‘Germany Divided: Baselitz and his generation’ at the British Museum marks the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse and it explores how six key post-war artists redefined art in Germany on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
The general belief is that where Socialist Realism was the official style of communist East Germany, abstraction was probably an emblem of freedom in capitalist West Germany.
These remarkable works on paper, on public display for the first time, are on loan from the private collection of Count Christian Duerckheim, a Cologne industrialist. Half of the exhibition is made up of work by Georg Baselitz, with the remainder by Markus Lüpertz, Blinky Palermo, A.R.Penck, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. Thirty four of the works in the exhibition, including seventeen by Baselitz, have been generously donated as an early Christmas gift to the British Museum by Count Duerckheim. The gift includes a group of eleven drawings by Baselitz from 1960 to the late 1970s, together with prints from the same period. They cover the principal phases of his career from the ‘Pandemonium drawings’ of the early 1960s, the development of his ironic ‘Heroes’ in the mid-1960s, and the subsequent fracturing of his motifs to the eventual inversion of the motif from the late 1960s.
It’s what united artists on either side of the Wall, rather than what divided them, that comes across above all. Other works on display include Richter’s ‘Pin-up’ and ‘Installation’ drawings,the Ice Age geologist, Albrecht Penck, and the stick-figures that became his signature, certainly recall the imagery of Paleolithic cave painting as well as sculptural drawings by Lüpertz and Palermo, and a drawing and sketchbook by Polke satirising the ‘economic miracle’ of post-war reconstruction in West Germany.
Baselitz’s figures are personifications of death, indeed, embodiments of death-in-life. They may be heroic, but they are also wounded, like New Type; A monumental, conspicuously masculine figure, probably based on the statues of soldiers, memorials, as well as sculptural elegy to victory, that proliferated in Communist East Germany, where Baselitz grew up. Baselitz bears the sign of the stigmata on his left hand, suggesting that he has been socially stigmatized as well as crucified by history. Like many of Baselitz’s epic figures, the new type of man is an ironic synthesis of the new man Communism hoped to create as well as the old type of German epic hero who suffers and dies tragically. A brave victim, isolated in the wilderness that Germany had been reduced to by war.
It’s interesting that, as a young man, he won an art scholarship for traveling to Florence. It seems to have prompted a fondness both for chiaroscuro woodcuts and for Mannerist masters like Pontormo. Many believe the contortions and elongations of Mannerist figures that, at least in part, inspired Baselitz to go a step further and create scenes completely upside down. Reflecting a world turned on its head, these have become his trademark.
The enduring legacy of the Duerckheim’s German Divided exhibition fulfils the Museum’s wider ambition to collect contemporary works that build on its historic holdings. The donation completely transforms the Museum’s holdings of German post-war graphic art and enables the Museum to trace the history of drawings and printmaking in Germany from the time of Dürer to the present.