LACMA’s sprawling survey of postwar German art, “The Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures,” occupies — fills — the entire second floor of the Broad Contemporary. Arranged chronologically, in 11 galleries, it begins in the ’40s, before there were two Germanys, and ends in the ’90s, after the wall came down and the divided country became whole (or at least one) again. The show is a mixture of the renowned (Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke) and the utterly unknown, and offers an opportunity to see the former in socio-historical context, to discover the latter — new artists, new understandings — and to see all of this work in well-ordered juxtaposition.
The organizing mind behind the exhibition is LACMA senior curator Stephanie Barron, and on a recent afternoon she walked and talked me through the entire show. I’d heard a few complaints about all that heavy, male German painting — call it Imprussionism — and there are, quite literally, sausages and potatoes in the show. But we keep going back to war-time and post-war Germany for good reason, most often through historical texts, film and literature (e.g., The Reader), and as Barron notes, art has come late to the table. It’s fascinating, then, to see such a wide variety of artists dealing with such incredible issues — Nazism, authoritarianism, communism, cultural and personal division, displacement, isolation, reconciliation, freedom, all of these in life and artistic expression.
This is particularly so with those artists who came from the East, and all that meant, to the West, and all that meant. One such artist was Gerhard Richter. There is a well-known painting of his in the show called Onkel Rudi, a blurry image of the artist’s uncle in his German Wehrmacht uniform. It’s among the first works by an artist dealing with the Nazi past, an airing of the family’s (and country’s) laundry, dirty or otherwise. (Richter, a member of the Hitler Youth in his native Dresden before escaping to the West in 1961, wasn’t necessarily condemning his uncle Rudi, but perhaps simply saying, “This was how it was.”) The piece was also, you’ll learn from Barron’s simple, minimal texts, part of a Berlin exhibit in 1967 called “Homage á Lidice,” in honor of the Czech village of Lidice, destroyed, along with its innocent population, on Hitler’s personal order in retaliation for the killing of a favorite Nazi officer. Google Lidice and you’ll find the unbelievable story, lest we forget.
Not all is so dark in “Two Germanys.” There is Pop in the show, a little irony, and even some chocolate. But it is worth the effort just to see Onkel Rudi in as much context as is humanly possible on Wilshire Boulevard.
Note: The walk-through is long, the artworks many; we’ve included as many images as possible, but for an installation view of the show, visit www.lacma.org.
L.A. Weekly: Can you set this up a little bit? Where did this all start?
Barron: This is one of several exhibitions I’ve done on German art. I can’t say that from the beginning they were intended as a sequence. I’d like to think that my life is that organized, but it’s not. I think sometimes these things form a sequence when you look back on them, but there’s no question that the show in ’91 on degenerate art [“Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany”] seemed to flow into an exhibition about the exiles who were forced to leave Germany during the war and went to Europe and to the United States [“Exiles and émigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler,” 1997]. So that, in a way, this show picks up back in Germany at the end of the war in ’45, looking at the situation in the occupied and divided Germany.
What was your original interest in German art?
Frankly, like other graduate students, I studied French art. There were few places when I was in graduate school to study German art. It was only really when I moved to L.A., in the mid-’70s to work at LACMA. The first big show I did here was the Russian Avant-Garde show in 1980, which really again took me out of a kind of comfort zone of French art but was extraordinarily exciting to deal with new territory. Then I found that there was in fact — this is in the days before the Getty Library — that there was this amazing library, at that point a private library, in Los Angeles of German expressionism and original German material.
The Rifkind Collection?
Yes, it was one guy’s private collection [and is now the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies at LACMA]. In a way, I was drawn to that because it wasn’t an area that was being worked on a lot. Having come out of the Russian show and dealing with the teens and the ’20s it was a period that interested me a lot. My exposure to original material and looking at original periodicals of the time and catalogs and prints and stuff opened up a lot of different windows for me. The first German show I did was called “German Expressionist Sculpture” in 1982. As I traveled around Germany, most people seemed to feel that there wasn’t such a thing as German expressionist sculpture, but I kept digging and kept looking in museum basements and talking to people, and in fact, we did this rather amazing show of German expressionist sculpture.