For the first time, the giants of German post-war art are united in one exhibition at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. As the title The Early Years of the Old Masters suggests, the show concentrates on the early works of the four artists, mainly those from the 1960s.
Curator Götz Adriani has set out to show how differently artists reacted to the period of upheaval and change that took place during the 1960s. The political climate was both conservative and revolutionary: on the one hand there was the economic miracle, on the other, the student protests. In addition, the aftermath of National Socialism continued to have an impact on the population long after the physical damage caused by the war had been repaired.
The work of all four artists reflects the search for answers to the traumas of recent history. Baselitz as well as Richter, Polke and Kiefer used the medium of painting to do this – and at a time when happenings and performances defined the art world, and the end of painting was being foretold yet again.
The exhibition begins with powerful paintings by Georg Baselitz that focus on obscenities and broken heroes. In later paintings, such as the portraits from 1969, Baselitz turns the motif upside down. Through this reversal he succeeds in approaching abstraction without abandoning figuration.
Gerhard Richter, whose works can be seen in the subsequent rooms, reacted completely differently to his surroundings. Contrary to all the traditions of art history, he elevated images from newspapers and magazines – whether advertising, photographs of celebrities or of contemporary events – to equal pictorial motifs, which freed him from the need to conceive pictorial compositions. Accordingly, paintings of tigers hang in the exhibition on an equal footing with military aircraft and family portraits, as well as advertising for a tumble dryer. Instead of presenting highly charged content, Richter captures the zeitgeist of the economic miracle years.
With a lot of wit and irony, Sigmar Polke also takes a stand on the empty consumer-and-glitter world of the 1960s. Sausages and rice can be found alongside depictions of buttons and flamingos. In works such as Dürer Hase (Dürer Hare) and Carl Andre in Delft (both 1968), unlike Richter, he refers to older and more recent art history.
Works by Anselm Kiefer are shown in the adjoining rooms. In addition to several books, there is also a selection of his tension-laden Heroische Sinnbilder (Heroic Symbols, 1970), which show the artist with his arm raised in a Hitler salute. The pictures are based on Kiefer’s action Besetzungen (Occupations), for which he had himself photographed in this provocative pose in places steeped in history, before later transferring these images into paintings.
All four artists describe themselves as apolitical. Their pictures are an attempt to come to terms with the past, they are not agitation art. In the 1960s, they were pioneers, a new generation that contributed to influencing the image of the new Germany abroad.
They took on this pioneering role with good reason, as this exhibition shows, bringing together a high concentration of a great many very good works. In the 1960s, Baselitz, Richter, Polke and Kiefer were the artists whose positions determined the discourse of figurative painting. Looking at the works in the exhibition, it becomes clear that it is truly no coincidence that they are among the greats of the art world today.
Thanks to contemporary historical documentation in the foyer of the Staatsgalerie, the exhibition is tied in with the 1960s. However, in the exhibition itself there are no wall texts, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the exhibition is – as the organisers wish – an invitation to visitors to deal visually with art. On the other hand, this easily accessible information could enable visitors without an art history background to better understand the works and their contexts.
About 80 works are presented in the exhibition, which is at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart from 12 April to 18 August 2019. From 13 September 2019 to 5 January 2020 it will be shown in the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg.