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Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke: Painting the Postwar German Experience

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

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Sigmar Polke (in the back) and Gerhard Richter (in the front), 1966. Image courtesy Gerhard Richter Archive, © Gerhard Richter, 2014

Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke: Painting the Postwar German Experience

In 1962, artists Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke graduated from the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie. Within a year time, they began a brief collaboration known as Kapitalisticher Realismus, responding visually to Postwar German culture as much as the dominating American Pop Art trend. Through the painted reproduction of magazine and newspaper photographs, these two men bonded over a shared belief that art could play a role in the revolutionary activities of the student or youth movement in the Federal Republic of Germany. Together, it became common practice for both artists to ridicule issues of societal import—contemporary politics, the fairly-recent National Socialist history, and a literally divided homeland, as Germany was at that point still separated into four occupation zones, ruled over by their respective foreign officials.

Although the American, British, French and Soviet quarters were independently governed, by 1949, the United States and Soviet Union had emerged as the dominate players in a global conflict, already referred to as the Cold War. Within the time span of five months, the Western-run Federal Republic of Germany and the Eastern-ruled German Democratic Republic were born, divided first by their opposing ideological agendas and later a physical partition (Klaasmeyer 6). As artists who fled the German Democratic Republic in search of artistic freedom, Richter and Polke created art that reflected the political and economic dualities present within Germany in the 1960s: West versus East, Democracy versus Communism, and capitalism versus state-regulated commerce. By demonstrating a rejection of cultural polarity—a condition caused by the ongoing presence of the victorious Allied Powers and the erection of the Berlin wall—these artists warned against the extremism that led to the National Socialist party and instead, offered a message of compromise both artistically and politically.

In 1932, the year of Richter's birth, the Nazi and Communist parties together, had the majority of the vote (Merkl 35)—a highly demonstrative fact revealing a lack of public support for democracy under the Weimar Republic. In response, German philosopher Walter Benjamin published one of his most influential essays, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility,” with a preface that served as a call to arms, enlisting artists everywhere to choose sides in a battle against Fascism. Acknowledging artists such as the Futurists, who in many cases embraced the aesthetics of war, Benjamin wrote of his new theories on art:

They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery–concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense. The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows...are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art. (Benjamin 218)

Benjamin went on to urge that mass media, pop culture, and art should combine forces to wage war against Fascism, political structure that only offered aesthetics as a way through which the masses might have “a chance to express themselves” rather than the opportunity for the proletariate to claim their “right to change property relations” (Benjamin 241). Artworks created in support of the Fascist cause, such as Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, were designed by necessity to mesmerize viewers without inviting them to reflect upon their condition. Communism, on the other hand (or so Benjamin would have us believe) aimed to politicize art by demystifying the finished product, removing what he referred to as “the aura” of the artwork (238).

Art in both cases, Fascist or Communist, served a propagandistic purpose, and by the 1960s, artists were perhaps more aware of their power to shape others through art, as is suggested by a mock interview between Richter and renowned art critic John Anthony Thwaites. Polke claimed to have transcribed the conversation while Thwaites questioned Richter about the obvious difficulties of working as a German artist post World War II, but the conversation was clearly staged, and Richter admitted such in his notes. The discussion shifted quickly from serious to facetious as Richter claimed to have the ability to kill and maim through art: “Buchenwald and Dachau had two [drawings] each, and Bergen-Belsen had one. Those were mostly used for torture purposes” (Richter quoted in Elger & Obrist 24). With this statement, the artist purposefully implicated himself in the unspeakable violence that took place in the German concentration camps. The absurdity of the painter's declaration is only intensified when considering his age at the time of the German surrender—thirteen years old. Despite the ridiculous nature of the interview, Richter had in fact responded to Thwaites's leading question— albeit with all the indistinction of his blurred painting technique—hinting at the power of art, perhaps not to kill, but to be used for a particular cause, political or otherwise. A year later, in July of 1965, an almost identical interview was again fabricated in which the art critic Albert Schulze-Vellinghausen interviewed Polke and Richter. The same questions were answered, this time in the collective “we” (Elger & Obrist 540-541), suggesting that it was not only Richter's art that could be employed toward the Nazi aims. In the wrong hands, art in general could be turned into a dangerous weapon.

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Figure 1: Sigmar Polke, Kunst Macht Frei, installation at artist retrospective, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1976 © 2018 Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / ARS, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Polke continued to explore this theme visually in an installation entitled Kunst Macht Frei (Art will set you free) (figure 1). This was a purposeful reference to the gates of Auschwitz, where, as Holocaust prisoners entered the camp, a sign informed them that “Arbeit macht frei” (Petra Lange-Berndt & Dietmar Rübel 46). The notion that work might set them free was but one small deception in the carefully crafted package promoted by the Nazi regime, which prominently included the manipulation of public opinion in respect to the arts. Take, for instance, the 1927 political rally in Nuremberg, when Hitler put Alfred Rosenberg, the editor of the Nazi's official newspaper, in charge of founding the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur, or Fighting League for German Culture—an organization that arranged over twenty different events between 1929 and 1932. Notably, they included “musical and poetry evenings and lectures on contemporary art and architecture” (Jaskot 23). As Hitler's power escalated, so too did his control over the cultural sphere, resulting in the infamous Entartete Kunst exhibit of 1937. The Degenerate Art show, as it is known in English, is shockingly the most-visited art exhibit of all time (Jaskot 31), and Polke, considering the event years later, reproduced a newspaper photograph of the anxious crowd waiting for the opportunity to witness the artworks deemed inappropriate by the Nazis. In Polke's ready-made, a swastika eerily emerges out of the ben-day dots, stamped as if by a higher power (figure 2). The coincidental swastika is located slightly above the center on the righthand side.

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Figure 2: Sigmar Polke, Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), 1995, © 2018 Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / ARS, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Perhaps as an act of political reverberation, it was around the same time that Socialist Realism was officially adopted as the chosen style for Soviet art—a decision that was formally announced at the First Congress of Soviet Writers in August of 1934 (Klaasmeyer 23). At this point, the genre fits with certain agreed-upon guidelines. Socialist Realist art, while realistically rendered, was not meant to picture life that was at that point typical, but rather that which would become the norm tomorrow, the assumption being that this glorious future could only come to pass should one embrace the Soviet way of life. In this context, a 1968 print designed jointly by Polke and Richter, titled Umwandlung (Metamorphosis) might make some sense (figure 3). With their usual ironic flair, the two artists depicted an incredible transformation through which an entire mountain range morphed into a sphere (Hentschel 58). In portraying an unrealizable transformation, they may have meant to subtly mock the Soviet Realist artistic aims. Art that was created within Soviet regulations was, by definition, designed to picture a transformation, therefore leading society toward revolution and the resulting Communist utopia.

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Figure 3: Gerhard Richter with Sigmar Polke, Umwandlung (Metamorphosis), 1968 © Gerhard Richter, 2018 and © 2018 Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / ARS, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Artists practicing under these artistic restrictions were generally limited to murals of a heroic socialist theme, such as Richter's 1957 Der Arbeiteraufstand, or The Worker's Uprising—a mural formerly located in the Socialist Union Party headquarters in Dresden (Chametzky 201). Even though this painting has since been destroyed, there is evidence of other large-scale political paintings, containing bare-chested men and banner-waving women, by Richter, during the period before he left the German Democratic Republic. As such, the artist's critical views toward “ideological art are something more than the opinions of a man who simply lived under authoritarian regimes; they are those of someone who had participated in the creation of a state culture” (Storr 22). A mural painted for the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden, The Joy of Life, serves as yet another example (figure 4).

There are numerous artworks by Polke in which the artist responded to his time in the GDR, but it is more challenging to uncover instances of his artistic output pre-border-crossing. The reason is simple: he was born ten years after Richter and left East Germany eight years before the older artist's departure. Regardless, both 1960s portfolios offer insight into the mindset of painters aware of a sudden artistic liberation afforded to them in the West and the corresponding creative repression existent in the East. A struggle plays out on these early canvases, with neither artist adapting entirely to the demands of the Western art market. Popular at the time were paintings either by American Pop artists, or pieces echoing that style: bright, happy, polished to a shine, and arguably shallow. These pictures were rapidly consumed by art collectors for display, mostly serving a decorative function. Embracing certain techniques favored by the Pop Art movement, Polke and Richter straddled the boundary between political and decorative art (Klaasmeyer 70). Polke jokingly asserted that mass media was his medium (Grasskamp 253), but there is truth to the play on words.

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Figure 4: Gerhard Richter, The Joy of Life, installation view of now-covered mural, Deutsches Hygienemuseum, Dresden, 1956

Whether stamping with the rubber-tipped end of a pencil or using a metal stencil and spray gun, he sought to replicate the raster lines that gave an order to the dots used as the basis of various images reproduced in newspapers and comic strips (Hentschel 51). While Polke worked with polka dots, Richter preferred the smoothness of photography. Using an episcope, he projected his chosen image onto the canvas, tracing outlines and filling in the rest of the detail by hand (Richter quoted in Elger & Obrist 62). As is clear after viewing Frau mit Schirm, the artist purposefully left a strip of white within the picture plane, revealing to the viewer that the source for the image was a press cutting (figure 5). It is not uncommon for sources to mistakenly crop out Richter's purposefully-included white margin. Richter explained that while “all of these paintings seem handmade, painterly, imperfect[, i]t was different then. People only saw the similarity to the photograph, the technical perfection...they were provocative as if produced by a machine” (quoted in Storr 295). By working almost exclusively with modern reproduction techniques, Polke and Richter have become increasingly associated with the issues raised in Benjamin's aforementioned essay.

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Figure 5: Gerhard Richter, Frau mit Schirm,1964, © Gerhard Richter, 2018.

Although initially published in the nineteen-thirties, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” was reprinted in 1955 into a two-volume book edited by Theodor and Gretel Adorno. In 1963, it became available in paperback with a wide distribution (Haxthausen 186). Whether Polke or Richter read the book specifically is not the point; Benjamin's thesis was having a cultural rebirth and would have rung true for these artists and their generation. The philosopher accurately described an age when art and media would merge, and “[i]nstead of being based on ritual [or on pure form], it [art] begins to be based on another practice–-politics” (224). By expressing various moments of the postwar German experience through the reproduction of mass media, Polke and Richter invited onlookers to consider their cultural environment: were they happy with the way things were, or could things be better? Herein lay the true political potential—to inspire a desire for change. Should we accept Benjamin's thesis, German Pop Art was not simply decorative, it was subversive and anti-authoritarian.

This runs counter to the notion of “art equals commodity” embraced by the American Pop artists (Huyssen 94). A shared subject matter allows for a quick comparison to be made between German and American Pop. Both Roy Lichtenstein and Wayne Thiebaud painted perfect American hotdogs, resting comfortably in their buns—objects of visual consumption. In Sausage Eater, Polke also depicted a stereotypical food—German sausages—but now the colors are muted, the links misaligned, and, most importantly, they are being physically consumed in the painting (figure 6). The small German face swallowing sausages underscored an unfortunately finite food supply rather than the homogenous, seemingly infinite products displayed on American canvases (Wagner 405). The contrast is equally obvious when viewing Polke's Chocolate Painting (figure 7). The choice to show the candy as partially eaten, again, reflected certain ephemerality.

Equally important was the lack of branding. Like Andy Warhol's soup cans but without the trademarked Campbell label, the emphasis shifted from packaging to utility. Indeed, Polke's art of the 1960s was not interested in parroting the imagery of advertising at all. Rather than celebrating the consumerism of the West, championed under the Marshall Plan for European Recovery, Polke exposed an imperfect standard of living, complete with “the still gaping gaps in the basics of everyday life in Germany” (Hentschel 50).

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Figure 6: Sigmar Polke, Sausage Eater, 1963 (left) and Figure 7: Chocolate Painting, 1964 (right) © 2018 Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / ARS, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Counter to the rampant myths of a German economic miracle, or Wirtschaftswunder, Richter explained: “When I came to the West I saw many, many things for the first time. But I also saw the prosperity of the West critically. It wasn't heaven” (Richter quoted in Klaasmeyer 33). These feelings were made manifest in a small series of pen sketches drawn by Polke, titled Richter after his friend. They show Richter in a variety of humorous roles (Poetter 124). Whether presented as a hairdresser or a film star or as the inventor of women's pumps or a device to slim your waistline, Richter, through Polke's lens, is critical of his new economic surroundings. In this view of Capitalism, there is a definite sense that energy has been spent on the frivolous, despite an inability to provide for the well-being of the general population. These ballpoint pen sketches were purposefully unremarkable, lacking the smoothness or brilliance of most advertising-inspired Pop. Completed in a similarly unfinished manner is a pen drawing, Sekt für Alle, or Bubbly Wine for Everyone. As was the case with the small-headed sausage eater, the figures around the base of the page were rendered minuscule in comparison to the oversized flute, thereby creating an imbalance that visually capsizes the expected symbolism (Klaasmeyer 83). Demonstrating the falseness of the celebrated economic miracle, a champagne toast is no longer possible, and yet, the West German people, presented in a highly generic style, remain smiling and ignorant of their condition. While first completing this sketch in 1964, Polke interestingly returned to the subject in 1999, suggesting a possible dissatisfaction on the part of the artist even thirty years later (figures 8 & 9). Even as Polke's art-making develops toward his mature style of chaotic layers, this motif remains more or less constant, surfacing again in his 1976 painting Supermarkets.

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Figure 8: Sigmar Polke, Sekt für Alle, 1964 (left) and Figure 9: Sekt für Alle, 1999 (right) © 2018 Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / ARS, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Although nearly indecipherable, price tags and promotional offers are scattered throughout the composition. One reads: “Happiness in a sack just 273,580 [Deutsche Marks]” (Rübel 144), exposing the flawed logic that any consumer good might provide happiness. Art historian Dietmar Rübel, in his essay devoted completely to this piece, attempted to uncover the significance behind the replicated Superman figures, and in doing so, concluded: “These supermen seem like a group of communist clones or capitalist zombies or even both at the same time” (140). It could be that this army of shopping Supermen, pushing carts filled with skulls, is meant to represent the bad in both systems, but what is the alternative, if not the Capitalism of the West or the Communism of the East? Richter gave us an answer during one of his many interviews:

I lived my life with a group of people...who wanted to bridge a gap, who were looking for a middle way between Capitalism and Socialism, a so-called Third Path. And so the way we thought, and what we wanted for our own art, was all about compromise. (Quoted in Storr 22)

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Figure 10: Sigmar Polke, Supermarkets, 1976 © 2018 Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / ARS, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Searching for the third path, Richter and Polke neither romanticized a free market nor endorsed the Communist doctrine, and between these two opposing ideological categories, the short-lived artistic collaboration, Kapitalistischer Realismus, was born. Translated as Capitalist Realism, the term was coined in May 1963 when Richter, Polke, and classmate Konrad Fischer held an exhibit in an emptied butcher shop at Kaiserstrasse 31A, Düsseldorf (Klaasmeyer 56). The press release for the show, signed by Richter on behalf of all the included artists, explained their radical aims:

For the first time in Germany, [this show] will include works that may be described as Pop Art, Imperialist or Capitalist Realism, New Sobriety, Naturalism, German Pop, and the like. Pop Art recognizes the modern mass media as a genuine cultural phenomenon...Thus it is changing the face of modern painting, heralding an aesthetic revolution. (Quoted in Hentschel 42)

It so happens that each of the art movements listed on the press release was borrowed from a 1963 article in Art International, except for “Capitalist Realism.” This art lingo was additionally used for the invitations, each one slightly different than the next, but always showcasing these phrases prominently around the border in a spiral design (Klaasmeyer 56). Given that it was the only original phrase created by the artists themselves, “Capitalist Realism” has been given greater importance than the others. A pun derived from “Socialist Realism,” it nodded to Polke and Richter's upbringing in the GDR. However, the word symmetry, replacing “Socialist” with “Capitalist,” also stressed the theoretical similarities between these two world views (Storr 34), while reminding invitation recipients of the ongoing cultural tug-of-war taking place on German soil.

While the artists only used the label on four separate occasions, gallerist Rene Block adopted the term, publishing a small portfolio of print work, Grafik des Kapitalistischen Realismus. Naturally, the collection included the work of Richter and Polke, but Block, with his political agenda, expanded the original group of participating artists (Klaasmeyer iii). In the introduction, “My Last Word,” he interpreted the Capitalist Realism label not as the opposite of Socialist Realism but as denoting an artistic expression born out of a Capitalist environment, which, “had it taken its 'partisanship' for the masses seriously,” would have at some point merged with its Socialist counterpart (Egging 16). Block blamed the eventual demise of the movement on the fact that the founding artists abandoned their commitment to socially-motivated art-making practices.

“Every word, every line, every thought is prompted by the age we live in, with all its circumstances, its ties, its efforts, its past, and present,” wrote Richter in his 1962 notes (reprinted in Elger & Obrist 14). Both the past and the present were certainly reflected in the early art of these prolific painters, but so too was hope for the future. Like neither the decidedly decorative art of the American Pop movement nor the highly-regulated 1950s Socialist Realist murals, their art contained a decipherable political message that was other than a State-promoted agenda. It cleverly implied certain societal flaws, present in the Capitalist FRG, but often overlooked given the supposed Wirtschaftswünder. Influenced by the political spirit of Benjamin's text, these men repeatedly acknowledged the power of art, theirs included, to manipulate public opinion, referring to its abuse by leaders of both the Nazi and Communist parties. With the well-regulated bipartisan government of West Germany, however, these particular governmental systems were no longer serious threats, but the implications of Benjamin's essay, with its either-Fascism-or-Communism prescription to art-making, remained. By melding pop culture with art, as was recommended by the philosopher thirty years earlier, the new generation of artists was able, instead, to create a movement that put its influence toward a liberal message of German unification, promoted under the SDP. Suggesting that concessions ought to be made to reach an ideal economic and social climate, Richter and Polke aimed for their homeland not to copy the American or Soviet way of life but to take the third path, birthing a new German government that would blend the best of both worlds. As was suggested by gallerist Rene Block, here may be the true idea behind Capitalist Realism—an artistic attempt to merge the Capitalism of the West and the Communism of the East, tearing down the wall imposed on Germany as a part of a larger cultural struggle between two distant superpowers.

* All images are courtesy of the Artist Written by Antonia Dapena-Tretter


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