The black-and-white video captured the getaway in perfect frame, having been arranged by the “thief” himself.
On December 12, 1976, the performance artist Ulay walked into the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, snatched Carl Spitzweg’s “The Poor Poet” off the wall, and ran out the emergency exist with the framed painting slung under his right arm, alarms blaring behind him.
As he fled down the block amid the falling snow, the video showed two dark-suited security guards sprinting behind him, trying desperately to catch up.
The crime was an act of art, Ulay’s public statement about who he was as an artist, his thoughts on public access to artistic institutions, and the plight of the foreign Turkish workers in Berlin.
He held no real animosity towards one of Spitzweg’s most well known paintings, and the target of his creative endeavor was returned hours later unharmed after he turned himself in to the police.
But it’s all fun and performance art until a painting actually gets stolen.
Just over a decade later, a different pair of thieves set their sights on “The Poor Poet.”
It must have been too tempting to pass up, this painting that is thought to have been one of Hitler’s favorites, by one of Germany’s premier artists, and that, most importantly, was a very portable size.
They, too, succeeded in their theft, this time from its new home in Berlin at the Schloss Charlottenburg. “The Poor Poet” had slipped through the fingers of the security guards once again. But, this time, the perpetrators stayed silent.
The trope of the starving artist is one that runs deep in Western culture. But you don’t have to be miserable and destitute in order to create the greatest works of your generation, nor is it particularly romantic to starve in a condemned shoe box in order to pursue your passion.
Even in the mid-1800s, artists were struggling with this stereotype, and German artist Carl Spitzweg was in a unique position to address it.
Spitzweg was born into Munich’s middle class in 1808. At his father’s behest, he studied to become a pharmacist, living comfortably on his income from his respectable profession while suppressing his artistic ambitions.
It wasn’t until 1833 that Spitzweg officially traded his lab coat for a full-time painter’s smock. He was able to do so after his father died, providing him with both an inheritance and the freedom from patriarchal disapproval.
At the time, 25 may have been a more advanced age at which to launch an artistic career, but once Spitzweg got started, things began to come together quickly.
Only five years later, Spitzweg painted three versions of “The Poor Poet,” two of which were nearly identical and were sold to public institutions while a third differed slightly and has remained in private hands.
His take on the age-old cliché is at once both sentimental and ridiculous. The poet in question lives in a dingy garret with one small window through which the viewer can see snow covering the tops of neighboring roofs.
He lies on his mattress on the floor, bundled up in a coat, stocking cap, and swathed in blankets with an umbrella popped open and hanging above, presumably to shield him from the rain and snow coming through the pockmarked ceiling.
Books are strewn around the floor, and the room is heated by a stove being fed by the rejected drafts of his inspired verse.
Despite being the recipient of both an inheritance and a one-time, middle-class income, Spitzweg wasn’t entirely a stranger to the garret lifestyle.
After he left his pharmacy days behind in 1833, he moved into a small apartment at the top of a Munich building. The lifestyle suited him. “The view is magnificent… all around a vast mountain chain of roofs, studded with chimneys and attic windows like castles and ruins… and the sky so close—it is unrivaled,” he wrote that year, according to Rose-Marie Hagen and Rainer Hagen in What Great Paintings Say.
It was against this backdrop that the “The Poor Poet” was painted, and the work both portrays a sentimental image of the suffering artist dedicated to his muse and debunks the aura of glamor of a life stripped of practicality and driven entirely by artistic inspiration. (It must be mentioned that poetry was a particularly difficult profession in which to make money during Spitzweg’s day.)
“The work is characterized by two contrasting aspects: on the one hand it shows an artist, whose occupation the public generally associated with idleness, living a carefree life independent of social norms and conventions, an almost defiant attic room existence, while on the other hand it reveals something oppressive, conveying a sense of poverty and existential fears,” the Leopold Museum writes of the work.
Spitzweg lived until 1885, and became one of the most popular German artists associated with the Biedermeier period, an artistic movement that focused on romanticized portraits of everyday life. He trained his eye and his brushstrokes on street singers, library-goers, night watchmen, artists of all stripes, and other common city dwellers, in addition to a whole host of bucolic landscapes and portraits of Germans enjoying the countryside.
Writing on “The Poor Poet’s” second—and currently final—theft, Hagen and Hagen explain that the thieves were motivated by “the painter’s extraordinary popularity in Germany, where a survey of people’s favorite paintings revealed “The Poor Poet” in second place, behind Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and in front of Albrecht Durer’s Hare.”
Given Spitzweg’s high profile as a German artist and his romanticized take on German life, it is perhaps no surprise that Hitler—a famously failed artist himself—took a shine to the late local hero. Spitzweg is thought to have been one of Hitler’s favorite artists.
“For all departments of art Hitler regarded the late nineteenth century as one of the greatest cultural epochs in human history,” Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer writes in Inside the Third Reich.
Among the artists working in this era, Hitler “also thought highly of Spitzweg… although what he admired was not so much the bold and often impressionistic brushwork as the staunch middle-class genre quality, the affable humor with which Spitzweg gently mocked the small-town Munich of his period.”
This notoriety has not fared Spitzweg’s oeuvre well. His popularity—and the relatively manageable size of many of his works—have made his paintings a favored target for theft. Among the works that have been stolen, one of the “The Poor Poet” twins has gained unfortunate attention.
In a video interview with the Louisiana Channel in 2017, Ulay explained that he chose to steal “The Poor Poet” because “you could say [it] was a German identity icon. Besides, it was Hitler’s favorite painting.”
In 2015, he told author Dominic Johnson for his book The Art of Living: An Oral History of Performance Art that the only image printed in color in his school textbook in the 1940s in Germany was this painting.
“That tells you how iconic the painting was for German identity in that period. Everybody identified with it. When I saw it in the Neue Nationalgalerie, I thought if I got my hands on it, hell might break loose. I decided to steal it.”
In 1976, Ulay came to Berlin with his new girlfriend and fellow performance artist Marina Abramović (their relationship would go down in history for its dramatic breaks and equally dramatic reconnections). Abramović filmed Ulay’s theft inside the gallery while another cameraman waited to catch the action on the street.
Ulay escaped the museum on foot, then drove the van he and Abramović were then living in, painted black for the occasion, a little ways before ditching it and continuing on foot to the Kreuzberg neighborhood in Berlin. At the time, the area was a rundown neighborhood populated by Turkish immigrants.
Ulay had arranged to film the final act of his piece in the apartment of a Turkish family, though the family was unaware that a theft was also involved.
The artist hung “The Poor Poet” on the wall of the family’s apartment, and then called the police to turn himself in by way of inviting the museum director to come see the painting in its new home.
In a matter of a few hours, “The Poor Poet” was rescued and certified to be undamaged. Ulay was prosecuted for his crime-turned-art. One headline the next day read: “Radical leftist steals our most beautiful painting!”
But this theft also increased Ulay’s visibility as a performance artist. “There Is a Criminal Touch to Art” became a famous piece and the video of the theft made the festival rounds.
In the wake of its joyride, the decision was made to transfer “The Poor Poet” to the Schloss Charlottenburg. Once installed on its new wall, museum directors surely hoped it would enjoy a more peaceful existence.
But that was not to be.
On September 3, 1989, two men arrived at the museum, one pushing the other in a wheelchair. They wheeled up to “The Poor Poet” and “The Love Letter,” also by Spitzweg, and cut the wires securing the frames to the wall.
What they lacked in Ulay’s good intentions, they made up for with a similar measure of boldness. With alarms blaring once again, the two men took off during broad daylight with virtually no attempt at subterfuge. They blended into the chaotic crowd and escaped with their loot in tow. Neither the thieves nor the two Spitzwegs have been seen or heard from since.
Unlike other thefts of famous works, all is not entirely lost with the disappearance of “The Poor Poet.”
While all art thefts are a cultural tragedy, in this case, at least, another nearly identical version of the missing piece still exists for the public to enjoy. Spitzweg painted two versions of this scene that are virtually the same. The second continues to hang at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.
One hopes that this museum has learned from the past of its Spitzweg star’s twin and is closely guarding their suffering artist.