“German Art since 1960 from the Collection of Prince Franz of Bavaria”

München, Schlusslicht der deutschen Kunstszene” (Munich, taillight of the German art scene): this battle cry didn’t seem much of an exaggeration at the end of the ’70s, and if Munich, as the former seat of the Wittelsbach family, upheld its reputation as an art capital, it was thanks only to the cultural monuments of its former royal house. Ludwig I’s visionary daydreams of a neoclassical Athens-on-the-Isar, or the romantic kingdom of God conceived by Ludwig II along the lines of a Gesamthunstwerk, failed to inspire the native Bavarian citizens to comparably significant visions of their own, excepting perhaps the anarchic worlds of Karl Valentin or Herbert Achternbusch. Some recent fresh winds excepted, this exhibition was symptomatic of the predominant climate of the Munich art world. Once again, it was not a private citizen but Prince Franz of Bavaria, a descendant of that line of culture kings, who undertook the first large-scale measures to begin filling in blatant gaps in the collection of the Staatsgalerie moderner Kunst. Thanks to his unequaled donation to the Wittelsbach compensatory fund, German art since 1960 was presented in this exhibit not in encyclopedic thoroughness, to be sure, but by a very personal and lively selection.

The collection incorporates four blocks of work. In addition to the regionalist art there is a group of works by American artists, including Walter de Maria, Donald Judd, Fred Sandback, and John Chamberlain. There are also a number of series by younger artists like Troëls Wörsel and Franz Hitzler The true focus of the collection is those German artists who, reflecting American influences, returned to their native tradition during that cool decade of the ’60s, with its belief in progress and, in. the closing years, its dematerialist attitudes. This reversion to an indigenous tradition is not chauvinist in nature but is motivated by a search for artistic identity. In the ’60s, for the first time since World War II, artists like Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz, Jörg Immendorff, A.R. Penck, and Anselm Kieferovercame the fear of contamination by things national, in both subject matter and iconography. All manner of German problems and experiences emerge in radically contrasting forms in works like Immendorff’s Café Deutschland VII, 1980—that fantasized meeting place for rebellious heroes and emblems of Eastern, Western, and private ideologies—and Kiefer’s daring attempt to purify, through the purgatorial fires of his pathos-drenched paintings, the Blut-Boden-Brauchtum-Sitte (blood-soil-traditions-customs) themes of Nazi slogans. At the same time, the national aspect is not overly emphasized; the filtered reexamination of the art and literature of the German past by these artists does not focus solely on the national spirit. In the work of Baselitz, Gerhard Richter, Lüpertz, and even Kiefer, questions of artistic means and new contents play an equally, if not more, important and unmistakable role. Traditional or provocative motifs, reduced to mere rudiments in deference to formal presence, continue to exert themselves as irritants amid the pure painting of these works.

While Lüpertz, Kiefer, and Immendorff introduce with affirmative pleasures the furor teutonicus as a kind of devil’s advocate, a romantic strain dominates the work of the former Beuys students Blinky Palermo and Imi Knöbel. But this romanticism points less to the tradition of German idealism than to the climate of Paris in May of 1968, with its slogan of “die Phantasie an die Macht” (let fantasy reign), or to Barnett Newman’s “chaos of pure fantasy and pure feeling,” or to the nonviolent revolts of hippie culture. What Palermo and Knôbel are after is an absolute beauty that is not a superficial quality of the individual works but is perceptible only as yearning. Seldom the product of a preconceived notion of the work, it emerges most frequently in an experimental, truly osmotic handling of visual means.

There are obvious imbalances in the quality and range of the collection; missing, for instance, are paintings that show that Sigmar Polke also is concerned with a yearning after beauty, though in a subtle, fragmentary form. In the cases of Polke, Baselitz, Kiefer—except for his 1974 Nero malt (Nero painting)—and Arnulf Rainer (the only non-German represented), the accent is essentially on the earlier phases of their work. Only the small but carefully selected group of Penck’s works (though here, too, his sculpture was missing) and the large number of Palermo’s works give an adequate survey of the artists’ overall achievements. It may be that Prince Franz has not really overcome his initial difficulties with Beuys, although, along with Palermo’s works, Das Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts (The end of the 20th century), a monumental work by Beuys made of 44 basalt blocks, was a highlight of the exhibition. This reticence is remarkable indeed, for Beuys’ ideas resemble those of Franz’s Wittelsbach ancestor: “Art,” said Ludwig I at the laying of the cornerstone for the Neue Pinakotek, "should not be viewed as a luxury. It should express itself in everything. It should be part of life. Only then is art what it should be.

Ingrid Rein

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.