“German art seldom has been easy. It is often reminded with its nation’s history, sometimes expressing its glory, but just as often decrying its tumult and suffering.” (Homburg, 2003: p.9).
In times of war a nation or the whole world is brought into chaos and uncertainty. Throughout the past hundred years our world has suffered many conflicts and tensions - including the first and second world war (1914–1918; 1939-1945) and the cold war (1947–1991).
In times of war artists feel a great need to respond in their own way. Throughout history there have been many different ways of making art during war. For instance, Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix from 1830 is one example of a war painting from the French Revolution. With the female personification of liberty walking over dead bodies and holding up the French flag as the main focus, the painting is heroic and triumphant. Other artists use art as a form of propaganda, protest or as a way of expressing their individual feelings in response to war, suffering and destruction. Two German artists, considered expressionist from two different generations experiencing similar forms of devastation, are Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (6 May 1880 – 15 June 1938) and Georg Baselitz (born 23 January 1938). Their role as expressionist artists and the influence of war is the focus of the following discussion.
In 1905 four German architecture students, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff from Dresden formed the expressionist artist group Die Brücke (“the bridge”). Heckel (Interview Heckel, 1958 in: Ketterer, 1998) noted about the choice of name that a bridge “represented no program but in a sense, it led from one shore to the other.” Inspired by Albrecht Dürer, impressionist artists, French Fauves and tribal art together with their refusal and protest against the modern bourgeoisie life and the academic style of art in the beginning of the 20th century, made “die Brücke” an avant-garde movement. The expressionist style is marked by heavy brushstrokes, unmixed colours, decorative flatness and simplified forms and shapes. Perspective and proportion become irrelevant because for them it’s all about experimental spontaneity and symbols within the work. (N. Savina, 2002) “The German artist creates out of his imagination, inner vision, the forms of visible nature are to him only a symbol.” Kirchner describes die Urform (“the archetype”), which is “the revelation of the pulse beat of life, art as the expression of inner necessity” (Selz, 1957: p.78). After eight years of collaborative work the artist group split up just before the first world war.
One of the founders and leading artists of the group, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, volunteered to serve in the war, which wasn’t unusual for young men, since war seemed modern and heroic to them. But Kirchner was soon discharged due to alcohol and drug abuse. He went to Davos, Switzerland where he created one of his most famous paintings, ‘Self-portrait as soldier”, which was his way of processing what has happened. He said: “If suffering can be transformed into creativity…I want to try it.” (Interview Kirchner, 1918 in: Hatje Cantz, n.d.). The oil on canvas painting shows the artist himself dressed in a field artillery regiment no 75. Due to the absence of pupils in his eyes, his face almost seems like a mask of isolation, staring blankly into the void. He hardly pays any attention to the cigarette that is loosely hanging from the right corner of his mouth. Kirchner is holding up his right hand, which is his painting hand, but it has been amputated. His hand hadn’t actually been injured or amputated during the war, he was solely reflecting his fear of losing his ability to paint and loss of control as a man (Springer, 2002). The painting was made in the artist’s studio, recognisable by canvases in the background and a female nude behind Kirchner’s left shoulder. Nudes are a recurring motif in the work of Kirchner, as well as in the work of Die Brücke. They reflect on the naturality of the human body in different contexts, such as cities or nature. Furthermore, it was a great way to develop his drawing and painting skills. Later on, when the Nazis confiscated Kirchner’s self-portrait, it was called “soldier with whore” in the degenerated art exhibition. The art historian Donald E. Gordon (1968) says this painting is “one of the greatest war paintings of the 20th century”. According to die Urform this war painting says a lot about Kirchner in terms of seeing his painting as an expression of his inner feelings and the influence the war, the military and suffering had on the emotional artist whose mental health eventually led him to commit suicide in 1938.
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Figure 1: Kirchner. Self-portrait as a soldier, 1915
Hans Georg Kern, later Georg Baselitz, born the same year, grew up during an extremely influential period in Germany, including the second world war and the division of Germany. Art could be seen as his way of overcoming all the suffering and destruction in Germany and the issue of national identity at that time. “[He] proceed[s] in a state of disharmony, from ugly things.” (Baselitz, 1988 in: Hampson, 2015) and he likes to provoke with his paintings. For example, people have been outraged about the little boy with Hitler hairstyle grotesquely masturbating in Die große Nacht im Eimer (“The Big Night Down the Drain”) from 1963.
Baselitz grew up as a teacher’s son in a small village in East Germany. From a young age he wanted to stand out from the crowd, and this hasn’t changed since then. He was dismissed from art school in East Germany for being 'ideologically immature’. And so, he moved to West Germany under the American regime. Here he had support from his teacher to be an artist. At that time abstract art was the main form and, although Baselitz admired American artists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, he could not see himself as an abstract artist. Instead, he stood out again for creating his own style, always making sure it had not appeared in the history of art before (Interview Baselitz in: Louisiana Channel, 2014). Turning his paintings upside down became an important characteristic style of Georg Baselitz. By inverting his paintings, he found a way out of the debate between abstract and figurative paintings, creating his own individual style (VernissageTV, 2018). This led to controversy and confusion in the audience. Other features of his work are the irrelevance of proportion and perspective, large formats and the great use of paint with quick brushstrokes, scratches and smears, which are also characteristics of the expressionist artists like E. L. Kirchner. People often try to force Baselitz into the movement of the neo-expressionists, but he does not want to belong to any group - neither abstract art, nor expressionism. “[He] refuse[s] to be placed within, or added to, one particular school.” (Interview Baselitz in: Abou-Sabe et al., 2014).
In the definition of Neue Wilde as an art movement by the Tate (n.d.), Georg Baselitz is stated as one example of a Neue Wilde artist together with Anselm Kiefer. Nonetheless, the term Neue Wilde comes from an art exhibition that took place in Aachen, Germany in 1980. The show was called “Les Nouveaux Fauves – Die Neuen Wilden” and included artists such as Lüpertz, Immendorf as well as Baselitz. None of these artists belonged to the following neo expressionist movement Neue Wilde in the 80s which adopted the term. Baselitz doesn’t even define himself as an artist but merely as a painter: “Artists express themselves, painters paint pictures that express themselves.” (Interview Baselitz in: FondationBeyeler, 2018)
From the beginning of his career, Baselitz had created a broad range of works including images of eagles. One of his early eagle paintings was finger painted in 1972, which can now be found in Munich. The motif of the eagle is a stark reminder of the symbol of the disastrous German history and Adolf Hitler because of Germanys coat of arm (VernissageTV, 2018). When the work was created in the 1970s, it evoked a lot of controversy with regard to the destroyed national identity. As a result of inverting the canvas, it almost seems like the eagle is falling from the sky or hanging down from the ceiling. This is in contrast to the eagle that has been used as an emblem of the third Reich, which is meant to look muscular, proud and dominant (M. Glover, 2010). By using his fingers to paint, traces of the artists fingerprints become visible in the picture, placing Baselitz own identity into his work. Reflecting on his struggle to have to accept that “[he] could never escape […] Germany and being German.”, (Baselitz in: Baselitz et al., 2007) he says that “All German painters have a neurosis with Germany's past: war, the post war period most of all, East Germany. I addressed all of this in a deep depression and under great pressure. My paintings are battles, if you will.” Yet, Baselitz always reminds his audience “not to read storytelling of any description into his images” (M. Glover, 2010). However, in the context of the time, his nationality and his provocative art this seems impossible.
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Figure 2: Baselitz, Finger painted eagle, 1972
Comparing the two artists it seems that Kirchner identifies more with his role as an artist in a particular movement, time and group, whereas Baselitz protests against being part of any particular group or movement. Moreover, in their paintings Kirchner applies thought-through symbols that are meant to be interpreted in a certain way by the observer. For example, his anti-war painting which gives a clear statement about his opinion about war and his own mental situation. Baselitz’ goal, however, is to irritate the audience not by subject matter but by his painting style and he warns us not to read too much into any symbols. Kirchner (and Die Br ücke as an avant-garde movement) were trying to make a change in the art world, unlike Baselitz who “Unlike the Expressionists, [has] never been interested in renewing the world through the vehicle of art.” (Interview Baselitz in: Kort, 2003). In the words of Baselitz, it seems that Kirchner is the artist who expresses himself, and Baselitz is the painter who makes pictures that express themselves (Interview Baslitz in: FondationBeyeler, 2018).