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A painting of a man making a Hitler salute
Image: Anselm Kiefer

The early years of Germany's art rebels

April 16, 2019

Richter, Baselitz, Kiefer and Polke are big German names associated with a rebellious trend in 1960s art. An exhibition in Stuttgart, "The Early Years of the Old Masters," highlights their work.


The Stuttgart State Gallery is for the first time presenting works of Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke in a joint exhibition: "The Early Years of the Old Masters." As the title suggests, the show brings together works from the 1960s and 1970s, when Germany, thanks in part to these four hot-shot artists, was firmly back on the art world map.

The four painters undoubtedly rank among the most well-known contemporary artists. Sigmar Polke, who died in 2010, was also a permanent member of this illustrious circle during his lifetime. At auctions, the works of these four artists earn millions of dollars; the paintings of Gerhard Richter (above) are among the most expensive of a living artist ever.

Read more: Euthanasia and art history: German entry 'Never Look Away' nominated for 2 Oscars

Painter Sigmar Polke
Sigmar Polke was also one of the big four. He passed away in 2010Image: picture-alliance/dpa

A time of change in Germany

In the 1960s, artists began to break up the tired structures of the post-war era, at a time when universities were caught up in student protests. Although the four painters exhibited in Stuttgart described themselves as apolitical, their works were still celebrated abroad as evidence of a Germany that was deling with its Nazi past.

"Their works changed how our country is viewed," German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at the opening of the exhibition at the Stuttgart State Gallery. He was referring to how Germany is seen abroad, as well as by those living in the country.

Frank-Walter Steimeier
German President Frank-Walter Steimeier visits the exhibitionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Murat

For the artists themselves, the early 1960s were marked by change. With the exception of Anselm Kiefer, they all came from East Germany but made careers in West Germany. Even before it was open to the public, the Stuttgart exhibition generated criticism. "Does it really mean that you want to sell these gentlemen as the most important artists in the world? What do Jeff Koons and David Hockney say about that?" wrote Monopol, a monthly German art magazine.

Read more: Artist Gerhard Richter feels 'abused' by Germany's Oscar entry  

About 100 early works are on display in Stuttgart from April 12 to August 11. The three surviving artists supported the exhibition by loaning works. A documentary in the gallery's lobby gives an overview of 1960s political events and pop culture. 

tla/sd (dpa/Staatsgalerie Stuttgart/Monopol)

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