The Return of Painting in Germany, 1960s
The Post-War Condition

After the last bombs were dropped, the last soldier had surrendered, and all surrenders were ratified, an uneasy peace descended upon Europe. By 1946, the rebuilding was underway as people, determined to return to normal, whatever that was, and move forward out of the war zone. For all intents and purposes, America was the only nation left standing. The other ostensible “victors,” England and France, were broken in various directions. England had been badly bombed and reached the end, financially exhausted by the long war with the Empire was becoming too expensive to maintain. No matter how logical the decision to give in to Germany was, France was humiliated by its surrender and struggled to regain its honor. For four years France had been living in peace, while the rest of Europe was torn by war, but after the liberation of 1944, the nation awakened guilt to its own collaboration. Italy, also tainted by collaboration, had managed to cleanse itself, thanks to an occupation by angry Nazis after Mussolini surrendered to the Allies. Russia expanded to take over Eastern Europe, creating, over time, a closed border that Winston Churchill would term “The Iron Curtain.” For many of the nations who had fought the war, only America and England emerged honor intact. New battle lines were drawn, this time, not among nations, but between two reigning ideologies: communism and capitalism. Unlike Russia, the American mainland had been untouched, meaning that the United States was the only power left untouched. Far stronger than it began, the victorious nation confronted a new enemy, Russia, now an empire once again, calling itself the USSR. On the heels of World War II, the Cold War commenced. Ground Zero was Germany.

Germany and Berlin, divided post-war

The year 1945 became the Stunde Null for Germany. From this point, the past was gone and there was nothing possible but a new and fresh start, moving only forward into the future. There was no place left to go. The Nazi years, from the late 1920s to the mid-1940s, became an untouchable territory, a place where one did not go. The German Kultur was discredited and stained by Nazi appropriation. A new culture would have to be created out of the ashes. The occupying forces, America, England and France understood their role to be that of re-education of an entire nation. In an article of 1948, “The Failure of Re-education in Germany,” Saul Padover of the Psychological Warfare Division wrote, “The problem of re-education, in brief, is not merely one of eradicating Nazism, but also of eliminating authoritarianism, militarism, Junkerism, and racism. The evil work of Hitler, be it remembered, lasted only a dozen years, but that of his predecessors went on for generations. The occupying powers are now called upon to wipe out in a comparatively short period of time this age-old accumulation of dangerous notions.” As Uta Gerhardt wrote in her article, “American Sociology and German Re-education After World War II,” Re-education was envisaged as a comprehensive policy with the broadly outlined goal of nothing less than changing the German national character. Its objective was to eliminate German aggressiveness, which had caused two world wars, and to help Germans adopt a mentality of political fair play and economic cooperation.”

Germany had been wiped out by a war it could never have won and had become a ruin, defined by bombed-out rubble, national shame, and humiliation. Forty years after its defeat in the Second World War, Germany was divided into two parts, East and West. The people of East Germany and East Berlin “voted with their feet,” and began to leave the Eastern zone for the West. Although the division between East and West Germany was fortified by 1952, it was still possible for East Germans to leave via the divided city of Berlin. Once in Berlin, the political and economic refugees would be flown to West Germany. Thousands of people left the Eastern zone during the decade and a half, following the end of the War, in what was a devastating brain drain of the young and educated, not to mention the embarrassment to the Soviet overlords. Something had to be done to stop the exodus through the escape hatch of Berlin. According to the State Department,

On the morning of August 13, 1961, Berliners awoke to discover that on the orders of East German leader Walter Ulbricht , a barbed wire fence had gone up overnight separating West and East Berlin and preventing movement between the two sides. The barbed wire fence was soon expanded to include cement walls and guard towers. The Berlin Wall would prevent the West from having further influence on the East, stop the flow of migrants out of the communist sector, and ultimately become the most iconic image of the Cold War in Europe. The United States quickly condemned the wall, which divided families and limited freedom of movement.

Constructing the Berlin Wall

By the 1980s, it seemed that the nation would never be reunited. A graffiti-covered Berlin Wall was an accepted fact of life, signifying the Cold War in the most concrete sense. It must be noted that after instigating two world wars, Germany was a pariah nation that should, in the minds of many, be kept in pieces so that Europe might be kept in peace. On the other hand, a divided Germany meant, in practical terms, that one half, the Eastern half, was sealed behind a great wall, imprisoned within a communist prison camp. This part of Germany, compared to its Western counterpart, was not just physically constrained behind an armed border but was also mentally censored and controlled by the dreaded secret police, the Stasi. Without physical freedom, lacking the right to freedom of thought, the Eastern segment was run under a communistic economic system which was not as prosperous or as successful as West Germany. Only a wall away, separated by a few soccer fields of “no man’s land,” the inhabitants of the Eastern half of Berlin could almost see the bright lights of a completely different Berlin just on the other side. Here was good food, rock ‘n’ roll, fashionable clothes, fast cars, Hollywood movies, and one of the most interesting art scenes in the world. West Germany had gone through the painful process of post-war purging of Nazism, which, once the cream on the top had been skimmed off, executed, and imprisoned, had left the lower layers untouched as the ordinary Nazis subsided into ordinary life. Political unrest from radicals during the 1960s and 1970s had gradually subsided but the eighties was a time of internal local terrorism.

Much of the political critique had to do with the nation’s whole-hearted embrace of capitalism and its rush to recover without looking back on the past. The plunge into materialism that followed decades of deprivation, from the Depression to the hard times of the War itself was unsettling to many. But Germany became very prosperous and was poised, at least in its Western half, to begin a quest for reinstatement in the good graces of international political life. During the 1980s, Germany became, as did England and America, for example, more conservative and attempted to at the same time eradicate the past and to atone for the past. The result was an identity crisis for West Germany, one that East Germany was spared. In the East, Communism firmly condemned and crushed any memory of Nazism and erased the German past in favor of a Stalinist recovery. But in the West, where there was freedom to consider the sins of the fathers and the ways in which the parents had chosen to recreate a new Germany from the ruins of Hitler’s mad dreams. The post-war generation of German children came of age in the 1970s and 1980s and the resulting art of those decades was in a dialogue with the past.

Documenta. Kassel (1964)

If the sixties and seventies had been eras of protest art and conceptual art, the eighties saw the fruition of a remarkable post-war resurgence in the fine arts in Western Germany. The question for German artists was how to make art? The immediate heritage of the past was forbidden. All things Nazi were suppressed in terms of culture, masking, in certain respects a continuation of the politics of the past or Vergangenheitspolitik, meaning that the former Nazis themselves had to be normalized and brought back into the fold. On the other hand, the New Left, the children of these very perpetrators were looking critically at the past, pointing to lingering authoritarianism a continuing patriarchy, and a belief in technocracy. The younger generation refused to accept the past and the artists used art to critique their parents’ complicity in war crimes. Gerhard Richter (1932-) was one of the many refugees from East Germany, leaving his home city of Dresden to find an art career in freedom. A young man at the of the war, too young to serve but old enough to fully understand the darkness of fascism and the sting of total defeat, he was initially delighted by Russian occupation. He recalled in his biography on his website, “..when the Russians came to our village and expropriated the houses of the rich who had already left or were driven out, they made libraries for the people out of these houses. And that was fantastic.” He studied art at the five-year program at the Academy in Dresden, a school now under the control of the Soviets. Richter commented, “The goal was socialist realism and the Dresden academy was especially obedient in this regard..It became increasingly ideological. For example, we weren’t able to borrow books that dealt with the period beyond the onset of Impressionism because that was when bourgeois decadence set in.” It could be said that the training he received was sound but the content and the educational possibilities were limited by the authorities. Nevertheless, the training in social realism and his experience as an artist working at the behest of a government was significant for Richter. Over time, his consciousness, both social and political, was slowly being raised. He was successful enough to receive permission, in those early years, to travel to the West, where he was exposed to a range of art that extended far beyond the mural topics he was assigned to paint in Dresden.

Richter’s career in East Germany is a particularly interesting beginning for a promising artist who was fortunate enough to attend the significant 1959 Documenta II. After years of traveling back and forth and viewing the content that was available to artists in the West, subject matter and styles that were forbidden to him. It became clear to him that it was time for him and his wife to leave. And they got out just in time. As the site on Richter stated, “ March 1961, just a few months before construction of the Berlin Wall began, Richter went as a tourist to Moscow and Leningrad, carrying more luggage than he needed. On the journey back, he remained on the train as it went through to West Germany, where he got off, deposited his bags at Left Luggage, and returned to Dresden to meet Ema. A friend then drove them to East Berlin, where they took the underground train to the West, declaring themselves as refugees on arrival.” Richter decided to attend the Academy at Düsseldorf (Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf), arriving at a time when the city and Western Germany was recovering and finding its artistic feet.  Düsseldorf was teaming with new ideas, most especially, the arrival of Joseph Beuys to teach at the school Trained in social statements, Richter was able to move into social critique and the famous 1963 “happening,” Living with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism was an examination of the impact of reconstruction upon Germany.

A nation stripped of its native culture was, like Japan, assimilating Americanized consumer culture, but to what end? Along with his colleagues, Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, Richter mounted a visual discussion of “Capitalist Realism” in a vacated butcher’s shop. Richter began painting in freedom, so to speak, in 1962, and to mark the break with Soviet realism, he began to select with an eye for the banal and the socially meaningless, photographs from magazines and newspapers. Using a black and white palette that referred to the sources, the artist began a series of “blurred” paintings that would occupy him for the rest of his life. In writing of Richter’s move to “proper” painting, The Guardian in an article of 2011 by Tom McCarthy stated that his theme or intention was “..Es ist wie’s ist: “it is what it is”), married to a sense of some kinetic violence lurking either at the heart of these or at the interface between them and the viewer. Subsequent paintings – of toilet-roll holders, or of promotional pictures of new makes of car, or holidaying families posing for a snapshot, or statesmen blinking in the flashbulb glare of public scrutiny, or tribesmen doing the same before National Geographic’s gaze – would repeatedly involve some form of blurring: it quickly became Richter’s trademark.” Quoting photographs, non-original sources and allowing the photograph to dictate the outcome, Richter was able to paint without the pressure of  “originality” presented by Pollock at the Documenta. Attracted to Fontana’s slashing of canvases, however, he deliberately blurred, as he said, “I blur to make everything equal, everything equally important and equally unimportant,” However, the technique is not an innocent stylistic riposte towards American painting or an answer to Italian bravura. This is a displaced German artist contending with the past and the present and the future. What does history mean in a nation that was unable to speak of its past? What does evidence mean in a nation that does not want to examine the evidence of its sins? Blurring is an intervention but it is not an elimination. If anything this dragging of the brush over the surface of photographic truth becomes an emphasis of that which is being denied.

Gerhard Richter. Uncle Rudi (1965)

The 1965 image, Uncle Rudi, is a case in point. As in most German families, there were Nazis in Richter’s family. His father was never able to reintegrate himself with his wife and children after the War. For many German families what had begun as an honorable attempt to serve one’s country ended as a source of shame and silence. The Wehrmacht had been used for shameful ends and who knew what an otherwise ordinary soldier may have been involved in? It was best to remain silent about the war. Uncle Rudi, young and smiling, died early in the War and did not live to learn of his disgrace. His photograph is one of many from the Richter family history, unknown in some cases to the artist or only partially understood. Painting the photographs was a way of making the image his own, and, at the same time, the blurring was an attempt to master the past. During the 1970s and 1980s the German artists would be engaged in this very struggle,  how to paint in the present while being haunted by the past and overwhelmed by Cold War politics.




If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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