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Tracing Hitler's Nightmare Visions

Art* An exhibition in Massachusetts explores how his years living in Vienna influenced later evils of the Third Reich.


WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The images of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich forever will be linked with evil: The menace of the swastika, the perfect but intimidating columns of marching Nazi soldiers and the horror that followed.

An exhibition at Williams College Museum of Art here argues that it wasn't a study of warfare, politics and military strategy that influenced the background and symbols for Hitler's visions. It was art: Richard Wagner's operas; dark and simple German paintings; Viennese architecture.

"Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics, and Hitler's Early Years in Vienna 1906-1913" traces the dictator's artistic aspirations, disappointments and influences during his seven years in the Austrian city.

The exhibition uses about 275 paintings, posters and clips of film from Nazi rallies to illustrate art's influence on Hitler. Displays of anti-Semitic pamphlets that circulated around Vienna in the early 1900s show that Hitler mimicked the pamphlets for his own propaganda decades later.

Two years after visiting Vienna for the first time, Hitler moved there in 1908 as a 19-year-old aspiring artist. Twice rejected by the city's art academy, he drifted, staying in homeless shelters, attending operas and watching sessions of Parliament.

A friend encouraged him to sell his paintings, mostly postcards and watercolors of Vienna landscapes, some of which are displayed in the Williams exhibition. According to a memoir kept by the friend and on display at the exhibition, some of Hitler's highest-paying and most loyal customers were Jews.

His work never rose to critical acclaim.

"He was known for copying from other images," said Deborah Rothschild, the curator who organized the Williams exhibition. "He had no originality."

While living the life of a struggling artist, Hitler was drawn to the politics of the Pan-German Party, a right-wing anti-Semitic group that claimed Aryan superiority.

Hitler shared the Pan-Germans' taste in art, favoring folksy paintings that asserted German dominance. He railed against modern art. As fuhrer, Hitler staged an art show of ''degenerate art,'' comparing works by artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Picasso to images of human deformity.

The Williams exhibition, mostly strung together with pieces on loan from museums in Vienna, shows original works and reproductions of the art to which Hitler responded. There are the images he loved--like the painting of drunken monks by Eduard von Grutzner--and those he loathed, including a self-portrait of Van Gogh.

"His taste was very conservative," Rothschild said. "He had an ideal of what art should be, and he hated what didn't fit that ideal."

Above all, Hitler seemed to have an obsession with opera--most notably the work of Wagner. Hitler began forming the aesthetic and philosophical groundwork for his Third Reich in Wagner's operas, anti-Semitic politics and pro-German writings, according to the exhibition.

"He loved Wagner," Rothschild said. "He loved the timing, the presentation and the design."

Wagner's set designer, Alfred Roller, had an obvious influence on Hitler.

"Prelude to a Nightmare" juxtaposes scenes from Wagner's operas against photos of rallies orchestrated by the dictator.

A painting of Roller's set design for "Rienzi" shows smoke and fire rising from Rome's capitol. The image is displayed next to a photograph of a Nazi night rally held in 1934, with smoke and fire set against large buildings. A set design from "Parsifal," with imposing high arches and thick columns, mirrors an image of a swearing-in ceremony for Hitler's bodyguards.

"You look at this, and you see where Hitler got some of his ideas," said Sherwin Fink, a business owner from Hillsdale, N.Y., who visited the exhibition recently. "It gives a different perspective on someone we know a lot about."

Rothschild designed the exhibition, which runs through Oct. 27, as part of a project highlighting art from Vienna being sponsored by 11 Berkshire galleries and museums.

"As a college museum, I wanted something that would be a catalyst for thinking and discussion," she said. "I wanted to give people something to talk about."

About 21,000 people have visited since the exhibition opened in July; Rothschild said there are no plans to put it on tour.

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