In the second half of the twentieth century, a small group of German artists turned their backs on the standard abstractionism of the contemporary international mainstream and deliberately chose to work in a figurative style. Between June 18 and November 6, 2016, the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag presents their work in a major exhibition featuring over two hundred works on paper plus a number of paintings.
Georg Baselitz (1938), Markus Lüpertz (1941), A.R. Penck (1939) en Jörg Immendorf (1945-2007) seek connection with the rich history of European art, while at the same time being unable to ignore the shadow cast on it by the legacy of the Second World War. Whereas abstractionism allowed artists to distance themselves from that shadow, these artists deliberately opted for figuration as a way to express the cultural complexity of a divided Germany. Not only the legacy of the war plays an important role in this, but also the strong US and Soviet presences in Europe. While the artists in this exhibition do not feel obliged to adopt political positions, they do wish to examine the situation in which they find themselves. They make use of familiar – and often emotionally charged – symbols and produce a sense of alienation by placing them in disconcerting contexts.
Penck remained in East Germany until 1980, repeatedly finding himself in conflict with the Communist regime. His work was based on his experiences of uprootedness. Lüpertz felt that art should take real life as its starting point, in order to be in a position to confront the past. Baselitz actually turned his work on its head: by hanging his paintings upside down, he issued a fundamental challenge to artistic assumptions. Immendorff’s work was founded on the belief that art was the only means to achieve a more humane society. His allegorical artworks were born of a concern with the state both of the world and of the arts.
All these artists employed a visual idiom inspired by Expressionist traditions to produce an empathetic understanding of the existential confusion that resulted from the polarisation of Germany. Their work prompts questions and inspires a feeling of possible insight, without offering concrete answers or adopting any particular stance. Like their abstractionist colleagues, they adopt distinctly conceptual points of departure. Ultimately, figuration is used to capture the experience of abstractions like polarisation, uprootedness and power structures in visual images. This is the first ever exhibition of such major scale of the work of these artists to be held at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. It reveals how, in a world dominated by abstractionism, figurative art once again managed to make a place for itself.