Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures

By James, Sarah | Art Monthly, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures

James, Sarah, Art Monthly

Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures

German Historical Museum Berlin

3 October to 10 January


Twenty years ago, on 9 November 1989, following East Germany's relatively modest 'October Revolution', tens of thousands of people started to flow out of the German Democratic Republic as unrestricted travel to the West was allowed. A last-ditch attempt was made to change the inevitable pull of Germany's future in a manifesto calling for a socialist alternative to the Federal Republic, but it was met with ridicule and anger. People took hammers to the Berlin Wall and David Hasselhoff sang atop the Brandenburg gate--all pearly teeth and stardust--a curious symbol of capitalism; the US and the West's apparent ideological triumph over a failed and fractured socialism. The end of Utopia was rung in by a Bay Watch beauty, famous because of his televised relationship with a talking car. The mass celebration and hysteria that marked the momentous event soon dissipated in the cold light of the morning after, and the dawning realisation of the profound political, economic and cultural dilemmas to be faced once the two countries were officially reunited.

Its 20th anniversary this year has seen an explosion of exhibitions and events marking the fall of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps the most substantial of these is 'Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures', curated by Stefanie Barron and Eckhart Gillen. Barron has had much practice at such large-scale German shows, this being the latest of a series of exhibitions on German art staged by LACMA over the past 25 years. And this ambitious exhibition--not surprisingly five years in the making--containing around 350 works (paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and installations) confronts one of the most challenging of methodological, theoretical and political tasks: how to approach coherently and comparatively and present the art produced in East and West Germany in the four decades during the country's division. This objective echoes a more general tendency to have emerged in both academia and the institution in the last decade, which has seen historians, anthropologists and cultural theorists begin to construct a comparative framework from which to explore the histories and cultures of the two ideologically antithetical Cold War Germanys.

Clearly, the idea of presenting a common German postwar art history demands a new set of questions, and the curators have been careful to show an awareness of the theoretical and methodological problems which they have faced. Perhaps one of the most fundamental issues they had to deal with was the need to engage in the complexities of two Cold War art worlds without excluding their political dimensions (an accusation levelled at the major show 'Art of the GDR', Berlin, 2003). Another central challenge was not to pitch the West as normative, superior and democratic, as compared to its inferior, repressive, totalitarian other. And finally, the need to reject the framing of East and West German art history teleologically from the perspective of the demise of the GDR. Important strategies that help to correct such a skewed approach are to acknowledge the points of contact between East and West as well as their isolation; the shared heritage of each Germany alongside their divergent postwar developments; the similarities between the two states as well as the profound differences; and the complex ways in which the internal and external history of West Germany was as influenced by the GDR as the East was by the West. Whether the curators succeed at this is debatable.

The show began at the LA County Museum, where over 70,000 people went to see it, moved on to Nuremberg and has recently opened at the German Historical Museum, Berlin. The exhibition has, I imagine--having not seen it in its original LA setting--been significantly transformed by its installation in the mustier environment of this traditional museum space. …

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