Negotiating History: German Art and the Past || History by Degrees: The Place of the Past in Contemporary German Art

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  • The Art Institute of Chicago

    History by Degrees: The Place of the Past in Contemporary German ArtAuthor(s): Stephanie D'AlessandroSource: Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1, Negotiating History: GermanArt and the Past (2002), pp. 66-81+110-111Published by: The Art Institute of ChicagoStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4113052 .Accessed: 14/06/2014 11:28

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  • HISTORY BY DEGREES: THE PLACE OF THE PAST

    IN CONTEMPORARY GERMAN ART

    STEPHANIE D'ALESSANDRO

    THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

    I. The art of Germany, perhaps more than that of any other nation, has been inextricably linked to its past. While this may seem self-evident and true of any country, the particular his-

    tory of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s has made a specific and lasting impression: fol-

    lowing World War II and the Holocaust, German artists, historians, and critics found it

    nearly impossible to recover their national artistic past. Art historians faced the problem that specific periods, such as the German Renaissance (typified by the graphic work of such artists as Albrecht Diirer), were co-opted and corrupted by the National Socialists for their nationalistic, propagandistic agenda. After the war, writing about the past meant

    having to take on the associated problem of fascism. Artists, on the other hand, faced com-

    plicated public expectations for new work:

    they needed to break from the immediate, fas- cist past and at the same time somehow mir- ror and respond to the atmosphere of shame,

    anger, and sorrow that past caused. The problem of shaping a postwar art

    was compounded by the international com-

    munity's expectation that contemporary Ger- man painting and sculpture should acknowl-

    edge the Nazi past. As a result, the reception of German artists in Western Europe and the United States over the years has often been con-

    tingent on their work's ability to meet the crite-

    ria of a dark, brooding, or anxious appearance,

    and to treat specific subjects (especially those

    surrounding the guilt of the Holocaust).' For more than fifty years, German artists have

    struggled with such direct repercussions of the

    past, and have at the same time grappled with a less defined, inescapable haunting, the bur- den of the idea of history itself.

    After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a new Germany has sought to make peace with its past, moving beyond World War II and

    retrieving many other moments of its rich national history. For contemporary artists, the war is no longer the limit and sole focus of his- torical consciousness--they are free to select from multiple pasts and use them to varying degrees in their work. In order to understand this new artistic environment, however, we much first trace the particular case of Germany after World War II, and the various historical stances open to, and taken by, the generations of artists who came after the Holocaust.

    I I. Germany lay prostrate in May I945, phys- ically devastated by Allied bombing cam-

    paigns and a collapsed infrastructure; ram-

    pant inflation, acute food shortages, and human displacement plagued the nation. In this moment of physical destruction, Germans also faced massive monetary reparations and an incomprehensible sense of accountability. At this Stunde Null, or "zero hour," citizens also faced the end of German sovereignty: the

    Figure 1

    Andreas Gursky

    (German; born I955). Shanghai, 2000 (detail). Cibachrome print

    (2/6); 301 x 206 cm

    (iI8 2 x 8 1 in.). Gift of Pamela J. and

    Michael N. Alper.

    (2000.155).

    67

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  • HISTORY BY DEGREES: THE PLACE OF THE PAST IN CONTEMPORARY GERMAN ART

    Figure 2

    Ernst Wilhelm Nay

    (German; 1902-1968).

    Small Figural Form

    Painting, 1948. Oil

    on canvas; 45 x 65 cm

    (173/4 X 25 5/8 in.). Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund.

    nation was divided physically and politically, one part under the supervision of the Soviet Union and the other under the direction of the United States, Great Britain, and France. Each sector's visual culture reflected this sep- aration, especially as tensions escalated after the onset of the Cold War. Within East Ger-

    many, officially founded in 1949, artists fol- lowed the cultural program of the USSR, which was informed by a mixed aesthetic of Marxist

    ideology and formal realism that was posited as an antidote to the cultural bankruptcy brought on by Nazism.2 Meanwhile, artists in West Ger-

    many, and particularly in its dramatic outpost of West Berlin, upheld a legacy of abstraction, the stylistic hallmark of the capitalist victors

    (especially the United States) and a symbol of artistic and political freedom.' In the absence of a younger generation that might help forge a postwar cultural identity,4 older artists like Willi Baumeister, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, and Fritz Winter sought to obscure reality in abstract and

    semifigural works like Nay's Small Figural Form

    Painting (fig. 2), in which the artist attempted to evoke universal, spiritualist, and transcen- dent qualities.'

    Such disparate formal and ideological choices were the result of a rupture with the national past, a predicament formalized by social theorist and critic Theodor Adorno in

    1949, when he asserted: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."6 His statement came at the end of an essay on the relationship of the critic to objects and culture; although it was almost immediately regretted by the author and has been much misquoted and misunder- stood by the public since, it nonetheless set the course for postwar art. Adorno was concerned with the ethical issues of producing poetry after the Holocaust; the phrase, however, has been more typically interpreted as a judg- ment on the impossibility of producing post- Holocaust art.7 In the early i95os, it became a proscription: art had to be either a liberat-

    ing call for rupture with the past, or a heavy admission of the need for apology.

    Many artists responded to Adorno's words

    by taking an ascetic approach to German art and cultural history. Nay, Winter, and others

    deprived themselves of their heritage; refrain-

    ing from any reference to the immediate

    history of the war and the Holocaust, they adopted a spare style of abstraction infused with metaphysical ideas.8 Giinter Uecker's work draws from this tradition, but as an artist trained after the war, he can be seen as a variant in this first generation, or period, of postwar artists. Born in eastern Germany, Uecker trained in the Soviet sector before

    traveling west in 1955 to study with the once

    "degenerate" modern artist Otto Pankok.9 He is best known for his association with

    Zero, an artists group based in Diisseldorf, and for his painted and nailed monochrome

    objects such as Vast Ocean (fig. 3). Composed of painted nails carefully spaced and ham- mered at various angles onto a painted, white

    background, the work possesses a power that

    arises from an uneasy tension between the violent manner in which Uecker applied the

    nails, and the gentle, undulating patterns cre- ated by their placement. Uecker focused on the formal effects of space, color, and light in

    68

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  • HISTORY BY DEGREES: THE PLACE OF THE PAST IN CONTEMPORARY GERMAN ART

    order to produce an otherworldly effect. Works such as Vast Ocean "have a concrete spatial relationship with the observer," the artist has said. "They become a dynamic principle, which lets you participate where light in its

    purity becomes a metamorphosis of beauty, where it transforms to the human theater.""o Uecker and other Zero artists hoped to pro- duce new, spiritual forms of perception in the viewer not as a way to avoid the past, but as a kind of cleansing. The name "Zero," in fact, was not meant nihilistically, but to indicate "a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning.""

    Adorno's words made the immediate burden of defining postwar art weightier, but in subsequent years they came to be seen as more of a metaphorical line in the sand, a

    ghost haunting each generation of artists after

    I945. It was up to another group to break with the practice of abstraction and negation, and to

    escape the specter of the past. Artists such as

    Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter found their inspiration in

    Joseph Beuys. Shaman and politician, genius or charlatan, Beuys was an artist who infused his unconventional works with personal his-

    tory and mythology. Trained as a radio opera- tor in World War II, Beuys was shot down in the blizzard-swept Crimea. He was saved by a nomadic tribe of Tartars, who brought him back to the warmth of their felt-lined tents, thawed his body with applications of fat and felt wrappings, and fed him a diet of cheese, fat, and milk. When Beuys came back to Ger-

    many at the end of the war, he drew inspiration from these transformative experiences and

    became determined to rehumanize postwar art and life.12

    Issued from an edition of fifty, Sled (fig. 4) was originally conceived as part of The Pack, a 1969 installation in which Beuys presented twenty sleds streaming out of the back of a

    Volkswagen bus like a team of small rescue

    animals.13 The artist introduced the theme of rescue and survival through the clump of fat and length of folded felt, both crucial ele- ments in his own mythic healing; the flash-

    light and painted cross on one of the sled's runners suggest themselves as symbols of guid- ance and life-saving. While Sled refers to literal human survival, it also suggests a metaphori- cal sort of rescue: on the bottom of the sled's runners are bands of iron, Beuys's symbols for energy conduction and shaping the world anew. In this context, each small sled, sent into the world alone, can be imagined to serve as a powerful instigator of political and social

    healing and progress. Such works recall Beuys's concept of art as "social sculpture," a creative

    process that encompassed not only art pro- duction but social evolution as well.14

    Although Sled does not directly address the Holocaust, it is far from the abstract nature of Uecker's Vast Ocean. It recognizes the

    Figure 3

    Guinther Uecker

    (German; born 1930). Vast Ocean, 1964. Painted nails and

    wood; I75.3 x 175.3 cm

    (69 x 69 in.). Barbara

    Neff Smith and

    Solomon Byron Smith

    Purchase Fund

    (I967.165).

    69

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  • HISTORY BY DEGREES: THE PLACE OF THE PAST IN CONTEMPORARY GERMAN ART

    Figure 4

    Joseph Beuys (German; 1921-1986).

    Sled, 1969. Wooden

    sled, felt, belts, flash-

    light, fat, and rope

    (35/5o); 35 x 90 x 35 cm

    (133/4 X 33/ X 13 3/4 in.).

    Twentieth-Century Purchase Fund

    (0973.56).

    Figure 5

    Gerhard Richter

    (German; born 1932). Uncle Rudi, 1965. Oil on canvas; 87 x

    5o cm (34/4 X 195/8 in.). The Czech Museum of

    Fine Arts, Memorial

    Museum Lidice.

    social, political, spiritual, and artistic void left behind by the Holocaust, and also demon- strates Beuys's importance in preparing the

    ground for a resurgence of referential, com-

    memorative, and political work by German artists such as Baselitz, Kiefer, Polke, and

    Richter, who studied with or near him at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Diisseldorf, where he taught in the I960s. Faced with defining a

    postwar art for themselves, they were also

    inspired by the 1968 student rebellions, which

    initially focused on unsatisfactory conditions in German universities but soon took aim at the materialism of German society. Galvanized

    by the important 1967 study The Inability to

    Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, which

    diagnosed Germans with an inability to con- front their wartime history, young people called on their nation (and especially older genera- tions) to recognize the collective repression of the past and acknowledge the resultant atmos-

    phere of silence and melancholy." Many of the artists of this second gener-

    ation originally came from the East: Richter, for example, began his artistic career in the city of Dresden.16 Moving to Diisseldorf in I96I, he met Konrad Lueg and Polke, and with them

    developed Capitalist Realism, a short-lived movement devoted to highlighting the mech- anisms of consumerist West Germany. In 1962 Richter began to make paintings based on

    snapshots and newspaper photographs. Pro-

    jecting a slide of an image onto a canvas, Richter faithfully painted the scene in the

    limited, gray-and-blue palette of a vintage photograph. When the work was still wet, he

    dragged a dry brush through it, giving it a blurred effect. The final image wavers between

    documented, "detached" record and painterly, subjective imagining.

    The process of painting these images is as

    important as their subjects. Some of Richter's

    paintings, like Uncle Rudi (fig. 5), which shows the artist's uncle smiling in a wartime military uniform, acknowledge his own family's past during the Nazi era. Others, such as the i8 October 1977 series (1988; New York, Museum of Modern Art), reveal Richter's awareness of contemporary political issues.17 Still other

    images, such as Christa and Wolfi (cat. no. I7),

    70

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