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.
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 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.