The stigmata

The project


Monograph 1970


The Preview Showings



The paintings with the stigmata of suffering

by Domenico Maria Ardizzone

Rome, 31 March 2004 - I am writing these words just two months shy of my 78th birthday. I was born in Messina but have lived in Rome since 14 March 1976. I left Sicily to take on a hugely stimulating professional challenge: the setting up of news programming on Italian state broadcaster RAI's third radio channel. It was a unique adventure and one well worth a chapter by itself. But here my aim is to describe how I came to find out about the human and artistic drama of the German painter and sculptor Louis Christian Hess and what steps I took to help bring his work back to life and save his art from oblivion. I can remember all too clearly the disastrous state to which Hess' paintings had been reduced by continual moving and neglect.

Doves on the Terrace (Messina 1933)
Oil on canvas 60x80 cms

It should first be stated that following Italy's entry into the Second World War the canvasses - most without frames - were wrapped in coarse paper coverings to facilitate their removal to a place of safety away from the danger of air raids. When in the 60's I was shown the paintings, the hairline cracks caused by their having been rolled up, certain rips and tears, all seemed to me like stigmata: a sort of scourging which all Hess' art had been forced to endure on its difficult journey towards salvation, fleeing first Nazi persecution and then the ever-present threat of destruction during the war. Seeing the paintings in such a poor state it was difficult to believe they could be restored and recovered. To such an extent that not even Hess' most ardent admirers, who had been aware of the paintings' conditions for at least a decade, had sought to bring about their restoration and promote their rediscovery. And yet those very wounds seemed to embody the works' suffering: they were the historical symbol of the perilous flight from tyranny. Many works testify to that risk; none more so than the oil painting "Doves on the Terrace". In a central area and the lower right-hand corner of the restored painting several sections are without paint and clearly show the new lining applied behind the canvas during restoration. Despite these scars - indeed precisely because of them - the compositional force of the painting has in no way diminished. On the contrary, it has been strengthened by the visible signs of the work's troubled history.

The doves of peace and the swastikas of hat

The extraordinary pencil sketch for the fable-like painting with the doves drawn in recollection by Christian Hess on the back of a Nazi propaganda leaflet (14.5x11cms). It is possible to see on the other side of the paper the swastikas and some words from the text, such as "Achtung… Kameraden…."

Furthermore, "Doves on the Terrace" is a work which clearly reveals the suffering which lies at the heart of Hess' artistic creativity. Judging from a sketch found apart from Hess' collected studio papers the artist may well have attributed another special meaning to the work. Unless it was prompted simply by a spasm of reminiscence, it is natural to ask why Hess should have decided to make a sketch for the painting on the back of a political leaflet the front of which is covered with swastikas. Is it not logical to suppose he wished to contrast his doves of peace with the symbols of hatred  which may be seen as a kind of watermark in this "political revisitation".
Essentially the deterioration suffered by the canvases is emblematic of the sublimation of an art that for the Nazis must not survive, an art that must be destroyed. The very fact that Hess, to avoid being tracked down, had stopped signing his works and the damage caused to the paintings during his frequent travels to avoid capture meant that Nazism's diabolical aim was paractically achieved. Alas, more than half a century after the fall of the Nazi regime many of the effects of that  villainous scheme seem still to be in place.
Why even today does German culture still ignore the art of Louis Christian Hess, a painter of German origin born in the former Hapsburg town of Bolzano? Is it because he died in Austria following an air raid in the last months of the war?

The truth is not one single modern art gallery in Germany has one of Hess' paintings on display; no German art encyclopaedia mentions his name. And this despite the fact that in 1978 the city of Munich, where Hess forged his artistic career, had the honour to be chosen as the final stage of the travelling exhibition of the rediscovered art. Even at that time the return of one of the key protagonists of the 1930's Munich art scene attracted little comment in the Bavarian capital. In today's Europe, which is proud of its defence of human rights, Germany should at least acknowledge its moral and historical responsibility and cancel the obscurity into which the art of Christian Hess was plunged by the Nazi regime of the 1930's. It should be emphasised that Hess' work was not opposed because the artist was considered "degenerate", but rather because it was the fruit of the free anti-conformist thought typical of the leading light of the movement known as "Juryfreie", that is to say "Without Jury".