New York

Markus Lüpertz

Markus Lüpertz made his first “German motif” paintings in 1970 and his last in 1974. As their subtitles indicate, they are part of a series he called “dithyrambic,” in reference to the irregular, wild lyric form that honors Dionysus. (“Dionysius dithyrambos” translates as “Dionysus, who stands before the double door.”) The paintings, which Lüpertz conceives as visual poems, show him standing before the double door of German history. One opens onto the Nazi past—far from remote in 1970—and the other onto the traditional German fascination with southern cultures. Lüpertz’s flashy, expressive, yet peculiarly systematic painterliness forms stable, recognizable motifs. All allude to German fascism, either directly (the helmet of German Motif-dithyrambic II, 1972) or indirectly (the wheat in Ear-dithyrambic I, 1972). These are “heavy” themes, but Lüpertz’s brushstroke makes them seem unanchored, albeit not exactly free-floating. If, in modernity, “all that is solid melts,” as Marx said, then Lüpertz’s paintings are an attempt to liquefy the seemingly indissoluble Nazi past, which rests in the German unconscious like an imponderable mass. To paint forbidden emblems of German authority was not only daring, it was necessary. How else to deal with what has become an unwanted legacy except through a mode of artmaking itself historical and dated?

Yet instead of purging the fascist “epic” through lyric painting, Lüpertz’s pictures convey conflict: German motifs survive the “attack” of the paint, giving them all the more presence, so that what began as a separation from the Nazi past becomes an unwitting apotheosis of it or, at the least, a nostalgic repossession of it. In works such as Triptych-Apokalypse-dithyrambic, 1972, the apocalypse the German motifs represent is aestheticized. Decay has been arrested: the helmet does not rust in the earth, but, like the antlers of Antlers-dithyrambic III, 1972, it adorns the halls of German history. It is a trophy, if not exactly of victory, not of defeat either. Lüpertz’s German motifs may be the tombstones of German history, but they also signal a certain rebirth of German power, and were in fact painted when Germany was coming into its postwar own.

If there is an air of stagnancy to Lüpertz’s paintings, there is also one of possibility: as Soldier-dithyrambic II and Coat-dithyrambic III, both 1972, suggest, ghosts will walk. If, as Freud said, hysterics suffer from memories, then German hysterics suffer from particularly bad memories. Lüpertz attempted to cure his hysteria through a Dionysian catharsis, but he is more tragic and disturbed than he knows: twitching with painterly life, the German motifs suggest someone itching to be on the march, and not only in memory.

By making fascism unforgettable, with whatever painterly irony, Lüpertz shows that it continues to have seductive power and fascination for the German imagination. Today it may be regarded with horror rather than admiration, and yet, or so Lüpertz suggests, it was a great episode in German history—a demonstration of Germany’s authority and power to make itself felt. It is unfortunate that Lüpertz’s attempt to criticize that authority and power turns into an endorsement of it, however unwittingly. In the end, there is less pathos than militancy in Lüpertz’s German motifs.

Donald Kuspit