Saturday, August 5, 2017

Artists' Berlin 5

This is the final post in this series.

You can read the first one here.
The second one here.
The third one here.
The fourth one here.

Anselm Kiefer, Shulamite, 1983

In 1932, around a third of Germany's population was unemployed.  The Great Depression struck an already shaky German economy in 1929.  Chancellor Heinrich Brüning faced with ballooning government debt brought on by a steep drop in revenue and the abrupt end of loans from the USA, decided that his first priority was to balance the government budgets and to pay down its debts.  Taxes had to raised and government spending had to be cut.   That decision compounded the misery and desperation of millions of people.  By 1932, even Brüning himself could see catastrophe coming in the form of a sweeping Nazi victory in that year's elections.  Brüning resigned as Chancellor rather than roll out a red carpet for Hitler (which his budget priorities already had done).  The Nazis won a huge victory in two rounds of voting, though just a few seats shy of a governing majority.  Franz Von Papen, a protegé of President Von Hindenburg, offered to form a coalition government with the Nazis allowing Hitler to enter the Chancellery.

And so catastrophe came.

Germany began twelve of the darkest years in its long history -- and in the history of the world -- from 1933 to 1945.  Hitler sold the desperate and furious German public on the idea that they were the victims of a conspiracy to deprive them of their rightful place as the masters of the world, that they were engaged in an apocalyptic fight to the death for supremacy with the Jews who he claimed had stealthily subverted German greatness.  Germany ruled by Hitler started the largest of all armed conflicts, the Second World War.  Inspired by the American conquest of western North America, Hitler began a war to conquer Eastern Europe.  As the USA once conquered the west and cleared out the native populations through genocide, so Hitler wanted to expand the domains of Germany to the boundaries of Asia.  He wanted to destroy the Jewish enemy once and for all, and to empty out the native Slavic populations through genocide and starvation.  He planned to reduce the population of all of Eastern Europe by two thirds.  The surviving third would be made slaves of the Herrenvolk.  Hitler planned to destroy all the major cities of Eastern Europe; Warsaw, Krakow, Minsk, Kiev, Rostov, Leningrad, etc..  He planned to turn Moscow into a lake.  Hitler dreamed of a racial empire from the Pyrenees to the Urals with German pioneers settling in a newly emptied east.  He wanted to turn the Volga River into a "German Mississippi."  And that would only be the beginning of a long struggle for domination of the whole planet.  The Aryan race would be continuously tested and refined in the crucible of war, emerging as masters of the world.

The rest of the world destroyed Germany in order to save itself from Hitler's mad dream of domination.  The War cost the lives of perhaps 80 million people.  The Allied victory probably saved as many as 90 million lives by preventing the planned liquidation of Eastern Europe.  We still live with the consequences Hitler's reign and his war.

In the years following the War, Germany slowly rebuilt from defeat, destruction, and infamy.  Germany and its former capital Berlin were divided up between the western Allies and the Soviet Union.  By the end of the 20th century, a rebuilt and reunited Germany returned its capital to Berlin, shaping the city once more to create a new German identity no longer as conquerers of Europe, but as a leader among others of Europe.  Germany faced a new role as an international leader while reckoning with the ghosts of its tragic history.

Hitler used art to further his ambitions, to help build a new racial identity for the German people as Aryans, the white race, the Master Race; and to promote and legitimize his dreams of conquest.  To do that, he had to destroy modern art in Germany.  Its individualism and internationalism directly challenged his vision of a racially pure Europe under German domination.

In the years of reconstruction following the War, art became a way for Germany to rejoin the rest of the world, and to exorcise the demons and ghosts that haunted its collective memory.  Art became part of the process for Germans to re-engage with their long complicated history and to rethink their national identity.


Total domination does not allow for free initiative in any field of life, for any activity that is not entirely predictable.  Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still their best guarantee of loyalty.
      -- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Hitler hated Berlin.  He hated its insolent irreverence, its easy cosmopolitanism, its free-wheeling bohemianism, its sophistication and snobbery.  He was not alone.  People hate capital cities, and Germans outside of Berlin loathed (and still loathe) their capital with all the resentment of provincials everywhere.  That hatred of the capital grew to exponential levels with the the economic and political crises that shook the Weimar Republic starting with the surrender at the end of World War I.  Middle class people throughout Germany, including Berlin, lost everything, not just once, but three times over in the economic collapse at the end of the First World War, the great inflation of 1923, and finally in the global economic collapse and Great Depression that began in 1929.  People were angry and out for revenge.  Berlin was an object of that anger.  People associated Berlin and its sophisticated cosmopolitan culture with betrayal and parasitism.  The city shared the taint of treason with the Weimar Republic.  Berlin was painted with the canard that the German military might have won the war, or at least turned things around but for being "stabbed in the back" by Social Democrats, Communists, intellectuals, homosexuals, and above all, Jews.
Hitler played those resentments like a violin and swept into power in the 1932 elections winning every major German city ... except Berlin.
Hitler promised his voters revenge and he delivered on that promise.  Angry Germans got their revenge, and all the grief and infamy that came with it.

A Nazi parade through the Brandenburg Gate.

Arthur Kampf's painting of a Nazi torchlight parade through the Brandenburg Gate

The party held its big rally every September in Nuremberg for two reasons: first because Nuremberg was the birthplace of German nationalism in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance; and second, because it was not Berlin.

Poster for the 1937 Nuremberg Rally showing Nuremberg Castle where the first German parliament met in the 14th century

The Reichsparteitag attracted thousands of people to Nuremberg where they were treated to brilliantly stage-crafted pageantry (of which the Communist spectacles are but pale imitations) driving home the party's narrative of a betrayed and persecuted master race finding its strength and rising to take its rightful place at the top of the world.  The Nazis understood symbolism and how to exploit it, and they did so brilliantly and effectively in their spectacles.

Here is a famous scene from Leni Rieffenstahl's Triumph of the Will, the beginning of the blood flag ritual in the Luitpold Arena in Nuremberg.

Indeed, no one knew symbolism and how to exploit it better than the Nazis.  This is the Blood Flag ritual where Hitler would touch banners and standards with the "Blood Flag," a banner stained with the blood of those who fell in the 1923 Munich Putsch -- and by extension, the blood of millions of German soldiers "stabbed in the back" during World War I.  This quasi-sacramental ritual prepared young men destined  for the military to accept self-sacrifice by putting them into a kind of mystical communion with the slain of the Movement and the War.  Hitler made himself the pontifex maximus of this cult of the military dead.

It was said during the Weimar Republic that all the far right parties were thugs, but the Nazis were organized thugs.  They went into those street fights in the 1920s marching together in lockstep and waving flags.  All of this pageantry gave alienated and humiliated people a sense of belonging and purpose.  A long unemployed factory worker or a bankrupt shopkeeper got a uniform to wear and a flag to wave and could suddenly be transformed into a participant in History.  It's hard to overstate how effective all of this was in winning and keeping people's loyalty.

Hitler took art very seriously.  Like Kaiser Wilhelm II before him, he wanted to use art and architecture to create a new unifying German identity.  Hitler wanted to create not just national identity, but racial identity through art and culture.  Art was supposed to reflect back to the Herrenvolk their destiny to rule, their identity as a people set over and apart from the rest of humankind.  Hitler used art and architecture as instruments of state policy and of the Nazi movement, and became the most ambitious art patron of the 20th century.

Hitler and Goering view a painting by the 19th century Austrian painter Hans Makart.

Hitler loved art as much as Kaiser Wilhelm II did if not more.  Hitler famously began his civilian life as a failed art student in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century.  His tastes were always very middle brow.  In and of itself, that may not be a virtue, but it's hardly a crime.  Many political leaders (including Stalin) shared his predilections.  But Hitler promoted his tastes with a special vindictiveness perhaps born out of his rejection by the Viennese art establishment.   In Nazi Germany, there was only one man whose opinions mattered and that was Hitler.  He could and did use the full power of the German state to enforce his will in all matters of culture.  In matters of fine art, Hitler was a mediocre man, but a mediocre man with a military and a secret police force.

Hitler with Myron's Discobulos in Munich

King Louis XIV couldn't have cared less what his subjects thought about anything (except religion), still less what they thought of his new palace going up in Versailles, or if they liked his favorite painters such as LeBrun or Rigaud.  As long as his subjects paid their taxes and were at least nominally loyal to the Catholic Church, the king didn't care what they liked or what they hung on the walls of their homes.
Hitler did care what his subjects thought and about what they hung on their walls.  Totalitarian states in contrast to previous autocracies were based on political ideologies.  Political ideologies, unlike the parties and factions of earlier history, were all encompassing.  They were about far more than policy proposals or an agenda or a constituency.  They were about a whole way of life, a total vision of the world and its meaning.  These ideological movements were very similar to religion -- perhaps even a kind of substitute for it -- but much less flexible; perhaps because politics has no transcendent spiritual dimension to which to defer doubts, ambiguities, and paradoxes.  Political ideologies of all kinds concerned themselves with every aspect of life.  These movements had very little room for any kind of variation or individuation.  Ideologies were not about the world that is, but about an imagined vision of a New World, a New Age.  Ordinary people with all of their flaws, conflicts, and complexities were to be remade as New Men for the Novus Ordo Seclorum.  A very messy and complicated real world would be simplified and remade in the image of an abstraction.  The least deviation, even in matters of taste, could threaten the unity of the whole movement toward its single aim.

Totalitarian states, especially Hitler's Germany, were weirdly inverted democracies.  Hitler and the very brilliant people around him such as Joseph Goebbels successfully mobilized people, and got them to do more than passively accept a new regime.  They persuaded Germans to participate in what the Nazis said was a great moment in History, a huge collective effort to redeem and restore the Fatherland, a movement in which ordinary people could play their part.  Hitler's Germany erased the distinction between the state and the movement; even more so than in Communist regimes.

The Reichspartei, unlike Louis XIV, cared very much what its subjects thought.   The Party had its constituencies that it cultivated very carefully.  The movement/state worked hard and spent lavishly to keep its constituents happy, loyal and involved.  The regime kept very close tabs on public opinion.  At the same time, they encouraged people to keep a close watch on their neighbors, to report any kind of "deviancy."  Hitler's regime was a participatory tyranny using the weight of public opinion as much as the force of the state to keep people in line and its enemies intimidated.

Hitler wanted to use art not only to promote his idea of a racial German identity, but to keep people in line as well.  Der Führer spared no expense and spent lavishly on massive exhibitions of German artists he liked and whose work he wanted to promote.  Like Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hitler wanted artists to be selfless servants of the movement/state, putting aside their own idiosyncrasies to promote German racial unity.

The biggest and most ambitious of all these projects was the annual Great German Art Exhibition held in the brand new House of German Art in Munich starting in 1937.  It was a kind of official Salon exhibition of all the artists whose work was approved by the regime (i.e. Hitler himself).
These annual exhibitions opened every year with an eye-popping lavish spectacle known as the Day of German Art.
Here is a compilation of amateur footage of the events in 1937 and 1938 with Hitler working the crowds.

Cover of the guidebook to the 1937 Great German Art Exhibition

Together with a few selected curators, especially the artist Adolf Ziegler, Hitler personally selected every work of art in these vast shows.  He even personally supervised the hanging of the exhibit.

A rare color photograph of Hitler being saluted by the exhibition hall staff in the House of German Art in Munich.

Hitler with architect Gerdy Troost to the right, Adolf Ziegler (in bow tie), and Josef Goebbels.

Hitler personally leading a tour of Very Important People through the House of German Art in Munich.

Hitler with Ziegler looking at a small sculpture.

Hermann Otto Hoyer, 'In the Beginning was the Word,' 1937

Fritz Erler, The Führer with the House of German Art, 1939

The bulk of the contents of the Great German Art Exhibition was political poster art like the examples above.  Ironically, this poster art wasn't nearly as fine as the actual posters made for the regime.

Adolf Ziegler, The Four Elements, ca. 1936

This painting was the star attraction of the show, a big hit with the public reproduced extensively in postcards and magazines.  Hitler bought this painting for himself and hung it in his living quarters in Munich.
Ziegler specialized in painting healthy Aryan nudes in paintings largely devoid of drama or any emotional complexity.  This is probably his best example.  The classical subject matter is just a pretext for showing four attractive healthy young women.  The Great German Art Exhibition was filled with nudity, and some of it was indeed meant to be alluring.  The ideological role of nude men and women in this art was to suggest to young people their proper service to the Reich as breeding stock for the race.

Adolf Ziegler was to Hitler what Anton von Werner was to Kaiser Wilhelm II.  He was Hitler's favorite artist, and very close to the Führer.  Hitler put Ziegler in all kinds of powerful and influential positions related to fine arts policy under the Reich.  Ziegler joined the Nazis in the 1920s, an early member. His decidedly reactionary views on art put him at odds with a lot of the academic establishment in Germany probably further endearing him to Hitler.

Ziegler's The Four Elements hanging in Hitler's quarters in the Führer House in Munich

Adolf Wissel, Farm Family From Kahlenberg, 1939

It's hard to know if this a portrait of individuals or not.  The painting is less about actual people, and more about types; racial types, regional types, and agricultural types.

A large portion of the Exhibition devoted itself to farm life and rural subjects.  There were few if any pictures of urban life apart from the rare factory scene.  Nationalist and racist movements love rural life.  The uncomplicated and unmixed small communities of noble farmers of simple virtue are always set in contrast to the conflicts and corruption of urban life, even now.  The Nazi's especially loved the countryside because that was where their most loyal constituents lived, in the villages and farms of rural Germany.  Also because the very act of farming the land, of "metabolizing with the earth" as Hannah Arendt put it, carried so many associations of Blood and Soil, of a kind of mystic bond between the German people and their native territory that the Nazis eagerly exploited.

Georg Günther, Rest During the Harvest

The thing that is most striking about official Nazi art (and the art of all other totalitarian states) is how dull it all is.  There is no drama, because there is no conflict.  How can there be any conflict in a nation unified by High Ideals under so great a Leader?  The only possible conflict could be with the enemies of the community.  As for internal conflict, certainly not.  These paintings are all stylistically pedestrian. They are technically competent at best.  Few of them if any show any real spark of imagination or virtuosity, still less daring.  I would imagine wandering through the enormous House of German Art in Munich -- through gallery after gallery full of this stuff -- could be a mind-numbing experience.

Another thing that is so striking about this work is how dull it is not in comparison to modern art, but when set next to the very standards of excellence that the Nazis constantly invoked; works of art from the ancient Classical world and the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Ivo Saliger, Diana at Rest, 1939 - 1940

Ivo Saliger's painting is a competent classical figure painting.  But, that's all it remains when compared to Titian's painting of Diana that goes far beyond matters of basic technique or competency.

Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1559

A relief sculpture by Arno Breker

This comparison between Arno Breker and Phidias is almost painful.  Breker invokes the great 5th century BCE sculptor in every part of this sculpture.  Yet, compared to original work by Phidias and his workshop, Breker's sculpture is wooden, awkward, and shallow.

A detail from the Parthenon Frieze by Phidias and his workshop, 5th century BCE.

Hitler opened the Great German Art Exhibition in 1937 with a speech laced with bitterness and invective:
But in the name of the German people I only want to prevent these pitiable unfortunates, who clearly suffer from defective vision, from attempting with their chatter to force on their contemporaries the results of their faulty observations, and indeed from presenting them as "art." Here there are only two possibilities open: either these so-called artists really do see things this way and believe in that which they create — and if so, one has to investigate how this defective vision arose — if it is a mechanical problem or if it came about through heredity. The first case would be pitiable, while the second would be a matter for the Ministry of the Interior, which would then deal with the problem of preventing the perpetuation of such horrid disorders. Or they themselves do not believe in the reality of such impressions, but are for different reasons attempting to annoy the nation with this humbug. If this is the case, then it is a matter for a criminal court.
This speech is very similar to Kaiser Wilhelm II's speech opening the Siegesallee in Berlin in 1901 only much darker and more menacing.  Hitler's speech expresses the sentiments of a bitter resentful man confronting something that he does not comprehend and alienates him.  He doesn't understand and is too bigoted and lazy to find out.  Hitler spoke (and still speaks) for millions of such people. Hitler decided to strike out and destroy an art that he knew opposed his project of racial purification and conquest by its very cosmopolitan and individualistic nature.  He needed public support in this effort.  The Great German Art Exhibition was not enough.  Modern art had to be "exposed" and vilified before he could destroy it.  He needed the cooperation of German public opinion.

So much of the modern art that Hitler condemned as "degenerate" proved to be much truer to the history and traditions of German art than all the poster art, athletic nudes, and farm pictures in the Great German Art Exhibition.  Ironically, it was German modernism that perpetuated and preserved the real heritage of German art history.

Tilman Riemenscheider, Altarpiece of the Holy Blood, 1501 - 1505

Max Beckmann, Actors, 1942

Upper Rhenish Pieta, 14th century

Käthe Kollwitz, Mother with Dead Child, 1903

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer with a Sea of Fog, 1818

Franz Marc, Horse in a Landscape, 1910

Hitler wanted to bury modern art and design once and for all in a single decisive gesture.  At the same time that the first Great German Art Exhibition ran in Munich in 1937, The Nazi's staged the Degenerate Art show in Munich.  The point of this show was to enlist public opinion in the task of destroying modern art. The Exhibition succeeded beyond the dreams of its organizers.

The Degenerate Art Exhibition was the brainchild of Josef Goebbels who, like many other Nazi intellectuals, realized how bad the Great German Art Exhibition really was.  Goebbels did not share Hitler's middle-brow tastes, and in fact owned a painting by the great Blue Rider expressionist painter Franz Marc.  He proposed the show to Hitler hoping to use the distortions of form in modern art as a foil for the competent mediocrity on parade in the House of German Art.  The freakishness of modern art would enhance the "health" of German national art.  Upon Hitler's orders, Goebbels tasked one of the Führer's favorite artists Adolph Ziegler and four others to visit all of Germany's art museums and public collections and gather up all the modern art in their collections including classics by the French Impressionists, by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso.  They gathered up thousands of works of art, but showed only 650 works, mostly concentrating on German artists.

The Exhibition opened in Munich in the Institute of Archaeology.

The cover of the guide book made for the Berlin venue of the Exhibition.  It features a sculpture by Otto Freundlich.  Freundlich was murdered in the Majdanek death camp.

The opening of the Berlin venue of the Exhibition.

People lining up to see the show in Hamburg in 1938

The Degenerate Art Exhibition was the most successful art show in history in terms of attendance.  Over two million people saw the show in Munich and when it went on tour throughout Germany and Austria.  The Exhibition was a huge propaganda success for the Nazis.

In the long dark galleries of the Institute for Archaeology in Munich, the paintings hung crowded together surrounded by defamatory texts such as the headline above, "This too is what the museum know-it-alls call 'the art of the German people.'"  Each painting and sculpture had the price in inflated 1923 Weimar prices written next to it, sometimes wildly exaggerated.

The point of the show was not just the art, but what the Nazis claimed stood behind each and every work; the moral degenerate, the Communist, the political deviant, the mentally defective, the sexual deviant, and especially the scheming Jew.

An exhibit mocking Dada using its own words against it; "Take Dada seriously!  It's worth it!"  Above are shown works by Kurt Schwitters and a sculpture by Hans Arp.

Visitors to the Exhibition in Munich.

Hitler visits the Exhibition in a photo that one official daily captioned "Ein Schrecken Kammer!!" (A Chamber of Horrors!!)

Goebbels in a white overcoat leading Hitler and Adolph Ziegler through the Exhibition.

Below is soundless film of the crowds moving through the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich in the summer of 1937.

The Nazis sold much of the art confiscated from German museums in auction houses in Switzerland to raise cash for the regime.  In this they were only partially successful.  So large an amount of art dumped on the market all at once depressed prices, so the hoped for cash return proved to be meager.
The Nazis burned thousands of unsold works of art in the courtyard of the Berlin Fire Department Headquarters after the show ended in 1938.

The Degenerate Art Exhibition was a complete success.  Modern art ended in Germany and would not be seen there again until long after World War II.  The Exhibition succeed beyond the borders of Germany discrediting modern art in the eyes of a global public.  The Nazis successfully played upon popular preconceptions of modern art as fraud and a calculated insult to public opinion.

As soon as the Degenerate Art show opened, artists immediately fled Germany.  Artists and designers  such as Max Beckmann, Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, Herbert Bayer, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, Wassily Kandinsky, John Heartfield, and many others.  Many such as Hannah Höch and Hans Bellmer went into hiding or kept a low profile in Germany or German occupied France.
Others were not so fortunate.  The Gestapo arrested the great surrealist artist Max Ernst when they captured Paris in 1940, sending him to a concentration camp in southern France to await deportation to the east and almost certain death.  Ernst escaped and made his way over the Pyrenees and into neutral Spain.  From there he fled to the United States.
A list of artists who died at the hands of the Nazi regime would include Willem Arrondeus, Felix Nussbaum, Otto Freundlich, Stanislaw Zhukovksy, Otti Berger, and Max Jacob.

Albert Speer with Hitler

Hitler planned to conquer and destroy Berlin just as much as he planned to conquer and destroy Eastern Europe.  He wanted to tear down much of the city and rebuild it as a Welthauptstadt, a world capital inspired by visions of ancient Babylon, Luxor, Rome and Napoleonic Paris.  He wanted to name this world city Germania.  This was not to be just a re-naming of Berlin, but the construction of a whole new city on top of the old Prussian capital.  Some of this new Germania was actually built, but most of it remained on the drawing board waiting for the anticipated victory in World War II to begin construction in earnest.

The Reichs Chancellery, The Vosstrasse entrance.

The first major construction for Germania was a new Reichs Chancellery; an immense extension of the original 18th century building.  Hitler began secretly buying up buildings and property around the the original Chancellery in 1934.  In 1938, he hired a prodigious 32 year old architect and engineer named Albert Speer to design and build it.  Hitler gave him one year to do all the planning and construction.  Crews worked around the clock to finish it.  Speer finished it on time, including all the lavish furnishings.  Hitler was delighted with it.
The new Reichs Chancellery showed everything that Hitler valued most in architecture, less function and more spectacle.  The Chancellery was a vast stage set for the unfolding drama of Hitler's conquest of Europe.   Everything was huge and out of scale, intended to impress and intimidate visitors of all ranks both foreign and domestic.

The Wilhelmstrasse entrance decorated for Hitler's birthday

Important visitors entered here next to the old 18th century Chancellery.

The Court of Honor

They would enter this vast marble court big enough to serve as a parade ground where they would be given some kind of official military reception.

The Mosaic Hall

The Very Important Guest would then enter the Mosaic Hall lined with polished red marble and with mosaics of all kinds of Nazi emblems.

It's no accident that the Court and the Hall look like some ancient temple becoming ever more opulent as we approach the Holy of Holies.  The great double doors in the photo above open into the inner sanctum of the Chancellery.  We were never to be in any doubt as to our proximity to the center of power.  We cross a vast chamber, and climb a few steps, and stand at the doors of something deliberately intended to look like the entrance to an ancient temple sanctuary.

The Marble Gallery

That door opened onto a long hall way with 19 foot high windows that faced the Chancellery garden.  The Gallery was 480 feet long, twice the length of the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.  It was only after walking that long distance that the visitor would finally arrive at Hitler's enormous office.

Hitler's Office

It was a vast lavish room paneled with precious marbles and gilded bronze fixtures.  Huge windows on the left faced the garden.  This office has nothing to do with comfort or efficiency, but with staging and spectacle as was all Nazi architecture.

The new Reichs Chancellery was only a small foretaste of what Hitler had in store for Berlin.

Hitler and Speer planned a radical rebuilding of Berlin, altering the entire orientation of the city and building a whole new city on top of the old Prussian capital.  The historic east-west axis of the old city along Unter Den Linden and the Charlottenburger Chausee (now known as Strasse des 17. Juni) would be extended all the way out to the new Olympiastadion completed for the 1936 Olympics.  In 1939, Hitler had the old Siegessäule (Victory Column) moved from its original place in front of the Reichstag to a large traffic circle in the center of Tiergarten Park.  He also raised its height.
Even more dramatic, a whole new north - south axis would be added crossing through Tiergarten Park all the way south beyond Tempelhof and its airport to a sprawling new suburb due south.  This new north - south axis would be lined with enormous new government buildings and monuments.
Thousands of people would have been displaced -- perhaps a quarter million of the city's residents -- if construction had proceeded to completion.

The new city center of Germania would have stretched south from the Spree River through Tiergarten Park to one of two planned massive railroad stations.  The main south axis was to be the Prachtallee, the Avenue of Splendors; a massive paved parade ground lined with government buildings and monuments.  It would have been closed to auto traffic.  Cars and trucks would have been rerouted to underground tunnels underneath the Avenue.  Those were built and still survive, at least partially.
Most of these are old photos of Albert Speer's 1939 models of Germania.

The centerpiece of the Avenue of Splendors would have been a huge triumphal arch facing the southern railway station.  It would have been hundreds of feet high and put Paris' Arc de Triomphe in its shade.  Hitler's sketch for the arch from 1925 that he handed to Speer survives.

Hitler's drawing of a triumphal arch from 1925

Just about all of this new architecture was supposed to be stage setting for Nazi spectacles and dramas about the triumph of the Herrenvolk.  Very little of it was for anything practical and none of it was for the day to day lives of the people expected to live around Germania.  Indeed, for people living there, Germania would have been an ordeal.  The broad avenues were designed for parades and not for traffic either by auto or foot.  Getting from place to place in such a city of huge frowning monuments would have been a daily adventure.  Neither Speer nor Hitler had any talent for or interest in planning for traffic in a modern city.  The broad plazas and avenues would have been granite paved deserts largely empty of people when they weren't used for parades and rallies.  Crossing them to get to work would have felt like crossing the desert for the city's residents.  Traffic in the city would have been one gridlock after another.

There was to be a close relationship between the construction of Germania and the Nazi concentration camp network.  Notorious camps next to quarries such as Flossenberg and Mauthausen would have provided the bulk of the stonework; they were already supplying other Reich construction projects in Berlin and Nuremberg with stone before 1939.  Nearby Sachsenhausen ran a brickworks.  Both the camp and the brickworks could have been easily expanded for work on Germania.  Hitler and Speer planned to use a huge pool of newly enslaved labor for the construction of Germania after the anticipated Nazi victory in the Second World War.   Already in 1938, the denizens of Berlin's underground nightlife -- gypsies, prostitutes, petty criminals, drug addicts, beggars, tramps, homosexuals -- were rounded up by police and dragooned into early construction projects for Germania.

The German public before the War was largely kept in the dark about the details of Hitler's plan for Germania.  We now know and see more of it than most Germans at the time did.  We still have dramatic photographs taken of the models Albert Speer made for Hitler in 1939.  All of those models were destroyed in the course of the War.

Above is the center of Germania, the Grosser Platz incorporating a new palace for the Führer, a huge new Reichs Chancellery, the old Reichstag, and the vast bulk of the Volkshalle, the Hall of the People (or Race since Volk is a word that connotes tribe or race in German) would dominate the whole north side putting already enormous buildings into its shadow.  To get an idea of the proposed size of this urban centerpiece, you can see the tiny little Brandenburg Gate toward the bottom of this picture on the center right.   Just above that is the former grandeur of the Reichstag, its size and greatness much diminished by the proposed buildings that overshadow it.

A view from the 1939 model of the Volkshalle with the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag in the foreground.

The centerpiece of Hitler's new Germania was to be the Volkshalle, an immense domed structure built over the Spree river.  It was to be a huge assembly hall inspired by Saint Peter's in Rome, and like Saint Peter's, it was intended to be a place of pilgrimage for future generations of the Master Race to pay homage to what Hitler and his minions had accomplished.

The Volkshalle would have been the largest building in Germania and among the largest buildings ever built.  It would have dwarfed Berlin's earlier buildings like the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate to toy-like insignificance.  The dome would have been 950 feet high.  It's oculus alone would have been 151 feet wide, wider than the whole Pantheon in Rome and the dome of Saint Peter's.
This is almost entirely Hitler's design with a little tweaking here and there by Speer.  Hitler made drawings of huge domed structures as far back as the early 1920s.  He handed these to Speer to realize.

The Volkshalle design is full of cosmocratic symbolism chosen personally by Hitler.  Topping the whole monument would have been an imperial eagle grasping the globe in its talons.  This symbol leaves no doubt as to the ultimate intended aim of all of Hitler's ambitions.

The main entrance of the Volkshalle would have been flanked by two colossal sculptures by Arno Breker of Atlas carrying the globe of the heavens and Tellus holding the globe of the earth.  Above those would have been the quadrigas of the sun and the moon.  
Colossal as all these sculptures would have been, they would be dwarfed into insignificant afterthoughts by the sheer size and bulk of the building.  That was the main point of this building, to create one enormous fact upon the ground, to literally dominate everything around it in the most nakedly brutal fashion possible.   The doubled pillars on the entrance portico were to be among the largest ever made, and yet the building's size would have reduced them in scale to toothpicks.

Interior of the Pantheon in Rome

Hitler visited the Pantheon in Rome in private with Mussolini in 1938 during a state visit.  The Volkshalle was clearly inspired by the Pantheon, but Hitler's first drawings for the great domed hall date from 1925.  He looked at the Pantheon with the Volkshalle already in mind.

The Emperor Hadrian built the Pantheon in 116 to 128 CE to replace a smaller earlier temple to all the gods built by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus and destroyed in the fire of 64 CE.  The architect is officially unknown, but it is possible that Hadrian designed this himself.  I think it is more likely the work of his predecessor Trajan's architect Apollodorus of Damascus under Hadrian's instructions.  Hadrian created an immense circular interior 143 feet wide by 143 feet high -- at the time the largest dome in the world, and would remain such until the construction of the dome of the Cathedral of Florence in the 15th century.  Hadrian intended the great dome of the Pantheon to call to mind the immensity of the heavens and the cosmic order -- Providence the Stoic philosophers called it -- for which the many gods in their niches and tabernacles around the temple interior were but symbols for learned Romans like the Emperor.  The Pantheon also had a political meaning; the perfect harmony of the heavens is realized upon earth in the Roman Empire in its mission to bring peace, prosperity, and civilization to a war-torn earth.  The Pantheon for all of its size remains a fundamentally Classical building.  All the parts harmonize with each other and with the whole in a way that is analogous to the way all of our parts relate to each other and to our whole bodies.  We walk into a great Classical building like the Pantheon and feel the sense of ourselves expanded.

Hitler had nothing quite so sophisticated in mind.  The Volkshalle was all of a piece with the rest of his architectural projects; spectacle and intimidation.  The great dome was to be the stage setting for the end of history in the domination of the planet by the Aryan race.  That finality and its inevitability is proclaimed by every crushing dimension of this monstrous building.  The internal harmonies of Classicism were the very last things on Hitler's mind.  He wanted size and spectacle above all else.  Hitler wanted the power and success of the Roman Empire and cared nothing about how the Romans rationalized their domination of the Western world to themselves.  We were supposed to have felt crushed and intimidated by the sheer weight of the Volkshalle.

A model and photocollage of the proposed interior of the Volkshalle from 1939.

This would have been the largest interior space ever built.  The scale was so vast that Hitler himself standing at the podium would have disappeared in all the immensity.  The huge eagle in an even bigger niche surfaced with gold mosaic intended to point him out would have made him look even more like a flea in all that enormous space.  It looks to me that this immense room would have been very dark inside.  The only natural light would have been coming through the oculus in the very top of the dome 950 feet above.  There are no other windows.  Vast as it is, I would imagine that the feel of this place would have been claustrophobic.  I would assume that the darkness would have been penetrated by electric lighting, which would only have added to the enclosed feeling.

A strikingly vivid reconstruction of the Volkshalle made for The Man in the High Castle

The Volkshalle would have been a monstrosity; a malformed horrible parody of Roman architecture. It would have been as aesthetically repulsive as it was morally repulsive.
It was to be brutal architecture for a brutal regime that gloried in its brutality.

In the end, the accumulated dullness of the contents of the Great House of German Art in Munich, the determined and successful effort to crush modern aesthetics in the Degenerate Art show, and the stagey megalomania of Germania betray a very mediocre mind.  Until 1939, most people outside of Germany regarded Hitler as a buffoon who would not last long in power.  Indeed, perhaps they were right.  Hitler was a buffoon.  He may have had a lot of brilliant people working for him, but Hitler was no genius.  His was a narrow and incurious mind.  He was intellectually lazy never venturing beyond the limits of his own preconceptions and bigotries.  Hitler was simply single minded and ruthless with a complete indifference to all constraints of law and morality.  He had no insights.  He simply rolled tanks over the foundations of civilized life for no reason other than they were in his way.

The Soviet War Memorial in 2016

At the end of the War, the Soviets built a war memorial deliberately sited astride the intended north- south axis of Hitler's Germania.   They buried around 2000 of their dead from the Battle of Berlin here to permanently thwart any future ambition to build Germania or anything like it.

Margaret Bourke White, Polish Survivor Weeping Next to the Charred Body of his Dead Friend,  photograph, near Leipzig, 1945

The Nazis hit his friend with flame throwers when he tried to escape in the last days before liberation.
There are so many pictures like this documenting the horror and grief upon which Hitler's Germania was to be built.  This one is among the most memorable.

Germania's stones were to be mortared with the blood of slave laborers.  The foundations of the city and its colossal monuments would have rested on the bones and ashes of millions of people.

Jewish women photographed by their murderers shortly before their deaths on the beach at Liepaja, Latvia, 1941.

German soldiers photographing the execution of Soviet partisan fighters.  All that crime was just one more spectacle to share with the wife and kids.


Berlin After the End

The French Cathedral in Berlin on fire during an air raid, 1943

Hitler wanted to destroy Berlin and the Allies did it for him.  From 1943 to 1945, Allied air raids dropped high explosive and incendiary bombs all over the city around the clock.  The Allies demanded nothing less than the total destruction of Hitler's Reich and the unconditional surrender of Germany, something they achieved May 8, 1945.  The fighting stopped and the Allied Occupation began.  Hitler and much of the Nazi leadership were dead, many by their own hands.  Berlin like the rest of Germany was divided up between the USA, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union.

The Brandenburg Gate after the War's end in 1945.

Frederick Ramage, homeless Berliners looking for a place to live, July 1945.

The Berlin Airlift, 1948

For about ten years after the War's end, the first priority of most residents of Berlin, and most Germans, was survival.  All of the park benches and most of the trees in Tiergarten Park were torn up for firewood.  Vegetable gardens filled the parks and even the streets of the destroyed city planted by people trying not to starve in the ruins.  Very slowly, the task of rebuilding began at first in increments.  Later, the USA needing an ally in its new Cold War with the Soviet Union, and a reliable trading partner, created the Marshall Plan to rebuild the western parts of Germany and Berlin formerly occupied by the Allied powers.  The USA provided very generous funds and used German labor and expertise to rebuild the country.

Faced with such desperate circumstances, art was the last thing on German minds until the late 1950s.  As the country slowly began to rebuild and to return to something like normal life, art, and modern art, began to make its first tentative appearances in Germany since 1937.

Fritz Winter was a living link between the generations of artists before and after the War.  The son of a coal mining electrician, he was a veteran of the Bauhaus.  He studied with Kandinsky, Klee, and Oskar Schlemmer.  He counted Ernst Ludwig Kirchner among his friends; by then Kirchner lived in exile in Switzerland in declining physical and mental health.
Winter found himself drafted into the army and sent to the eastern front during World War II.  He was captured and spent time as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union.  He was not released until 1949.

Fritz Winter, Incident Light, 1935

These very striking paintings apparently were made under difficult conditions in oil on paper later mounted on canvas in the early years of the Nazi regime.  Winter went underground with his work after the Degenerate Art Show of 1937.

Fritz Winter, K35, 1934

Fritz Winter, Mit Raumteilen (With Floor to Share), 1968

After the end of the War and his return from Siberia as a POW, Winter re-emerged as an artist with exhibitions of his work as early as 1950.  His work from these years was very international in its outlook taking cues from other Post War movements in France and the USA.  He shared with many other artists around the world at that time an interest in Zen Buddhist painting from Japan with its emphasis on expressive calligraphic line.  Winter also had close ties to Tachsime in France with its emphasis on non-geometric abstraction and gesture.

Fritz Winter and his work spoke to a deep need by German artists to re-engage with the rest of the world, to be part of a new beginning of modernity at the end of so large and catastrophic a war.  The internationalism of this work appealed to a strong desire to break with a shameful past and to become part of the effort to build a truly cosmopolitan culture.

Fritz Winter, Ostern, 1962

Fritz Winter, September, 1963

In the years following the end of the War, Germans faced with the stark choice between Soviet visions of glory and western liberal democracy with consumerism voted with their feet and fled in droves to West Germany.  The hemorrhaging of the population became so bad that the East German government built a wall across the center of Berlin in 1961.  Even after reunification the migration westward continues.  Eastern Germany remains relatively poor and very underpopulated compared to the west.

Construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

An anonymous wag painted on the newly built wall, "Another gift from our beloved Führer!"

The Berlin Wall and "death strip" in the 1980s.

Back and forth across the Wall, East and West fought it out with showy new construction to demonstrate the superiority of their respective systems.

The novelist Günter Grass somewhat derisively referred to the new Federal Republic of Germany as "the businessman's state."  And so it was.

The Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin in a postcard from the 1960s

West Berlin restored the Kurfürstendamm to something of its original splendor and vitality.  Before the Nazi regime, very large and high class night clubs and restaurants lined this boulevard.  After the War, it was rebuilt as a very tony shopping district with the KaDeWe department store among other high end luxury goods stores.

That Berlin and so much of the rest of West Germany came back from ruin and starvation to the bright lights of a prosperous busy neon lit Kurfürstendamm in barely 10 years was nothing less than an "economic miracle."

Another postcard of the Ku'damm at night in 1965

The DDR, The German Democratic Republic, rebuilt its half of Berlin as the dismal capital of a Soviet client state.
The Communist regime in East Berlin concentrated on more traditionally Communist kinds of redevelopment; a lot of large scale ceremonial and state buildings surrounded by housing projects.

East Berlin in 1985; The Berliner Dom with the Fersehturm; on the right is the now demolished Palast der Republik built on the site of the old Stadtschloss.

The East German government rebuilt the old city center of Berlin as a regime showcase with a huge new broadcasting tower rising out of the old Alexanderplatz, the Fernsehturm; and a new parliament building, the Palast der Republik built on the site of the old Stadtschloss.  Both structures and the new parks and parade grounds linking them were panned by Western architecture critics and derided by public opinion in the East.  The Palast was considered such an embarrassing eyesore that the new unified German government decided to tear it down only to discover that it was badly contaminated with asbestos.

Housing blocks in East Berlin with a picture of Erich Honecker.

Western cities built large housing blocks like this to warehouse their poor people.  Communist regimes like East Germany's built such housing blocks to warehouse everybody.  Such projects were a dubious legacy of Bauhaus urban planning and design.

Daily life for East Berliners for over 4 decades was rationing, shortages, hopelessly complicated regulations, rude bureaucrats, hostile police, and constant surveillance by the Stasi and neighbors extorted or bribed into working for them.  It was a reality of constraints and thousands of humiliations large and small.

Meanwhile, a pioneering architect from the preWar years came back to West Berlin to design the rebuilt city's crown jewel.

Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, Neue Nationalgalerie, West Berlin, 1967 - 1968

Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, the last director of the Bauhaus and the pioneer of the glass and steel skyscraper spent most of his working life in the United States after the War.  He returned to Berlin in the 1960s to design the jewel in the crown of West Berlin's redevelopment, The Neue Nationalgalerie; a masterpiece of what had become after the War mainstream modern design.
This is probably Mies Van Der Rohe's most clearly Neo-Classical building, a beautiful glass and steel temple with a peristyle sitting atop a podium paved with granite.  It pays homage to Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Altes Museum, then mostly inaccessible across the Berlin Wall.

The steel and glass temple is mostly an entrance pavilion.  The bulk of the gallery and its permanent collection of early 20th century art are underground in the podium.  Curators still object to the dearth of natural lighting in most of the museum.

The Neue Nationalgalerie under construction in 1967.  The massive roof was a single pre-fabricated slab of coffered steel assembled on site that was lifted up and set on 8 cruciform steel columns.

A corner of the Neues Nationalgalerie with 4 of the structural support pillars holding up a steel entablature complete with metopes.

Interior of the entrance pavilion whose floor is paved with granite.  The elevator and staircase shafts in this picture are paneled with another Miesian favorite stone, green Tinian marble.

The underground permanent collection galleries in the podium.

The Neue Nationalgalerie is probably Mies Van Der Rohe's last masterpiece.  It's very reduced Neo-Classical temple with a classical sense of internal agreement of form gratifies our own sense of harmony and rightness.  Unlike the old German Neo-Classicists like Schinkel and Von Klenze, Mies Van Der Rohe cared nothing about articulating meaning through his buildings.  His architecture remains very abstract, the embodiment of ideas about form, not of stories or themes.  For this reason, he was the ultimate establishment architect of the Post War western world.  His buildings embody timelessly beautiful formal harmonies, not any thematic content; and therefore are free of any potential controversy to disturb anyone's beautiful mind.  Mies was the unmatched master of modernism as a power style for the Very Important.  But his abstractions could create problems.  Mies Van Der Rohe's steel and glass Parthenon was never an ideal exhibition space.  He was as indifferent to function as he was to thematic content.  Indifferent as he was to function and meaning, he could be fanatically insistent on matters of form.  When the museum staff proposed a completely invisible underground expansion, Mies said absolutely not, that it would violate the integrity of the whole design.

Now, the Neues Nationalgalerie is closed for a massive renovation, the first it has had since it was completed in 1968.  It will not be open again until 2019 at the earliest.


By the 1970s, divided Berlin began to attract youth counter-cultures and subcultures.  The largest city in Germany in those years was also Germany's poorest city, dependent on a lot of government support.  As a result, the city was full of vacant housing and cheap rents.  Spiritual descendants of the artists of Die Brücke -- who moved to Berlin in 1912 to create a new life freed from the constraints and hypocrisies of Wilhelmine Germany -- began to arrive in Berlin to create alternative lives freed from the constraints and hypocrisies of the Cold War era; and right on the front line of that war.

There was a similar movement of disaffected youth into the city on the east side of the wall as well, fed by constant radio and TV broadcasts from the west.  That East Berlin had any kind of youth culture at all despite the abundant constraints and restrictions of life there is truly miraculous; and proved to be a foretaste of the defiance that peaceably and quickly brought down the DDR once the threat of Soviet force was removed.

The Die Brücke group that arrived in Berlin in 1912 was just a handful of maybe about 20 people.  In the last part of the 20th century, whole populations of alienated kids from all over Germany and around the world began taking up residence in Berlin.

Nan Goldin, Bea and the Blue Drink, O-Bar West Berlin, photograph, 1984

A West Berlin street sometime in the 1980s.

Punk kids in a Berlin squat, 1982

Kids on the Alexanderplatz in East Berlin, 1974

Something of Berlin's old role as haven and incubator of countercultures and subcultures began to return along with something of its role as a creative center.  Germany never really had a single leading city for fine art.  Berlin never played the same role as Paris did in France or New York in the USA.  Germany's artistic life was always much more spread out among many cities such as Munich, Dresden, Cologne, and Dusseldorf; and so it remains.  But by the 1970s and 80s, Berlin began to return to its old place among Germany's major creative cities.  And with that return came the conflicted career expectations of late 20th century artists.

In Berlin as in much of the rest of the world, artists valued their separation and independence from conventional society; from the whole apparatus of established corporate culture in the west, and from the state dominated authoritarian order in the east.  Artists today, as in the beginning of the 20th century, are anarchists at heart suspicious of all established power whether state or corporate.  They always suspect the Powers That Be of trying to co-opt and control their work.  Artists now as before wear their impoverished alienation proudly.

The late 20th century saw the rise and burgeoning of celebrity culture, a culture that merged brilliant creative and proudly alienated individuals with the desires and demands of huge mass markets.  Out of the shabby squats of inner cities around the world emerged celebrities deified by immense worshipful publics with insatiable demands for their work -- and for their persons.  Lonely brooding Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich who died forgotten and impoverished in Dresden in 1840 comes back in the 1960s through 1990s as the lonely brooding rock idol mobbed by hordes of adoring fans.  Like musicians and actors, artists at the end of the 20th century faced the dilemma of choosing between heroic isolation and poverty, or a hugely profitable sell-out that brought wild adoration and far-reaching fame.  It was no different in Germany than it was in most of the rest of the world.

And here is the 20th century's most famous artist/ celebrity Andy Warhol with Germany's first and most famous artist/ celebrity Joseph Beuys in 1980.

Warhol in his best days and in his best work reflected American consumer culture back to its public, and made that public examine how much that market culture had altered their souls.
Joseph Beuys summoned back from oblivion the ghosts and demons of Germany's past to put them before a public that did not want to reckon with them.

Joseph Beuys restored a German voice to modern art by engaging with the larger modern world, especially the world of Cold War West Germany.  Beuys is a remarkable contrast in so many respects to Fritz Winter.  Winter had a remarkable and eventful life from the Bauhaus to fighting on the eastern front to a Soviet prisoner of war camp in Siberia.  We would know nothing of that extraordinary life looking at his work.  Indeed, Winter was something of a formalist along the lines of Franco-American post War aesthetics.  As far as he was concerned, his life simply had no place in his art or in art in general.   Beuys too had a remarkable biography (some of which he invented).  As a kid, he was dragooned into the Hitler Youth and compelled to attend the 1936 Nuremberg Rally.  In 1941 when he came of age, he volunteered for service in the Luftwaffe where he was trained as a radio operator.  While serving in the Luftwaffe, he already showed an interest in art and was making drawings and sketches in his spare time.  In 1944, his plane crashed in Crimea, and it's at this point that he fabricated a story about being rescued by Crimean Tatars who swaddled his injured body in animal fat and felt.  According to actual records, he was rescued by a German recovery team and spent several weeks in the hospital recovering from his injuries.  He was redeployed to the western front as a paratrooper, was injured again, and captured by the British the day after Germany's unconditional surrender.  In contrast to Winter, Beuys' life story played a central role in his art.

Joseph Beuys in the Luftwaffe, about 1944.

Joseph Beuys thought of himself as a kind of public shaman raising demons and ghosts and then exorcising them, then channeling the healing powers of light and warmth to heal and liberate the world.  He probably made that odd decision to fabricate part of the account of his plane crash in Crimea in order to bring his life story more in line with his quasi-priestly vocation.
Beuys made relatively little painting or drawing in the course of his career.  He loosely affiliated himself with a late 20th century revival of Dada that called itself Fluxus.  The Fluxus aesthetic was less about finished works of art so much as "events" and revelatory combinations of otherwise unremarkable objects.

Beuys made his public debut in 1965 with a performance piece in the Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf titled How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.  The title at first suggests something comic, but the photograph and the film below show something much more mysterious.  Beuys covered his head in honey and then put gold leaf on over that.  He tied a large piece of iron to his shoe and carried the carcass of a dead hare.  For three hours, he locked the gallery from the inside forcing visitors to remain outside viewing what was going on through the windows.  He walked around the gallery from picture to picture mumbling something very inaudible to the dead hare and seeming to listen to what it had to say to him.  The piece of iron on his shoe made a very loud clanking sound.  At the end of the performance, he opened the gallery doors and let people in while he sat in a corner with his back  to the visitors while still holding the hare.

At first glance, the whole thing seems nonsensical.  But upon reflection (which is what Beuys aimed to provoke), this strange little ritual was the beginning of Beuys lifelong effort to get Post War Germans to confront their past.  He intended this to be a kind of healing ritual.  Honey is sweet and warm, the creation of bees that were emblematic of brotherhood and cooperation to some thinkers like Rudolph Steiner.  The gold leaf suggests light and the sun.  Gold is also a remarkably incorruptible material that never rusts or stains.  Iron is the metal associated with war and heavy industry.  While he was "explaining" pictures to the dead hare, nothing was explained to the audience. They were deliberately deprived of any kind of explanation or naming, anything by which they could understand and therefore somehow explain and own or explain away.  The action remains silent and mysterious to the onlookers.
Beuys himself explains his performance:
For me the Hare is a symbol of incarnation, which the hare really enacts- something a human can only do in imagination. It burrows, building itself a home in the earth. Thus it incarnates itself in the earth: that alone is important. So it seems to me. Honey on my head of course has to do with thought. While humans do not have the ability to produce honey, they do have the ability to think, to produce ideas. Therefore the stale and morbid nature of thought is once again made living. Honey is an undoubtedly living substance- human thoughts can also become alive. On the other hand intellectualizing can be deadly to thought: one can talk one's mind to death in politics or in academia.

Some of the terminology in his explanation sounds vaguely Christian and that may not be entirely accidental.  Beuys' earliest surviving work is surprisingly religious.

Joseph Beuys, Sonnenkreuz (Sun Cross), 1949

It certainly came as a surprise to me when I saw this earliest work of Joseph Beuys at Moyland Castle about three years ago.  This is a religious work, and at the time he made it, Beuys was a serious, if not entirely orthodox, Roman Catholic.  Beuys eventually left the Roman Catholic Church and institutional religion in general, but he never really turned against it.  Indeed, that earlier religious experience continued to inform not just the forms, but the content of his work for the rest of his life.  This earliest work establishes some themes that will be central to so much of his later work; the Crucified Christ before the sun.  Light and warmth associated with healing, liberation. and resurrection.
Beuys joins the long line of 20th century artists who used the symbols and formats of the Christian religion to express and universalize deeply felt experiences; artists such as Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Emil Nolde, Ernst Barlach, Käthe Kollwitz, and Lovis Corinth.  Beuys takes the old stories of healing and the Resurrection, and adds to them the idea that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."  Beuys shared with the earlier Dada artists a deep suspicion of rational and rationalizing thought, as something ultimately manipulative, of language used as one more weapon to dominate and control people.  Beuys shared the anarchist convictions of earlier German artists of the 20th century, that art was a way to wake people up from their slumber and to persuade them to resist those forces that are out to dominate them.  Beuys shared their anarchist's suspicion of all controlling power whether corporate or state, official or unofficial.

Joseph Beuys, Sled, c.1969

This work comes out of the story that Beuys fabricated for himself that after his plane crashed in Crimea in 1944, Crimean Tatars rescued him and swaddled his injured body in felt and animal fat, that those things kept him alive and saved his life.

Joseph Beuys' work doesn't charm so much as provoke thought.  Like some of the Dada and Surrealist artists of the past, he combines ordinary objects and materials in ways that are evocative.  The Berlin Dada artists combined objects to mock and to shock.  The Surrealists did so to be suggestive, even obscenely so in the case of work by Hans Bellmer.  Beuys had something else in mind.  He wanted to conjure up memories and ghosts and exorcise them with a kind of healing magic.  The sled above is a kind of rescue package with blankets, a flashlight, and fat.  An emergency ration of light and warmth stands ready in a cold impersonal world.
A big warm slab of fat waits for the weary soul in need of a chair to sit.  So many of these objects like the chair look old and battered from neglect, or damaged in a way that suggests some long past violence.  They are definitely not Marcel Duchamp's tidy readymades.

Joseph Beuys, Fat Chair, 1964

Joseph Beuys during a performance at a Fluxus event in Aachen, 1964

Beuys with a bloody nose holding some kind of an object with a crucifix made this extraordinary not-quite-but-almost-Hitlergruss at an art festival held on July 20, 1964, the twentieth anniversary of the attempted assassination of Adolph Hitler.
I would imagine that the audience there and beyond in West Germany was shocked.  In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the story prevailed that 1945 was a break in German history, that all of Germany's previous history perished in the fires of the Second World War and that the defeat was a new start.  The year 1945 was a kind of zero year from which history began again.  Joseph Beuys exposed the evasiveness and the hypocrisy of this story that Germans told themselves after the end of the War.  Perhaps that story (like the story that the French were "victors" in the War) was necessary to rebuild the country; but, in the end it was ultimately a fable.  In 1964, the War was still living memory for most Germans.  It was a memory that they simply refused to confront, and now Beuys laid it out for them.  He did so in order to take collective responsibility and for catharsis.

Joseph Beuys, Auschwitz Demonstration, 1956 - 1964

Joseph Beuys, Auschwitz Demonstration, 1956 - 1964

Beuys placed a few ordinary objects in a glass vitrine suggesting an exhibition at a museum.  The tidy clinical vitrine contrasts with the decayed and damaged materials inside.  They appear to be random fragments of domestic life such as the hot plate in the foreground.  There also appear to be decayed sausages and what looks like small personal items meant to fit in a pocket or sewn into a secret place in clothing or linings.  Beuys' blocks of fat on the hot plate are going to stay solid, and thus useless.  The plate clearly doesn't work.
These appear to be fragments of desperation presented coldly as though they were but specimens.  Beuys shared with the Dada artists of the past a rebellion against rationalism, that somehow all the syllogisms, arguments, and formulae are there to coerce the victims and to distance the perpetrators from what they are doing.  Over fifty years later, this remains a powerful and disturbing work.

American and much European art over the last 60 years valued the cool ironic detachment of the flaneur as the ideal position from which to contemplate the world; and still does with only a few notable exceptions.  Beuys was anything but cool in his regard of the world.  He could be as warm and warmly engaged as the felt and fat in so much of his early work.   For most artist celebrities, teaching is a necessary gig to pay the bills.  Beuys was a very passionate and serious teacher at the Düsseldorf Academy (where many American artists studied in the 19th century).  Beuys mentored a whole generation of German artists.  He inserted himself and his work right into the middle of the political life of the day; Beuys was a founding member of the German Green Party.  Unlike so many artist celebrities, Beuys gave a lot of himself away.  He very willingly taught students who had not fully registered or paid their bill at the Düsseldorf Academy; and for that generosity the Academy fired him from his post.  Beuys wrote on a photograph of himself taken as he was forcibly ejected from the Academy premises, "Demokratie ist lustig," Democracy is funny.

An artist who actually worked in divided Berlin and similarly found a specifically German vision for modern painting was Georg Baselitz; especially in his work from 1956 to 1966 when he was still in his 20s.  As Baselitz himself recalls, there wasn't much art activity at all in Berlin at that time, and certainly no art market there.  Baselitz found the isolation of Cold War Berlin to be liberating and allowed him to concentrate without distractions.  It was relatively easy to develop an independent vision there instead of surrounded by all the commercial distractions of a more prosperous less isolated city like Stuttgart or Cologne.
Painting in Germany at the time was dominated by French Tachisme through its best German disciple Fritz Winter.  Most of the painting on view in German galleries was large beautifully made gestural abstraction that was very formalist in intention; collapsing the distance between form and content through reductivism.  It was not about thematic content at all, and was largely disengaged from matters of history or politics.  This kind of abstraction was the perfect art for the West German "economic miracle;" beautiful and disengaged from the past and from any real controversy as was the Bundesrepublik itself.
Baselitz wanted to do something very different using what at the time was considered the obsolete and discredited format of figurative painting.

Georg Baselitz, The Great Friends, 1965

Baselitz was a Berlin native born there in 1938.  He spent his early childhood in the worst years of World War II.  He grew up in an environment of ruins and shortages in what was the Soviet zone.  Before 1961, travel back and forth between eastern and western halves of the city was still possible, and Baselitz moved to the western part in 1958 to study at the Charlottenburg Academy.  Even before enrolling at the Academy, Baselitz was already working on a series of paintings he called 'Heroes.'  He took a figurative tradition that was exploited and degraded by the Nazis and made it a vehicle for saying openly what few at the time would discuss even in whispers; the culpability of Germany for Nazi atrocities and the suffering of people who lived through the War.
Baselitz spent ten years working on large paintings of figures who dominate the whole picture.  They have the large proportions of 'heroes' in both mythological painting and in official propaganda painting.  Big and powerful as they are, they appear to us with tattered clothes and frequently injured and bleeding.  Baselitz painted them with a similarly tattered painting technique of rough torn thick strokes of paint in colors that recall flesh, blood, rubble, and dirt.

Georg Baselitz, Bild für die Väter, 1965

Sometimes, Baselitz's paintings show the human wreckage of violence without quite literally describing it.

Georg Baselitz, The Field, 1962

Georg Baselitz, The Tree, 1966

The tree stands in for the hero, as though he sprouted branches and turned into a tree.  The tree is bare and broken and bleeds.

Georg Baselitz, A Newer Hero, 1965

Baselitz's heroes are battered, injured, and suffering and at the same time, they have a monstrous aggressive quality about them, as though they are perpetrators as well as victims.

Georg Baselitz, Oberon, 1963

This very large disturbing picture of four ghostly figures with enlongated proportions lit from beneath against a dark red background takes its title from a main character in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Oberon was the king of the fairies in the play and in earlier medieval literature.  Perhaps Baselitz suggests some uncanny realm of spirit and memory beyond what is immediately apparent to us.

Baselitz's very blunt paintings of torn ragged titans in the colors of ruin and injury were the polar opposite of the beautiful abstract works that the leaders of Germany's 'economic miracle' wanted to see adorning a rebuilt and revived Berlin.  Like Beuys, Baselitz saw a traumatized Germany trying very hard to evade its own experiences as it was trying to rebuild.

Georg Baselitz in 1966 in his Berlin studio

In 1975, a young artist by the name Anselm Kiefer, a former student of Joseph Beuys, made his public debut with a series of very controversial photographs he called 'Occupations.'

Anselm Kiefer meant something quite specific with his title 'Occupations,' something that the German public understood immediately.  Kiefer upset a lot of people with the title and with pictures of himself at various places with historical resonance standing at attention and unambiguously giving the Hitlergruss.  In some photos, he enhances the effect by wearing riding pants and boots.  Critics and editorialists, as well as a lot of the general public, were outraged.

  Kiefer shared with Beuys and Baselitz a strong desire to confront an unwilling post War Germany with its recent past.  But he wanted to do more.  He wanted to link that past to the whole realm of myth and religion by which Germans always understood their history and themselves, a spiritual heritage thoroughly poisoned by Nazi exploitation.  Kiefer touched the raw nerve of the Holocaust directly in his work, not by showing images of atrocity, but through the tragic intersection of the spiritualities of two peoples who saw themselves as uniquely chosen and set apart.

Kiefer not only studied with Beuys, but with a figurative artist named Peter Dreher.  Anselm Kiefer made large dramatic, almost operatic paintings that incorporated so much of the heritage of modern form by way of Beuys, and at the same time, rejected some central premises of modern painting by bringing back perspectival space in his work.

Anselm Kiefer, The Book, 1979 - 1985

Kiefer made the unlikely decision to combine the tragic battered objects of Beuys with a very traditional perspectival format he learned from Dreher.  The ground plane that tilted ever steadily upward in over a century of modern painting now suddenly returned to the horizon line of Renaissance art in Kiefer's work.
The painting above incorporates a huge book made out of lead placed on the center of the painting where earlier religious art placed Christ and the saints, where a Romantic artist like Caspar David Friedrich placed the sun, the moon, or a traveller.  The horizon line of Western art since the Renaissance appears as the the breaking surf on a beach. The painting calls to mind all kinds of associations from the Jewish Scriptures and the story of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, to ancient Teutonic mythology to German Romantic poetry and its sense of religious rapture in the contemplation of the vast ocean.

Anselm Kiefer, Burning Rods, 1984

Kiefer comments on a current event by drawing upon the visual language of German Romanticism in this painting inspired by the explosion and meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.  The "burning rods" are the control rods of a nuclear reactor, and appear in the lower center of the painting.  The painting is a triptych of three equal size panels placed together recalling a religious format.  Together, all three panels show a single landscape of a plowed field burned and barren.  The painting itself is burned.  Kiefer used fire itself to make this and other paintings.  The burned painting surface peels off like charred wall paper or flesh.  A cloud made of molten lead poured onto the painting surface suggests the cloud of radiation that rose over the destroyed reactor and drifted across Europe.  Kiefer brings the German Romantic spiritual communion through the contemplation of nature into the post industrial age of environmental degradation where all is profaned.

Anselm Kiefer, Interior, 1981

A painting based on photographs of the Mosaic Hall in Hitler's Reich Chancellery that Kiefer shows in burned and blasted condition.  Kiefer knows that Albert Speer intended this room to call to mind temples from the ancient world.  Something that recalls the Burning Bush appears in the lower center.  Kiefer calls out Hitler and Speer's sacrilegious attempt to liken the Führer's center of power to the mysterium tremendum of the ancient gods and of God.

Anselm Kiefer, Nero Paints, 1974

The tyrant as artist; Kiefer shows forests and village on fire near the horizon of the landscape in this picture.  A bright red cartoon cliché outline of an artist's palette with brushes dominates the center of the painting.  The paint brushes poking out of the palette are tipped with fire.  Another burned out field made from material that was literally burned fills most of the canvas.  The artist refers to Nero burning Rome in 64 CE and to the destruction wrought by another would-be artist, Adolph Hitler. "Qualis artifex pereo!" ('What an artist the world is losing!').
Perhaps Kiefer addresses a certain danger and presumption in the artist's work.  An artist brings forth a world from imagination within the confines of the picture frame.  It is a world that the artist controls completely and can shape or destroy at will.  The artist, in a sense, totally dominates that world.  So these artist-tyrants wanted to shape the actual world and to dominate it in the same way, remaking and destroying it at their pleasure.

Anselm Kiefer, Margarete, 1981

Anselm Kiefer made a number of paintings inspired by a poem written in German by the Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan who was a Holocaust survivor; "Todesfuge (Death Fugue)".  In that poem, Celan contrasts two imaginary women, a German Margarete, and a Jewish woman Shulamith.  The poem concludes with these lines:
The gold of your hair Margarete
The ash of your hair, Shulamith
The painting above titled Margarete after the woman in Paul Celan's poem shows Margarete's golden hair rising up against the sky, the top of each with a flame.  Kiefer uses the straw of the German countryside to make Margarete's golden hair.  That golden hair rises from ashen ground and ends in fire.  As in Celan's poem, that golden hair is full of violence:
a man lives at home the gold of you hair Margarete
the ash of your hair Shulamith he plays with vipers
he yells play sweeter for death Death is a German-born master
yells scrape the strings darker you'll rise through the air like smoke
and have a grave in the clouds there it won't feel so tight

Below is the painting from the top of this post.

Anselm Kiefer, Shulamith, 1981.

Kiefer based this painting on renderings for an unbuilt Nazi war memorial.  It was to be a huge vaulted hall that Kiefer transforms into a blackened burned out interior, perhaps suggesting the interior of a giant crematorium oven.  At the far end of the hall at the perspective vanishing point are what appear to be seven flames, the Seven Lights of the Menorah, or the Seven Spirits of God.

Anselm Kiefer, The Sixth Trumpet, 1996

This painting refers to the Book of Revelations 9:13-19, an account of the destruction of a third of humankind through fire, smoke, and brimstone.  Brimstone rains down upon Kiefer's plowed and bare field.

Anselm Kiefer, Winter Landscape, watercolor, 1970

Anselm Kiefer remains a very controversial and divisive figure in Germany.  The epic grandeur of his paintings lead some of his critics to accuse him of embracing the aesthetic of the Nazis, an accusation that the artist always rejects.  Indeed, the Nazis had no copyright on the epic mode, though they certainly contaminated it.  For a lot of artists outside of Germany, Kiefer's work was a revelation that offered a way out of the cul-de-sac of formalist reductivism, and suggested a return of the unused communicative power latent in painting.

Not all German artists were interested in the epic mode of Kiefer or Baselitz, or in the healing mysticism of Beuys.  Some artists dealt with many of the same issues of German memory and culpability, only in a mode that was more pop than epic.  One of those artists was Jörg Immendorff.

Jörg Immendorff, Cafe Deutschland IV, 1978

Jörg Immendorff, Cafe Deutschland VII, 1980

Beginning in the 1970s, Immendorff made a whole series of crowded busy paintings called "Cafe Deutschland."  Figures from very different social sets, historical figures like Hitler and Stalin, jazz musicians, punks, sports stars, celebrities, and the artist's personal friends crowd into dark dramatically lit and luridly colored spaces that suggest a cabaret, bar, and disco all at once.
Immendorff once owned a bar in the red light district of Düsseldorf.  Much of the Cafe Deutschland paintings come from actual experience, and indeed to anyone who has spent time in seedy urban bars, these crowded spaces seem familiar.
Immendorff was another student of Beuys, though a somewhat rebellious one.  He rejected Beuys mysticism and his sense of tragedy; but, kept his teacher's conviction that somehow art could change and redeem the world.

Jorg Immendorff, Deutschland in Ordnung Bringen (Bring Germany in Order), 1983

Among Germany's biggest art celebrities, and among the biggest in the world is Gerhard Richter whose work continues to fetch record breaking prices for the work of a living artist at international auction houses.
Richter's approach to painting is much cooler and more self-conscious than the works of Baselitz, Kiefer, and Immendorff.  So much of his work is about the role of imagery and how it is presented in painting and in the mass media.  It is also about how the presentation affects, and even disrupts the image.

Gerhard Richter, Reading, 1994

Richter's most popular works are his figurative paintings, which are not quite figurative in the traditional sense.  Instead of making up a scene, or looking at something in front of him and painting directly from life or imagination, Richter uses photographs.  Sometimes they are photographs that he finds, and other times he uses photos he makes himself.  He projects the photos onto a canvas and paints them in an almost mechanically exact fashion.  Richter keeps brushwork to a bare minimum.  His paintings have a smooth impersonal quality about them.

Richter's figurative paintings are also famous for their "blur."  He paints very exact and finished paintings and then applies a technique that "equalizes" them and blurs the imagery.  Sometimes he takes a soft brush to the wet painting and softens the contours.  Other times he applies more radical means such as taking a squeegee across the wet paint surface, or sanding a dry paint surface.  This obliterates the brushwork and equalizes all parts of the picture; no part is more important, or less important, than any other.  The blurring also creates distance between the subject and us.  Obliterating the brushwork also distances us from the artist.

Gerhard Richter, Man Shot Down 1, 1988

The Baader-Meinhof Gang's fatal quest for fame and the artist's ambition.

In 1988, Richter made a series of monochrome paintings based on a once notorious terrorist group, the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as The Baader Meinhof Gang.  The date in the title comes from the day on which three members, Johannes Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe were found dead in their cells from apparently coordinated suicides in the Stuttgart-Stammheim prison (though some then and now accuse the German security forces of murdering them).  Their deaths were a culmination of what came to be known as the "German Autumn" of terrorist activity in 1977.  They killed themselves when they learned that German commandos raided a hijacked plane in Mogadishu successfully freed passengers.  The RAF coordinated the long and violent hijacking with a Palestinian group.  The commandos not only freed all the passengers, but killed all the hijackers, a major victory for the West German government.
The Baader Meinhof Gang was an extreme left terrorist organization that received a lot of funding and weapons from the East German Stasi.  They robbed banks, planted bombs, hijacked planes, kidnapped and murdered prominent government and business people.  While they targeted important people, a lot of other people such as police, chauffeurs, staff, and innocent bystanders died at their hands.

Gerhard Richter, Dead, 1988

This painting is based on a photo of Gudrun Ensslin dead on the floor of her cell.

Gerhard Richter, Confrontation 1, 1988

Based on a series of photos of Gudrun Ensslin.

Gerhard Richter, Funeral, 1988

From a news photograph of the funeral of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe.

When Gerhard Richter debuted these paintings to the public in 1989, they created quite a stir.  A dozen years after the events depicted happened, they were still a sensitive topic in Germany.  And what exactly was the point of this series?  Gerhard Richter made clear that it was not out of sympathy for the group, its ideology, and certainly not its means:
I wanted to say something different: the pictures are also a leave-taking, in several respects. Factually: these specific persons are dead; as a general statement, death is leave-taking. And then ideologically: a leave-taking from a specific doctrine of salvation and, beyond that, from the illusion that unacceptable circumstances of life can be changed by this conventional expedient of violent struggle (this kind of revolutionary thought and action is futile and passé).

And as for the RAF itself?  I was frightened by it, and I was amazed to see an incredible blindness there that exposed our cruelest and most vicious side. But the most frightening aspect for me was the sympathy accorded to these fanatics. That's just how we are –

Richter in no way wants to turn these people's deaths into any kind of passion narrative or heroic sacrifice.  If anything, the emotion in these paintings is very distanced and cool, even cautious.  Richter's "blurred" technique recalls early press photography of the time, and the weird combination of vividness and distance of early television.
The Baader Meinhof Gang was the very dark side of confronting the German past that was the task of artists like Beuys and Baselitz.   Where Beuys wanted to create catharsis and bring in light, warmth, and healing, the Baader Meinhof Gang was made up of young fanatics "bloody and extreme like the Holy Ghost" who were determined to exterminate quite literally the last surviving vestiges of Nazi Germany.  They were the most extreme manifestation of the resentment of younger generations of Germans angry over the legacy left to them by their elders.  The RAF, like all terrorists, are the darkest manifestations of the celebrity culture of the late 20th century that is still with us.  They set off bombs and kidnapped and murdered bankers, government officials, and businessmen to get attention; to hold a mass audience in a frightened outraged thrall.  In the end, all the lefty ideological posturing was but a pretext.  The Stasi used them to try to disrupt the Western alliances of the Cold War.  The Palestinians who were once their allies long ago abandoned Marx and Lenin for the Islamist writings of Sayid al Qutb.  The last vestiges of the Baader Meinhof Gang died with the end of the Cold War.  By the standards of today's terrorists, they were amateurs with fussy fastidious consciences.

The power of photographs to shape memory, both personal and historical, fascinates Gerhard Richter.  In these paintings of the RAF as in all of his figurative work, he works directly from actual photographs carefully chosen.  The monochrome and blurring techniques transform these old news photos into ghostly presences; disquieting phantoms receding into an ever more distant past.

Gerhard Richter's sense of distancing and equalizing applies not only to figurative work, but to abstract painting as well.

Gerhard Richter, Red, Green, and Blue, 1993

Richter makes his abstractions in a way similar to his figurative works.  He makes a fully realized painting and then applies a radical means of equalizing the whole picture.  In this case, he uses a giant squeegee scrapes across the still wet surface to pull the whole thing together by obliterating most of the brushwork used to make the painting.

Gerhard Richter, Fuji, 1996

Here is a photograph of Richter in his studio making one of his abstract works.

Gerhard Richter, window in the south transept of Cologne Cathedral, unveiled in 2007.

This window is among Richter's most controversial works.  It is certainly not an ugly window.  Richter used a computer program to create a random pattern of colors in the Gothic tracery.  Random patterns are the most difficult of all patterns to create.  The controversy was over the apparent lack of any religious content.  The Archbishop of Cologne objected strongly enough to absent himself from the unveiling and consecration ceremony.

Hanne Darboven was one of Gerhard Richter's closest friends, and a very different artist.
She was born into a prosperous mercantile family in 1942 (Darboven coffee is still a popular brand in Germany).  She had an early education in music, in classical piano.  She then cultivated an interest in art and from 1966 to 1968 she lived in New York.  While there, she met and befriended a lot of artists in the Minimalist movement, in particular Sol Lewitt and Carl Andre.  They encouraged her to pursue a novel and somewhat eccentric combination of minimalism and conceptual art based on mathematics and larger mathematical patterns, especially units of time and of music.  Her work is very intellectual and can be very demanding.

Hanne Darboven

The Gregorian Calendar forms a major organizing principle of her work.  She did almost daily mathematical sums based on numerical patterns generated by the Calendar.

Hanne Darboven

This daily work of writing and calculating all by hand eventually could pile up into very large installations requiring a lot of space for exhibition.

Hanne Darboven, Zwei hoch Zwei (Two times Two)

A very beautiful photo-collage that is one of her most accessible works for me, probably because it is among her most visual and less textual works.  Photos trimmed and used not for their imagery, but for their patterns and tones makes visible in a splendid way her preoccupation with larger mathematical patterns.  It has rhythm and texture, and a visible order to it beyond that of text.

Hanne Darboven, untitled, 1974

Her magnum opus is an immense sprawling project that covers a lot of gallery footage.  It is seen here on display at the Dia Center north of New York City that has the space required to show this project, Cultural History 1880 - 1983.

This project consists of 1,589 individually framed drawings, notations, and photo-collages along with 19 sculptural pieces that requires at least 7000 feet of exhibition space.  It is a series of all kinds of objects and texts generated out of mathematical patterns from the Gregorian Calendar for the years 1880 to 1983 when this project was completed.  It incorporates all kinds of references to German literature and history.

I must confess that I admire Hanne Darboven's work more than I love it; partly because I have no talent or affinity for mathematics beyond basic qualitative geometry.  Also, I must admit a certain prejudice in favor of aesthetics over concept in art.  A brilliant concept is inaccessible to most people if there is not a compelling and memorable form for it to take.  Textual notation is not enough.  The gallery setting is too necessary in my opinion for so much of this work to be even considered aesthetically.  The concept is indeed fascinating.  I only wish it came in a form that was equally fascinating.

Sigmar Polke was a teacher and colleague of Gerhard Richter.  Polke was himself another student of Joseph Beuys at the Düsseldorf Academy.  Like Richter, Polke wanted to bring a cooler and more self-conscious approach to painting.  Polke also wanted to return to the openness to international influences first seen in Fritz Winter's post War paintings.
Polke's work is among the most experimental of German postWar moderns, incorporating everything from nuclear radiation to snail slime in his painting processes.

Sigmar Polke, stained glass window for the Grossmünster Church in Zurich, Switzerland, 2009

Sigmar Polke like Gerhard Richter and Georg Baselitz was a refugee from the east.  He was born in Silesia in what is now Poland.  His family was expelled to Thuringia and escaped from East Germany to Westphalia.  He began his artistic career as an apprentice in a stained glass workshop.  He continued to design stained glass for the rest of his life.  These are examples of his work from a church in Zurich made a year before his death.

Sigmar Polke, window for the Grossmünster Church in Zurich, Switzerland, 2009

Sigmar Polke, Spiderman, 1971 - 1974

Polke departed from the solemn epic quality of so much German postWar modernism, especially coming out of Joseph Beuys' circle, by embracing American Pop Art and Pop imagery.  Here is is version of Spiderman made over ten years after other American artists such as Roy Lichtenstein began using comic book imagery.

Sigmar Polke, The Three Lies of Painting, 1994

A painting about the fiction that is painting.  Transparent fabric stretched over a wood frame leaves the stretcher bars visible.  On it are a couple of pedestrian images of a mountain and a tree taken from some kind of very basic cheap illustration.  On the left is a strip of fabric with handprints; the unique handwork of the artist reduced to a mass-produced printed pattern.

Another interest that Polke shared with Pop Art was the relationship between the mass produced image and the unique and handmade object.  Polke in particular was interested in printing mistakes.

Sigmar Polke, Ashes to Ashes, 1992

An oil painting made on industrially printed velour fabric, an example of that contrast between the mass produced and the singular with the added element of what looks like a medieval print of skulls applied on top of the splashy oil paint gestures.  In Warhol's work, the mass produced and unique come to some kind of resolution with each other.  In Polke's work, they clash and fight, and one never seems to get the upper hand over the other.

Sigmar Polke, Lens Painting, 2006 - 2009

Sigmar Polke, Lens Painting, 2006 - 2009

The Lens paintings are among Polke's last works, and are richly colored acrylic paint applied to a semitransparent acrylic surface and gently raked while wet.  The color of each of these transparent paintings varies with the wall on which it is hung.  On a sterile white gallery wall, they are one thing.  Hung over wall paper, they are quite another.  Like one of those postcards whose ridged surface makes the cowboy raise his hat depending on the angle, so these paintings change with the point of view.  They are based on the ideas of a 17th century optical scientist Johann Zahn.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989.  Soon, West Germany and East Germany were no more.  From now on there would only be a single German Federal Republic, the state that exists now.  A new chapter began with the end of the Cold War divisions.  Günter Grass' "Businessman's State" won and is now the only state.
The German Federal Republic decided to move back to Berlin and to make it once again a functioning capital city.

Unter den Linden with recent construction cranes.

With reunification came a lot of new construction all over the city of Berlin.  Even now, a visit to Berlin means navigating one large construction site after another.

Potsdamer Platz in 2016

With reunification, Berlin's status as Germany's poorest city is ending.  Along with the federal government, a lot of businesses relocated to the renewed German capital city.  The Potsdamer Platz, once a dismal space split by the wall, is now once again a busy hub lit up with bright city lights. The squats of yesterday filled with young rebels are rapidly (and sadly) disappearing with the advent of increasing demands for real estate by an expanding population and businesses.  While still a relatively inexpensive city by European standards, rents and housing prices are going up and gentrification slowly takes over once famously bohemian neighborhoods such as Kreuzberg.

A summer evening along the Spree River in 2016

A gay leather daddy party on a rented boat on the Spree River in 2016.  Berlin's old reputation as a famously gay friendly city is back and then some.

Kids texting on the steps of the Soviet War Memorial in Tiergarten Park

The 21st century begins an entirely new chapter in German history.  The Cold War and the direct legacy of the Second World War are ending.  Germany no longer serves as the arena or proxy in a struggle between global superpowers.  It is now the leading economy in Europe and thus once again finds itself in dominant political role.  Germany now is very careful to place itself in the midst of Europe as an equal partner, though sometimes as a first among equals.

The USA now abdicates its role as the leader and champion of the constitutional liberal democracy that it invented.  As the USA forsakes its revolutionary inheritance for solitary racial nationalism and exits the world stage, Russia and China among others will struggle over the emerging power vacuum.  But who will take the place the United States of America once held as champion of liberal democracy and its values?  It looks like Europe collectively is taking up that role with a lot of guidance and participation from its richest member, Germany.

Pardon my inner anarchist, but I've never believed in history with a capital H.  History doesn't follow cycles and it doesn't just "happen" like the weather.  What we call history is one damn thing after another; a crapshoot where outcomes can hang on things as absurd as a missed phone call or a bout of flu.  History is there to be made or broken, and few other people made and broke their history more than Germans in the last century.

The future is a big blank "not yet."  Who knows how people will fill it in the coming years, and how artists in a reborn Berlin or anywhere will help shape what is to come.

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