Art in Postwar Germany

Installation view of the Markus Lüpertz installation. Photo: Lee Stalsworth.

In the sixties, when Markus Lüpertz began his career, the arts in Germany were in a tenuous situation. After World War II, critics and artists in the new West German state had embraced abstraction. Artists like Willi Baumeister and Ernst Wilhelm Nay created totally abstract compositions that were distinct from, but also connected to, international trends in the United States and France. Yet, while there are indeed broader historical implications to Abstract Expressionism in the US and Informel in France, the avoidance of representational imagery in West Germany came to be viewed in the decades following the war, as an avoidance of history itself. Artists spoke of a “year zero” and often created primordial looking abstract forms that appeared outside of history, as though going back to some mythic beginning or abstract, pre-historical origin could escape the trauma and horror of Nazism and the Second World War.

Max Rosenberg, UMD-Phillips Collection Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art

The Artist-Philosopher

Installation view of the Markus Lüpertz exhibition. At center is Il corvo che filosofa (The Raven Philosopher), 1990.

Of all living painters, Markus Lüpertz resembles most closely what in German is called a Künstler-Philosoph, an artist-philosopher. The term was first used by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche for his vision of a higher concept of art, one that is essentially “a metaphysical activity.” For Nietzsche, art and philosophy thus are intertwined. He once said that “in all of philosophy, what is missing until now is the artist.” Lüpertz, who in his paintings and in his own writings refers frequently to Nietzsche, has insisted that there is a distinction between philosophers and artists: the former question the world, while the latter question itself. Yet, like Nietzsche’s expanded vision of art, Lüpertz’s paintings straddle the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the idealized world of representation through form and beauty on the one hand, and the contradictions and pain of human existence on the other.

Lüpertz’s painting The Raven Philosopher, composed as a studio still life with various props, depicts a symbol of melancholy as much as wisdom. Like the black bird in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven,” Lüpertz’s philosophizing raven depicts both death and beauty, and it could be read a portrait of the artist.
But ultimately, as an artist who compels us to see his representational paintings as mere abstractions, Lüpertz insists that “in painting the truth can only be the canvas, the paint itself.”

Klaus Ottmann, Deputy Director for Curatorial and Academic Affairs

What is a Dithyramb?

Mann im Anzug – dithyrambisch II (Man in Suit—Dithyrambic II), 1976. Distemper on canvas, 98 1/2 x 73 1/2 in. Private collection

When you visit the Markus Lüpertz exhibition, you might find yourself asking, “what is the dithyramb?” You’d find that word repeated over and over again on several labels. So let me quote:  he said, “I didn’t want to paint figuratively anymore, so I invented something abstract that is also figurative, a dithyramb.” So, in there you feel the contradiction; he’s challenging us to figure out what he’s saying. He imposes that term on paintings that ostensibly present a tree trunk, roof tiles on a house, a helmet, a traditional cake form in Germany, a stalk of wheat, a man’s suit, such disparate and trivial objects, and again he paints them with authority and drama, instilling their trivialness with importance, or at least the importance of a painted object.

He defies normal expectations; it’s not really a depiction and it’s not figurative, but it’s not abstract. Those are the kind of norms that he’s discarding very vociferously. When we expect things to be part of a landscape, none of them appear outdoors; they seem to inhabit a flat, ill-defined, poster-like environment. That log does not rest in a landscape, it can hardly be described as a still life, is it now a monument? Those are the kinds of questions that he’s prompting us to engage in as we look closely.

I quote Lüpertz again: “the dithyramb was my totally individual contribution to abstraction, abstraction not in the sense of rational analysis or reduction, but as in the invention of a nonsense object.” He embraces riddles and mysteries as fundamental to art. He says, “art survives only in riddles, only in mystery can art’s eternal truth be retained, therefore the artist must be, as Nietzsche demands, a seeker of riddles, because those who seek to solve riddles are many.” The reference to Nietzsche is important because this whole Dionysian poetic term from the poetry of antiquity re-emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the German-speaking world and had a resonance for him.

Dorothy Kosinski, Markus Lüpertz exhibition curator and Phillips Director