Activist artist Klaus Staeck still provokes at 80 | Arts | DW | 28.02.2018
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Activist artist Klaus Staeck still provokes at 80

His satirical posters, full of wit and ridicule, critically tackle German society and politics, from Amazon to Angela Merkel. As Klaus Staeck turns 80, Essen's Folkwang Museum presents the work of the art rebel.

Though trained as a lawyer, Klaus Staeck became a household name in Germany with his satirical political artworks created on posters, postcards and stickers. His goal has always been to stimulate thought and political dialogue. "My hope is to have a disruptive influence," he told DW.

Klaus Staeck's early political poster with its appeal to German Workers (Klaus Staeck)

Staeck's heralded early political poster with its now-legendary appeal to 'German Workers'

Having fled to West Germany from Saxony in the East in 1956, the young lawyer and self-taught artist started collaborating with activist artists and writers in the 1960s and 70s like Joseph Beuys, Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll. Staeck wanted to influence political discourse with provocative slogans such as his poster reading, "German workers! The SPD wants to take away your villas in Tessin" ("Deutsche Arbeiter! Die SPD will Euch Eure Villen im Tessin wegnehmen!"), a dig at conservatives constantly fear-mongering about the left-wing Social Democratic Party programs. Some 70,000 copies of the landmark poster with a bright yellow villa in the background were published.    

Staeck has since used his art to defend workers and women's rights, free speech, the environment and to fight against nuclear proliferation. In 2014 he expressed his opposition to the mail-order behemoth Amazon through an image of a torn cardboard box with "never more amazon" ("nie mehr amazon") printed on the side. At a time when the company was being criticized for underpaying German workers, the message was clear enough. 

Read more: Germans and their love of freedom

A torn Amazon box that is Klaus Staeck's Nie Mehr Amazon artowkr made in 2014 (Edition Staeck, Heidelberg)

Some of Staeck's more recent artistic provocation

Ongoing dialogue

The president of the prestigious Academy of Arts in Berlin between 2006 and 2015, Staeck had the slogan "Nothing is over" ("Nichts ist erledigt") posted on the glass facade of the institution located in the heart of the German capital. Under his watch, the academy would encourage artists to continue a dialogue with politics and to help shape society.

"I hope that after 300 years, a woman will finally become president," said Straeck before his term at the arts academy ended in 2015. "We'll see whether this male-dominated institution is ready for the idea."

During a 2014 Staeck exhibition at Berlin's Nationalgalerie, the museum director Udo Kittelmann said the political artworks were more about "irritation than provocation."

Indeed, many of those public figures who Staeck has "irritated" have taken out lawsuits against the artist — 41 to be exact. Staeck has won every single case. He says it's a win for free speech.

"When in doubt, courts in Germany will decide in favor of freedom of expression," Staeck told DW in 2016.

"I've warded off any and all attempts to limit the content we choose," he also said in a 2015 interview with DW, speaking of his role as head of the Academy of Arts. "And the government has always respected that in the end — despite the fact that we depend on public funding."

For Staeck, the ongoing fight for freedom of expression in his homeland explained "why artists in Germany have so much solidarity with persecuted artists worldwide."

Read more: Klaus Staeck on Böhmermann case: 'A big mistake for Merkel'

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Interview - With Klaus Staeck, Artist and Publisher

Continuing life work

Staeck's commitment to free — and preferably ironic — artistic expression is being celebrated at Essen's Folkwang Museum, where 180 posters spanning 1971 to 2017 are on show. The artist's early prints that informed the later posters — many of which were exhibited at the Kassel art show "documenta" — are also part of the retrospective. It's a rare opportunity take in the gamut of the Staeck's artistic and political ideas that remain relevant today.

Trump on the earth in a poster by Klaus Staeck (Klaus Staeck, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn Foto: Museum Folkwang, Tanja Lamers)

Staeck's poster of Donald Trump reads 'Appearing again: The liar baron'

Even as Staeck turns 80 on February 28, he continues to add his voice to political dialogue. 

Staeck weighed in on the recent German federal elections, telling DW he was "disappointed" by the results that were a "wake-up call," even if he did not see the AfD significantly changing Germany's political landscape. "With their absurd understanding of history, the AfD will never find a coalition partner," he said.

Read more: How artists and cultural institutions reacted to the German election

But yet again, the artist had tried to influence debate by paying for expensive newspaper ads aimed to mobilize people to vote. Rather than criticize people today, he would prefer to praise them. "That works as well," he says.

"Klaus Staeck: Sand fürs Getriebe" ("Sand for the Gears") run until April 8, 2018 at Museum Folkwang in Essen.

A wall from the Essen musum exhibition on Klaus Staeck (Klaus Staeck, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn Foto: Museum Folkwang, Tanja Lamers)

Staeck's political posters can be seen in the Essen museum and cover contemporary topics like the TTIP trade agreement

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