German painter Norbert Bisky has been criticized for toying with the aestheticism of fascism. But the painter, whose works are currently on display in Berlin in his first major solo show, sees things differently.
Bisky's blond boys
At first sight, Bisky's paintings may remind viewers of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda films: bare-chested lads marching in file; a blond boy raising his right arm the way the Nazis did; athletic bodies turning somersaults.
But having been born in 1970 in Leipzig, Bisky grew up in a different kind of dictatorship: communist East Germany. He was surrounded by socialist art that glorified the country's young "pioneers" and depicted them doing physical exercise. Bisky's omnipresent blond boys are also constantly exercizing and scuffling in front of bright blue skies.
While his paintings are bestsellers on the art market, some have criticized these flawless bodies that look like they've escaped from an Aryan cloning laboratory. His critics accuse him of using a fascist, totalitarian aesthetic in his paintings.
Norbert Bisky in front of one of his paintings entitled "War instead of Fucking"
Such accusations drive Bisky's fans crazy. Guido Westerwelle, the leader of Germany's neo-liberal Free Democrats, for example, thinks left-wingers simply have a problem with beauty.
A closer examination of Bisky's works also reveals that almost all of his smooth compositions contain a twist. Looking at the blond boys with perfect teeth in the Berlin show at Bethanien gallery, Bisky's subtle critique of the modern cult of the body becomes apparent.
Many of his paintings contain ironic fractures: In one, Bisky's blondes playfully scuffle in the foreground as burning helicopters fall from the sky behind. In another painting, lads stare at a burning house while one of them sneaks off as if leaving the scene of a crime. The innocence evoked by bright and pure colors and beautiful boys turns out to be deceptive.
Resisting body fascism
Bisky, whose father, Lothar, is the leader of Germany's Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to the East German communist party, sees his art as resistance to the "body fascism" that's not only promoted by the art of totalitarian regimes but also the advertising industry. In return, his attempt to beat glossy aestheticism and the glorification of the body with its own weapons has been misunderstood.
Formerly a student of Georg Baselitz, Bisky is one the young German artists who have rediscovered figurative art and sell well abroad. Bisky actually avoided this form of art in his early works -- during his teenage years, he rejected the realist art of the East that he now quotes in his paintings. At best, these socialist paintings were erotic, he says today. Most times, however, they were simply horrendous, according to him.
"If he quotes elements of socialist state art today, he does it with a clear distance," said Christoph Tannert, who curated the Berlin show. "Bisky rightly rejects accusations of propagating an Aryan body cult."
But Tannert added that Bisky's success in the US might have something to do with its similarity to Nazi art.
"He's surely seen in a different light in the US," he said. "There, people tend to see more of an 'Aryan' undertone than in Germany."
Norbert Bisky during the opening of his show on May 4 with Berlin's self-proclaimed "living art works," Eva and Adele
Art critic Graham Bader added that Bisky's figures might provoke yet another kind of association in the minds of American viewers: His "synthetic-standardized bodies" are very similar to those in ads for the allergy medication Claritin.
"Strange and familiar, eerie and cheerful at once, Bisky's paintings speak the language of an ideology that's as omnipresent and invisible: a Claritin realism for a Claritin age," he said.
The exhibition runs through May 29 and is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.