Gert Jan Kocken

Gert Jan Kocken

Work from Judenporzellan.

“Street photographers have only a vague notion of what they’re looking for. But the moment the right situation does reveal itself, they recognise it immediately and leap into action. In the case of Dutch visual artist-photographer Gert Jan Kocken, the process is exactly the opposite. He knows what he’s looking for but has no idea what it will look like. I visited him in his Amsterdam studio early in 2007 to discuss our shared interest in iconoclasts.

While working on a project for the Utrecht Museum Het Catharijneconvent, Kocken discovered that images and bas-reliefs damaged during the Dutch iconoclastic riots in the sixteenth century still exist in Europe. In contrast, the history books are filled mostly with depictions of sledgehammer-wielding riff-raff on ladders taking church interiors to task. Is it possible that historians attach greater importance to subjective representations in illustrated books and eyewitness accounts than to the actual remains of the images and bas-reliefs themselves?
Unlike most historians, Kocken is first a viewer and only later a reader. He spent years searching for damaged images and bas-reliefs, focusing increasingly on making perfectly executed, crystal-clear photographs with his (8 x 10-inch) large- format camera of religious depictions that had never been restored. If I were to have to describe in one word what I felt when looking at his life-sized colour photographs, it would be – pain. Like when I saw the bas-relief of the Virgin and Child that once graced the interior of the Geneva cathedral where Calvin preached for so many years. It was so badly mutilated with an axe by iconoclasts that virtually the only elements of the original image still recognisable are the Virgin’s mantle and the contours of the bodies. Of the face of the Holy Child, cradled in the Virgin’s arms, only the lips are distinguishable. It is precisely on this detail in Kocken’s photograph – the baby lips searching for a nipple – that my glance repeatedly stumbles. The deeds of the iconoclasts were later justified in the name of the Second Commandment, which is violated in churches that are full of images. In reality, though, these rebels were probably hacking away at the carved bas-reliefs in protest at the repressive Catholic regime. But they didn’t quite finish the job, and this is precisely what gives the photographed image its historical significance.

There’s one image in particular in Kocken’s series of photographs of damaged religious images that appears to have nothing to do with all the others: it is a photograph of four watercolours lying in the shallow open drawer of a grey metal cabinet. As the ‘spoils of war’, these watercolours ended up in the military art collection of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., after the Second World War. Four diligently executed watercolours that crossed the Atlantic and now represent the paper incarnation of a turning point in history. They were made by the youthful Adolf Hitler at a time when he still had artistic aspirations. Biographer Ian Kershaw describes him as a pitiful little man roaming about Vienna like a genius manqué.

One of the watercolours, in which several buildings and a flight of steps are depicted, was to prove fatal to him or rather, to the world. It was partly on the basis of this painting that Hitler was refused entrance to the art school in Linz, Austria. If only he had shown the admissions committee the beer mat on which he had sketched a rather good prototype of the Volkswagen; he might have been admitted after all and become a draughtsman in a car factory after finishing his studies.

For several years, Kocken has been working on a series of photographs for the Nederlands Fotomuseum entitled ‘turning points in history’. In this context, while trawling the internet in 2003 in search of watercolours by Hitler, he read on a website that four indisputably authentic watercolours from Hitler’s hand were located in the military art collection of the Pentagon. Thanks to a letter furnished with every stamp the Nederlands Fotomuseum had in its possession, in 2004, one and a half years after submitting his first request, Kocken was finally granted permission to photograph the watercolours.

A few months ago, curious about the conditions under which these watercolours are being stored in the Pentagon and the reasons for the Pentagon’s refusal – despite numerous requests – to return them to the heirs of their original owner, I suggested to him that we go together to see them again.

The original owner was Heinrich Hoffmann, a fervent nazi and Hitler’s private photographer. In addition to the watercolours, the Pentagon collection includes Hoffman’s two and a half million negatives (that is, some 70,000 film rolls). This means he must have seen Hitler through the lens of his camera about two and a half million times: Hitler making faces at himself in the mirror to see how he comes across, Hitler looking angry, Hitler wearing lederhosen, Hitler with his mistress, Eva Braun, who worked in Hoffman’s camera shop.
In the 1930s, the Führer gave his watercolours to the designer and guardian of his public image, whom he also considered to be one of his few true friends. Hoffmann spent years in gaol after the war, but no sooner was he released than he submitted a claim to the American government requesting the return of his watercolours and negatives. To no avail; Hoffmann died in 1957. His daughter decided to pursue the claim. Unable to file a complaint herself against the American government because she was a German citizen, she engaged Billy Price, an American collector of Hitleriana, to assist her. Hoping to benefit financially, Price sued the state in her name for ninety-nine million dollars. After a prolonged series of lawsuits, the claim was finally rejected in 2004 by judges of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. The watercolours are never allowed to leave the drawer again. Personally, this decision pleases me. As the child of a Jewish father who barely survived a German concentration camp, I have always felt powerless. There is very little you can do to ease the pain, let alone take appropriate revenge. I wouldn’t want my father to be confronted with these unsolicited watercolours. The very idea of smashing the frames, shattering the glass and slashing away at the watercolours themselves with a sharp object gives me satisfaction, though there’s no need to act as long as they stay in the drawer.
One might wonder why the watercolours were never destroyed by the Americans. That might have been a problem if Hitler had been a good instead of a useless painter. But in this case, from an aesthetic point of view nothing would have been lost. Is destroying, sometimes asking for trouble? Because – Nazi-sympathisers might reason – what’s worth destroying is apparently significant. That the Americans decided to preserve these watercolours has resulted in the bizarre situation where Hitler’s knick-knacks are now better protected than a fresco by Giotto, Vermeer’s View of Delft or Mondriaan’s Pier and Ocean.

Hitler’s watercolours are safely stored away in a pitch-black drawer behind a locked door and two safe-doors, in order to prevent them from acquiring an iconic status among neo-Nazis. Thousands of confiscated art works were returned to Germans and Austrians after the Second World War. Only pieces in which Nazi leaders, swastikas or other Nazi propaganda are visible plus these four watercolours were sentenced to life-long house arrest by the Pentagon.
Thousands of art works confiscated by the Nazis were stored in the monastery at Mauerbach near Vienna for more than four decades after the war ended. Not even victims of the Nazi regime attempting to track down looted family art works were allowed into the heavily guarded monastery. For a claim to be honoured, one first had to submit convincing proof – like the Jewish woman who knew that a dart had once landed in the painting of her deceased grandparents, courtesy of their grandchildren. A small canvas patch was found glued to the back of the painting at that same spot.

There may even be paintings that were taken from my grandfather’s Amsterdam house at Mauerbach, but as heirs we stood no chance at all of recovering them because there were no photographs or insurance papers. As far as my father was concerned, the Austrians could keep the paintings anyway; they ‘wouldn’t bring back’ his father, brother and other family members.
It’s strange that I wasn’t allowed into the monastery at Mauerbach in the late 1980s, while I was granted permission so quickly to see Hitler’s watercolours at the Pentagon.

Washington, D.C., 22 June 2007. At about ten-thirty, Kocken and I arrive at the US Army Center of Military History, a noticeably solid office building. Two American flags flutter lazily on the front façade, the poles resting in bombproof steel cylinders. The building belongs to the office complex that falls under the Pentagon.

We report to the reception desk, where we’re thoroughly searched, our bags examined and our passports withheld. Renée Klisch, the Army Art Curator, is notified of our arrival by telephone as we sign the visitor’s list. She takes us by elevator down to her office in the basement of the building, which borders on the depot where the closed collection is stored.
Klisch is an energetic woman. She enthusiastically tells us about her life in this office, where she seldom receives visitors. Guests once called her ‘the world expert on the art of Hitler’. ‘Me?’ she said, pointing to herself, ‘this lone mole in this underground vault?’ Waving her short, stocky arms in the air and throwing her eyes upwards, she laughs and says, ‘The world expert on the art of Hitler! Informed, yes. World expert, no’. Klisch talks of her love of Cycladic art, her interest in evolutionary biology and her safaris in East Africa. So long as Hitler isn’t the subject, she seems to be in her element, but any mention of the Führer and painful memories of her father are evoked.

It couldn’t be more ironic. Klisch is Jewish, and her family suffered badly at the hands of the Nazis. Her father survived Auschwitz and emigrated to America shortly after the war. ‘He’d turn in his grave,’ Klisch intoned repeatedly during the conversation, ‘if he got wind that his daughter had become an expert on Hitler’s “art”.’ After the elderly Klisch landed in America, not a single German object was allowed into his house. And under no circumstances would he ever have allowed himself to be transported in a German car, not to speak of Hitler’s Volkswagen.
The curator picks up the book Hitler comme peintre from the table and starts leafing through it. As I glance around the office, strewn with piles of paper and books, I reflect: the strange thing isn’t that her father turns in his grave every now and then, but that he ended up in a grave at all. A grave with a stone on it on which you could choose to leave out one of your first names if you wanted. Only after he died did Klisch discover that the ‘A’ in his series of initials stood for Adolf. He’d managed to conceal it even from his own daughter.

Klisch enters the code for the safe and instructs us to follow her to the museum depot. Hundreds of paintings and drawings hang on extending racks. Most are of little artistic interest, though they may sometimes have documental value. There are a lot of paintings by artists who were specially hired by the American army to give an impression of life on the front. Between scenes of soldiers in combat, bomb explosions and advancing tanks and aircraft, two lovely landscapes strewn with oak leaves catch my eye. They date from the seventeenth-century, are probably French, and were given to the Pentagon by a grateful Jewish couple who survived the war. Nearby stands a portrait of Hitler on the floor that has been badly slashed with a knife several times by a right-handed soldier.

There’s a long tradition of artists painting war scenes at the front. The American army sent artists to the battlefront in the First and Second World Wars and during Vietnam. Watercolours with war scenes from Iraq are streaming in now too, though they’re being tampered with. One ‘army artist’ works regularly in Klisch’s office. Dressed in a patterned camouflage American uniform, he sits behind the computer with his sleeves rolled up and searches for spectacular photographs from the war photographers in Iraq. Occasionally he selects one and reworks it using Photoshop, until all the sharp contours are gone and the photograph resembles a veritable watercolour. Apparently there’s safe art as well as safe sex. This man is probably the best-protected watercolourist in the world.
After showing us around the collection, Klisch leads us back to the safe-door behind which is the grey cabinet. Opposite the cabinet stands a bronze bust of Hitler. As Klisch opens the drawer and the watercolours become visible, the Führer’s eyes pierce my back.
One of his watercolours, made during the First World War, depicts the entry to a bunker, a railway and soldiers no bigger than large wood ants. The words ‘Am Bahndamm, Bische, 3. Mai 1917’ are inscribed on it.

A drawer in a cabinet. A cabinet concealed in a safe, with a massive, heavy safe-door for which only Klisch knows the code. Located in a much larger safe, behind another locked door, in an underground office. An office in a highly secure building that forms part of the Pentagon complex. A series of buildings spread over the heavily guarded city of diplomats – Washington, D.C. In a country that has been on a constant state of alert since 9/11. Whoever makes the journey to see these watercolours will be aware of a ‘Droste effect’, with Hitler in the lead role; a mass murderer instead of the devoted Droste nurse on the cocoa tin.
When Kocken photographed Hitler’s drawer with his plate camera, it was no easy feat. To get the desired depth of field, a great deal of light was required. He therefore had to construct the photograph layer upon layer by flashing sixteen times with an open shutter. Every time he flashed, the horrifying image stuck to his retina before it slowly faded away. A short time later he would flash again, and the image and after-image would reappear. This was no longer photographing light, but constructing it. It took two full days before he achieved the desired effect. Back in Amsterdam he printed the photograph, then didn’t look at it again for a year and a half. He realised the final result could never compete with the actual experience of making the photograph.

Now, two years later, here he is standing in front of that same drawer again. He looks relaxed, knows what to expect and doesn’t have to work; this time it’s my turn to come into action.
As we gaze intently into the drawer one last time, Klisch tells us enthusiastically about the almost fluid movements of her tame ferret, who plays so sweetly with her cat. Then we leave the vault and say goodbye.

It is only on the train to New York a few hours later that it starts to dawn on me what Kocken did and why. For thirty years, the only text on Hitler’s drawer was ‘The Watercolors’. There was no description of the content, no name of the maker. It is precisely the complications of looking at these watercolours that fascinates him. ` And there’s a striking paradox that I too don’t quite know how to deal with. If Kocken should decide to hang his photograph in an exhibition, I’ll undoubtedly look at his work with interest and appreciation. He created art, with Hitler’s dismal watercolours as the most important ingredient. When I stood in the safe looking at them, they didn’t really affect me much, though they did evoke horrible associations. Normally, I’m not a fan of the Pentagon’s methods, but this time I actually appreciated the careful way they’d dealt with this matter.

But there’s one thing that shouldn’t be forgotten: should the watercolours ever be removed from Hitler’s drawer, to leave the safe and be exhibited somewhere, with respect for their maker, the deeply suppressed and dark iconoclast in me may well awaken from his slumber and I may no longer be able to vouch for myself.”

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