German or French? Part II

“Apart from the artists who perished in concentration and internment camps, many who were deemed “degenerates” fled Germany, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, László Moholy­ Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Johannes Molzahn, Johannes Itten, Joseph Albers, Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, Kurt Schwitters, Friedrich Adler, George Grosz, Rudolf Belling, and Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, or retired into an inner emigration to isolated areas of the country, such as Emil Nolde, Erich Heckel, Karl Hofer, Willi Baumeister, Xaver Fuhr, Karl Knappe, and Karl Schmidt­ Rottluff.​ ​The disappearance of these artists from the German cultural milieu greatly influenced the fractured reality of the nation’s visual culture and aesthetic identity in the postwar Zero Hour; these artists came to be viewed as part of a lost generation.” [Isabelle Rust on Postwar German Art]

Brandenburger Tor in einer Trümmerlandschaft am Ende des Zweiten Weltkrieges (Mai 1945)

“By the later 1940’s I dare say Matisse was being looked at harder and longer by younger painters in New York than by younger painters elsewhere. That shows in their art. For I would also say that Matisse’s influence, whether direct or indirect, accounts for some of the features that distinguish abstract painting in this country since the 1940’s from most abstract painting elsewhere, and particularly in France. It’s as though American art, in its handling of paint and of the color of paint, has maintained French tradition more faithfully than French art itself has since that time. If this is so, it’s thanks to Matisse’s assimilation by Americans more than to anything else.” [Clement Greenberg “Influences of Matisse”]

There is in my opinion a definitely American trend in contemporary art, one that promises to become an original contribution to the mainstream and not merely a local inflection of something developed abroad. I would define it as the continuation in abstract painting and sculpture of the line laid down by Cubism and broadened subsequently by Klee, Arp, Miro, Giacometti, and the example of the early Kandinsky, all of whose influences have acted to modulate and loosen forms dictated by Matisse, Picasso and Leger. An expressionist ingredient is usually present that relates more to German art than to French art, and Cubist discipline is used as an armature upon which to body forth emotions whose extremes threaten either to pulverize or dissolve plastic structure.” [Clement Greenberg “A Symposium: The State of American Art” March 1949]

“While respectful of the contributions made by Nolde, Beckmann, Klee, Kirchner, Kollwitz, Grosz, etc., Germany’s youthful painters of the late 1940s and ’50s felt more restricted than challenged by these older artists’ ideas. What they wanted was something new, large, and bold enough to match their experiences of both the war and its frustrating aftermath.
Help came from the United States in the form of two major American exhibitions sponsored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “New American Painting” and “Jackson Pollock: 1912-1956,” which opened in Berlin in 1958, brought the full weight of Abstract Expressionist ideas and attitudes to such younger Germans as Georg Baselitz, Eugen Schonebeck, and K.H. Hodicke. Although it functioned more as a catalyst than as a guide, Abstract Expressionism had a significant effect on German art of the 1960s, a favor the latter would return two decades later when German Neo-Expressionism left its mark on American painting of the 1980s.” [Theodore F. Wolff on Post War German Art]

Georg Baselitz Rebel 1965

“What was assimilated was not only Matisse’s color, but also his touch. That touch, Matisse’s way of putting paint to canvas, hasn’t been celebrated enough — not nearly enough. That touch was a great acquisition and not only for Matisse himself, but for other, younger painters, particularly American ones. What should be noticed is how Matisse laid on and stroked varying thinnesses of paint so that the white ground breathed as well as showed through. But even when he laid his paint on evenly or more densely, or when he used a palette knife — which was seldom — the paint surface would still manage to breathe. The paint surface, even when the picture as a whole failed, would maintain its liveness. (The exceptions were surfaces that “been covered with too many coats of paint — too much “corrected” — but as many as these exceptions may have been they were still exceptions). Not all the American artists who learned from Matisse — whether directly or through Hofmann or Avery — followed him in the matter of touch. Certainly, Hofmann himself didn’t. But even when they trowelled their paint on, built it up in layers or films, dripped, or sprayed it — even then an awareness of Matisse’s “aerated” surfaces seems somehow to have been present and to have informed what they did. And I think that that awareness is still present in the best of more recent American painting whether abstract or figurative.” [Clement Greenberg “Influences of Matisse”]

Günther Förg Untitled 1987

“The largest portion of Art of Two Germanys is dedicated to the 1960s and 1970s, whose dynamism is wisely not divided in two parts by the curators. Barely visible on the international scene in the 1950s, German art went from red hot in the 1960s to white hot by 1980. This section of the show charts this dynamic leap, and here the viewer finds the artists most identified with postwar Germany: Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, Wolf Vostell, Eva Hesse, and Gerhard Richter. As elsewhere in this time, form explodes, with two-dimensional work supplanted by eclectic sculptures, installation pieces, and video art. But particularly notable is the explosion in content, with snarky critical work among the sternly introspective, the light and the comical.” [Matias Viegener reviews The Art of Two Germanys]


  • gwh12

    I am so glad to see this – not many are commenting on these developments and influences. A dealer and decorator named Alexander Jackert posts a lot of work by young European painters on Instgram that are completely Abstract Expressionist in the deKooning mode, but bolder, larger and cleaner. But they lack the vital awkwardness so important in, say, Miro.
    I think it is tough to be a European painter!

  • gwh12

    One more thought: The Rust treatise too heavily emphasizes the influences of American art and policies of the West German government as being keys to the development of German art in the post-WW2 period. As an Amrican student at the Akademie in Nuremberg from 1958-61 I saw the situation on the ground – my German fellow students were confused. There was a blank about all Modern Art – Picasso was a revelation to them, and a show of Nolde at the Haus der Kunst in Munich in 1960 (?) a sensation. I think that is why Beuys was such a success at one of the more advanced Akademies because he landed on such fertile ground.

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