Back to the future: new art and the modernist revival

New modernist tendencies: previous >

Referencing the past to define the present

German art Neo Rauch
image © Neo Rauch

If emphasis on historic movements is clearly an important feature of current German art (and one that is increasingly echoed throughout Europe and in the United States) the likely impulses behind such a tendency need to be considered.

As mentioned previously, the chronological alignment of modernism with its current revival is striking, occurring almost simultaneously during the opening years of two new centuries, both marked by a definite sense of change.

What also seems likely, however, is that contemporary focus on the past is not merely symptomatic of the usual cyclical trends in art, but part of a far wider re-adjustment regarding the perception of what art can, and should, represent.

What's more, as far as German practice is concerned, there is almost certainly a further factor at work; one that not only concerns itself with artistic identity, but German identity itself.

To expand on this argument, we'll reconsider another 21st century tendency in which Germany played a formative role: the prioritisation of painting, and, specifically, an emphasis on narrative figuration.

This concern, which briefly though thoroughly dominated art production in the opening years of the new millennium, found its apogee in the now-fabled New Leipzig School, which had begun to make its presence felt in 1997 through the 'discovery' of its first major star, Neo Rauch (above).

At a time when the mass-produced, market-focused work that had effectively defined the final decade of the twentieth century was facing growing scrutiny, challenges to its supremacy were based on antithetical ideals: 'traditional' values of academic rigour, figuration and a return to mediums such as painting and drawing.

Matthias Weischer
image © Matthias Weischer

Several young Germans who joined the Leipzig Academy in search of exactly such training - Tim Eitel, David Schnell, Matthias Weischer - formed part of a second wave of painters that consolidated its growing reputation, and by 2004 their acclaimed work had come to epitomise a new direction and seriousness in art.

A generally unremarkable former East German town was placed firmly on the international art map for what, according to enthusiastic US collectors the Rubell Family, constituted "the 21st century's first bona fide artistic phenomenon".

Yet for Germans themselves, the New Leipzig School's success was symbolic of far more than a triumphant return to previously outmoded forms of artistic expression.

For many, its glory was partly a kind of lament, the vestiges of the former DDR revivified through a style which, with its unmistakeably socialist realist roots, reflected and even propagated a wave of 'Ostalgie', a nostalgia for the former Eastern Germany that had stealthily begun to emerge after the initial euphoria of reunification.

By contrast, the focus on modernism that is now such a salient feature of German art - and which, as we have seen, began to make itself felt concurrently with Leipzig's glory - represents an entirely different sensibility; a reflection of Germany's artistic vitality at the dawn of the last century and continued pre-eminence throughout the 'twenties.

Generally eschewing figuratism as if to differentiate itself from Leipzig entirely, the adoption of modernist aesthetics places a more optimistic emphasis on possibility and achievement; a focus in which the whole of Germany - exactly as it again exists - was originally involved.

And there are other ways in which, by implication, this foray into the past reflects positively on changes that have taken place throughout Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Modernism was one of the first movements anywhere to simultaneously involve an entire continent; highly dependent on Eastern European creativity, names such as Kandinsky, El Lissitsky, Moholy-Nagy and Tatlin are key to the scale and breadth of its development.

Modernism and current German art: Kandinsky; Tatlin; El Lissitzky
from left: Kandinsky; Tatlin; El Lissitzky

With the map of Europe restored to its pre-war state, such dialogue has once again been made a reality. And with Berlin, in particular, the hub of a renewed meeting of east and west, the city has emerged as a melting pot of artistic talent that is as important, in its way, as post-war New York.

All of these contingencies, coincidences and events undoubtedly play a role in the emphasis on a former avant-garde. But another, arguably far more important, factor is also intrinsic to its revival.


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