Georg Baselitz/anselm Kiefer/sigmar Polke

Article excerpt


Gusts of Teutonic air swept into London this fall and winter. The 2000 Turner Prize went to German-born London resident Wolfgang Tillmans; a strong selection of works by Germans--from Otto Dix and Max Beckmann to Hans Haacke and A.R. Penck--was included in the National Portrait Gallery's survey of twentieth-century portraits; and three postwar heavyweights had major gallery shows--Georg Baselitz at Gagosian and Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke successively at Anthony d'Offay. Here was an opportune moment to reconsider the work of all three artists, who, along with Gerhard Richter, have represented, in Britain as elsewhere, the north face of European painting over the last two decades.

Recent German art is still viewed with some apprehension in Britain, even with that indelible native testiness reserved for international success. An endorsement of the often highly specific content of German art has not accompanied the undeniable, liberating influence of its technical procedures. In Britain, it was French and then American content that manured, even smothered, its artists during the twentieth century. Two world wars strangled the infiltration of German visual modernism, just beginning to be felt in the years before 1914 and again in the '30s. The summer of 1938 saw the unprecedented exhibition in London of modern art from Germany, a huge show from Lovis Corinth to Beckmann, organized in support of the "degenerate art" by artists then scuttling from their homeland across the safer floors of the Continent (though few holed up in Britain). After 1945, the going was slow, and the old British resistance to German art seemed more entrenched than ever. Even early German modernist painting and scul pture went largely ignored. It was not until 1960, for example, that Blue Rider painters such as August Macke and Franz Marc were comprehensively seen in Britain. Beckmann had no great public airing until his 1980 show of triptychs at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. (It was not until the following year that the Tate acquired its first work by him.)

These two events were part of the new German invasion, fueled by exhibitions of contemporary Berlin art at the ICA and the Whitechapel in 1978 and subsequent showings of Baselitz, Markus Lupertz, and Richter. In 1981 the Royal Academy mounted its celebrated exhibition "A New Spirit in Painting" (funded in part by the West German government and the Berlin Senate), which at last opened blinkered British eyes to a whole range of new German art. It included Baselitz and Kiefer (by then internationally notorious from their showing in the controversial German Pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale, viewed, above all in Germany, as ideologically and aesthetically reactionary) as well as Polke, Richter, and Lupertz. The dealers quickly homed in and, as the "New Spirit" organizers had intended, American hegemony was challenged. But much to the annoyance of the German audience, who found their work flagrantly nationalistic, Baselitz and especially Kiefer were quickly espoused in the United States by, in the main, Jewish collectors who appeared to see their work as historically conciliatory. The critical beating meted out in Germany to these two artists at that period died down only after a cooler mid-'80s reappraisal.

Although the reception in Britain was not unwelcoming, the immediate impact on British painting was dire, and the two traditions clashed head-on. Mercifully the influence was short-lived (though it still rumbles on in Scotland). The real benefits for the British were a broadening of the scene, a reassessment of the possibilities of paint, and the reevaluation of somewhat marginalized British figurative artists (leading, however, to wand-waving attempts to turn local ducks into international swans). A little later the contrasting influences of Beuys and Richter began to predominate in the art schools. The Young British Artists emerging in the late '80s and early '90s had little or no use for the Sturm und Drang of Baselitz and Kiefer; their loyalties lay with the more distancing, even playful effects of Polke and Richter. …


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