How German Is It?

Herbert List: Plaster Casts in the Academy I, Munich, 1946, gelatin silver print, 113⁄8 by 9 inches. Herbert List Estate, M. Scheler, Hamburg.


In his provocative book The Germans and Their Art: A Troublesome Relationship (1998), art historian Hans Belting considers the uneasy role visual art has played in German culture since the Renaissance. Belting describes the constant derailment of German art by neurotic self-doubt, ponderous theorizing, Lutheran restraint and compensatory nationalistic fervor. The devastations of the Third Reich, World War II and the Cold War complicated the formation of a coherent artistic identity in the second half of the 20th century. Today, in a reunited Germany, Nazi-sanctioned art is still taboo, and the Socialist Realism promoted by the former East Germany (German Democratic Republic, or GDR) problematic. Since reunification, there have been few attempts to broaden the perspective on postwar German art. Backed by longtime market interests, art stars of the former West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG) have continued to claim the lion’s share of attention.

The complex development of German art from the end of the war in 1945 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is the subject of “Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures,” organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in cooperation with Kulturprojekte Berlin. This is the first major exhibition to bring together the art of the two countries in a comprehensive manner.1 LACMA curator Stephanie Barron and Eckhart Gillen of Kulturprojekte have selected nearly 300 artworks by 120 artists, presenting a wild mix of styles and densely installed earlier this year at LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum.

After the rigid control that the Nazi regime exercised over the arts, and the disaster of World War II, artists could hardly pick up where Weimar culture had left off. Many had fled the country. Those who returned or had remained felt awkward about continuing the expressionist styles of the past, or about making work that dealt in any way with Teutonic culture, identity or mythos. Each side in the burgeoning Cold War encouraged styles—in East Germany, government-sanctioned Socialist Realism, in West Germany, market-sanctioned abstraction—that fostered esthetic subterfuge. Both nations also produced artists who refused to adhere to party lines—official or otherwise. Politically and socially enforced strictures quickly eroded, in the West openly and in the East underground.

“Two Germanys” tracks developments in art on both sides of the divide before and after the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961-62, chronicling as well an ongoing cultural identity crisis marked by denial, anger, satire, earnestness, displacement, remorse, bitterness, emotional remove and self-loathing. Works were chosen for their relevance, as Barron puts it, to “the complex connections between art and ideology” and for their ability to “visually embody the dialogue between East and West, which at times became charged and confrontational.”

In this intellectually engaging exhibition, Barron and Gillen seem unafraid of challenging conventional art-historical wisdom. They have included many artists largely unknown outside Germany and place a special emphasis on those who were active in the East, such as Werner Heldt (1904-1954), Werner Tübke (1929-2004), Bernhard Heisig (b. 1925) and Hermann Glöckner (1889-1987). East German artists animate each section of the exhibition, throwing new light on works by such familiar Westerners as Gerhard Richter, Dieter Roth, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. At LACMA, throughout most of the exhibition, works made in the FRG and GDR were integrated. For non-German viewers, preconceptions about the art of East and West quickly dissipated.

The result is a radical reevaluation of German art that is sure to cause controversy, especially in Nuremberg, where it is presently on view, and later in Berlin (LACMA was its only U.S. venue).3 Because the exhibition focuses on a sociopolitical reading of German art, the inclusion of several East German Socialist Realist paintings, with their pointed utopian slant, proposes a fascinating point of comparison for the consciousness-raising and social rehabilitation promoted by later, more conceptual and experimental artists such as Joseph Beuys and Hans Haacke. The inclusion of so many lesser known East German artists puts a fresh spin on West German-dominated movements such as Neo-Expressionism and the “objective” school of photography founded by the Bechers at the Düsseldorfer Kunstakademie. As a result, German painting and photography seem like new terrain.

At LACMA, the exhibition was divided into four sections (as in the catalogue, though with different titles). Beginning with documentary film footage of the ruins of postwar Dresden and Berlin, the first, “1945-49: Mourning, Melancholy, and the Search for National Identity,” presented artists’ stunned reactions to the cataclysmic denouement of the war. Black ink drawings by Wilhelm Rudolph (1889-1982) of ashen, bombed-out Dresden streetscapes, and chilly black-and-white photographs by Herbert List (1903-1975) of rotting corpses and ruined Nazi-approved artworks are grimly effective reportage. In this context, competent abstract works by the West Germans Willi Bauermeister (1889-1955) and Ernst Wilhelm Nay (1902-1968) seem to be sublimated diversions from reality.

Much more gripping from today’s vantage point, the figurative painting To the Victims of Fascism (Second Version), 1946/49, a directly emotive, expressionist work by the East German Hans Grundig, portrays two murdered friends who had been incarcerated with him in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In a narrow open grave, their stiff foregrounded corpses fill the frame beneath a blood-red sky arrayed with swooping, bomberlike vultures. Similarly visceral is the chillingly gothic Ecce Homo I (Dying Warrior), 1949, by Gerhard Altenbourg (1926-1989). A large-scale drawing (over 4 feet tall), it features a lurching, claw-handed Nosferatu-type figure rendered in twitching black crayon over the East German artist’s own childhood sketches (preserved on two glued-together sheets) of skirmishing soldiers and tank-filled battlefields.

The second section of the exhibition, “1950s: National Aesthetics Defined by the Cold War,” presented the clash of radically different styles that coexisted during that decade. Violent brushstrokes and charred-looking surfaces characterize the abstract art made in West Germany by Karl Otto Götz (b. 1914), Gerhard Hoehme (1920-1989) and Emil Schumacher (1912-1999), similar to paintings with the existential themes common in the rest of Europe and in the United States. The abstract, formally inventive members of the trans-European Zero group, founded in 1957 in Düsseldorf by Heinz Mack, Otto Piene and Günther Uecker [see article, this issue], also generated art with no overt sociopolitical referents. One of the exhibition highlights is the re-creation of Mack’s 1960 Relief Wall, an installation originally at Berlin’s Galerie Diogenes of over 20 wall works and freestanding sculptures composed of gleaming chrome, aluminum, glass, steel and Lucite. Toying with pattern, geometry, kinesis and surface illusion, they present a chic, midcentury-modern gloss.
Likewise turning away from the past—now, in the politically encouraged anticipation of a utopian future—are Socialist Realist paintings from East Germany by Heinz Löffler (b. 1913), Heinz Drache (1929-1989) and others that crisply articulate the GDR’s reconstruction. The exhibition proves that their efforts are not devoid of interest. Without overt sentimentality or preaching platitudes, the paintings are instances of vibrant if standard-issue realism, not unlike, say, American works from the WPA era or Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell. Depicting a friendly political meeting of earnest men and women in an intimate dining room, House Peace Committee (1952) by Rudolf Bergander (1919-1970) is the most sensitively rendered of the lot; it could be a lost painting by Raphael Soyer.

A surprising group of 20 tabletop constructions (1958-77) by the Dresdener Glöckner contradicts in its free inventiveness all stereotypes about art made behind the Iron Curtain. Folding, slicing, stacking and disassembling detritus, from commercial packaging to bits of discarded paper and wood, Glöckner made playful constructivist sculptures in secret, following formal interests that he had pursued since the 1920s. Barron spotted these Dada-inspired works in Glöckner’s studio, and this is their first public appearance. In conversation, Barron speculated that Glöckner’s works may have been seen by A.R. Penck, who was still living in East Germany in the mid-’70s (he left in 1980), and whose “Standart Modell” sculptures (1972-75), four examples of which are included in the exhibition, take Glöckner’s experimentation with household objects and found materials in a funkier direction.

Also anomalous are the allegorical paintings of common objects by Konrad Klapheck (b. 1935), with their gleaming, somber-toned surfaces. The Offended Bride (1957), an image of a sewing machine, offers in its crisp, austere and ominous-looking style a sly critique of technology. The Will to Power (1959) is a stylized, minimally detailed depiction of a manual typewriter whose rows of blank keys seem like pawns in a totalitarian regime. The  Magritte-like starkness and shadowy palette of his work place Klapheck in a Pop category all his own.

In “1960s and 1970s: Working Through and Acting Out,” the third section of the exhibition, German art was shown to slowly open to self-reflection and historical reckoning. At first, oblique strategies prevail. With black-and-white painting, photographs and grainy film featuring a nebbishy-looking art student, the installation Volker Bradke (1966), by Richter, satirizes socialist Realism’s idealization of the common man. The LACMA exhibition re-created the original presentation at Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf in 1966 (born in 1932, Richter had emigrated from the GDR in 1961), including its kitschy patterned wallpaper and institutional floor tiles, and added filmed documentation of the opening.

Across from this installation were pranksterish works by Polke. “The Fifties” (1963-69) is a quirky wall grouping of 12 paintings in wildly different styles hung on decorative latticework, each a parody of a different critically endorsed mode of art, from organic abstraction to Pop. Potato House Object (1967) is an 8-foot-tall wooden latticework hut whose joints are all capped with real potatoes, an absurdist allusion to the food shortages Polke experienced during his childhood in war-ravaged Silesia (his family emigrated when Polke was 12).

Other familiar artists active in the FRG in the 1960s, such as Dieter Roth, Wolf Vostell and Jörg Immendorff, are represented by strong works that offer perversely humorous takes on German culture. The full-force return of expressionism, in all of its explosive irony and wrenching psychology, is evident in large-scale Neo-Expressionist paintings by Penck, Kiefer and Georg Baselitz, who share an interest in the charged subject matter of the war and its aftermath. Baselitz’s gruesomely dismembered corpses (Picture for the Fathers, 1963), Penck’s stick figure walking a fiery tightrope (Passage, 1963) and Kiefer’s vertiginous Germany’s Spiritual Heroes (1973), a Volkshalle (Great Hall) in which raking orthogonals converge at a portentous black door, are raw, unflinching evocations of German political reality. Eugen Schönebeck is represented by two collaborations with Baselitz and two exuberant solo paintings, including a portrayal (1965) of the Russian poet Mayakovsky filled with self-doubt (like Baselitz, Schönebeck left the GDR in the mid-’50s). Czech-born Markus Lüpertz fashions a stark, forceful icon of the specter haunting postwar German consciousness: a German helmet atop a hulking army-green form (Helmet II, 1970).

Among this array of heavy hitters, several paintings by lesser-known East German artists are also impressive. An intricate magic realist allegory by Tübke (a founder in the mid-’60s of the Leipzig school of painting) was inspired by the postwar Nazi trials: Reminiscences of Schulze III, JD (1965) is a brilliantly articulated treatment of a fictional Nazi judge in a Boschian setting of political corruption and concentration camp horrors. Former Waffen-SS soldier Heisig’s Under the Swastika (1973) presents a nightmarish conflagration of wartime corpses, soldiers and  what are surely propaganda-blaring bullhorns.

A somewhat awkward space at the Broad featured several works by Joseph Beuys, including the remains of the seminal action Sweeping Up (1972-85), which may be seen as emblematic of German self-doubt and reclamation. Collected in a horizontal vitrine is trash Beuys cleaned up from Karl-Marx-Platz in Berlin after a 1972 May Day demonstration, along with his push broom. On the opposing wall was Thomas Schütte’s Large Wall (1977), 1,200 panels installed like masonry and painted to look like bricks. The formal references to Conceptual and Minimalist art here seem to play second fiddle to the work’s obvious allusion to the physical presence of the Berlin Wall.

The last section of the exhibition, “1980s: Blurring Boundaries and the Waning of the Cold War,” is, perhaps understandably, the least coherent, a whirlwind of styles. Attention is paid to the impact of radical politics in several works, including Jürgen Klauke’s disturbing “Faces” (1972-2000), a grid of 65 close-up black-and-white news photos of masked terrorists, and Katharina Sieverding’s Battlefield Germany XI/78 (1978), an enigmatic three-part photographic print on steel, likewise appropriated from a media source, showing five members of a well-known German antiterrorism unit striking an aggressive stance.

For this generation of artists, the turmoil, tragedy and symbols of the war remain. Raffael Rheinsberg’s Hand and Foot (1980), an installation consisting of 400 worn shoes and gloves arranged in rows on the floor, poignantly references the labor camps of World War II. A large swastika in a painting by Albert Oehlen skewers art world complacency (The Führer’s Headquarters, 1982), and the still-taboo symbol appears in a 1982 mixed-medium installation by Olaf Metzel (Turk Flat—Compensation DM 12,000 [or Best Offer]) to point to the lingering racism of West German society. Georg Herold, who was released to the West in 1973 after being detained as a political prisoner in the East, is represented by Laocoön (1984), an altered canister vacuum cleaner whose twisted hoses emit his recorded voice declaiming a speech by Adolf Hitler on “degenerate art.”

Photography in the exhibition, a kind of show-within-the-show, is largely documentary in style, as evident in the first section’s August Sander-like portraits by the East German Karl Heinz Mai (1920-1964), all dating to 1948. In the second section are closely observed scenes of East Berlin by Arno Fisher (b. 1920) and Ursula Arnold (b. 1929); and, from the 1980s, there are formalist architectural studies by the Bechers, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Günther Förg. Additionally, photographs by the East Germans Evelyn Richter (b. 1930), Gundula Schulze Eldowy (b. 1954), Sibylle Bergemann (b. 1941) and Barbara Metselaar-Berthold (b. 1951) reveal the psychological and social changes operating just under the surface of GDR society in its later years. Helga Paris (b. 1958) documents an early ’80s East German punk scene reminiscent of Nan Goldin’s New York, in photographs roughly contemporary with those of the latter’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

Also from the 1980s comes underground art from East Germany by mostly unfamiliar names such as Ralf Kerbach (b. 1956), Volker (Via) Lewandowsky (b. 1963) and Cornelia Schleime (b. 1953), whose works resonate with those by better-known Europeans and Americans.

Photographs, relics and videos document performances by Dresden’s Autoperforation Group that were lively, body-conscious romps, much in the vein of earlier actions by Austrians Otto Muehl and Günther Brus—supposedly unknown to the East German artists at the time. There is also a small survey of West German art from just before the fall of the Berlin Wall by Martin Kippenberger, Richter, Imi Knoebel, Rosemarie Trockel and Isa Genzken, who share a postmodern sensibility. Here the exhibition loses its air of urgency. Even Genzken’s Door (1988), a gritty cul-de-sac of a sculpture consisting of cracked and broken concrete slabs on a pedestal, seems less a reference to the Wall than something akin to Bruce Nauman’s generalized no-exit anomie. Richter’s blurred abstraction, Knoebel’s enigmatic geometry, Trockel’s tapestry juxtaposing pop icons and Kippenberger’s naughty self-indulgences all largely address esthetic concerns beyond anything specifically German.

The LACMA presentation finished abruptly with a video installation by Marcel Odenbach (b. 1953), No One Is Where They Intended To Go (1989-90), which includes footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall intercut with snippets showing Third Reich parades, East German protest marches and scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 paranoid thriller Suspicion. Given the fresh yet uncertain art history presented in “Art of Two Germanys,” perhaps no curatorial flourish or group of artworks could provide this exhibition with an adequately stirring conclusion. Rightly puzzled and intrigued, the viewer departs with a host of ideas and images with which to construct new versions of postwar German art.

CurrentlyOn View“Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures”at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum,Nuremberg,through Sept. 6.

1 The 1997 exhibition, “Images of Germany: Art from a Divided Land,” organized by Eckhart Gillen for the Berlin Festival, included works by 88 East and West German artists but no examples of Socialist Realism.
2 Stephanie Barron, “Blurred Boundaries: The Art of Two Germanys between Myth and History,” in Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures, ed. by Barron and Sabine Eckmann,New York, Abrams, 2009, p. 13.  3 For the tempestuous nature of assessments within Germany of East German art, see Eduard Beaucamp, “The Cold War may be over, but it is still being fought in terms of its artists,” The Art Newspaper, January 2009, p. 28.  “Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures” was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in cooperation with Kulturprojeckte Berlin. The exhibition opened at LACMA [Jan. 25-Apr. 19] and is presently at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg [May 23-Sept. 6]; it travels to the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin [Oct. 3, 2009-Jan. 10, 2010]. It is accompanied by a 440-page catalogue featuring 17 scholarly essays.

Michael Duncan is a West Coast-basedcritic and curator.