When German Performance Artist Ulay Stole Hitler’s Favorite Painting & Hung it in the Living Room of a Turkish Immigrant Family (1976)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

In Touch­ing Video, Artist Mari­na Abramović & For­mer Lover Ulay Reunite After 22 Years Apart

When Bri­an Eno & Oth­er Artists Peed in Mar­cel Duchamp’s Famous Uri­nal

Per­for­mance Artist Mari­na Abramović Describes Her “Real­ly Good Plan” to Lose Her Vir­gin­i­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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