by Sue Hubbard
In the 21st century we have largely lost touch with the avant-garde. In an age of rapid technological change, where the new is invariably seen as good, the shocks and surprises, the eclecticism and flattening out of postmodernism have become the new orthodoxy. No one is upset by a pickled shark or, for that matter, a pickled anything else being art. In-your-face and gritty is what we expect from contemporary culture. There is nothing much to dare anymore, nothing much to lose, in a society where what is ‘shocking' is mostly an ersatz construct quickly appropriated by the economic mainstream.
But at the beginning of the 20th century things were different. Establishment ideas held sway and there was plenty to be radical about. Epic socio-political changes were afoot. The growth of industrialism, photography, cinema and mass media, as well as the gradual emancipation of women, along with the decimation that was raging throughout Europe resulting in two World Wars, formed a potent mix.
In 1912 Anna Therese Johanne Höch, who had been born in 1889 in Gotha, Germany, left her comfortable upper-middle class home for the cultural melting pot of Berlin. There she attended the craft-orientated School of Applied Arts, an education not uncommon for young women at the time. Here her cultural interests and an astute eye saw her turn traditional craft into something quite new. During the turbulent years of the First World War she met poets and painters, publishers and musicians, including that guru of junk art, Kurt Schwitters, just as Dadaism was hitting town. In August 1920, her radical interests led her to take part in the First International Dada Fair.
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By Sue Hubbard
In 1969 the German artist Anslem Kiefer compiled a book, Unfruchtbare Landschaften that brought together two disparate elements: landscapes and the pages of a medical textbook dealing with contraception. Placing the IUDs out of context on top of the landscapes seemed to imply sterility. Wrenched from their purpose and context these now alien objects brought with them not only traces of their own history but took on new metaphorical meanings. The beauty of the gesture of these juxtapositions lay in the attempt to say something beyond language.
Kiefer is one of the most significant and serious artists of the post war generation. Born in Donaueschinger in South Germany in 1945, in 1966 he left his law studies at the University of Freiburg to study art. A student of Joseph Beuys in the early 1970s he began to explore the fraught territory of German history and identity in a muscular visual language. His paintings, oversized books and performance art draw from literature, art and music, philosophy and folklore. Borrowing from Teutonic myth he has conducted investigations into the recent past, particularly the era of the Third Reich, exploring a post Nietzschian desire to establish meaning in a brutal Godless world. His painted landscapes of the ploughed and rutted German countryside, incorporating straw, ash, clay, lead and shellac, have become metaphors for the tragedy of recent European history. Engaged in an endless interrogation of the devastation and horror that his country wrought, he implies that the tragedy was a product of Germany’s intellectual and cultural heritage, a view endorsed in Michael Haneke's superb yet disturbing film, The White Ribbon, based on life in pre-first world war Germany.
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