Vincent van Gogh and Walt Disney Collection, 2006–2008

This widely exhibited body of works (from 2006–2008) now found from the Finnish National Gallery involves replicas of historical objects and imaginary collector items. The work could be described as cultural criticism, with focus on cultural myths and fetishes.

One of the works titled “I just wanted to be an artist (Winnie the Poo with severed ear)” 2007 was stolen from an exhibition in Berlin in September 2008. Current location remains unknown. Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported the event (in Finnish):

Hitler’s Art Storage

Written for the Young Artist’s exhibition at Helsinki Taidehalli in Dec. 2009

Miniature scale model of the Bavarian Neuschwanstein castle titled “The Hitler’s Art Storage” is now on display at the Young Artist’s exhibition at Helsinki Taidehalli. The piece was originally made for my solo exhibition at the Gallery Maud Piquion (former Anyway gallery) in Berlin, Germany in 2008. Body of work, in which the castle was part of, was the second edition of a larger body called “The Vincent van Gogh and Walt Disney Collection”. The Berlin body of work dealt with the Second World War’s relation between the and van Gogh and Disney. The exhibition included installations, paintings and photographs.

In the center of the collection was the concept of Neuschwanstein Castle. This Bavarian pseudo-medieval fairy-tale castle close to Munich is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Germany. It has annual 1.3 million tourist flow. During the Second World War Adolf Hitler used the castle as a storage house for confiscated art all around the Europe. All together the allied forces unpacked and catalogued artwork and other valuables for some 6000 units during the winter 1945-1946. After all the Neuschwanstein Castle itself is familiar for the larger public for other reasons. The Castle was a model for the Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland in the mid 1950s. This way the Castle has ended as Disney logo in to all the company’s motion pictures. This way we can think with a bit of irony that millions of small children all around the world know what the Hitler’s art storage looks like.

Collection included a work titled “The Hitler’s Art Storage”. It is a miniature scale model of the Neuschwanstein castle and in the yard of the castle I have staged a group of allied soldiers hauling the Hitlers collection for safekeeping. This event was also presented in a form of war archive photograph reproduction. Collection also included a very grim mood oil painting of the Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland.

With this collection I turned my critique towards culture industry, that changes our thoughts and focuses our interests towards something it want us to. The references of Second World War function as a metaphor of culture industry. In the events pictured in my work art is stolen, sold, destroyed, safe-kept, advertised, but also made. Culture industry produces knowledge, focuses interests and creates discussion.  

Culture Industry
In the early 1930s the Nazi party put out a campaign of propaganda films depicting the common ghetto dwellers, rats and Jews. In the 1931 this was just another laughable opinion. This created an outcry that Mickey Mouse should be taken as a symbol of reason, against swastika and persecution. Mickey Mouse pins where advised to be worn as an anti-Nazi statement. Mickey Mouse soon became the swastikas converse. The widely spread essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility” by German philosopher Walter Benjamin originally had a chapter on Mickey Mouse. This chapter got later chopped off. Benjamin changed his essay because of another philosopher Theodor W. Adorno who thought that Disney films where the evil embodiment of culture industry. According to Adorno the Disney films teach us to accept violence and the collective laughter in the movie theater is only few steps away from the sadistic laughter. “Donald Duck in the cartoons” who “like the unfortunate in the real life, gets a thrashing so that the viewer can get used to the same treatment.” (Adorno and Horkheimer 1989, 138) 

Adorno and another German philosopher and sociologist Max Horkheimer argued in the 1940s that popular culture is related to factory producing standardized cultural goods to manipulate the masses into passivity; the easy pleasures available through consumption of popular culture make people docile and content, no matter how difficult their economic circumstances are. Adorno and Horkheimer saw this mass-produced culture as a danger to the more difficult high arts. Culture industries may cultivate false needs; that is, needs created and satisfied by capitalism.

According to Adorno and Horkheimer culture not only mirrors society, but also takes a key role in shaping society through the processes of standardization and commodification. The culture industry claims to serve the consumers’ needs for entertainment, but conceals the way that it standardizes these needs. Culture industry manipulates the consumers to desire what it produces. The outcome is that mass production feeds a mass market that minimizes the identity and tastes of the individual consumers who are as interchangeable as the products they consume. 

Culture is often sought as a contradictory concept. Traditionally speaking culture has been a realm of disinterestedness. There has been attitude that culture cannot be seen as an area linked with the interested behavior of commerce or technology. According to Adorno and Horkheimer this is a false perception. Culture industry functions with the same principals that other human activities. Presentation of certain things happens every-time in the cost of other things are dismissed and ignored. This process creates a vicious cycle, in which the most popular and the most bought product is the one that is shown or displayed the most. The culture industry follows always the most sought-after merchandise, this creates instantly compulsive following of other consumers. The most wanted product eventually has monopoly because its visibility.

Vincent van Gogh and Walt Disney in prewar Germany
Both Vincent van Gogh and Walt Disney where widely popular in Germany before the World War II. Most of the van Gogh paintings where bought to Germany in the early twentieth century and van Gogh had influenced the German avant-garde painting especially Die Brücke movement. The thanks to this outcome is mostly to the Berliner gallerist Paul Cassirer who held major exhibitions in his gallery in Berlin. He had warm relationship with Johanna van Gogh-Bonger the widow of Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s brother. German art dealer Paul Cassirer sold van Gogh’s paintings to both private collectors and to the major museums of Germany. Berlin’s Nationalgalerie bought van Gogh’s famous painting Daubigny’s Garden in their collection (nowadays in the Hiroshima Museum of Art).
This is probably the last painting van Gogh ever finished, but this version is accused to be a fake). The most expensive painting of them all Portrait of Dr. Gachet was part of the Städelsches KunstinstitutStädel” collection in Frankfurt (in the 1990 the painting was sold to a private Japanese collector Ryoei Saito for $82.5 million, but the current location of the painting remains unknown).
In the beginning van Gogh was seen as a Germanic artist by the Nazis, because he was Flemish origin. Eventually in the late 1935 the propaganda ministry ordered all the German museums to send the van Gogh paintings to a collection point in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Some of the paintings got lost, others where returned after the war, others where sold in the infamous Fischer auction to help the war industry, but some of the painting became part of Hermann Göring’s private collection. Later on Göring sold the degenerate van Gogh paintings to expand his obscene collection of antique tapestries.

Disney was very popular in the pre-Second World War Germany. In the year 1933 over a hundred Disney films where in the hands of German distributors. Eventually the propaganda ministry banned Disney films in Germany because Disney’s middle name Elias sounded Jewish. Walt Disney himself in the other hand was keen to get his profits from Germany and joined frequently to the meetings and rallies of American Nazi party. Both Göring and Hitler are known to be fans of Disney films. Especially they found the Germanic qualities in Snow White and Pinocchio appealing. 

In January 2008 William Hakvaag a director of a Norwegian war museum claimed to have discovered cartoons drawn by Adolf Hitler during the Second World War. Hakvaag said he found the drawings hidden in a painting signed “A. Hitler” that he bought at an auction in Germany. Later he found an unsigned sketch of Pinocchio as he appeared in the 1940 Disney film and water color studies of the characters from the 1937 Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which had Hitlers A.H. signature. Hitler is known to have owned a copy of Snow White, the classic animated adaptation of a German fairy tale, and to have viewed it in his private cinema. There hasn’t been confirmation yet to this news wether it is a hoax or not. 

Walter Benjamin’s article:

Further reading:
Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso, London 1989
Eliot, Marc, Walt Disney : Hollywood’s Dark Prince, Andre Deutsch Ltd, London, 2003
Leslie, Esther, Hollywood Flatlands, Verso, London, 2004
Saltzman, Cynthia, Portrait of Dr. Gachet: the story of a van Gogh masterpiece, New York: Penguin Books, 1998

%d bloggers like this: