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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The way to end all wars

Hitler and Churchill were both artists. Who would have won a painting throwdown?

Mary's First Speech, by Winston Churchill (courtesy Wikiart)
The Battle of Britain was a military campaign between the Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe. It was brutal and bloody, with 90,000 civilian casualties, 40,000 of them fatal. It is remembered as the first major campaign fought entirely by air forces. The United States hadn’t yet weighed in against the Axis powers, and Britain and Canada went it alone against the greater strength of German air forces.

The Battle of Britain was also the only battle in history where both leaders were artists. If, in June of 1940, Britain and Germany had instead engaged their premiers in an art competition, who would have won?

“I am an artist and not a politician. Once the Polish question is settled, I want to end my life as an artist,” Adolf Hitler said. He was bitter at his failure to gain acceptance at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, and in Mein Kampf blamed that failure on ‘the Jews’.

The Courtyard of the Old Residency in Munich, by Adolf Hitler (courtesy Wikipedia)
Hitler was rejected twice by the academy. His problem was his portfolio, which was heavy on architecture, light on portraiture and figure. One professor, noting his excellent draftsmanship, suggested that he apply to the School of Architecture. As a drop-out, he would have had to return to secondary school first, and he was unwilling.

Hitler described himself as a ‘student’ of Rudolf von Alt. However, there is no fantasy and little of the natural world in Hitler’s work. He showed a profound disinterest in the people who should have inhabited the architectural spaces he drew. If they appear at all, they are static columns. His painting style was far more conservative and pedantic than the leading lights of fin-de-siecle Vienna, such as Gustav Klimt.

Tree at a Track, 1911, by Adolf Hitler (courtesy Wikipedia)
Winston Churchill did not pick up a paintbrush until the age of 40, but he had more than four decades to practice his great avocation. “Winston found hours of pleasure and occupation in painting,” wrote his daughter, Mary Soames.

“It was a ‘love affair’ with painting – I think that is the only way to describe it. Problems of perspective and colour, light and shade gave him respite from dark worries, heavy  burdens and the clatter of political strife.” Painting enabled him “to confront storms, ride out depressions and rise above the rough passages of his political life.”

Churchill took up painting in June 1915. His sister-in-law was painting in watercolor at the family home, Chartwell. She gave him her son’s kit and urged him to try it. He was so enthusiastic he bought an oil kit the next day.

Lakeland Scene near Breccles, by Winston Churchill (courtesy Wikiart)
“The first quality that is needed is audacity. There really is no time for the deliberate approach,” he said. As a very busy man, he had no patience with the idea of traditional training. “Two years of drawing lessons, three years of copying woodcuts, five years of plaster-casts, these are for the young… We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We just content ourselves with a joy ride in a paintbox.”

Churchill used painting to chase off the “black dog” of depression that haunted him through his life. By 1921, he was showing his work. He would submit pieces for jurying under pseudonyms so as not to influence jurors.

Churchill loved to paint en plein air, and his paintings are full of light and color. While he was not a master painter, he worked within the style and mood of his times, unlike the reactionary Hitler. If I were the juror, I’d give the first-place ribbon to him. Then again, I know how it ended.

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