Deutsche Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts: Bilder und Skulptur 1905–1985

This compendium of 20th-century German art, organized by Christos M. Joachimides, Norman Rosenthal, and Wieland Schmied, was originally designed for the Royal Academy of Arts, London. The show had placed its bets on persuading the British public of the accuracy of its arguments with a superb sculpture and painting exhibit. The original assembly of these exhaustively viewed little masterpieces was the only convincing argument against the roaring criticism of the show in Stuttgart, where several pieces on loan had been either exchanged for lesser works or withdrawn. The criticism centered on the show’s linear, exclusionary concept of German Modernism, as conveyed by an exhibition design that grouped works by overt stylistic similarities and by the noninclusion of any works dialectically opposed to German Expressionism, and on the myopic focus on an “expressive vision” as a specifically German phenomenon. Furthermore, the critics as well as the public took offense to the vague and dismissive attitude toward the effects of Nazism on German art from 1933 until 1945.

It goes without saying that the works produced by the artists of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, and Max Beckmann’s late works, belong to the most renowned contributions to Modern art. The tradition of their expressive painting style can be traced back to Tilman Riemenschneider, Mathias Grünewald, and the 16th-century Donau Schule (Danube School). Yet as a result of the linear argumentation underlying this exhibition, the fact that many German Modernists were moved by the “expressive vision” only during a particular phase in their lives was too easily forgotten. The organizers chose, for instance, to include only Wassily Kandinsky’s early works, and to exclude all but Paul Klee’s late canvases. Too, the general designation of the expressive/ ecstatic phenomenon as an inbred characteristic of German art ignores its transnational element; only when one considers Vincent van Gogh, the Fauves, and Edvard Munch is it possible to shape the contours of this identification. Thus a highly stylized execution of the image, which was not every Expressionist’s intent, was made to seem endemic to German art. Yet the roughly disjointed forms and the hysterical color and content of Beckmann’s or Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s work differ radically from, say, the French national cliche of a harmonious “belle peinture.”

With the works by Markus Lüpertz and Georg Baselitz, at the opposite end of the exhibition’s chronology, the label “expressionism” simply remains on the surface. Reflecting the tradition and its painterly means, their paintings have little else in common with the content paintings of the early Expressionists, neither the feverishly nervous reactions toward social and economic reforms in northern Germany before and after World War I, nor the tendency toward a mystic universalism in the art produced in southern Germany in the same period. Baselitz and Lüpertz aim to unfold the riches of painting in an art pour l’art manner, thereby voiding any content-oriented bonds.

The curatorial triumvirate expounded as a second linear thread a certain romantic tendency, exemplified by the work of Joseph Beuys, who tried to achieve and maintain a unity of life and art. Within these historical axes Oskar Schlemmer was granted singular status as the creator of a new, idealized image of man. Yet Schlemmer was removed from his established context, the Bauhaus, which, with its ideology of a modern Gesamthunstwerk, found no mention in this show. Dada, Surrealism, and the nonobjective art of the Weimar era were also depicted as peripheral with only a small group of works by Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, Wols, and Willi Baumeister. Along those seams where German and international art interjoin, the problem of an “art of national introspection” was once more revealed.

Here and there you could find intimations of the beginnings of Nazism (art illustrating the “noble tradition of the heroic”), as well as scattered examples of “art for no one” (as opposed to the Nazi program of “art for all”), the subjective work of Modern artists such as Otto Dix and Erich Heckel who chose in the early ’30s to remain in Germany, as “emigrants in their own country.” This period as well as the futile endeavor by a few artists to identify Nazism with German Expressionism were neither thematized nor highlighted. Within the milieu of the exhibition, the often vague opinions and positions prior to the 1937 Munich exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate art), which left no doubt as to the conclusive line drawn between ”acceptable“ and ”unacceptable" art, were not allowed to disturb an impression of cohesiveness, of a unified national art. The show also ignored the work of younger contemporary German artists such as Imi Knoebel, Dieter Teusch, and Peter Bömmels whose work deviates from the expressionistic standard it set.

Ingrid Rein

Translated from the German by Susann Moder.