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Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Failed Artist



One tries to project oneself into the mind of the failed artist. Oh that should not be hard for him, one can hear one's readers say. But the failed artist can never be sure there is a reader, there is an audience. For the failed artist the sound of one hand clapping can come to have the familiar ring of a theme song.


Times are hard in the large city, one's savings exhausted. One moves into shabbier accommodations. Perhaps the verb should be not moves but slinks, as an animal expelled from the pack makes its way as it can, its eyes close to the ground, searching for a site of resettlement, however imperfect, merely a place to find food, a place to lay down the weary head. Shifting from room to room, departing, after only a month or two, without paying the rent or leaving a forwarding address. This is the "endlessly bitter time" for the failed artist, a time in which he incurs wounds which, should he be able to survive it, must some day, in some way not yet fathomed, be redressed.

The failed artist now learns the meaning of poverty. The remnants of his orphan's pension will not support him. Unable to hold body and soul together, he goes on merely as body, abandoning the soul as an animal sheds a no longer useful integument. He becomes accustomed to rough sleeping. Winter is coming on. He has not washed or shaved for weeks, his hair and clothing, the same filthy collar, the same rumpled blue check suit, are infested with lice, there are holes in the soles of his shoes from shuffling restlessly, driven, over the darkened pavements, and from these holes, when he pauses for a furtive moment's rest on a park bench, he notices, one day, there appears to be a trickle of red emerging. He feels nothing, he is numb, but cannot help concluding this must be blood.

Groups of men in similarly inconvenienced condition can be seen proceeding slowly from stop to stop across the city, never out of sight of the watchful police, who remain ever vigilant to detect small violations of civic order, petty misdemeanours. Soup kitchens, public warming-rooms, stations of a cross of iron thorns. The best available port of call is the city hostel, a doss-house for the homeless. There one might bathe, have disinfectant powder dusted upon one's body, and scattered inside one's clothes. A dormitory bed for the night, then out again into the icy cold with the grey coming of another unwelcoming dawn.

There is little work to be had, one might shovel snow from the sidewalks, but one does not possess an overcoat, and in any case no longer has the strength for physical labour; one might carry bags at the railway station, but there again, the custom goes to those who are stronger; as in a dream, one sees a woman in an expensive fur coat struggling to retrieve her luggage from a porter, clearly she is in need of assistance, yet, even as one helplessly watches, another candidate rushes forward, wrests the cases from her small white hands, trundles them along the platform, through the gate, and across the vaulted lobby to the terminal portal, where she turns and places some coins in the outstretched palm.

Through an intermediary, a shadowy figure of this transitory underworld, who recognizes the opportunity to take advantage of the situation, the failed artist sends a message to his family that he is in need, and -- as the canny intermediary relays the message -- might be able to extricate himself from these depths of misery, and have a go at making a living for himself, if only he could acquire some basic artist's supplies, with which he might put to use the only skill he is able to claim, that is, a certain elementary talent for drawing. A small sum duly arrives, and with this the failed artist purchases an overcoat from the government pawn shop, some paints and brushes. Though he has boasted to the intermediary of holding an Academy degree in art, in fact he has failed the Academy entrance examination.

With the intermediary now acting as an agent, eager to claim a percentage of any possible artistic earnings, the failed artist leaves the doss-house behind and takes a modest private room in a Men's Home in the north of the city. Again here, room-residency is strictly nocturnal, and the days throw one back upon one's resources, if any; but there is now a bit of privacy, in one's tiny night-cubicle; and there are kitchen and laundry facilities, washrooms and baths, and even a reading room, where one may inspect newspapers; and, crucially, there is also a room in the Home designated for working and writing; and it is in this room that the failed artist begins to turn out his small, insipid copy-paintings, imitations of paintings by other people; slavishly, yet with a certain facility that will soon prove the enterprise lucrative in a minor way, reproducing his own reproductions of reproductions, serviceable replications of stock images of pleasant scenes, executed with a competence that suggests it is the genre of kitsch that speaks most clearly to his meagre, already-embittered failed-artist's heart.

His natural idleness continually haunts him, but his partner industriously chivvies him along. He works through the days in the writing-room of the Men's Home, daubing and glancing, daydreaming, pausing at intervals for recreational visits to the reading-room, where his views on politics and the music of Wagner are contributed to the stale air breathed by some dozen or two of his fellow inmates. By the end of each day he has accomplished a new copy-painting. As quickly as these are made, they are sold, by the enterprising colleague, to frame-makers and furnishing entrepreneurs, and to further intermediaries, dealers in popular art, most of them Jews. One of the latter puts it into the failed artist's head that he has been and is being cheated by his original partner. He is furious. The police are brought in. He is never paid what he is owed. The guilty former accomplice spends a few nights in jail, on the charge of using a false name.


Drawings and paintings by Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)


Elmo St. Rose said...

Were these before or after
World War I and Hitler's
experience with trench warfare?

TC said...


The down-and-out period represented here takes place in 1909/1910, with the real bottoming-out occurring that winter. He continued to daub away in Vienna (where the "action" here unfolds) until 1913, when he goes to Munich, and manages to sell his paintings on his own, for enough money to provide a modest living. The pictures shown here come from several different periods. He continued to dabble long after his dreams of being a great artist had been shattered.

Later his work became collectible. for not so good reasons. At one point Dr. Jack Kevorkian had assembled a nice little collection.

From a Washington Post piece:

'Hitler was 18 when he applied to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, planning to make his life as an artist. He flunked the drawing test and was rejected. He later wrote in Mein Kampf, "That gentleman [the rector] assured me that the drawings I had submitted incontrovertibly showed my unfitness for painting." Hitler's ability lay instead in architecture, the rector told the young man. By 1910 the 20-year-old Hitler was working in Vienna as a draftsman and painter of watercolors. William Shirer wrote in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich that Hitler "sold hundreds of these pitiful pieces" to "petty traders to ornament a wall, to dealers who used them to fill empty picture frames on display and to furniture makers who sometimes tacked them to the backs of cheap sofas and chairs after a fashion in Vienna in those days."

'Hitler's biographers generally give short shrift to the dictator's years as a failing artist. Alan Bullock's classic, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, concludes that the future Fuehrer produced "entirely unoriginal drawings" and "grandiose plans." "He had the artist's temperament without either talent, training or creative energy."

'In Hitler: The Path to Power, Charles Bracelen Flood writes that "Hitler had a flair for drawing; filling the apartment at 31 Humboldtstrasse with his sketches, he dreamed of becoming a great painter." But for most historians, the only moment that matters in Hitler's artistic career is the art school rejection. The key text is from Hitler friend August Kubizek, who wrote that after receiving the rejection, Hitler launched into a tirade in which "his face was livid, the mouth quite small, the lips almost white. But the eyes glittered. There was something sinister about them. As if all the hate of which he was capable lay in those glowing eyes . . . Hitler never ceased to feel ashamed of what his dream of being a painter had become."

'In 1935, Hitler ordered the Nazi Party to find and obtain as many of his paintings as possible. Many were purchased from German citizens for prices of about two years' average salary for a German worker. The assembled pictures were stored in underground bunkers.'

ACravan said...

Amazingly interesting and not easily "solved" or dismissed. No -- they're not the greatest works of art I've ever seen, but the great failing lies outside of these efforts, obviously. As for the historian's art appraisals, isn't the operative showbiz expression: "Everyone's a Critic." This morning, while watching the "final" (please, God) Republican candidates debate on Meet The Press (Mother -- please make it stop), our local Philadelphia tv station ran ads for a series of "Starving Artists Art Sales" taking place at local suburban hotels. Makes you think. Curtis

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Intriguing to say the least--meanwhile, another not-so-failed artist was trying his hand at poetry!

TC said...

That fellow's poetry was definitely for the birds!

aditya said...

An astonishing piece of writing Tom. Bravo!

TC said...

Thanks very much Aditya -- perhaps to understand the true nature of the failed artist, one must have a special personal affinity.

Robb said...

Blew my mind with the Hitler credit at the end. Bucco, sir! Bucco!

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Can't see much in the paintings as clues except the roses look a little wilted so why paint them? A sign of some sort? I don't see any monsters but the bland.

TC said...


This was the little fellow's "lost year". Whatever was happening inside him -- and the only real witness to all this is an extremely dubious one, the character I call "the intermediary" -- seems to have contributed to whatever it was that later happened inside him that eventually helped enable him to... blow everybody's mind..


I think that's just the point, the blandness, the ordinariness, the mediocrity, the repression. The medium of art exposed all these things. A few years later he changed media -- going on to the "bigger canvas", the social group, which is so much easier to manipulate than art, and which not only tolerates but celebrates and encourages the miserable common denominator ("human nature") in any two-bit megalomaniac with a score to settle. He got even with art by destroying untold millions of lives. And in the long run his sick little two-bit geist got to have its cake and eat it too, because his paintings are now "worth" amounts of money it would depress you to know.

Of course the "collector" is a life form that dwells just beneath the pond scum of the earth, and will doubtless survive the extinction of all other life forms, including even th'innumerable termite.