Baselitz, Richter, Polke, Kiefer: German Masters Take to the Stage in Stuttgart

By Joe Townend
Baselitz, Richter, Polke, Kiefer: these four formidable Germans define a generation. Together they captured a country rebuilding itself from the rubble of the Second World War, unsure of its place in the new world order. A major exhibition at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in Germany examines over 100 works from their early years.

W ith the exception of Sigmar Polke, who died in 2010, each artist has loaned work to the show, and the exhibition was developed in close collaboration with the three living artists. It reveals a nation deeply divided by conflict and trauma – and four friends who created a new vision for the future.

Georg Baselitz, Oberon (1. Orthodoxer Salon 64 – E.Neijsvestnij), 1963-64. © Georg Baselitz 2019. Städel Museum/ARTOTHEK.

In the fallout of the war, abstract painting was king. The Americans dominated the postwar landscape, with the Abstract Expressionist movement putting New York City at the centre of the art world – a spot formerly occupied by Paris. But these four German artists, who were all born before or during the Second World War, shunned grand abstractions for a new kind of figurative painting, one full of lonely individuals estranged from the world.

Georg Baselitz, Ökonomie (Economy), 1965. © Georg Baselitz 2019. Private Collection. Photograph: Jochen Littkemann.

Georg Baselitz painted melancholic, eerie versions of war heroes. In Die große Nacht im Eimer [The Big Night Going Down the Drain], 1962–63, which is one of the key works in the exhibition, a lone male figure, featureless apart from eyes and ears, stares into the distance while masturbating. Baselitz was highly conscious of Germany’s role in the atrocities of the early 20th century and his paintings reflect a double loss: the social and physical desolation felt across the country, and the utter bankruptcy of German national pride.

Georg Baselitz Studio Three Stripes The Hunter
Georg Baselitz in the studio next to Three Stripes – The Hunter, Osthofen 1967. © Elke Baselitz 2019.

“The Germans lack the sort of founding myths that the French have in the French Revolution, the English in the Magna Carta, and the US Americans in the Revolutionary War,” artist Anselm Kiefer says in an interview with the show’s curator, Götz Adriani. “The Germans remain unsure of themselves. This leads either to a know-it-all attitude or to a sense of inferiority.”

Anselm Kiefer Faith Hope Love
Anselm Kiefer, Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe (Faith, Hope, Love), 1973. © Anselm Kiefer. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.

Kiefer was mentored by Baselitz, who is seven years older than him. He incorporates materials such as straw, ash, clay, lead, and shellac into his paintings, which makes them feel fragile and temporary, despite their gestural style and large scale. Many of his paintings feature motifs such as trees and books, including Faith, Hope, Love, 1976, which features in the exhibition and draws on memory and loss – themes that Kiefer is still working through today.

Anselm Kiefer You are a Painter
Anselm Kiefer, Du bist Maler (You are a Painter), 1969. © Anselm Kiefer. Pricate Collection. Photograph: Henning Krause.

Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, like Baselitz, grew up in East Germany and moved to West Germany to escape the censorship of the communist government.

They became friends and collaborators, staging a joint exhibition in Hanover in 1966 and – famously – posing naked together in a bathtub for a candid photograph. The pair shared a sensibility for recycling imagery, and both used media images as source material for their own work.

staatsgalerie Gerhard Richter, Mutter und Tochter
Gerhard Richter, Mutter und Tochter, 1965. © Gerhard Richter 2018. Photograph: Ludwig Galerie Schloss Oberhausen.

“Both the sceptical Richter and the sarcastic Polke doubted the role of art as well as that of the artist,” says Adriani in his interview with Kiefer, who recalls pulling practical jokes with the pair in the studios of the Karlsruhe Art Academy, where Baselitz had studied.

Gerhard Richter Neuschwanstein Castle
Gerhard Richter, Schloß Neuschwanstein (Neuschwanstein Castle), 1963. © Gerhard Richter 2019. Museum Frieder Burda.

Polke appropriated the pictorial shorthand of advertising in his paintings, which often featured isolated figures on swirling abstract backgrounds, while works such as Richter’s Schloss Neuschwanstein, 1963, reveal the influence photography had on his painting.

Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter Dusseldorf
Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, Düsseldorf 1965, © Gerhard Richter, courtesy Gerhard Richter Archiv, Dresden.

The exhibition also features a historical panorama of the political, social and cultural events that surrounded the artists during this crucial period: from the rapid growth of the “economic miracle” in the 1950s to the student revolts in May 1968 against the West German government.

These four artists have become heavyweights in their own right. But their shared experiences – as well as their friendship and collaboration – were all-important in their development as painters. As Kiefer says, “The interest of another artist is more important to me, even today, than any other kind of recognition.”

Baselitz – Richter – Polke – Kiefer: The Early Years of the Old Masters, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany, 12 April–11 August, then at Deichtorhallen Hamburg, 12 September–5 January 2020

Sotheby's is a proud sponsor of this exhibition.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's