Art probably isn’t the first thing most of us associate with the Cold War. Maybe heated political diatribe and tanks on parade, but generally not evocative canvases, video, photography and other media. But in Germany, the period between the end of WWII in 1945, and the falling of the Berlin wall 20 years ago, in 1989, was a fertile period for the imagination of artists on both sides of the Brandenberg Gate. Two very different political systems: democratic capitalism in the West and Soviet-style communism in the East, produced dramatically different conditions and influences for artists in both countries. Painting, sculpture, video, photography, performance art and exhibitions were rendered to both reflect and oppose the systems the artists lived in.
The show, now on view at LACMA until April 19, examines the period’s disparate parts with the concise eye of a skillful documentary, and is the first special exhibition to be mounted at the new Renzo Piano-designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM). An added bonus is museum-goers get to experience the show before it travels to Germany, where it will debut this October in Berlin.
The parallel universes of East and West Germany on view create an intriguing body of work curators Stephanie Barron and Eckhart Gillen have divided by decades: 1945-49 marks a time of mourning and melancholy after Germany was defeated and divided by the Allied powers. These works by artists such as Hans Grundig and Hannah Hoch seek to piece back together a national identity and depict war and devastation; many using prewar modernist approaches that had been banned by the Nazis. The 1950s reflect the era immediately after Germany’s division, and show a marked contrast between the hopeful exploration of the West, with its use of abstraction and new materials, and the East, which was largely constrained to Soviet-style realism and narrow ideological aims. The 1960s and 70s section is complex and colorfully kinetic, with both the art and the era marked by experimentation, the development of new movements and increased rhetoric on both sides. Some of the most noted work here is by artists like Joseph Beuys and Werner Tubke. The 1980s usher in the end of the era with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Artists Rosemarie Trockel, Gerhard Richter and Martin Kippenberger address new issues such as Western excess, race and class, while artists in the East increase their critiques of their own waning system using emerging technologies like video. Finally, with the Wall’s collapse, the era ends and Germany enters a new phase of exploration and self-discovery.