Monday, March 16, 2009

Art of Two Germanys, Part 2

I want to start the second part of this three part post with a scene from the Academy Award nominated film The Reader, staring Kate Winslet. The Reader, set in post war Germany, is about a young man's relationship with an older women, played by Winslet, and the emotional consequences of that relationship when it is revealed that the women was involved in the Nazi horrors. The scene is set years later when the young man, now a student in law school is taken as part of a classroom assignment to a trial involving former Nazi guards who were accused of killing about 300 prisoners in their care. As he sat there unable to watch the trial, he all of the sudden hears a familiar voice. It is the lover he had fallen in love with when he was 15. A devastating revelation that has emotional consequences beyond his teenage heartbreak.

The movie scene illustrates the cultural climate of the 1960s and early 1970s. ( I will discuss the anti war protest in part 3). Three events or trends defined this period. The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 further solidifying the differences between both East and West Germany. German Art, from the West in particular, began its preeminent rise as a force in contemporary art. And Germany began to confront its Nazi past. With the German national dialog and self reflection beginning, this confrontation went hand in hand with the rise of Germany as a force for contemporary art.

Household names such as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys emerged from this period from West Germany. With the emergence of these famous artists, the same artists began to confront the Nazi past, particularly the Holocaust, with a vigor that still resonates today. The show has Gerhard Richter's painting, entitled "Unkle Rudi," 1965. The painting based on a photo of Richter's uncle, who is dressed in a Nazi uniform. This painting is an almost meditative piece where the artist confronts his own family's past and participation in the Nazi regime. Anselm Kiefer's painting of 1973, "Germany's Spiritual Heroes" confronts the Nazi past as a continuation of German history and mythology.

In the East, recent German history was almost muted by the Communist government. The East German government sought to portray the German people as victims rather than participants of the Nazi Holocaust and atrocities during the war. However, artists living the East were subtle about the Nazi past and coded their paintings so not not gain the attention of the government. Hautnig Ehenbach, "Burning Man," 1966 portrays a man on fire; a subtle hint at the concentration's camps furnaces. Wolfagang Matheuer, "The Scare," 1977, shows a man with his arm raised, but cut off at the forearm; hiding the Nazi salute. The other two figures are hold their hands over their eyes and ears; hear no evil, see no evil. The only artist to openly confront the Nazi past in both East and West is A.R. Penck. His works are highly expressionistic, coded so not to offend the communist party in the East, but upfront enough to participate in the open dialog and self examination happening in the West.

I would like to end with Joseph Beuys. Joseph Beuys sought to be an artist shaman, seeking to heal Germany from its past, in fact heal humanity from the violence of that time. Beuys' work always included felt. According to Beuys, while he was flying with the Luftwaffe in Russia, he was shot down and, when captured by Cossacks, they wrapped his body in felt to keep him warm. This event is always a marker, a starting point, in which the artist approaches his audience and work. Social sculpture, as Beuys calls it, seeks to inspire creativity and political agency to transform society. Beuys was a departure from artist like Richter and Kiefer, in that he sought not only to confront, but to heal and transform the society.

In Part 3, I will discuss the Red Army Faction terror, the end of the Cold War, and unification of Germany.

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