Whitehot Magazine

January 2010, The Art of Two Germanys @ Deutsches Historisches Museum

Anselm Kiefer, Varus, 1976, Oil and Acrylic on Burlap, Courtesy Abbemuseum Eindhoven


The Art of Two Germanys
Deutsches Historisches Museum
Unter den Linden 2 10117 Berlin
3 October 2009 through 10 January 2010

German art history has traditionally been conceived as a continuous struggle between the Volk’s provincial yearnings for a concrete nation-identity and the cosmopolitanism of the avant-garde. With the arrival of Expressionism in the first years of the 20th century, it seemed as though the fledgling nation had finally managed to produce some sort of compromise between the two in what was to be the country’s first (and arguably only) indigenous art movement to significantly impact the international avant-garde. Everyone knows what happened next, and by the time peace was declared for the second time in 1945, German artists were forced to resume work within the ashes and rubble of a tradition that had been ambushed by the most sinister forces. This Stunde Null serves the somber departure point for The Art of Two Germanys, an exhibition documenting the evolution of contemporary art on both sides of the Berlin Wall between 1945 and 1989, currently on at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.  

If, as Adorno famously quipped, writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, what was a German artist to do in the second half of the 1940s, having witnessed – perhaps even having been complacent with – the suicide of an entire civilization? Was one to return to those avant-garde forms of expression that the Nazis had labeled “degenerate art,” despite the fact that the international avant-garde had since moved on? This was the solution reached by Juro Kubicek and Heinz Trökes, whose forays into Dada collage and surrealist painting, respectively, appear inevitably meek next to Richard Peter’s photos of the ruins of Dresden, whose titles alone evoke the post-apocalyptic dread of the Zeitgeist (Skull & Corpse in a Uniform with a Swastika Armband; A Mother Over the Stroller of Her Twins Frozen in Death.) 

Germany was officially divided in 1949. In the East, Social Realism became the state-sanctioned doctrine – paintings by Otto Nagel, Heinz Löffler, Heinrich Witz, and Rudolf Bergander are predictably dull in their slavish conformity to this new norm – while in the West, Art Informel, with its frenzied impasto, proved to be the way forward.  

A.R. PenckDer, Übergang, 1963, Oil on Canvas, Sammlung Ludwig, Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen


It wasn’t until the 1960s that Germany began to regain its pre-WWI position on the international art scene with a number of artistic positions seeming to erupt all at once. Heinrich Riebesehl’s photographs of Happenings – massive anti-performances where the traditional role between audience and performer was obliterated – capture the frantic spirit and frenzied passions of this era.  

At the center of it all was Joseph Beuys, who sought a total integration of art into life. Beuys’s prolific output took the form of actions, happenings, performances, as well as work in more traditional media such as sculpture. Beuys’s work often overshadowed the accomplishments of the equally prolific Dieter Roth, another “everything” artist who would create using literally anything around him. It certainly doesn’t help that many of Roth’s chosen materials were perishable; the massive Chocolate Lion Tower (1969) included in the exhibition being a case in point. Whereas Beuys was too often ridiculously serious about his projects, a raucous sense of humor pervaded nearly everything Roth did. A series of “Literaturwurst,” in which the artist would cut up books by authors he disliked and, mixing them with lard and spices, stuff them into sausage casings, is typically Rothian. 

It was also in the ‘60s and ‘70s that that the aesthetic Wall dividing East and West began to crumble ever so slowly. Ironically, it was a few rebellious painters from the East, namely Georg Baselitz and A.R. Penck, who brought about a return to Expressionism, thus producing some of the more famous mid-century German masterpieces. (Penck, who emigrated to the West in 1980, later abandoned the Expressionist style, which Baselitz, who moved West in 1957, continues to hone in his work up to the present day.)

But it was Anselm Kiefer who would take Expressionism one step further – or one step back, depending on how one views it – in fomenting an Expressionist oeuvre marked by an analysis of the Romantic Nationalism that had been part and parcel of German art prior to its exploitation by the Nazis. In Varus (1976), Kiefer refers back to the triumphant moment in 9 AD when Germanic tribes staged a massive revolt against the Roman legions, slaughtering eighteen thousand men in the Teutoburg Forest. The painting – dark, creepy, and ambiguous – signaled the arrival of a major new voice in the German art scene. Meanwhile, Jörg Immendorf began exhibiting his first mature works, the Café Deutschland series of large paintings, the first of which is included in the Art of Two Germanys (1977-1978). In style and theme, Immendorf was a punk realist, the polar opposite to Kiefer. In a new wave café, the heroes of German history, East and West, living and dead (among them Brecht, Schmidt and Honecker, Penck and Immendorf himself) are united in a fictitiously Wall-less world.  

The influence of punk on emerging forms of German expression in the ‘80s shouldn’t be underestimated. Punk enabled Germans a sort of return to the Romanticism and Idealism native to their culture, concepts that had been corrupted by the Nazis in acclimatizing the masses to social Darwinist notions of racial purity and supremacy. Martin Kippenberger, who would arguably become an even more important artistic figure of this period than Beuys, ran a punk club before turning to art. His continual provocations throughout the decade of hype articulated a genuine defiance against the totalitarian tendencies lingering in the psyches of Germans on both sides of the Wall. In the East, where totalitarianism continued to be a living reality, despite a gradual loosening of restrictions, the Autoperforation Group similarly responded to these forms of social repression in a series of confrontational performances reminiscent of the violent happenings of the Viennese Actionists.

If Germans were physically divided for a significant chunk of the last century, they were at least united in their collective identity crisis as a people. German history has given rise to an existential neurosis marked by extremities, a neurosis that mysteriously manages to encapsulate both the absolute best and worst aspects of being human. By the time the Berlin Wall was erected, dividing the nation into two distinct ideological camps, a matrix of barriers already existed in the German collective psyche. The Art of Two Germanys attests that it was the artists who were the first to perceive and map these unseen walls. They were also the first to begin tearing them down.

Travis Jeppesen

Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio. 

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