Hitler is long gone but "Mein Kampf" still haunts. Daniel Arizona considers an exhibition of artwork that uses the book as a canvas ...
The name Hitler, like that of Jesus Christ, has come to represent an absolute, well beyond the realm of humanity. Hitler and most of his followers are long dead, but "Mein Kampf" (“My Struggle”), his paranoid polemic about Germany’s racial supremacy and "the Jewish peril", lives on. The book is widely available in America and elsewhere, with more limited circulation in Europe, where pockets of racist extremism persist. Germany has banned the book since the second world war. On March 26th Russian authorities followed suit, to help curb the spread of far-right politics in the country.
These pages reveal an interesting range of reactions, from the snicker-inducingly puerile to the head-noddingly solemn. Hitler himself is often mocked, drawn wearing a dunce cap and panties with a yo-yo, or with a Pinocchio nose, or as a hydra or with crazy spiral eyes. Many of these pictures seem like doodles torn from an irreverent schoolboy’s notebook, as do the preponderant images of death. We see Hitler’s brush moustache made up of skeletons, or Hitler pulling the arm of a slot machine with skulls pouring out, or Hitler’s face superimposed over a skull. One page features a pen-and-ink sketch of Death on a pale horse with a sickle at the ready.
With all this macabre imagery competing for our attention, it is hard to feel shocked or moved. Yet much of it is refreshingly unexpected. Most exercises in Holocaust remembrance feature the usual sinister images of starving prisoners, barbed wire and the gate at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but few feature a page of “Mein Kampf” upon which each word of Hitler’s text has been carefully, delicately rendered into a small skull. Another especially powerful work sees a page of text covered with several pairs of reading glasses, grim souvenirs of the camps that also serve to magnify Hitler’s text (pictured above).
These sombre images and others like it are among the most intriguing. In other cases the text of “Mein Kampf” morphs into bars of troop movements, or the decorations on a general’s chest, or train tracks leading to the camps. Other designs include a storm cloud of bombers darkening the sky; a subway map of European domination; a river system of blood; a little girl holding tiny Nazi flags along a parade route; Einstein sticking out his tongue; Ann Frank’s image multiplied a la Warhol; a DNA double helix drawn over a page pertaining to the sterilization of “incurables”; or a bird’s eye view of rows of Hasidic Jews whose wide-brimmed black hats and prayer shawls become eyes staring out at the viewer with a mysterious and questioning look. On some pages a lock of hair or a gold tooth has been added, a silent reminder of the individual who once possessed them.
The work is inevitably uneven, given how many hands were involved. Yet one of the show’s greatest strengths is the panoply of styles, which act almost like a primer on modern art. The pieces reference Francis Bacon, Munch, Keith Haring, Picasso, Dali, Miro, Malevich, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Richard Hamilton, R. Crumb and Anselm Kiefer, creating not only eye-grabbing visuals, but also reinforcing the role of art as a therapeutic outlet that has long crossed national and historical boundaries.
This diversity of responses proves Linda Ellia’s insight. The pages of "Mein Kampf" make for an irresistible palimpsest, an inviting canvas for the anguished imagination. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, which organised this show, reminds us that while Hitler’s evil text can never be un-written, it is useful, perhaps even necessary, to transform each page to express something else.