Raw, brave, wild and honest: why Germany is Europe’s greatest artistic nation | Art

Situated on the edge of the Alps, Neuschwanstein Castle may not look like the birthplace of modern art. Best seen from a perilously crowded footbridge across a vertiginous gorge, it floats in misty rains, a cloudy dream of white spires and battlements. Yet this 19th-century colossus is an architectural homage to one man: a composer who inspired the avant garde to make the leap to modernism.

Richard Wagner’s music so enflamed King Ludwig II of Bavaria, he built this magnificent medieval vision in honour of the composer. But, in artists across Europe, Wagner’s musical might released much more futuristic impulses. The abstract leitmotifs and unearthly symbolism of his operas fascinated artists from Aubrey Beardsley to Paul Cézanne. The impressionists, too, were entranced: Renoir travelled to Palermo, Sicily, to portray Wagner when he was composing Parsifal.

For all these artists, Wagner, in spite of his disfiguring antisemitism, was a new kind of creator from a new kind of country, and not just one that built castles for its cultural heroes. Germany became a unified nation 150 years ago this week, on 18 January 1871. It’s an anniversary that will doubtless be seen by some as one of shame and blood: the Prussian chancellor and architect of German nationhood Bismarck secured unification through a series of wars in the 1860s, including attacks on Denmark and Austria, and it was sealed at the Palace of Versailles after the military humiliation of France. In the next seven decades, Germany would be at the centre of two world wars and perpetrate the Holocaust, only to re-emerge today as a successful democracy after the defeat of Nazism in 1945 and the fall of communist East Germany in 1989.

Unforgettable visions … Three Horses, 1912, by Franz Marc. Photograph: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

But Britons who close their minds to Germany are missing so much. For one thing, this is the greatest modern artistic nation in Europe. Art history tends to get it all wrong, exaggerating the glamour of French art, just as it does with American art. And in Britain, laughably, we even try to kid ourselves that Henry Moore and John Piper are modernist greats. The reality is that nowhere else has produced as much original, provocative and powerful art as Germany over the last 150 years. This has been the German era.

And all modern art begins with Wagner. His mystic tones can be discerned in the smoky light of Monet’s Impression: Sunrise, and they shaped the late-19th-century symbolist movement, which turned away from exterior reality into poetic distillations of feeling. The arch-symbolist Edvard Munch spent key years of his career in bohemian 1890s Berlin and originally gave his most famous painting a German title, Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature). With its blood-red sky, it is a very Wagnerian shriek.

Stormtroopers and a potty helmet … The Pillars of Society, 1926, by George Grosz.
Stormtroopers and a potty helmet … The Pillars of Society, 1926, by George Grosz. Photograph: Bridgeman Art/© Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, NJ/DACS 2021

By the 1900s, the international appeal of Berlin as an artistic centre was matched by Munich. It was here that Marcel Duchamp journeyed from Paris in 1912 to study perspective and plan his meisterwerk, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. He was part of a cosmopolitan golden age. Munich’s Blue Rider group took the symbolist intensity of Munch into a fierce realm of raw colour. They were anything but narrowly nationalist, led as they were by Russian émigré Wassily Kandinsky who preached the spiritual depth of the colour blue. The wildest genius was Bavaria’s own Franz Marc, who painted unforgettably charged visions of red and blue horses in exploding landscapes before being killed, aged 36, at the Battle of Verdun in 1916.

Here the angel of history appears. There is no denying the nightmare of Germany between 1914 and 1945. The greatness of German modern art lies in the ways it has recorded, opposed and remembered that age of destruction. In Georg Grosz’s 1926 painting The Pillars of Society, the rise of the far right is laid bare. While a building blazes in the background, an unholy alliance of stormtroopers and capitalists rant and rave. One has shit for brains, literally, another wears a potty as a helmet, and another wears a swastika tiepin, a prophetic image – as few thought, in 1926, there would be a Chancellor Hitler.

Against these scheisskopfs, Grosz and his radical contemporaries revealed the joyous energy of Weimar democracy. New freedoms create a cut-up chaos of the new in Hannah Höch’s punk photomontages, while Otto Dix’s portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden holding forth in a Berlin cafe with short haircut, monocle and a cigarette between her long bony fingers is a homage to Weimar “decadence”.

In 1937, the Nazis displayed the modern German art they confiscated, along with works by the likes of Picasso and Matisse, in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. This Nazi rhetoric – that modern art was morally depraved – was a vicious response to something quite specific and homegrown: the celebration of free and fluid sexualities that takes often shocking forms in Weimar artworks, above all Dix’s pictures of sex and death. His 1932 painting Youth and Age shows a stereotypical Aryan beauty in a pornographic pose being approached by a skeleton. Maybe it’s Germany’s immediate future.

Like living sculptures … Bauhaus Stairway by Oskar Schlemmer.
Like living sculptures … Bauhaus Stairway by Oskar Schlemmer. Photograph: Alamy

Other radical Germans turned on the Wagnerian heritage of aesthetic reverie itself. For, as every Germanophobe knows, Hitler was a Wagner fan. The German Marxist Walter Benjamin argued in the 30s that fascism is an aesthete’s ideology, its motto, “Let art flourish and the world perish.” To see what he meant, watch the disturbingly seductive Nazi films of Leni Riefenstahl. For Benjamin, the art of democracy is the photograph, endlessly reproducible and replacing romantic sublimity with human information.

Benjamin was at one with a strand of Weimar art. The great photographer August Sander’s steady-eyed portrait series of the German people, formally posed and presented as anthropological specimens, is one of modern art’s most haunting social documents. And at the Bauhaus school, young Germans learned to make artworks, buildings and objects that were useful, rational, optimistically beautiful. Oskar Schlemmer’s 1932 painting The Bauhaus Stairway shows young men and women like living sculptures in its clean architecture: a portrait of a Germany that was about to be effaced.

It would come back. For many artists after 1945, the objectivist, photographic rationalism advocated by Benjamin is the only truly moral art after Nazism. Gerhard Richter is a painter who refuses any idea that painting is special, who not only copies photographs but avoids all hints of the expressionist. Paradoxically, he’s created some of the most sublime images in contemporary art. His Cage paintings, abstractions made by chance according to the rules of American neo-dada composer John Cage, are as mysterious and entrancing as a Wagner prelude, or at least Kraftwerk’s Autobahn. The same goes for Andreas Gursky’s panoramic photographs that show social reality matter of factly, yet on an epic scale that makes you woozy.

The boldest, strangest, most profound art of today’s Germany fully embraces its dark and bloody roots. How it happened that in the 1960s and 70s, with a heritage that appeared too toxic to touch, German art regained the courage to dive into a Wagnerian ocean of myth and memory is the most astonishing redemption in modern culture. Josef Beuys, who wore his famous hat to hide the burns he sustained as a wartime pilot, started out making primeval Gothic religious sculptures and went on to reinvent art itself. Beuys translated Germanic folklore and ancient history into readymades of fat, felt, rusty metal and mud. The more time passes, the more clearly these ageing collections of 20th-century German relics reveal themselves as one vast Holocaust memorial.

Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, 1920.
‘The angel of history’ … Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

Beuys created his greatest installation, Tramstop, for the German Pavilion at the 1976 Venice Biennale. This Nazi era building still has on its facade the word “GERMANIA”, the title of the first book ever written on Germany, by the ancient Roman historian Tacitus. Beyond that brooding word in 1976 you could see found steel tramlines, cannonballs, a metal column (actually a cannon) topped with a howling head from some ancient place of grief.

In 1980, that same Germania pavilion housed a rough-hewn wood figure by Georg Baselitz that seemed to give a Nazi salute, and similarly history-drenched paintings by Anselm Kiefer. At the time some saw this as irresponsible, or worse, but nothing could be clearer today than the serious way these two great artists contemplate the sorrows of the past. Kiefer’s vast European landscapes point the same way as Beuys’ tramlines.

Happy birthday, Germany? We won’t hear much of that in Brexit Britain. But, then again, no historical celebration is simple. Walter Benjamin saw the tragic nature of all history, and all serious art, as he gazed at a 1920 masterpiece by Paul Klee that he owned, a monoprint called Angelus Novus. “This is how one pictures the angel of history,” he wrote, looking at this cartoon vision of an angel with big eyes. “His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe … The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.”

The angel of history is the spirit of Germany’s greatest modern art: an art that stares at the past and cannot forget its tragedy. There is something very moving in its attempts to make whole everything that has been smashed. Klee’s Angelus Novus, the symbol of this desire, now hangs fittingly in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

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