Art for Art’s Sake

A major exhibition in Berlin proves that the spirit of provocation is alive and well in German art

“The arts and sciences, as well as research and teaching, shall be free.” Article 5, paragraph 3 of the Basic Rights of Germany’s 1949 constitution might smack of the obvious. But like everything else in the shattered state, cultural practice after 12 years of Nazi abuse had to be restated and recodified. Now, 60 years after the promulgation of the Federal Republic’s Basic Law, a major exhibition marking six decades of German art, with the above clause as its motto, is on at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau.

That German art is one of modern Europe’s glories is indisputable. A culture that has thrown up figures as inventive and iconoclastic as Joseph Beuys, Georg Baselitz and Rebecca Horn has to be worthy of our closest attention. Whether a country’s art can be packaged into a legitimately chronological structure is quite another matter, but perhaps only modern Germany would dare. The exhibition, 60 Years 60 Works, aims to be schematically historical. It ends up celebrating a new nation’s post-traumatic creative richness.

There is nothing from the German Democratic Republic. There, art for public consumption had to be government-approved; anything subversive, essential to art-making in the West, simply vanished. If there is a connecting thread at the Gropius-Bau, it is to be traced in artists relishing, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, the chance to let rip with the wildest of imagery. Ghosts of the Nazi past never are better depicted than in Baselitz’s still extraordinary 1963 canvas, One Big Night Down the Drain: a grotesque, elfish figure, whose face resembles Hitler’s, displays, and seems to be playing with, his outsize phallus.

There are far more than 60 works: more like double that. Decades are divided into multi-roomed sections but dates are out of sequence, sabotaging expectations of order. Curiously, this can be applauded. The show’s title becomes meaningless once one realises that it’s about art and artists who happen to be modern Germans, not about chronology. In pride of place is a mysterious, semi-surrealist felt-encased concert piano by Beuys, from 1966 — a true icon of the Cold War and never before exhibited outside its home at Paris’s Pompidou Centre — which is magnificently complemented by Martin Kippenberger’s 1989 Transporter for Social Boxes, an exuberantly painted wooden gondola combining cheek with constructivist heft. Post-reunification, painting becomes bright, funky, openly surrealist. The exhibition depicts little about modern German history. Instead, it proves that the spirit of provocation and the need to dream strangely in public — which the Nazis had hoped to extirpate — have deep roots in that complicated, haunted country.

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