Heimrad Prem

Stadische Galerie in Lenbachhaus

The current economic crisis in Germany is causing many artists and intellectuals to reexamine the Situationist movement, which has inevitably led to a rediscovery of the work of Heimrad Prem, an important member of the German branch of the Situationist International. In the larger context of the movement, Prem may not seem like a shining example—he is often associated with depression and failure—but many of his supposed “failures” constitute efforts that are worthy of attention.

Though Prem’s artistic discoveries can often be considered apart from his political and cultural goals, hardly any other artist engaged in the heated debates of the movement as directly and convincingly. In a painting entitled Manifest, 1960, five people, each of whom can be identified as members of the German Situationist group Spur (Trace), sit around a table and appear to talk excitedly. Despite the painting’s rudimentary drawing and muted color scheme, the setting seems explosive. On closer inspection, Prem and the other activists seem to be discussing a particular manifesto, and the pieces of text that have been collaged directly onto the image, suggesting pamphlets littered about the table, turn out to be fragments of a leaflet protesting the arrest of English Situationist Alexander Trocchi.

Prem founded Spur in 1958 with other Munich painters; the group joined forces with the Situationists shortly after. Despite some frustrating conflicts with core members of the international organization, Prem’s involvement in the collective remained rewarding. The Danish artist Asger Jorn, who resided in Munich at the end of the ’50s, was also important to Prem, not only as a link to the Situationists—Jorn was an SI member from 1957 to 1960—but also through his artistic production. While his influence on Prem’s work became directly visible in 1961, the combination of strongly gestural painting, figurative representation, and social issues found in the work of both artists clearly suggests earlier points of contact.

Discouraged after being expelled from the Situationist International in February of 1962 (along with numerous German members of the group), Prem, instead of retreating into the solitude of an artistic life, helped to bring together the groups Spur and Wir (We); later, he also helped unify Geflecht (Network) and Collective Herzogstrasse. After the mid ’60s, Spur artists began to experiment with Pop imagery, but when Prem began to incorporate these motifs, some of them sexual, into his work, he encountered public criticism; this, in combination with his use of LSD, led him to feel severely depressed and alienated. Although by his own account it was the activity of painting that had long kept him from taking his own life, Prem committed suicide in 1978.

Justin Hoffmann

Translated from the German by Vivian Heller.