Four Modern Masters Affirm Germany’s Place in the Art World

By accepting and integrating their art into the greater German artistic tradition, four modern artists gained international recognition for contemporary German art.


The effect of Beuys, Kiefer, Baselitz, and Penck on German art can be understood only in the context of the development of German art after World War II. The collapse of the Third Reich in 1945 left a stunned, demoralized Germany whose immediate objective was to divorce itself as completely as possible from the Nazi heritage responsible for the unprecedented catastrophe. Two developments ensued. On the official level, especially after the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1949, efforts were made to rehabilitate both the art of the pre-Nazi period and the artists who had been driven into exile or underground. The effort failed. The few artists who had remained were, for the most part, past their artistic prime. Others who had fled abroad remembered with bitterness how their art had been ridiculed, denigrated, and labeled “degenerate.” Kirchner, for example, had been driven to suicide. These artists had no desire to return, and indeed many had tried to shed their German identity altogether. Art;Germany

The artistic community attempted to find an identity for German art on an international level. What was to be avoided at all costs was the realistic official style of Nazi-approved art, which could best be described as monumental kitsch. Therefore, despite the strong representational and figurative tradition of German art, the emphasis shifted toward the abstract, toward experiments with what was called minimal art, and toward a new movement called Tachism, which employed irregular dabs or spots of color, each regarded as an element in its own right and an emotional projection. It was with some consternation that German artists increasingly became aware that their artistic efforts had only a limited effect in Germany and none outside Germany. The new West German capital of Bonn was regarded as a city of philistines, an artistic wasteland.

The change came when divided and isolated Berlin again became the center of German art; there was then, an art historian noted, “a hunger for pictures.” Both Baselitz and Penck lived and worked for a time in Berlin, and the Berlin galleries became the most enthusiastic supporters and promoters of the works of all four artists.

Beuys was the pioneer in the new art movement, primarily because he was among the first to reestablish artistic ties with the past and reawaken memories, no matter how painful. In fact it can be said that he is the only contemporary German artist of stature who unreservedly has come to terms with the war. Second was Kiefer, to be followed by Baselitz and Penck. It was said that these four artists helped to demolish two walls. Since both Baselitz and Penck came from East Germany, their acceptance in the West represented a triumph over the physical wall dividing East and West Berlin (a wall soon to be demolished in actuality); the second was the symbolic wall of German history between 1933 and 1945. There was now, as the German poet Paul Celan succinctly phrased it, a reconstituted “gash of fire” spanning Germany’s cultural heritage.

What ensued was a new art movement called “neoexpressionism” that began to coalesce in the 1970’s and reached maturity by 1980. Like the old expressionism, the new was born in a period of turmoil; also like the old, an integral part of neoexpressionism was social criticism. The basis, however, had broadened. Empathy had replaced abstract thought. The objective was attacking universal problems such as violence, bigotry, corruption, and hunger. Overpopulation and an endangered environment loomed large. Beuys was a cofounder of the German Green Party, one of Europe’s pioneer environmental groups. The art movement, at first essentially German, soon spread to other countries, including Italy, France, England, and the United States. The Germans, once again, had become a respected and productive part of the international art community. Art;Germany

Further Reading

  • Behr, Shulamith. Expressionism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A concise, accessible history of expressionism, from the early part of the twentieth century to the movement’s demise under the Third Reich to its postwar reemergence.
  • Borer, Alain. The Essential Joseph Beuys. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997. Includes essays on the influential artist and 152 reproductions of his work in all media.
  • Gordon, Donald E. Expressionism, Art, and Idea. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. Donald Gordon is generally considered to be the leading American authority on German expressionism. This book is of interest because it details both the original expressionism and the neoexpressionism of Beuys, Kiefer, Baselitz, and Penck. Many fine illustrations, both black-and-white and color.
  • Joachimides, Christos M., Norman Rosenthal, Wieland Schmied, and Werner Becker, eds. German Art in the Twentieth Century: Painting and Sculpture, 1905-1985. 2d ed. New York: Neues, 1988. Based on an exhibition of twentieth century German art held at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1985 and the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in 1986, this profusely illustrated volume details the new international interest in German art. In addition to 299 full-color plates, the book contains a number of excellent essays on subjects ranging from the philosophy of Nietzsche to a monograph on Beuys. Also contains short but detailed biographies of forty-eight modern German artists.
  • Kiefer, Anselm, Theodore E. Stebbins, and Jürgen Harten. A Book by Anselm Kiefer. New York: George Braziller, 1988. Some of Kiefer’s outstanding artistic works are in the form of books. This one is an interesting demonstration of his use of color, ranging from the cool blues and greens to the warm oranges and hot reds. Both the foreword and introduction give a great deal of personal and professional information on this extraordinary artist.
  • McShine, Kynaston, ed. Berlinart, 1961-1987. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1987. Published in connection with a major exhibit of art associated with Berlin mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. All the artworks in the exhibit, including those by Beuys and Baselitz, are reproduced in color. Interesting essays by authorities such as René Block, Laurence Kardish, Kynaston McShine, Karl Ruhrberg, and Wieland Schmied give valuable information on the development of modern German art, including the rejection of abstraction, the return to roots, and the reemergence of Berlin as a major international art center.
  • Ritchie, Andrew Carnduff. German Art of the Twentieth Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957. Although dated, this remains one of the best and most readable introductions to German art in the twentieth century. It is interesting to see the inertia affecting German art at the time of the book’s publication.
  • Russell, John. The Meanings of Modern Art. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1981. The modern art of any country cannot be fully understood without an understanding of how it relates to a broader international pattern. John Russell, an eminent art critic for The New York Times, explains such relationships in a clear manner. He devotes considerable space to Beuys, whom he considers to be one of the leading artists of the time.

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