Sorry, My Beautiful Hitler Is Gone

Some rainy days in Berlin are worth erasing from our memory. Yesterday, however, was memorable despite the humidity and grayness: I thought I'd heard and read a lot about beauty and art but then I met with Hagen Vogel. Earlier this month, the 24 year old German artist had his artwork (an Adolf Hitler portrait) confiscated by police from what he claims were all the wrong reasons. Artparasites went up to his 4th floor flat in Wilmersdorf, the scene of the sacking, where Hagen received us wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt and pulled-back hair, acute and sure of himself, ready to share his side of the story. I had prepared a set of questions to conduct in German – the language he feels most comfortable in – but they all started failing; turns out what the media had published was misinformation. He had not done it to provoke nor to break a tabu in society—it was all done for beauty. 

First Hand Account

Hagen Vogel lives in a normal Berliner apartment, far away from the sight of any neighbors or intruder. I learnt that only a few people knew about the Hitler portrait he was painting: his parents and some friends – those who have visited his house and, more specifically, his room. Vogel has made it into a petit studio, filled with plants, a mega-king size bed and some of his paintings hanging on the wall. As we enter, we see an even more eye-grabbing portrait: former Pope, Joseph Ratzinger. The questions I had prepared where all in English, I planned to translate them in situ during the conversation. My mind starts to go rapidly to the sector of my brain were my German knowledge is archived: where is all the vocabulary regarding religion and how can I get it out fast enough? 

Note: dictators and popes are not his only subject matter. Painting by Hagen Vogel. Photo: Chris Phillips

The artist painted a portrait of Hitler during three years and, at the moment of confiscation, it had not been finished yet – Hagen remembers with sweet nostalgia that his fingers still needed to be worked on. This moved me and we smiled simultaneously for the first time. He had no intention of showing the portrait to the public and, contrary to what one – or the UdK Professor that expelled him from class – might think, he did not want to provoke: "Even if I had put it on display, it would not have been propaganda, it would have been still just a painting." Vogel had told some people about it, but he never showed any photos or evidence he had it. Apparently, these rumors spread and someone notified the police. 

The quid of the matter: why paint Hitler? I admit I had to ask this question about three times to fully understand, and then, finally: "Because people recognize him; it´s a face people know and not just colors on canvas. I think in art there’s already too much about people discussing colors on canvas," he tells me. His goal is that people will not linger too much on technicalities of the work of art, but rather take a closer look at it because it calls their attention – for obvious reasons. Though he believes people reacted too strongly to the painting only because the Government dictates such interpretations of the work: that it is simply wrong to paint Hitler. It is a canned reaction, a reflex, no one really takes the time to process it, its instinctive almost: "Someone finds a painting bad, then the alarm goes off and they notify the Police. That is Fascist." I agreed with a quirky laughter. 

Vogel has already spent 22 hours working on this portrait. Photo: Chris Phillips

He insists: "Of course it doesn't have anything to do with Hitler as a dictator or historical figure. I am not a politician or a historian, I am a painter. It’s not about those things, it is only about what there is to see. Even if I had hanged it outside my balcony, it still doesn't make sense that they would confiscate it, because it is a painting."

On Art & Beauty

Vogel shares with me that art should make the world better. He enjoys the works of Makoto Aida who for him is currently one of the best painters, if not the only good one. Regarding what he considers valuable in art today: "What I do: to give value to art and make it beautiful. It’s about making a painting beautiful, not making it relevant for Art History so it can fit into a category." 

I couldn't wait to ask what he thought of the Berlin art scene and then boom: "It´s the epicenter of bad art," he says — even at the UdK. In his opinion, students are there to paint only something unrecognizable that is mostly ugly and boring. "They are not focused on the beauty of art, but only in trying to excel in a technique another artist has already excelled at." He mentions that today everyone reads a lot of books, they know about history, painters and esthetic tendencies so they can connect what they see with this knowledge, regardless of what it looks like. "There is so much art that looks awful but artists find a way to combine materials so that it looks like it´s been worked on. It gives them the sense of satisfaction of what they did, but it kills art. This is a weird society that does not value the normal work; painting for the sake of beauty."

Hagen is a young man with fierce and somehow sweet conviction. Regarding the police episode, he preferred not to account for the details, the important thing is that his friends support him and they know how important the painting was for him. Art is in fact about the holiness of what we create and even though this artist was deprived from his creation, he remains faithful to his beliefs and continues to make art in his room, quietly but vehemently. 

Article by Sofía Martinelli