Carl Spitzweg’s 1839 painting The Poor Poet is an odd canvas, one which, the German History in Documents and Images project writes, “testifies to a general mid-century unease with the extremes of Romantic idealization.” On the one hand, it pokes fun at its subject, a “cliché of the artist as an otherworldly genius who must suffer for his art.” (The poet’s stove appears to be fueled by his own manuscripts.) On the other hand, the painting shows a sense of defiance in its figure of the bohemian: “antibourgeois, destitute, but inspired,” argues the Leopold Museum of another version of the painting. The Poor Poet’s ambiguity is “expressed in the iconography of the pointed cap… for during the French Revolution the so-called Jacobin or liberty cap was used as a symbol of republican resistance.”
Spitzweg’s painting was one of the most beloved of the period, and it cemented the reputation of the middle class former pharmacist as a foremost artist of the era.
It also happens to have been Adolf Hitler’s favorite painting, a fact that rather tainted its reputation in the post-war 20th century, but did not prevent its proud display in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, where, in 1976, German artist Ulay—partner of Marina Abramović from 1976 to 1988—walked in, took the painting and walked out again. “Ulay drove—with the museum guards at his heels—to Kreuzberg, which was known as a ghetto for immigrants,” writes the Louisiana Channel in their introduction to the 2017 interview with the artist above.
Here, Ulay ran through the snow with the painting under his arm, to a Turkish family, who had agreed to let him shoot a documentary film in their home—however unaware that it involved a stolen painting. Before entering the family’s home, the artist called the police from a phone booth and asked for the director of the museum to pick up the painting. He then hung up the painting in the home of the family “for the reason to bring this whole issue of Turkish discriminated foreign workers into the discussion. To bring into discussion the institute’s marginalization of art. To bring a discussion about the correspondence between art institutes from the academy to museums to whatever.”
You can see Ulay’s film, “Action in 14 Predetermined Sequences: There is a Criminal Touch to Art” at Ubuweb. The “action,” as he calls it, did indeed elicit the kind of inflamed responses the artist desired. Ulay puts several of the headlines before the camera, such as “Madman steals world-famous Spitzweg painting in Berlin” and “Poor Poet to Adorn the Living-Room of Turks.” The last headline hints at the kind of bigotry Ulay hoped to expose. “This particular painting, you could say,” he tells us in his interview, “was a German identity icon, besides it was Hitler’s favorite painting.”
Ulay’s art robbery underscores the multiple thematic and political tensions already embodied in The Poor Poet—a shrewd choice for his attempt “to give a really strong signal of what I am about as an artist.” An artist does not seclude himself in his garret with Romantic dreams of revolution, Ulay suggests, all the while representing “bourgeois tastes,” writes Lisa Beisswanger at Schirnmag, in “the temple of bourgeois high culture, for the artistic pleasure of the social establishment”—pleasing everyone from art critics, to solid German citizens who still hang the reproductions in “living rooms full of the same upholstered furniture and wall-to-wall oak-fronted cupboards,” to a genocidal dictator who played on the prejudices of the German people to accomplish the unthinkable.
Of what aesthetic value is this kind of performance art? Does Ulay’s outrage at the situation of Turkish workers, which he calls “not acceptable,” warrant the “action” of hanging stolen artwork in the home of one such immigrant family? We might not see “art theft as artwork,” as Beisswanger argues, but we can still see Ulay’s action as composed of multiple meanings, including radical critiques not only of racism and exploitation, but of the marginal, perhaps criminal, status of art and of the artist in a complacently xenophobic, exploitative society.