Plenty of artists worldwide are known for their controversial creations. However, one artist often springs to mind when the subject of problematic art comes up: Maurizio Cattelan.
Cattelan is the creator of “Him,” which has been described as one of the most “shocking and disquieting” post-war era works of art. Below, you’ll learn more about Cattelan and his troubling (to some) work.
Cattelan was born in 1960 in Padua, Italy. He has no formal artistic training and describes himself as an “art worker,” not an artist. Some have also described him as the “court jester” of the art world because of his irreverent and often absurd works.
Since the early days of his career, Cattelan has made a name for himself as a rebellious artist who isn’t afraid of controversy. For example, when he debuted his work at the Emmanuel Perrotin Gallery in 1995, he convinced Emmanuel Lapin, the gallerist, to dress in a pink rabbit costume that resembled a phallus.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cattelan started working on hyper-realistic sculptures, many of which included his own image and were clearly self-mocking (such as 1999’s Mini-me, 2000’s La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi, and 2010’s We).
Cattelan’s portfolio is clearly vast and varied. Of all his work, though, one of the most controversial is “Him,” which the artist released in 2001.
From behind, this wax sculpture appears to be a small child kneeling in prayer. However, when you look at it from the front, you’ll see that it’s actually Adolph Hitler.
In an interview with Christie’s (the gallery that purchased “Him” for $17.2 million), Cattelan said that the sculpture could be challenging for him as much as other viewers. He even admitted that, at times, he wanted to destroy it himself, explaining that Hitler is “pure fear” and an “image of terrible pain.” However, the name still lives in his memory, no matter how taboo.
When discussing his decision to create a sculpture of Hitler, Cattelan described the dictator as a “haunting specter of history” but is still “unmentionable and irreproducible.” His goal was never to offend but to encourage people to think more critically about Hitler’s image and its effect on them.
Those who witness “Him” in real life will always encounter the sculpture from behind first. This way of viewing is by design.
Cattelan wanted viewers to first see the kneeling figure as a fallen foe praying and perhaps seeking forgiveness. When they realize who the figure is modeled after, they will likely have a different reaction than they did initially, creating an opportunity to reflect on “personal and societal responses to past, present, and future horrors.
Responses to Him
As is the case for many of Cattelan’s creations, “Him” received mixed reviews.
“Him” was first presented in 2001 at Stockholm’s alternative art space, Färgfabriken.
Understandably, many were critical of the sculpture and its subject. Some even said that the release of “Him” in Sweden was problematic because of the country’s ambivalent attitude toward Hitler’s actions during World War II.
At the same time, though, many others applauded his daring and willingness to address a topic that many are afraid to touch. Praise for Cattelan’s work has also continued to this day.
For example, the Guardian’s Skye Sherman said that the sculpture’s “childlike form” encourages those who witness it to question “the origins and nature of evil” as well as “how and if society can come to terms with it.”
In an essay published in The New European, Nigel Warburton, a British philosopher, also wrote that “Him” invites viewers to consider Hitler’s upbringing and “what happened to his humanity.” Warburton also likened Hitler’s atrocities to those committed by Russian president Vladimir Putin, stating that comparisons between the two don’t seem as “outlandish” as they once did.
At the end of the essay, Warburton also references Cattelan, who has said that the duty of art is to ask questions, and those who want clear answers are in the wrong place. Warburton agreed, noting that the point of works like “Him” is “not to explain the past, but to change us.”
Cattelan’s Latest Work
Cattelan raised many eyebrows when he debuted “Him” in 2001 and continued to receive criticism as the sculpture was displayed in numerous locations – including a Warsaw ghetto in 2012. He certainly has not let his critics stop him from continuing to create, though.
He has produced many intriguing and controversial works since then. For example, in 2016 (the same year that Donald Trump was elected president), he released “America,” a functional, 18-carat gold toilet.
In 2019, he drew crowds and received mixed reviews from critics when he released “Comedian” at Art Basel in Miami Beach – a banana attached to the wall with duct tape.
“Comedian” may have actually drawn more ire than “Him” (or, perhaps, it just seems that way because more people have access to the internet than they did in the early 2000s). Many people questioned the validity of this work and its place in a museum.
In an interview with The Art Newspaper, Cattelan said that, despite the piece’s name, “Comedian” is not a joke. Instead, it is a “sincere commentary” on what humans value and how art is displayed. His goal was to “break up the normal viewing habits” and encourage discussions about “what really matters.”