover before resuming the attack.

Private Frederick Darkes of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment  is the man in this powerful and iconic image captured during the official film of the Somme Battle released in cinemas throughout Britain in August, 1916.

Around 250,000 boys, some as young as 14 served in the British Army during World War One of these 18,000 fought on the Somme and many were killed.

Captain Robert Graves, already an established poet and the future author of I, Claudius was so seriously wounded that he was declared dead only to surprise the medics, and everyone else for that matter, when he regained consciousness.

Notice of his survival did not become apparent before his family had already been informed of his death and his obituary had appeared in The Times newspaper.

Lieutenant J.R.R Tolkien of the Signals Corps (Lancashire Fusiliers) served throughout the Battle of the Somme. It is believed that his experience of trench warfare greatly influenced his understanding and imaging of the subterranean world he later created in the Lord of the Rings.

Lance-Corporal Arnold Ridley better known as the author of the Ghost Train and later as Private Godfrey in the television series Dad's Army fought at the Battle of the Somme where his legs were shredded by shrapnel, he was bayoneted in the groin, and clubbed unconscious. He survived to serve in World War Two.