20th May 2008 — 12th July 2008
Mid July marks the last chance to catch the latest offering of horror and gore from the darkly comic Chapman brothers.
If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be is an exhibition in three parts. On the ground floor of White Cube’s pristine central London space the visitor first encounters a series of paintings, each entitled One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved, which at a distance appear to be traditional aristocratic portraits. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that they have been doctored in classic Chapman style. Adorned with stitched up mouths, pointed lizard-like snouts, excessive facial hair, red clown noses and deathly, skeletal eyes, the stiff Victorian gentry and their disfigured off-spring, stare out at the viewer, oblivious to the joke that is being played at their expense.
Tucked away under the stairs is a collection of 13 watercolours making up the work which give this exhibition its title. For this new work Jake and Dinos Chapman have continued to buy, rework and reinterpret existing artworks, only this time the artist in question is none other than Adolf Hitler, and there are no clown faces to be seen, but sickly sweet rainbows, stars and flowers. In Hitler’s early life he attempted to begin a career as an artist and created many watercolour studies of the kind which the Chapmans have bought and used as a basis for this work. These small, unexceptional studies of German landscapes seem to belong to the kind of art that would be more at home in junk shops than contemporary art galleries. I am reminded of an interview with the Chapmans on the news, shortly before this exhibition opened, where they described Hitler’s paintings as ‘bad art’ made good by their colourful additions. These additions in the most part take the form of rainbows painted in the skies, brightly coloured and twee, yet containing black tunnel-like centres, perhaps alluding to a sense of the darkness within.
In the basement of the gallery we come to what is arguably the main event. Fucking Hell, 2008 is a remaking of the artists’ work Hell, 2000, which was shown as part of the Royal Academy’s Apocalypse exhibition, bought by Charles Saatchi and then famously destroyed in a warehouse fire in 2004. At the time, while the art world mourned the loss of several great works of art, the Chapmans merely remarked that they would just make it again; it was only art after all.
And make it again they have. This epic work has been reborn in the form of nine glass vitrines depicting scenes of Hieronymus Bosch-style horror. Apocalyptic, it certainly is. Hitler reappears again and again in this interpretation of hell inspired by Nazi atrocities. Each vitrine is a miniature world in its own right, some describing the industrial scenes of the death camps, complete with piles of bodies and smoking furnaces; others depicting landscapes of apocalyptic proportions, a fiercely erupting volcano at the very centre of the work. Amongst thousands of heads on spikes and disfigured bodies, skeletons on horseback fight endless battles against Nazi soldiers, watched over by multiple saluting Hitlers who ride standing up in a parade line of Volkswagen Beetles.
Amongst all the grizzly blood and guts the Chapmans have, however, not lost their characteristic dark sense of humour. In one scene a skeleton lies in a bath tub wearing nothing but a shower cap. In another a miniature Stephen Hawkins in red Speedos watches as two sets of conjoined twins play beach ball in the shallows, his chair transformed into a half tank, half wheelchair hybrid machine. In perhaps the darkest comic twist, inside a decrepit church a Hitler is cradled like a baby by a skeleton priest as he is held above the font and baptised.
Although the work is ultimately quite difficult to stomach, the attention to detail and level of work involved in this piece is something which it is hard not to admire. I can’t help but think of the army of assistants who have toiled to produce this truly epic work. Fucking Hell is also a work that requires some investment of time from the viewer and this is an exhibition which I am sure could be seen again and again, always finding something that hadn’t been noticed before.
There is, however, little here that seems to be saying anything new. Maybe I am overly cynical when at the back of my mind is the enormously inflated price tag that this new version of Hell commands compared with its predecessor.
If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be is an exhibition that is certainly gory, however, anyone familiar with the Chapman brothers’ work would be unlikely to find anything of a particularly shocking nature, and ultimately there are no surprises from the Chapmans here.
White Cube - Mason's Yard
25-26 Mason's Yard
London SW1Y 6B