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Published  15/10/2006
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New German Painting – book review

New German Painting – book review

Christoph Tannert (ed). New German Painting. Munich/Berlin/London/New York: Prestel, 2006
ISBN: 3791336665

'Indeed, one is struck by American viewers' descriptions of so much new German painting as precisely regenerative, as finding new possibilities and means in styles that had long appeared exhausted.' (Graham Bader)

This book, edited by Christoph Tannert, provides a well-edited selection of contemporary work by younger artists and allows a structured 'road map' about what is actually going on. In fact, the scene is very dynamic and innovative, precisely as contributor Graham Bader indicates.

Tannert's obsession with the effects of media images seems, however, to reveal a premonition about the future of German painting rather than its contemporary constraints; and that, after all, is a European preoccupation. But for now? German painting, as American viewers realise, displays a micro-analytical inspection and investigation, more so than its equivalent in Britain or France. There is a drive towards intellectual verification, which is remarkably free of the kind of commercial motivations that seem to drive young British painting. Tannert refers to an emotionally 'curbed' realism, relatively neutral without being apolitical, but we in Britain can identify more of an intellectual vein to that realism, which cannot be truly written down, and perhaps represents a deep German tradition.

Elsewhere, there had been grouses about the legacies of Polke and Richter, which could not be upheld internationally. Much, of course, is made of the distinction between artists who grew up in the East and those nurtured in the West, as if all conversations on the subject must eventually turn on such distinctions. But as Jörg Immendorf points out, answering the question as to why German painters are so much in demand, 'I believe we really throw ourselves into it. There are not only German vices but also virtues, and among these are not only our technical skills but also our enthusiasm, fanaticism'.

In the chapter by Tannert, George Baselitz is quoted as saying that 'German art is characterised by primitiveness, expressiveness, religiosity, ideology'. It seems that these standpoints may be poles apart; but they are not really, as this book reveals. There are those, like Daniela Brahm, who, 'consider[s] the whole national aesthetics question is men's business ... Absolutely no identification. Quite the opposite, I believe that my position has been formed out of opposition to the German male-painter-creator myth. I quite consciously take my stance on the broad foundation of universalism, determined identification, possibilities and impossibilities there ... Diversity instead of genius'.

A special group of 'New Leipzig Artists' is an interesting case study of the organic re-groupings that are forming in the re-unified German state. They shrewdly used the platform of the LIGA showroom on Tieckstrasse Berlin as a springboard for entering the international forum, and represent the latest manifestation of what had been taken simply to be a 'New Leipzig School'. Arno Rink had been Professor of Painting at the Leipzig University for Graphic and Book Arts, itself the key school for painting in Leipzig.

It was always difficult for the post-Beuys generation to prove a viable detachment from Joseph Beuys himself. One cannot but praise Arno Rink for telling the New York Times, 'In this sense the Berlin Wall proved an aesthetic advantage … It allowed us to continue in the tradition of Cranach and Beckmann. It protected the art against the influence of Joseph Beuys'. As the book emphasises, arguably, 'Gerhard Richter is the one who has framed American responses to today's younger German painters'. Richter's remarkable achievement, after all, has been to continually find new possibilities and questions in the seemingly most obsolete of painterly models - not just both abstraction and figuration, but conventional genres from landscape, to portraiture, to still-life. And he has done this by approaching the task of painting with an admixture of painterly skill, intellectual 'heft', and historical complexity unmatched by any figure of his generation, German or otherwise. In the milestone, landmark Gerhard Richter exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in February 2002, these qualities were borne out for artists, historians, critics and collectors as never before, both for American and for Europe. (It was always a mystery that Richter was permanently overlooked in London.) Richter also provides that classic artist's itinerary, from Dresden (in the former GDR) moving to the West in the early 1960s with a small suitcase, and a train misdirected to Berlin, where he coolly alighted.

A literary contemporary of Richter was the England-based author WG Sebald from Dresden, who settled at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The rest is history.

It remains fully evident that, as this book makes clear, German painting is moving forward with such figures in the vanguard, but a host of painters following who know where they are at, and indeed where they are not at. If it has taken 40 years to get to this important platform in the West, there can in the medium term be few things to prevent a further resurgence.

Michael Spens 

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