June 2008, The Chapman Brothers @ White Cube

 

 Jake and Dinos Chapman
 If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be
 2008
 Thirteen watercolours on paper
 Dimensions variable
 © the artist
 Courtesy Jay Jopling/ White Cube (London)

 
If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be
The Chapman Brothers
30 May—12 Jul 2008
White Cube

"If hell exists and Hitler's there, he'll be spinning,"

The Chapman brothers, the most controversial duo in the art-world is back with a mischievous show at White Cube.

If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be
includes 13 original watercolours by Adolf Hitler that the Chapmans purchased as a job-lot for £115,000 and embellished with the addition of psychedelic rainbows, love hearts, butterflies and stars. The result is visually questionable; the clear discrepancy between the original work and the contemporary addition is striking, to say the least. Yet, with some of the brothers’ work, the referential layers they consciously engage with are as relevant as the finished object itself.

It is no surprise that some headlines have been dismissive of the Chapmans’ recent work, it looks easy, but it is not: behind the studied and staged sensationalism, their work engages with a number of rather relevant cultural issues. Defacing Hitler’s watercolours, constitutes a primal postmodernist paradigmatic application: appropriation, intervention and pastiche operate in unison here. Of course, we have seen this before in other postmodernist works of art, Duchamp did it as early as 1919 with L.H.O.O.Q. when he drew mustache on a reproduction of Mona Lisa. A reproduction, postcard size that was, whilst the watercolours used by the Chapmans are indeed the original works by Hitler: the most famous failed artist in the world, and a figure whose long shadow has darkened, like no other, the cultural development of the past century.


 Jake and Dinos Chapman
 If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be
 2008
 Thirteen watercolours on paper
 Dimensions variable
 © the artist
 Courtesy Jay Jopling/ White Cube (London)

The Chapman’s irreverent intervention can be mistaken for superficial fun, but it actually more deeply interrogates our understanding of Hitler as a cultural icon. Should the original watercolours be preserved because they were painted by a person of historical value? Are we willing to say we like Hitler’s work? Is it right to deface the originals? It has to be noted that the series of watercolours is no longer Hitler’s, and has become the Chapman Brothers work instead. What does it mean, as a contemporary artist, to layer your work right on top of that of the greatest dictator of all times?

Jake and Dinos Chapman denied that the paintings, which are now selling as a single work at the price of £685,000, sought to ‘redeem’ Hitler, and classed the original watercolours as ‘bland’ and lacking in talent. "The idea of redeeming Hitler is bad, the idea of redeeming his work is a staggering work of genius," said Jake.

The works on show are the ones Hitler produced to gain access to Vienna’s art school. Dinos said: “the work is intended as a rumination of what might have been, had Hitler not been refused entry”.


Jake and Dinos Chapman
If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be

2008
Thirteen watercolours on paper
Dimensions variable
© the artist
Courtesy Jay Jopling/ White Cube (London)

Part of the show is also a series of interventioned eighteenth and nineteenth century-style portraits of aristocrats entitled ‘One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved’. Here again, the Chapman brothers use a rather similar strategy to that seen in the Hitler’s series, but in this case, to a more light-hearted effect. The ghoulish masks, deformities and wounds painted on top of the original surface are executed with such startling precision and care to perfectly integrate with the original hues and atmosphere of the subject.

Clearly a parody of the genre of portraiture, the series is a celebration of period-grotesque. For the die-hard fans, the artists have also inserted a couple of references to their body of work in some of the paintings: a woman with a rather familiar phallic nose (in reference to their infamous mannequins) and a gentlemen sporting a clown nose, a rather ghostly reminder of their MacDonald themed Chapman Family Collection work of 2002.

Occupying the entire lower ground floor gallery is Fucking Hell. The new ‘Hell’ that is; many will remember that the original piece, bought by Charles Saatchi for £500,000, was one of more than 100 major artworks destroyed in the East London art depot blaze in 2004.


 Jake and Dinos Chapman
 Fucking Hell
 2008
 Glass-fibre, plastic and mixed media (nine parts)
 8 parts: 84 5/8 x 50 11/16 x 98 3/8 in. (215 x 128.7 x 249.8 cm) /
 1 part: 84 13/16 x 50 3/8 x 50 3/8 in. (215.4 x 128 x 128 cm)
 © the artist
 Photo: Hugo Glendinning
 Courtesy Jay Jopling/ White Cube (London)

The work originally was the centrepiece of Apocalypse the hit-show held at the Royal Academy in London (2000) largely anticipated as ‘Sensation’s sequel. The new version counts nine large glass cases arranged in the shape of a swastika, in which a disturbingly detailed evocation of human evil, acted out by vast numbers of toy soldiers on a minute scale is staged. Each case offers new levels of unconceivable gore to the exploring gallery visitor, whilst nine different beautifully crafted diorama function as a stage to the brutal barbarity carried out by minute Nazi soldiers. Here the Chapmans really show off their obsessive attention to detail. The eye of the beholder is guided from an horrific scene to the next, following two-headed naked humans, swastika-limbed torsos, thousands of heads on sticks, pigs, vultures and crows, rats and skulls, right through to the main scene of the installation: the baptism of Hitler taking place in the crumbling church. Each statuette, not taller than a couple of inches is crafted and painted with painstaking care. The brothers claim that each piece, originally a common plastic toy soldier that can purchased in any toy shop, is warmed up just enough to allow for the repositioning of limbs into the desired pose.

This is one of those works of art that photographs will never be able to capture in its entire glory. You need to see it and you need to be there, as part of the enjoyment is grounded in the experiential discovery of unspeakable atrocities that are unveiled on the way - currently reported to have been sold for £7.5m. Unmissable.

 

 

Giovanni Aloi is a lecturer of Art History and Media Studies and Editor in Chief of Antennae, the online Journal of Nature in Visual Culture. He also lectures at Tate Modern and Tate on the subject of the galleries' collections. His main research areas involve modern and contemporary art with a strong interest for the representation/presence of animals in the exhibiting space.
giovanni.aloi@googlemail.com
 

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