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Transcript: ArtCurious Episode #22

In June 2015, an auction house in Nuremberg, Germany, made headlines for a group of 14 small works sold for a sum of around 450,000 dollars. They were a mix of drawings, paintings, and watercolors, and honestly, they were fairly lackluster, aesthetically speaking. One of the works alone garnered nearly a quarter of the proceeds, at around a total of 100 thousand euros. It featured a pretty standard view of the Neuschwanstein Castle, near Munich, which draws millions of tourists every year in the 21st century, and certainly raised considerable interest in the dawn of the 20th, as well, when the scene was painted. But when it comes to art and art auctions, we have to face a truth: a grand total of four hundred and fifty thousand dollars, spread out over the sale of fourteen separate pieces of mediocre quality, at a small auction house in Europe? Really, that isn't a fantastic haul, and shouldn't have garnered too much media interest. Art auctions by the big houses like Christie’s and Sotheby's in major metropolitan areas around the world could sell one single painting for tens of millions of dollars-even hundreds of millions of dollars- and people barely blink an eye, unless a financial record is broken- because art is big business, and quality works of art are practically expected to garner huge sums. But this cache didn't. And yet it was a big deal. Why? What was so great about them? Well, it actually wasn't about quality or greatness at all. It was more about notoriety, because the artist was one of the most abhorrent human beings in all of history. The artist was Adolf Hitler.

Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those can be paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. And today, we're going to contemplate the way that fine art inspired, affected, and ultimately molded the man who would become the biggest architect of terror in the 20th century. Welcome to a new season of the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.

In this second season of the ArtCurious podcast, I'll be guiding you through a number of episodes in which world war 2 and the art world intersect. In episode number 21, the first in this season, we began with an exploration of the ways in which war and art have always been connected, and how world war 1 and the era leading up to the Second World War produced a number of artists and art movements engaged directly with the political and cultural themes swirling around in Europe. Today, though, will be a reflection that moves even closer to the Second World War through a discussion of Adolf Hitler himself, who aspired to be a successful artist long before he ventured disastrously into the political realm. Before we begin, I just want to note that some listeners might find today’s episode bothersome, as it narrates Hitler's early life in a way that shows him as an actual human being. I tell it today not to invoke sympathy toward him. I still, and will always, think of him as a manipulative monster who destroyed millions upon millions of lives. But I give it to you today because it is an actual part of Hitler's biography. And art, as we will find out today and in later episodes this season, was integral to Hitler's concepts behind the so-called purification of Europe.

Adolf Hitler was born near Linz, Austria, in what was then part of the Austria-Hungarian empire, in 1889. He was one of six children, three of whom died in infancy, and was particularly close to his younger brother, Edmund. When Edmund died in 1900 from complications from the measles, Adolf was so distressed that his personality seems to have changed considerably. The 11-year-old was once an outgoing, bright child who seemed to be at least someone obedient, though there are reports that he was in relatively regular conflict with his father. But after Edmund’s passing, Adolf grew depressed, detached, and prone to outbursts both at school and at home. He was troubled. And he was trouble. His family had shuttled back and forth between Austria and Germany in the first decade of Hitler’s life, which meant entering and exiting various schools. Shortly after Edmund’s death, Hitler’s father ignored his son’s marked interest in the fine arts and sent him to school in Linz in 1900 with the hope that he would follow in his own footsteps and become a clerk at the customs bureau. But as Hitler noted in his infamous book, Mein Kampf, he purposefully ignored his coursework and did as poorly as possible without completely failing, and did so with the hope that his father would come to his senses, seeing, quote, “what little progress I was making at the technical school and he would let me devote myself to my dream.” We can see that even at this early age, Hitler was obsessed with getting his way, and with manipulating others in order to get it. But the elder Hitler was undeterred by his son’s actions. It was only after his father’s death in 1903 that Adolf was allowed to leave the technical school and to pursue his own path. He ceased all traditional education in 1905 and set out on his own with no plans of continuing his schooling, nor any real direction towards a career. His only hope was to become a successful artist-- but, to his poor mother’s dismay, he did little to actually bring this dream to reality. For nearly two years after he dropped out of school, he spent days wandering Linz, living a life of leisure on his mother’s dime, taking in operas and concerts and visiting museums and art galleries in the afternoon, after he slept the morning away. At night, after a day roaming about, he would return home and stay up late to sketch or read-- about art, German history, Norse mythology, and any other topic that struck his fancy. Adolf Hitler would later describe this time period as among the very happiest in his life.

In early 1907, Hitler convinced his mother to provide him with money to make the journey to Vienna, Austria’s wealthy and glittering capital city almost two hundred kilometers to the east of Linz. This is where all the big things were happening: all the best music, all the best dancing, and all the best art. Hitler was immediately entranced, and, like many people do when they first aspire to become a working artist, he made the decision to get outta Dodge and move to the big city. That’s where the art schools are, the like-minded creators, and, most importantly, the commissions and money.  It was the first act of direction that the mostly directionless young man had ever achieved.

So, at eighteen years old, Adolf Hitler found himself living in Vienna, funding himself, again, through his mother’s support and from benefits received after his father’s death. But those benefits didn’t get him very far. As Peter Schjeldahl, the arts critic for the New Yorker magazine wrote, Hitler was QUOTE “one of the city's faceless, teeming poor. He often slept in a squalid homeless shelter, if not under a bridge.” He received work, for a short time, as a day laborer, but found that he wasn’t built for such physical activity -- he was too thin, too weak. But it wasn’t only that-- he also didn’t want to have this workaday lifestyle. Why hold down a meaningless job toiling day in and day out when you could pursue your lofty goals?

So he went for it-- he began creating art for the sole purpose of selling it. At the beginning, he went the souvenir route, and began making a scant living by painting and drawing postcards for tourists who were enjoying Vienna’s sights on their grand tours. He supplemented this meager income with commercial jobs, mostly painting houses, but again, the physical aspect of the job combined with his incessant boredom was too much for him. And he was ready to really take his art to the next level. That’s coming up, after the break.

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Welcome back to ArtCurious.

Young Adolf Hitler, even from an early age, had a profound interest in drawing, and frequently whiled away class time by doodling. Early on, his teachers identified him as being somewhat talented in this regard, but remember that he was an uncooperative, unmotivated, and also a morose student, so his teachers found it useless to convince him to work hard at much of anything. But the story goes that he could produce realistic and detailed images from memory-- especially of architecture, which interested him greatly. Most importantly, he had self-confidence-- whether or not it was a delusion is a separate issue. He knew he could be a great artist. He just needed to go out and make it happen, after some hard-core training.

So In 1907, he took this first big step towards becoming a quote unquote “real” artist-- he applied to the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, a well-respected art school that was founded over two hundred years prior, in the late 17th century. Originally a private institution, the Austria-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph the first allowed for public governmental funding for the school beginning in the late 19th century, which opened its doors to a wider number of students from various walks of life, though women weren’t allowed until the 1920s. For decades, it was considered the top authority on the arts in all of Austria, producing some of the most famous artists and professors of the time. Adolf Hitler wanted that intense instruction and improvement that traditional arts education would provide-- and, to be fair, the cache of attending the preeminent arts school in the country wouldn’t hurt, either.

Certainly this situation seemed like an improvement to Mama Hitler, who was flummoxed and worried about her son’s aimlessness. A school with an actual curriculum would be good, she thought. And it was nice to have one less thing to stress about-- particularly since, during this time period, she was gravely ill with breast cancer. Adolf was horribly concerned with his mother’s well-being and nearly returned to Linz with the intention of caring for her-- but his hope of becoming a truly great artist took over. Plus, his aunt had recently provided him with a loan of over 900 Kronen to support his artistic development, which, according to Ian Kershaw’s book, Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris, was the equivalent of nearly a year’s salary for a lawyer or a doctor in Vienna at that time. Who in his right mind would want to give that up?

In October 1907,  Hitler sat for the two-day entrance exam for the Academy of Fine Arts. This was actually the second step in a lengthy and grueling admission process. Hitler had cleared the first step by presenting what he called quote a thick pile of drawings” to the selection committee. Upon seeing an overview of what the young artist could achieve, they granted him the ability to attend the entrance exam itself. For the October test date, Hitler was one of over one hundred men allowed to sit for the exam, which consisted of two sessions of three hours each, for six hours in total of creating drawing on specific themes, usually historical or religious in nature, in a nearly non-stop time frame. It was a long, and hard, process-- and one that, ultimately, would yield only a small percentage of successful applicants-- out of over 100 prospective students, only 33 would be allowed entry to the academy.

Adolf Hitler was totally certain that he would be one of them. As he wrote in Mein Kampf, quote, “I was convinced that it would be child’s play to pass the examination. I was so convinced that I would be successful.”

But he wasn’t. And as Hitler later wrote, his rejection of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna came as such a shock that it was like quote “a bolt from the blue.” The brief official response given simply stated that his test drawings were quote “unsatisfactory.” Art historian Michael Liversidge, an Emeritus Dean of Arts at Bristol University in the U.K., was one of a few scholars who actually was able to study similar drawings by Hitler that were created during this time period when a portfolio of these works came up for auction at Mullock's auction house in Ludlow, Shropshire, in April 2010. These drawings were intended to give a well-rounded look at the artist’s style, techniques, and handling of various subject matter, including landscapes, still lifes, and then human figure. As Liversidge noted to the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper, quote, “They look quite typical of an aspiring student hoping to get into art school - tentative and not very certain about his perspective when he's using pencil and pen, making basic errors by getting the top and the bottom of a still life wrong in relation to each other and so on...And he doesn't yet have much in the way of technical skill, but it's not so bad that one can't imagine him learning - especially when he's bolder with the charcoal or black chalk. But there's no latent genius here, and probably if the artist was at school today you wouldn't encourage him to keep the subject up.”

Hitler was not only super disappointed by the response, but he was badly shaken and very angry. And he wanted a real answer for his rejection. So he went to the rector of the Academy for a face-to-face meeting. As Hitler himself narrated in Mein Kampf, quote, “When I presented myself to the rector, requesting an explanation for my non-acceptance at the Academy's school of painting, that gentleman assured me that the drawings I had submitted incontrovertibly showed my unfitness for painting, and that my ability obviously lay in the field of architecture; for me, he said, the Academy's school of painting was out of the question, the place for me was the School of Architecture." But for Hitler, architecture-- though he loved to draw and design buildings-- wasn’t the plan. He wanted to be a fine artist, creating incredible works of art to influence the world around him. Architects just didn’t have that same kind of influence, he thought. On top of all that, the School of Architecture was even more rigorous than the Academy of Fine Arts and required a completion certificate for secondary education, something akin to a high school diploma. As he did not finish high school, this was a total no-go. So, he found himself at a loss for the first time in his life, and he was so embarrassed and disheartened that he apparently kept the news of his rejection a secret from everyone-- even his mother, who died less than three months later and never knew of her son’s great defeat.

It appears that Adolf Hitler thought that his rejection from the Academy of Fine Arts was a fluke, a one-off, and that at a different time and perhaps with a different admissions committee, things might have turned out better for him. So, in the following year, 1908, he requested the opportunity to sit for the strenuous two-day exam again. But this time, he was rejected outright- on the first ask, and didn’t even make it to that second step in the process. Again, Hitler was told that he was unacceptable as a fine artist. He didn’t have the stuff-- not even to be a student. Faced with two rejections from the Academy in the span of a year, as well as the devastating loss of his mother, one of his only true believers, Hitler was reeling. “The fulfillment of my artistic dream,” he later said, “seemed physically impossible.”

There have been theories over the years about how and to what extent Hitler’s denial of access to art school affected him. One of the most prominent theories is that his rejection was the very first moment that sparked his hatred of Jewish people and his wish to quote -unquote “purify” Germany and Austria. This idea was put forward by one of Hitler’s closest friends from his youth, a man named August Kubizek, known to Hitler as “Gustl.” Gustl and Adolf were old pals from Linz, but eventually became roommates in Vienna during this period where Adolf was vying for a spot at the Academy, and Gustl achieved a spot at the Vienna Conservatory of Music, studying to be a conductor. In 1908, after his second rejection from the Academy, Hitler found himself out of money and unable to pay rent on his room. He became homeless, and abruptly broke off his friendship with Gustl for an unknown reason-- perhaps, as with his mother, he was too embarrassed and distraught to admit that he was an artistic failure. They later reconciled, more than thirty years later, after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. After the war, Gustl released his memoirs, titled The Young Hitler I Knew, published for the first time in 1953 and translated into several languages. In that book, Gustl noted his claim that Hitler’s unabashed hatred of Jews stemmed from the Academy’s rejection, as there were Jewish professors and scholars on the acceptance panel. But, as several historians have pointed out over the years, this is likely a myth and an altogether too convenient explanation. In his own writings, Hitler himself never made mention of Jewish people being to blame for his rejection, and for someone who had such a high regard for himself, it seems that he would have been quick to pin the blame on someone else. Also, Gustl’s own memoirs were edited down several times before their 1950s release, and there is apparently no mention of this theory at all in the earlier drafts. It may very well be the case that Hitler himself, as well as his cohort and close friends like Gustl, simply used this theory as a way to further indict the Jews of purported wrongdoings. In essence, this could have been Hitler’s own way to excuse his horrible actions that led to the Holocaust, a kind of “They brought this on themselves” skewed mentality. But really, it is far more likely that he developed his malicious mindset because of where he was living at the time. Vienna, at the beginning of the 20th century, was a well-known hub of religious prejudice and anti-Semitism. Racism and fear of immigrants were rampant. (Sounds really different from today, huh?) A negative attitude towards Jews was widespread, and the air in Vienna was thick with acrimony and alienation. Hitler probably absorbed these feelings and ideas, stewing around in them and letting them affect him, and his young mind, in a lasting way.

Interestingly enough, the Academy rejection, even that second time around, did not appear to stop Hitler from attempting to keep his hand in the art world, at least until the start of the First World War. He still painted city views for tourist souvenirs, several of which he sold to Viennese art dealers, many of whom, by the way, were Jewish.  As Peter Schjeldahl noted in the New Yorker, he actually counted Jews among his friends and associates, and even initially had nothing but positive things to say about them as a whole. Some of these art-dealer associates even helped young Hitler find commercial design work creating posters for various businesses about town. Essentially, for several years, he was working as an artist-- even if it only provided him with an extremely paltry existence wherein he was still moving between being homeless and living in low-rent men’s homes. It appears that he only really stopped working towards his lifelong goal of being a fine artist when he enlisted in the Army at the outbreak of World War One.

Even after the First World War, when Hitler moved into politics and away from art, art never really left him. And he actually used some of his skills-- meager though they may have been-- to create campaign posters and to design buildings and monuments to be carried out by architect and Reich Minister Albert Speer. His single most successful design? The black-white-and-red Nazi Swastika flag. All this time, between and during both world wars, he continued drawing and painting-- this time as a pastime and no longer as a vocation. But it was a pastime that he considered taking very, very seriously. His interest in. art changed from being the greatest artist to owning the greatest artworks, and this obsession affected Hitler’s orders to his own armies and the places he chose to invade. He even looked forward to after the war, mentioning to his senior council that he fully intended to retire peacefully back to Linz and devote his remaining days to art after he was victorious in World War 2. Because Hitler really thought, for a long time, that he was going to win the war. But fortunately, as we now know, he didn’t. And he committed suicide by gunshot on April 30, 1945, in his bunker in Berlin.

Adolf Hitler's hopes of becoming a working artist didn't pan out. But curiosity about this has certainly spawned one of the greatest what-ifs of our modern time. What would have happened if Adolf Hitler had been accepted by the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna? Would he have grown and matured as an artist and improved enough to make a real living? Would he have been preoccupied enough by his studies that an interest in politics would never have crossed his mind? Would a more progressive art school environment have sheltered him somewhat from absorbing the hostility and paranoia of the greater Viennese society? Of course, these kinds of questions are impossible to answer. Hitler did fail. And he did later become one of the architects of destruction in the greatest war of the 20th century. Luckily, there were actually a whole slough of artists-- both professional and beginners-- who, like Hitler, also had high hopes of pursuing a creative career of some capacity. And it turns out that a few of them actually used their talents in the name of heroism and the greater good during the Second World War. That’s next time, in two weeks, on the ArtCurious Podcast.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal. Research assistance is provided by the wonderful Stephanie Pryor. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at  

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Transcript: ArtCurious Episode #23

Transcript: ArtCurious Episode #21