The Artwork of Bob Ross and Adolf Hitler
Bob Ross and Adolf Hitler are names that most would not ever expect to see in the same sentence. This may be because the two seem like perfect opposites. In fact, if you asked everyone in the world to name someone who is the opposite of Hitler, there would be easy answers like Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin, but more than a few would probably say Bob Ross without any prompting.
The reason for this is not surprising. Hitler and Ross, as characters and archetypes, stood out for different reasons. Their oratorical styles (and yes, Ross is noteworthy as an orator as Hitler is as an artist) are a prime example of this. Hitler’s speech typified the booming, roaring ambition and fierce competitiveness that is often associated with German culture, even after de-Nazification. The soft-spoken, fatherly Ross, often credited with the invention of ASMR, represented a humble soul that saunters in harmony with the North American wilderness.
Yet, something stands out, an odd similarity in their artwork (and both men produced thousands of pieces). Wikipedia states how a modern critic, analyzing some paintings without knowing Hitler made them, suggested that his art showed little interest in people, preferring the buildings of city life or scenes of the countryside. Ross’s business partner, Annette Kowalski, noted how the PBS star also disliked depicting people, often preferring not to include manmade objects either. An aversion to human beings in art is an interesting similarity for painters of such markedly different personalities, one that is perhaps worth analyzing.
Bridging Ross and Hitler
The link between the two men is a Prussian-born artist named Bill Alexander. Born in midst of World War I, he lived in Germany during its tumultuous Interwar years and witnessed Hitler’s rise to power as a teenager. When World War II began, he was forced to fight in the German Army and execute Hitler’s vision of an Aryan Empire. Where World War I fueled Hitler’s nationalism and belief in German domination of Europe by force, Alexander felt differently about being dragged into his dictator’s fight. He resented the fruitlessness of war and fascism and sought a way out.
Alexander managed to get removed from the Eastern Front and assigned to the Western Front, where he was (successfully) captured by the Allies. Army officers noticed his artistic talent and paid him to make portraits, and so Alexander enjoyed better relations with his American captors than he did with his German commanders. With the end of the war and the expulsion of ethnic Germans from his native Prussia by the embittered Russians and Poles, Alexander found himself without a home and chose to make new life in America and Canada, rather than return to Germany. In his travels over the next three decades, he would take the age-old “wet-on-wet” style of painting, more formally called “alla prima,”and pioneer it for new efficiency and speed. These methods earned him a PBS show, The Magic of Oil Painting, which would inspire Bob Ross. Ross eventually became a student of Alexander’s and would succeed him on PBS with his own show, The Joy of Painting.
Thus, we have a tale of Adolf Hitler, a young man who failed to get into art school in Vienna, and while he never lost his love for art, this struggle sent him down a career path of war and politics. This, in turn, created a struggle for a young Bill Alexander, who shared some of those flamboyantly industrious, German traits but sought an escape toward a more spiritual and peaceful way of life, which he found overseas. This escape he sought in the artistic tradition he founded was later realized more completely by his student, Bob Ross, who continued to teach Alexander’s methods for another generation.
Two schools of realism
Both Hitler and Ross were disinterested in art that featured people. Realizing the places they occupy in the narrative, however, helps to illustrate how this manifested itself very differently in their artistic styles. While neither cared for the abstract, Hitler enjoyed displaying the architecture of towns such as Vienna and Munich. The geometric features of these buildings are where most of the attention is given. The trees are more general, and where people do appear, they are merely props. The buildings themselves are the characters of his stories, apparently better representations of German advancement than Germans as individuals. Where his works are greener, they show the countryside, not the wilderness, in a land that has been tamed and developed for over a millennium.
Ross, on the other hand, mostly ignores the constructs of man, German, American, or otherwise. His own time in the Air Force, being stationed in Alaska, revealed to him the beauty of wildlife and the environment. For him, human beings weren’t the characters of his world. The trees and the mountains were. This is clear from his own descriptions. The inanimate objects of his work were always “happy.” After painting a tree, he’d start another, noting that he was giving the first tree a “friend.”
While both Ross and Hitler were realists, this did not mean that they lacked space for creativity.
Hitler’s paintings do not explode with hue. They are not vivid or vibrant. One even suspects that he was adding more grey than what he really saw. Even his depictions in full daylight have a somber tone, hoping the viewer will take in the majesty of fine shapes and angles. The technique is very mechanical, and it also seeks to celebrate the mechanical. It is so diligently mechanical that it may explain Hitler’s approach to leading Germany, where individuality was squashed and the nation was seen as a machine to be fine-tuned and removed of “inefficiencies.” Hitler’s affinity for proper shapes may be related to his genocidal disgust toward what he saw as flaws in the world. Hitler’s soft watercolors quietly applauded artificial perfection.
Where Hitler’s usual style reaches its best is in depictions of World War I, of faithful, colorized images in wartorn Europe on the Western Front. Hitler participated in major battles such as the Somme and was one of the few survivors in his regiment during these major clashes. Before he was the bloodthirsty Führer, he was a young, often shy man fighting for his people and enduring the traumas of battle. His representations of the ruins of war therefore give a glimpse into his historical experience, and his mechanical methods in this case appear to be a form of therapy, a way to divert his focus away from death and toward something less intense and more constructive.
Ross, by contrast, is less concerned with precision. His paintings are based more on imagination and his relationship with nature. Fidelity to shapes and symmetry are less important to him. He frequently states that irregularities in form can give a painting uniqueness and character, referring to them as “happy, little accidents.” Color is the main way by which he conveys meaning, not geometry. His paintings hearken back to the animistic tradition, where aspects of nature were considered people in their own right. The trees and the rocks having friends is not merely a playful idea but an intimate part of Ross’s philosophy.
Thus, the pull away from human beings for Ross was more out of an interest in the personhood of the world itself. Where he did show evidence of man, by adding a bridge or a trail, it was still in how it how fit into nature, often seeming to be reclaimed by it. Every component of a painting was an individual in its own right. It was not a cog in a machine, and where it fit into something greater, it did so on free terms.
As painters, Bob Ross and Adolf Hitler preferred realistic depictions of objects, not people. Their dispositions led them to go about this very differently. Hitler focused on the heights of human development. His work is consistent with the harsh technocracy that came to define his fascist regime. For him beauty is when everything fits together. For Ross, the realism was important, but the arrangement of objects was elective. Preferring nature unmolested by man, he may have never actually seen much of what he painted, but he conjured it with the kind of liberal growth and lushness that one actually observes in the North American frontier.
Thus, we have two men with two very different mindsets, whose art explained the diverging values by which they lived. While both were decent painters, the meaning of their work resonated with audiences very differently, both in their own times and even to this day. One may decide whose style was best (I myself prefer Ross), but the comparison here yields no insights on who was the superior artist.
Rather, the lesson is in how one’s art is a mirror of the self.