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The Yearning for Kraut Art

Sabina CasagrandeJuly 29, 2004

Fresh blood has given the international popularity of German art a boost. Collectors in New York and London these days are eagerly snatching up works by young German artists.

Martin Eder's "Thoughts leaving my head"Image: Martin Eder

Neo Rauch can hardly keep up with the demand. Top collectors face waiting lists of over a year to get their hands on one of the eastern German artist's melancholic interpretations of Socialist themes.

The 43-year-old Rauch has already achieved superstar status in the art world. His paintings are going at auctions for well over $100,000. But a new generation of young artists has emerged in his footsteps to help make "Kraut art" take the world by storm, much as Kraut Rock hit the music world in the 1970s.

Martin Eder, Tim Eitel, Jonathan Meese or Daniel Richter are just a few of the thirtysomethings who have become extremely popular in the international art scene. These Young German Artists -- or "YGA" -- are being marketed as a pendant to their provocative British counterparts, such as Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin, who took the art market by storm in the 1990s.

Gerard Andrew Goodrow
Gérard Goodrow took over as Director of the Art Cologne in 2003Image: Art Cologne

But the YGA are doing something completely different. According to Gérard Goodrow (photo), director of the prestigious Art Cologne trade fair, their work marks a continuation of an art tradition.

"Since the mid-1960s, especially German painting has been leading the market," he told DW-WORLD. "We saw this already in the late 1960s and early 1970s with artists like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, who have remained on the top."

A figurative and understandable medium

The fascination for German paintings in particular has very pragmatic reasons. As Christian Nagel, a well-known Cologne gallery owner, put it: "It’s figurative and understandable."

Goodrow explains that when these new stars emerge on the scene, collectors are drawn to their paintings. "That’s something that especially an American audience needs, this attractiveness," Goodrow said.

"Americans -- and I hate to say this being an American myself -- tend to be superficial in their assessment of painting and the German painters have that beauty within their work."

But, he added, the pieces are also highly conceptual. "There is a lot of content you can dig into."

Perhaps it isn't just this tradition, which explains the success of contemporary German art, though. Although talent plays a role, most of these artists are also trained painters.

"There are a lot of really interesting artists in the academies here in Germany. The education of the artists, especially when it comes to painting, is very sophisticated," said Sven Ahrens, one of the owners of the Cologne gallery Hammelehle and Ahrens. "These young students get a lot of knowledge and ideas in their studies and then they start to paint their ideas because it’s easy, it’s quick, and you can immediately have a result."

Eastern Nostalgia

And the market loves these results. Collectors are especially interested in artists from the Leipzig School in eastern Germany, like forerunner Neo Rauch. They often pick up on socialist themes, painting them with a touch of nostalgic realism.

Neo Rauch, "Weiche", 1999Image: Uwe Walter

"In the Leipzig School especially, there are a lot of works dealing with the politics of East and West Germany and the struggle of the young artists trying to create a profile for themselves within this East-West dichotomy," said Art Cologne's Goodrow.

Western Germany is, of course, still much richer and internationally more popular than the former East. "Leipzig isn’t necessarily a place where foreigners go," he said. "And now they are going there, to see these artists."

The paintings also express a form of romantic idyll, which meets the needs of collectors, said gallery owner Nagel. "What’s hard or maybe disturbing and hurting is 'out' right now," he said. "People only want to see affirmative aspects."

The art scene also tends to blossom in depressed times, added Ahrens. "We are living in difficult times in Germany at the moment. A lot is changing in society and we are facing a lot of cutbacks. These are times that art and especially painting starts to get a really lively and sometimes romantic moment."

YGA a farce?

The strong popularity of YGA also poses a danger, though, especially when it's accompanied by high prices. "The problem with situations like this is that an artist can be crushed under the hype," said Goodrow. "If you’re producing works for a waiting list, and not just making works of art, then you start producing for the market."

What's more, if a collector is on a waiting list for over a year, an artist faces expectations of producing something that people anticipated two years ago. "It’s difficult to get the artistic development really going," said Goodrow.

Tea and Coffee 1
Tim Berresheim and Jonathan Meese, "Tea and Coffee 1", 2004Image: galerie hammelehle und ahrens

That's why an artist like Jonathan Meese shrugs off the whole phenomena of new German art. He says he has always done his art the way he wants to and always will.

"It's a farce," he said. "I don't care about it and I'm not affected by it. So it can't destroy me either, because it doesn't affect me. Other artists who bet on this development and believe that it's interesting and important can be destroyed."

Something to be proud of

As with other trends in the art scene, only time will tell whether YGA will prove to be just another hyped up fad.

"There's nothing really special about it," said Meese. "Basically it just shows that something out of a particular country is presentable worldwide. I think it's just a wave that comes and goes again."

But, as Goodrow points out, Germany also has nothing to be ashamed of. It is leading the market both in terms of young art, as well as artists of the middle and older generation, such as Gerhard Richter, he said.

"I know it’s always very difficult for Germans to be proud of something because of their past, but this is something they can be very proud of," he say. "When you consider how many of the top hundred artists worldwide are actually German, it shows that we’re doing something right here."