A Mission to Explain: Post-war German art

  • 3 September 2014
  • By Charles Darwent
  • Art critic and writer

Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter are three of the greatest European artists since 1945. It is no coincidence they are all German, says Charles Darwent.

Sigmar Polke, Girlfriends, 1965-6 The estate of Sigmar Polke / DACS, London / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Sigmar Polke, Girlfriends, 1965-6


The estate of Sigmar Polke / DACS, London / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

To get an idea of Anselm Kiefer’s importance, try dropping round to his house. It is no exaggeration to describe this as extraordinary – a nobleman’s mansion in an area at once hip and grand, a proper, 17th-century Stadtpalais. What is most striking about Kiefer’s house, though, is not its size or age, but its location. For the past seven years the German artist, soon to turn 70, has lived and worked in the centre of Paris, in the kind of building that few French artists can dream of and none afford.

This is not the biggest of Kiefer’s French properties. A couple of miles away, on the Périphérique, is the echoing ex-depository of the Samaritaine department store, which he also took over in 2008. This in turn houses the relics of an even larger property, La Ribaute, the 86-acre site of a one-time Gardois silk factory that Kiefer spent the 1990s turning into a studio-cum-village-cum-land-artwork, its towers now left to decay.

In 2014, the centenary of the Great War and 70th anniversary of D-Day, it is hard not to feel a faint unease about this – for want of a better word – expansionism. But then, Kiefer has made a career out of being the uneasy German. Aged 24, he performed a series of actions called Besetzungen (Occupations) in which he had himself photographed giving the Hitlergrusse – the Nazi salute – at monuments all over Europe. He has never looked back. Uncomfortable is what he wants you to feel.

It is no coincidence that three of the greatest European artists since 1945 should have been German, two of them born in the war and the other just before it. Nor is it by chance that they should all have taken discomfort as their subject.

Gerhard Richter, now 82, has spent his life making work that seems to slot neatly into the recent history of art – pictures that look like photorealism, say, or abstraction – and yet never quite does. Sigmar Polke, who died in 2010 at the age of 69, toyed with chance and fate: images with titles such as The Three Lies of Painting, made with unstable or dangerous chemicals or yanked, half finished, from photocopiers.

Kiefer, as you would expect, is best known for large-scale canvases – on occasion, 25 feet wide by 10 high – of subjects such as German battlefields, so heavy with impasto and history that they have been known to fall from the walls. He also does a nice line in lead U-boats. The work of all three men will be shown in one-man exhibitions around Britain this autumn.

'Both new Germanies, their work suggested, were about power, the one as morally corrupt as the other'

When I visited Anselm Kiefer in his Paris house a couple of years ago, I was wracked with a Basil Fawlty-like terror of inadvertently mentioning the war. I needn’t have worried. Before we had crossed the hôtel particulier’s prairie-sized private courtyard, Kiefer did it for me. The night before, I had been to see his opera, Am Anfang (In the Beginning) at the nearby Opéra Bastille, a work roundly booed from start to finish by the audience. The problem was that Am Anfang told the story of the Biblical suffering of the Jews, but set it among the ruins of a bombed-out German town. It seemed to equate the pain of a defeated Germany with that of her Jewish victims, a view the French found, to put it mildly, hard to accept.

‘The Trümmer, the rubble, that was me!’ Kiefer cried as he loped ahead. ‘I was in those bricks. I played with them in the ruins. I built houses from them. I was part of that little German myth.’

Later, when his gallerist rang from London, the artist hooted, ‘Charles Darwent is here! He wants to know if I am a Nazi!’ I have been more embarrassed in my life, but not often.

The question that Kiefer has been forced to address, like anyone born in the Black Forest in March 1945, is how far his own history is separable from Germany’s. If that makes him uneasy, then he has made his uneasiness ours. Where Kiefer has run at this problem like a bull at a gate, Gerhard Richter’s approach has been more circumspect. Born in Dresden in 1932, he is haunted by the gap between appearance and truth. While Kiefer cut his artistic teeth horrifying the West German public with works such as Malerei der verbrannten Erde (Scorched Earth Painting, 1974) – a massive canvas, made with the help of a Wagnerian axe and blowtorch – Richter was forced to be more subtle.

There was good reason for this. The end of the war had found him on the other side of the border, in the old East Germany, where doubts about national history had to be carefully expressed. Richter, studying at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, learned to play his cards close to his chest. Commissioned in 1956 to paint a mural of Dresden – a place incinerated a decade earlier by British bombing, under whose streets as many as 100,000 people lay dead – he produced an entirely uninflammatory view of the city with the anodyne name of Stadtbild (Townscape).

Where Kiefer made a point of digging up his country’s past and rubbing people’s noses in it, Richter took on German history at its own game by burying it. To every possible reading of his work there was an equal and opposite anti-reading. His pictures set out to be non-committal, their chameleon-like quality mimicking the GDR’s official painting-over of the past.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (Silikat) (800-4) [Abstract Painting (Silicate)], 2002 © Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (Silikat) (800-4) [Abstract Painting (Silicate)], 2002


© Gerhard Richter

In 1961, aged 30, Richter escaped to the West and took up his studies at the famed Düsseldorf Kunstakademie. There he met another student called Sigmar Polke, a decade younger and, like him, from the East. Polke’s history was, if anything, even more emblematically German than Richter’s, he being not once but twice a refugee. Born in what was German Silesia in 1941, near a town then called Auschwitz, he had been forced to flee with his family to East Germany when the province was ceded to Poland in 1945. From there, the Polkes had escaped again, to West Berlin and on to the Rhineland, when their youngest son was 12.

If the West meant freedom to the two displaced Ossies, then it also meant capitalism. As a new graduate in Dresden, Richter had worked in a state advertising office: the thinness of the line between advertisements and propaganda clearly struck him. Together with Polke, he launched a movement known as Kapitalistischer Realismus (Capitalist Realism), its opening show held in a junk shop. The group’s work bore a strong resemblance to British and American Pop Art, but with one vital difference. Its name was a play on the term Socialist Realism, the state-approved style of East German painting.

Where artists such as Andy Warhol played spangly games with film stars and Coke cans, Polke’s and Richter’s paintings dwelt on the drab durables of their GDR childhoods: socks and tables were a speciality. In true anti-capitalist mode, the pair worked interchangeably, one appearing as the other in interviews and making wild claims for their art – that it had been used to kill Joseph Stalin being among the wilder.

If Anselm Kiefer’s youthful work asked dif­ficult questions about before-and-after, then Polke and Richter’s did the same for East-and-West, Capitalism-and-Socialism. In pictures such as Richter’s Party (1963) and Polke’s
Girlfriends (1965–6), the pair quietly mocked the assumption that the system under which they had grown up and the one under which they now lived were opposites of each other. Both new Germanies, their work suggested, were about power, the one as morally corrupt as the other.

Although Capitalist Realism lasted only a decade, the questions it raised remained central to both men’s work. Polke in particular seemed plagued with doubt about the morality of his art, an anxiety that underlay even the jauntiness of his most famous invention, the inevitably named ‘Polke dot’. Based on the Benday printers’ dots used by the American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, Polke’s differed from them in being blobby and hard-to-read. If the purpose of art is revelation, then dot-paintings such as Strand (1966) hid as much as they showed. Perversely, this moral doubt only became more acute as Polke’s pictures got clearer. The Three Lies of Painting (1994) is masterly in its clarity, self-consciously slotting itself into the history of representational art: and yet it says nothing at all. In the end, both clarity and history are revealed as tricks, holding out the hope of confession only to snatch it away.

Richter, meanwhile, was playing similar games with photography. The supposed honesty of photographs, made by the never-lying camera, had pushed 19th-century painting towards abstraction, an art that looks for truth in form rather than in fact. Now, Richter blurred these distinctions as he blurred his images, making smudgy photographs in which he had intentionally moved the camera, or paintings of photographs that looked as though he had.

'In the end, both clarity and history are revealed as tricks, holding out the hope of confession only to snatch it away'

This game of smoke-and-mirrors culminated in a series of canvases called October 18, 1977 (1988), depicting members of the German terrorist group the Red Army Faction (RAF). Several of the 15 paintings, each called Tote (Dead), were of the gang’s co-leader, Ulrike Meinhof, although the title of the series came from the date on which three other RAF members were found hanged in their prison in Stuttgart – a so-called ‘joint suicide’, widely thought to have been committed under police duress. Richter’s paintings are thus both truthful and misleading, substituting one terrorist for others, looking like black-and-white photographs when they are actually black-and-white paintings. The October works were, Richter said, ‘a way of reporting’, although what they report is the slipperiness of images, the fact that there are no facts.

I doubt that this autumn’s exhibitions of the three German masters were planned to coincide with each other, far less with the an­­niversary of D-Day, but there is a symmetry in their doing so. Like the veterans on the Normandy beaches, the works of Richter, Polke and Kiefer are relics of a specific moment in European history. Like those veterans, they bear witness to a terrible damage.

Unlike the old soldiers, though, the three were not from the war’s winning side. Perhaps it is this that has given their work a moral charge lacking in many of their English and American contemporaries: their art is a 50-year attempt to explain, if not atone. When, in 1994, the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, was asked to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Normandy Landings, he reportedly turned the invitation down. What did Germans have to celebrate in their own self-destruction? Kohl is said to have asked. He might have found an answer in this trio of exhibitions.

Kiefer’s, aptly, is the biggest. Taking over the whole of the Royal Academy’s cavernous first floor, it will include sculptural works made specially for the show. (In 2007 the artist’s 50-foot-high twin towers, called Jericho, teetered over the RA’s courtyard like unsteady concrete
skyscrapers. Expect enormity.) His still-­contentious early Occupation photos will be there as well, as will his painted studies of the work of Albert Speer.

Polke’s exhibition at Tate Modern, called ‘Alibis’, covers not only the changing obsessions of the late artist’s half-century career – consumerism, communal living, chemical experiment – but also the breadth of his practice: notebooks, slide projections, sculptures and photocopy works, alongside the better-known can­vases. Richter, meanwhile, will have a pair of more intimate shows as part of Tate’s travelling Artist Rooms series, including various of his so-called Abstraktes Bilder (Abstract Paintings).

These shows will have an added significance for all three artists. The history of art, like the history of everything, does not stand still. What we make of Kiefer, Polke and Richter in 2014 is not what we would have made of them 50 years ago, and not how they will be seen half-a-century from now. Even if they hadn’t wanted to be history painters, the times they were born in would have made them so. Now those times are themselves part of history. What of these three men?

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2014 issue of Art Quarterly.

Tags: Art Quarterly