Vorsprung durch Kunst

As Britain marches on towards its uncertain future, and America sends itself off onto an altogether more terrifying tangent, the great irony of today is that the two victors of the Second World War have abandoned their twin peaks of globalism and liberalism; leaving it instead to their vanquished enemy to carry on the good work. Germany has worked hard to reconstruct itself from the ashes of the war, work which has born fruit as the country has since become the standard bearer for inclusive, tolerant politics. No wonder Trump refused to shake Merkel’s hand when they met recently. Her admission of one million refugees into the country last year goes in stark contrast to his doomed executive order on Muslim immigration.

One of the ways in which Germany has succeeded to rebuild itself is through its artists and its museums. Its institutions have been at the forefront of restituting paintings stolen during the Nazi years to their rightful (mostly Jewish) owners. Only last month €1.2 million was paid out by the federal government to the heirs of Alfred Hess, who originally owned a Kirchner painting that had been sitting in the Ludwigshafen museum since the late 1970s. Kirchner of course was the leading exponent of the German Expressionist movement which operated in and around the First World War.

Exhibition poster for Entartete Kunst, Berlin, 1938

It was a movement that Hitler sought to eradicate when he declared it Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), ordering his henchmen to seize and destroy as many artworks by the Expressionists as they could find. Ironically, Hitler then mounted an exhibition of Entartete Kunst which became the most attended exhibition of his regime.

If that was not enough, most of the seizures found their way into German state museums after the war, those that hadn’t been squirrelled away by Hitler’s most zealous henchman Hidebrand Gurlitt. A stash of over 1400 works was found in Gurlitt’s son’s apartment in Munich in 2012, with an estimated value of over €1 billion. It is these state museums that are now spearheading the return of stolen works to their rightful owners.

Hitler also opened the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich in 1937 to showcase what he considered to be ‘proper’ German art. As such, it was the Third Reich’s first monumental structure of Nazi architecture, but was strangely missed by the allies during their bombing campaigns.

Exterior View of Haus der Deutschen Kunst, Munich, 1937

When the gallery reopened in 1949, it did so with the largest German Expressionist exhibition ever mounted; the very art that Hitler had tried to eradicate on view in the very building he himself had commissioned. The building had also been rebranded the Haus der Kunst, internationalizing its outlook at a stroke.

The Haus der Kunst has gone on to become one of the most progressive and dynamic modern art museums in the world. Its recent exhaustive exhibition Post-war: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965, has been hailed as one of the most important exhibitions on post-war art ever mounted. Curated by Nigerian Okwui Enwezor, it not only charts the development of abstract art as an antidote to the horrors of Nazi atrocities, but it also pulls in artists from all over the globe, not just the famous abstract expressionists from America and their European counterparts, but their contemporaries from Syria, Indonesia, Mexico, and the like. Abstraction, it argues, was used by artists to reflect more poignantly on the disasters of war, by avoiding the reality of it. The artists’ blurred imagery, born out of murky palettes, crude materials and unusual techniques added a layer of incomprehensibility that served as a metaphor for a world that was hard to grasp.

The 1960s saw a real explosion of creative output from Germany’s artists, due in part to the building of the Berlin Wall which went up overnight on August 13th 1961. The world continues to see this an astonishing event and has since become the most resonant symbol of division and repression.

Gerhard Richter, Uncle Rudi, oil on canvas, 1965

Gerhard Richter produced sublime photo-realist paintings of Nazi soldiers and war machines to match, feathering the edges of his subjects to create fuzzy images, as if taken by a camera that had moved on, passed by, capturing the image as if in a glance. Indeed, Germany was moving on, leaving its past behind, onto a brighter future. Georg Baselitz made upside-down paintings, literally turning the world on its head, whilst Sigmar Polke reproduced newsprint of banal red-tops as per his American contemporary Warhol, but with an edgier, more tense zeitgeist. Meanwhile Gunther Uecker banged six-inch nails into planks of wood, making beautiful spiralling patterns in the process.

But perhaps the art work that best epitomizes Germany’s yearning for redemption is Joseph Beuys’ iconic 1965 performance Explaining Pictures to a Dead Hare.

Joseph Beuys, performance still, Schmela Gallery, 1965

Performed behind closed doors at the Schmela Gallery in Düsseldorf, the artist covered his head in honey and gold leaf, cradled a dead hare in his bower-like arms, and attempted to explain to it the meaning of his art. There is an awful futility at the heart of this work; a gaping void between fact and fiction. But there is also magic at play, as Beuys appears as an ancient sorcerer and the hare connects us to a mythical pagan past. There is hope amidst the abject failure.

Returning to the subject of Entartete Kunst, mid-April saw the opening of the 14th edition of Documenta, the huge sprawling art event that usually takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. Curatorially, it is always a heavily-politicized exhibition, its inaugural show of 1955 aimed to fully catalogue all works that had been branded Entartete Kunst.

This year, Documenta 14 is staged in Athens, the first time it has taken place outside of Kassel. The message from the organisers is clear: this is a German institution doing what it needs to do to spread the gospel of inclusivity and reciprocity. It is a clear reflection on the reality that Athens, the birthplace of democracy, is now under the yoke of EU and IMF financiers. The star of the show is a reconstruction of Maria Eichorn’s Rose Valland Institute, a vast library of books looted by Nazis in the war. Meanwhile, Argentinian artist Marta Minujίn has built a Parthenon of banned books, to the exact size of the original monument. Art protagonist Hans Haacke rammed the message home when he unfurled his banner across the National Museum of Contemporary Art with the slogan ‘We (all) are the people’.

Whilst Nationalist politics continues to gather pace, it appears that Germany is alone in the world stridently defending the merits of tolerance and liberalism. It, more than any other country, understands the pain of national catastrophe. And while it uses its artists and its museums to remind us of this fact, we should avoid kicking it into the long grass as no more than artists protesting (yet) again.

Sometimes the art world can be an insightful commentator on what is happening in the world, certainly that is what Germany has thought for the last 70 years.