In the final moments of the German film, The Lives of Others, the former Communist Minister of Culture, Bruno Hempf, makes a provocative speech to the playwright Georg Dreyman. (Hempf had bugged Dreyman’s apartment back during the bad old days.)
“You’ve not written since the Wall fell?” Hempf asks. “That’s not good. After all our country invested in you. Although I understand you, Dreyman. What is there to write about in this new Germany? Nothing to believe in, nothing to rebel against…. Life was good in our little republic.”
Dreyman does eventually find a new source of inspiration for his art—but that would give away the ending.
I like Hempf’s speech because it gets to the heart of our predicament here in the West, post-Cold War: What do we do with our freedom? Among those dancing around rubble of the Berlin Wall on that triumphant night in November of 1989, the most popular reveler was not the one who asked, “What do we do now?” Celebration was due, of course, because the brutal Communist regime was finally gone. However, the Question, whatever its formulation, persists like a nagging hernia within the consciousness of all of us here in the free world. What do we do with our freedom? What is there to write about in this new world order?
Among those who chose to confront the question early on are a small group of German painters dubbed the “Leipzig School.” After Communism, in a time when painting as an art was losing respect—“In school we stuck together because the video and photography students looked down at us,” one of them reports—these artists chose to study at the more conservative Leipzig Art Academy, eschewing the more prestigious institutions in Berlin.
Much has already been written about the group (the New York Times has covered them here and here); my first encounter with their work took place last November, during the exhibition, Life After Death: New Leipzig Paintings From The Rubell Family Collection at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
Their approach to painting is not completely uniform, though they share a penchant for epic-sized canvasses. Beyond this their styles vary: Neo Rauch’s canvasses are riddled with surrealist images. Matthias Weischer’s canvasses are tall and sparse, and his most powerful painting in the Kemper show, Zweitelig (Bisected), depicts an empty room with a yellowing wall, adorned only by a blurry pornographic image. Tim Eitel paints a similar setting in Leerer Raum (Empty Room), featuring a young, yuppie-ish couple, husband and wife with a baby in a stroller, looking around a vacant house.
There are a lot of empty rooms in this show—Weischer’s Stuhl (Chair) is another one—but they are not filled with the invisible gas of anxiety and nihilism that permeates, say, Ingmar Bergman’s “Hotel Europa” in The Silence. There is loneliness, and sadness, some irony, some fear—but the emptiness is not the existential angst of the last century.
There was a feeling, in this exhibition, of expectation. Expectation among art collectors, of course, who hope that this group of painters will blossom into masters and reap dividends; but expectation also for the common gallery-goer, who is nagged by the same Question and by Hempf’s formulation of it, and is excited by the prospect of a group of painters who appear to be devoted to finding answers.
The smallest canvas in the show—hung, all by itself, in the middle of a bare white wall—makes the most poignant statement. Eitel’s Kleine Anhöhe (Little Hill) features an uncertain figure, his hands clasped behind his back, peering uncertainly over the edge of a cliff. It could be read as an update to the German painting The Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic portrayal of European Man bravely facing the awesome chaos of nature. Eitel’s focus, like that of his friends, is turned back towards the awesome chaos within, towards our own generation groping around for something to rebel against, something to believe in.
If something like Duchamp’s urinal signalled a dead end for art, then Little Hill signals, if nothing else, a sheer willingness to move on—that same wilingness shown by the founders of this journal, which, not incidentally, was also born in 1989.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Santiago Ramos
Santiago Ramos teaches philosophy at Avila University. His writing has appeared in Image Journal, Commonweal, First Things, Salon, and the Kansas City weekly, The Pitch.