Art From the Ashes: Stark Images of Post-War Germany

GERMAN art after World War II was in a sorry state. Thanks to Hitler's systematic debasement of artistic values, and his suppression of anything creatively vital or confrontational, postwar German painting found itself frustrated and stymied. It had no tradition to speak of, and no style or formal language capable of embodying or giving voice to the pressing realities of the day. True, art and its issues - especially the decades-old debate between realism and abstraction - were the subject of as much controversy as ever. Both younger artists and a handful of surviving well-known old-timers were involved.

Some of the old-timers, including Willi Baumeister, Karl Hofer, and Will Grohman, now occupied positions of considerable art-world power which they used in an attempt to extend the influence of earlier 20th-century German artistic ideas into the latter half of the century.

While respectful of the contributions made by Nolde, Beckmann, Klee, Kirchner, Kollwitz, Grosz, etc., Germany's youthful painters of the late 1940s and '50s felt more restricted than challenged by these older artists' ideas. What they wanted was something new, large, and bold enough to match their experiences of both the war and its frustrating aftermath.

Help came from the United States in the form of two major American exhibitions sponsored by New York's Museum of Modern Art. ``New American Painting'' and ``Jackson Pollock: 1912-1956,'' which opened in Berlin in 1958, brought the full weight of Abstract Expressionist ideas and attitudes to such younger Germans as Georg Baselitz, Eugen Sch"onebeck, and K.H. H"odicke. Although it functioned more as a catalyst than as a guide, Abstract Expressionism had a significant effect on German art of the 1960s, a favor the latter would return two decades later when German Neo-Expressionism left its mark on American painting of the 1980s.

But, while Abstract Expressionism may have helped energize the new German painting, it did little to give German painting direction. For that, Baselitz and his contemporaries looked both to the passionately Expressionist work of the 1906-20 period and to current German social and political affairs. In August 1961, construction of the Berlin Wall began, and the younger artists' sense of alienation and desperation deepened.

That same year, in November, Baselitz and Sch"onebeck came up with what was to become the most significant event of the period: their first manifesto, ``Pandemonium,'' an anguished incantation of life as seen from the bottom up filled with pessimism and a profound sense of isolation. And following that, to underscore their ideas, they organized an exhibition devoted entirely to their own explosive and disturbing paintings and drawings.

The effect of this dramatic, two-part event on the younger generation of German artists was electrifying. Not only were they given the go-ahead to put their deepest and darkest feelings onto canvas and paper, they were presented with a powerful precedent upon which to build their own expressive arguments. But just as important, they felt that now, finally, they could establish a clear-cut national identity - that for better or worse, they would henceforth be perceived as German artists, and not as watered-down or derivative versions of something else.

German authorities and art professionals as a whole, however, didn't respond as favorably. Two of Baselitz's most important paintings were removed from his 1963 show as offensive to public morals. And the German museum and gallery world, buffeted as it was by conflicting allegiances, had neither the vision nor the desire to lend these younger artists immediate support.

The second generation of painters fared somewhat better. Born after the war, Helmut Middendorf, Bernd Zimmer, and Salom'e and Rainer Fetting came into their own in the mid-1970s as the Neue Wilde (New Wild Ones) of German art. International recognition had to wait until 1981, however, when they were featured in a major exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

With that, fame, and to certain extent, fortune, came their way. Middendorf, probably because of the fascinating complexity of his imagery, and Rainer Fetting, largely because of the richness of his color and the romantic undertones of his themes, were well received in America. Fetting, in fact, was to have three important one-man shows in New York, and soon felt so much at home there that he ended up spending roughly as much time in Manhattan as in Berlin.

What set Fetting apart from his contemporaries was the sheer audacity of his color. He was afraid of no combination of hues, no matter how ``wrong,'' how clashing, or even offensive they might appear. Because he dared to take risks, and because he had an unerring sense of how to combine the psychological with the formal, the figurative with the abstract, he produced a handful of the most blazingly idiosyncratic paintings of the 1980s. Some seem akin to the darkest and most mysterious of northern European fairy tales. Others are even more stark and primal than Nolde's most searingly confrontational canvases. And a few appear to belong purely to the realm of myths and racial memories.

All, however, are provocative and worthy of attention. Whether they will remain so in a decade or two is another matter. Personally, I suspect that the best of them will - for Fetting turns a youthful 40 this year, and his recent paintings indicate that depth and character are beginning to engage his attention at least as much as coloristic drama and pictorial effectiveness did during his earlier years.

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