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Divided Germany

Ellen Otzen, LondonFebruary 6, 2014

London's British Museum has long skipped over post-war German artists like Baselitz, Richter and Penck. Now it's filling in the gaps with an extensive exhibition of works that look critically at Germany's divided past.

"Monument," by Markus Lüpertz, 1941; gouache, ink and oil pastel on brown packing paper, Copyright: Markus Lüpertz
Untitled watercolor by Sigmar Polke from c. 1969Image: Polke/DACS 2013

One day in 1968, the 29-year-old dissident painter Ralf Winkler, fearing a backlash from the East German authorities due to his activities in the West, changed his name. He became AR Penck, after the 19th-century Ice Age geologist Albrecht Penck. That Winkler chose a pseudonym from an expert on all things glacial is very telling: He felt he was living in a frozen period, isolated from his peers in the West and expected to create art which conformed to communist East Germany's Socialist Realism.

In the painting "Schmelze länger" ("Melt Longer") Penck's friend Jörg Immendorf would later depict him beating wildly on a set of drums, his furious action melting the ice that surrounds him.

A critical look at Germany's past

The exhibition "Germany Divided: Baselitz and his Generation," which features previously unseen works from the 1960s and 1970s by six major German artists, opens to the public on Thursday, February 7 at the British Museum.

The exhibition illustrates perfectly why Penck was so frustrated at living in a divided country: There was something new and extraordinary going on in German art in this period. For the first time since the end of the war, a younger generation of artists, who had not been involved in the Third Reich, were taking a long, hard and critical look at their country's recent, troubled past.

Untitled self-portrait by AR Penck, c. 1975, from the exhibition "Germany Divided: Baselitz and his Generation" and the British Museum, Copyright: A.R. Penck/DACS 2013
Untitled self-portrait by AR Penck, c. 1975Image: A.R. Penck/DACS 2013

The show includes drawings, watercolors, gouaches and woodcuts by Georg Baselitz, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, AR Penck, Blinky Palermo and Markus Lüpertz. The works are on loan from the collection of Count Christian Dürckheim, a businessman who befriended Baselitz in the middle of the 1970s. Dürckheim had the nous to begin collecting works by Baselitz and his contemporaries before they became famous and managed to secure them at a good price.

All six artists were all born in eastern Germany and emigrated to the West at various points in time, most of them before the borders were shut in 1961. Penck eventually crossed over on foot in 1980, after his position had become untenable and officials in East Germany gave him permission to leave.

Reunification appeared 'inconceivable'

"When these works were created at the height of the Cold War, it seemed to everyone that this situation was going to persist for generations - a bit like North and South Korea," said exhibition curator Stephen Coppell. "The idea that the two halves would be brought together again appeared totally inconceivable."

One thing that links all the artists on display here is the fact that their work in one way or another is about German history, art critic John-Paul Stonard, who wrote the exhibition catalogue, told DW.

Markus Lupertz' prints, for instance, show German military helmets and use Nazi imagery as a way of forcing the viewer to think about the horrors of his country's past.

"A New Type," by Georg Baselitz, 1965, from the exhibition "Germany Divided: Baselitz and his Generation" and the British Museum,
"A New Type," by Georg Baselitz, 1965Image: Georg Baselitz

"Before the war, it was much more important to be international and be part of a broader sphere, like the Bauhaus movement. After the war, the one thing not to be in Germany in 1960 was German. There was this idea that the tradition had been corrupted," he said.

Banking on tradition

But Baselitz - along with Richter, perhaps the most internationally well-known of the six - is strongly informed by older examples of German art.

"Baselitz wanted to create provocative avant-garde art in the midst of this terrible post-war situation," explained Stonard. "He felt one way of doing it was simply to be super-German, to be extra-German. He goes back and looks at traditional techniques and wood cuts. His prints show woodsmen, huntsmen, herdsmen, shepherds, soldiers - iconic figures in German history."

On display are also a series of extraordinary prints from Baselitz' "Helden" ("Heroes") series, which show a single, defeated-looking soldier figure in a ragged post-war landscape, his feet often ensnared in strange animal traps. The Helden series became Baselitz' great moment, something he constantly referred back to in his later career.

Rivals from football to canvas

While the works of Baselitz and Richter have become iconic and hugely influential, British audiences have not had much exposure to German art of this era. So why were these six artists largely ignored in Britain, while gaining international success elsewhere?

"In the UK, there has been a long-standing resistance to German art. It goes back to the British obsession with Cézanne and French art in the early part of the 20th century. German art was viewed as tortured, ugly, too soulful, too intellectual," said Stonard.

Untitled charcoal on paper by Georg Baselitz, 1965, from the exhibition "Germany Divided: Baselitz and his Generation" and the British Museum, Copyright: Georg Baselitz
Untitled charcoal on paper by Georg Baselitz, 1965Image: Georg Baselitz

"There's a political element to this resistance, too," he continued. "We've fought two world wars and lost several World Cups to the Germans. There has simply been a natural cultural resistance to Germany."

But these attitudes finally appear to be changing in the UK. 2014 marks the centenary of World War I and 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There's no official festival of German art, but it just so happens that this year, there's quite a bit of it in London. Whitechapel Gallery is showing a retrospective with the Berlin Dadaist Hannah Höch and there are several Baselitz exhibitions planned.

"It's all happening unofficially, which is much better," commented Stonard. "It would be very rare to meet a young person in Britain today who says, 'Germans can't make art.' Still, there's a knowledge gap there - and an important story to tell."

"Germany Divided: Baselitz and his Generation" is showing at the British Museum through August 31, 2014.