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Neue Nationalgalerie
Potsdamer Straße 50, 10785 Berlin, Germany
November 11, 2011 - September 8, 2013

Gott im Himmel
by Erik Wenzel

Der Geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven) at the Neue Nationalgalerie is the second in a tripartite series of exhibitions, the first of which, titled after the Charlie Chaplin film “Modern Times”, surveyed work in the collection from 1900 up to World War II. Divided Heaven, which references a novel by Christa Wolf about two conflicted lovers from the East and West, is probably the most challenging of the three historical periods the 20th century has been divvied up into.  Der Geteilte Himmel begins at World War II’s end (1945) and concludes just as the Cold War is heating up (1968). The central issue is this: the art of two Germanys.

Designed by Mies van der Rohe and built in 1968 (coinciding with the end of the period Der Geteilte Himmel covers), the Neue Nationalgalerie itself was the West’s answer to losing Berlin’s Museum Island and its cultural treasures to the Communists when the capital city was bifurcated. This ultimately resulted in a perplexing situation once Germany became one again. The nation was left with two national collections of art. This show is culled from that collection. As one might guess, over the years, the art of East Germany has been downplayed and overlooked. Many works in Divided Heaven have not seen the light of day since the sun shown on the GDR. After all they “lost” the Cold War, right? So why show all their cultural artifacts?

Presenting this period of art history from the unique perspective of the German nation’s (or nations’) collection brings up lots of questions: Would separating the two re-open a cultural wound the country is trying very much to heal? Or would it present a more “fair” or accurate view of the period in question? Could works from East Germany “compete” with those from the West?

Separate is at least how the exhibition begins. In the first room, mounted between metal rods reaching from floor to ceiling are small paintings made in the immediate postwar haze. A path is cleared down the center of the gallery; to the left is the West, to the right the East, just like on a map. One thing is immediately apparent: West German artists are given to full-on abstraction, the East Germans no less Modern, continue with abstracted figuration along the lines of Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). Otto Dix’s Die Skatspieler (Skat Players, 1920), seen in the previous exhibition, comes to mind when looking at Heinrich Ehmsen’s Wahnsinnige Harlekine vor den Trümmern des Krieges II (Insane Harlequins in the Rubble of War No.II, 1945/51). The East German artists carry on the tradition of social realism previously seen in the work of Käthe Kollwitz and George Grosz.

Installation view of work by Sigmar Polke and Thomas Baylre; Photo credit: Erik Wenzel; Sigmar Polke, Dublin, 1968, oil on canvas, 160 x 125.5 cm. © The Estate of Sigmar Polke / VG Bild- Kunst, Bonn 2011; Thomas Baylre, Kartoffelzähler, 1968, wallpaper installation; Courtesy of Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin


As if sorting this out weren’t challenging enough, artists from other countries are included. Playing out that game of Us and Them, it’s not just East Germany and West Germany, it is East Germany alongside all of Western art from the period. In the foyer before we even reach the exhibition’s entrance, completely out of place in what feels like a sleek private investment bank lobby is the lifelike sculpture of a white man beating a black man. Duane Hanson’s Policeman and Rioter (1967) depicts an American cop, cigar in mouth, kicking a man in the stomach. The victim is cowering, curled up fetal style as the officer raises his billy club high above his head. The beaten man wears only a pair of beige shorts, so he looks more like a Civil War-era slave than a modern day protestor.

Proceeding through the exhibition, the distinction between East and West blurs. Works by artists from both sides of the iron curtain are mixed together and placed in conversation, or conflict. One of the best subtle jabs at the West’s dominance is in the gallery dominated by massive works by minimalists Ron Bladen and Donald Judd. Prominently facing visitors who enter from either side is a Judd made of four large galvanized steel cubes. But just to the side, like a kid playing hide-and-seek, Charlotte Posenenske’s air-duct-like sculpture made from the same material hides behind a pillar, almost giggling.

Moving through the galleries the strangest thing happens. What sounds like a Beatles song drifts through the air. Rounding a corner is the most impressive and craziest part of the whole show – an explosion of East and West Pop Art. The room is wallpapered, literally, with Thomas Baylre’s Potato Counters (Kartoffelzähler, 1968) an endless field of tessellated Asian men and baskets of potatoes. Baylre’s wallpaper provides a dynamic backdrop that sets off works by a breadth of Pop artists. Roy Lichtenstein has a crisp cartoon version of a Picasso portrait, Andy Warhol is represented by a black and white double Elvis and a blue-green electric chair, and there is a large tableau by R.B. Kitaj. But Capitalist Realist Sigmar Polke’s enlarged half-tone painting of Dublin looks the best.

Ronald B. Kitaj, Erie Shore, 1966, oil on canvas, 183 x 305 cm; Photo credit: Jörg P. Anders; Courtesy of © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Marlborough Fine Art Gallery


The source of that odd little tune wafting through the galleries? A clip from The Beatles’ psychedelic cartoon epic The Yellow Submarine infinitely looping All You Need is Love. This is the song they sang live to over 400 million people on the first ever global satellite feed in 1967. It seems out of place amidst all the grim and serious art in the exhibition. But after all, isn’t the Western pop culture that permeated the East over the airwaves what is credited with winning over the hearts and minds of the people in the Soviet Bloc? They either saw that the West wasn’t the enemy, or they secretly wanted to be capitalists. But that is still a way off. The exhibition leaves us in the tumultuous year of 1968; the Berlin wall is just seven years old and will stand and divide for another twenty-one. While Der Geteilte Himmel allows us to consider these works side by side, they were created at a time when the physical separation between East and West was never greater.

--Erik Wenzel

(Image at top: Installation view 'Der Geteilte Himmel, The Collection, 1945-1968; Photo credit: Roman März; Courtesy of Neue Nationalgalerie © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.)

Posted by Erik Wenzel on 2/28/12 | tags: oil pop figurative canvas painting abstract

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