Sunday, 23 September 2007



(First published 19th June 2007)

The recent death of the German painter Jörg Immendorff brought the customary reviews of his career, his variously outrageous, colourful or pathetic life-style. This post takes up Immendorff’s painting, relates it to the wider movement of Neo Expressionism and an historical perspective.

Immendorff, like Anselm Kiefer, was decisively influenced by his teacher, Joseph Beuys, but while Kiefer takes a transformative view of materials from Beuys, applies it to painting and especially of history and myth, Immendorff takes Beuy’s more direct activism and political engagement to painting. In each case there is an acute awareness of metaphor or allegory, and from the start this shapes as a key trait of Neo Expressionism. Immendorff’s Hört auf zu malen (1966) announces just this transfer of meaning from the literal and immediate to remote or abstract realms. ‘Listen to painting’ is written over a bold cross, which in turn cancels some sketched architecture; becomes a cancellation of much more, metaphorically where the summary text then becomes metaphorically pictorial, ‘hears’ beyond the literal text. Painting here ‘speaks’ in metaphors, transfers or translates meaning. The effect shares much with Beuys’ famous blackboard diagrams and demonstrations, but here grounds painting as a project; becomes the rationale for painting and depiction.

Immendorff’s work quickly turns to casual or light-hearted versions of Socialist Realism or Agit Prop in the early 70s, with works such as Ho Chi Minh (1974) The effect is awkward and impulsive, but not quite a return to the Expressionism of early twentieth century. Immendorff is drawn to socialist issues, but his mastery or commitment to Socialist Realism remains conspicuously at arm’s length. Neither is he drawn to the basic volumes and projections of Cubism, Futurism or even Dada, much less the charged colour of Fauvism, the mysticism of Die Brücke, Der Blaue Reiter, or later CoBrA. In fact he is careful to avoid making the work comfortable or stylish on just these terms, in order that it remain ‘bad’ or troubling to and by its content. The aim is essentially a parody or travesty rather than a primitive expression, and the translation then stands for a wider questioning and participation. Immendorff was selected for the Kassel Documenta in 1972.

Nor does the work arrive at a naïve or outsider status, since through size, materials and subject matter, witty text, topical satire and politics, the work resists that, by default finally hovers at the fringes of political cartooning, and an implicit print heritage. In this it perhaps owes something to Dada, but also subtly assumes links to other styles of the time.

Immendorff and Kiefer represent a central strand to Neo Expressionism, the work of Georg Baselitz and Markus Lupertz represent another. Here too work is drawn to painterly latitude and often allegory, but Expressionism is resisted less convincingly, either by Baselitz’s distinctive inversion of pictures, or Lupertz’s less distinctive choice of allegorical objects. Similarly, the work of East German A.R. Penck (a.k.a. Ralf Winkler) comes closer to a revival of Expressionism, especially of Late Klee, although throughout the 60s and 70s Penck’s subject matter remains the division of Germany, in work often titled Ubergang (Crossing) or Standart – a term coined for his system of signs, but also perhaps a pun on ‘standort’ – a stance or position held, here as if an apprehended suspect. Penck and Immendorff established close ties in 1976 and Penck’s Eau de Cologne (1975) - a chart of the West German art world - in some ways anticipates Immendorff’s series of sixteen allegories, Café Deutschland commencing in 1977. These deal not only with the then divided Germany but a range of caricatures drawn from the contemporary art world, derive also from noted Italian socialist Renato Guttoso’s Café Greco (1976), the role of parody as noted, is crucial. The Café Deutschland series remain Immendorff’s most celebrated works.

As Neo Expressionism gains momentum throughout the 70s and early 80s, both its ‘bad’ painting and allegory dilate with variation, so that later exponents often take the revival and their subjects more literally, as in the work of Berlin painters such as Rainer Fetting or Helmut Middendorf, or the Cologne group Mulheimer-Freiheit, who maintain allegory and casual schematics but adopt less grand and political themes, as in examples by Georg Jiri Dokoupil or Walter Dahn. This dispersal of the style, along with other national variants effectively exhausts its influence around the mid 80s. The term finally struggles to accommodate the profusion of revivals and revisions that follow. It is tempting to say that not only a trend but a period ends there. Immendorff’s work later becomes more eclectic, less distinctive, but his contribution remains secure.

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