Global Panorama of Post-War Art

The exhibition Postwar promises a truly global view of art made between 1945 and 1965. 350 works, 218 artists, 65 nations: the numbers alone make it clear what Munich’s Haus der Kunst has achieved with this huge show. Never before has post-war art been presented in such a comprehensive way. In eight chapters, the exhibition elucidates the major social and cultural changes of these years and presents them from a variety of different perspectives.

Deutsche Bank supports Postwar with a loan from its collection. Thomas Bayrle’s lithograph Kennedy in Berlin (1964) depicts a historical moment. On June 26, 1963, 400,000 people witnessed John F. Kennedy making history with his statement “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Bayrle portrays the president’s visit as a media event, a collage of long shots, close-ups, and pans of cheering crowds. Grid patterns result from hundreds of heads, elements characteristic of Bayrle’s unique version of American pop art. In his prints, masses of people or products form ornamental images: a car is comprised of hundreds of identical cars, a Mao portrait of countless miniature Maos. Whether they’re capitalist consumerist products or communist heroes, Bayrle’s “thought patterns” suggest that history and memory are ideologically influenced.

Like many other works in the exhibition, Kennedy in Berlin also shows that the post-war era marked a cultural turning point: the predominance of Western European capitals such as Paris and London came to an end, while the influence of American art and pop culture dominated western and western-oriented countries. The process began with the victory of Abstract Expressionism, which also acted as a counter-proposal to the Socialist Realism of the Eastern Bloc. Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock would inspire the artists of Art Informel in France and Germany as well as the Japanese artists’ group Gutai. In the exhibition section titled Form MattersPostwar demonstrates the transnational character of this decidedly non-geometric, “free” version of abstraction. A generation later, this expressive approach was further radicalized: artists as diverse as Carolee Schneemann, Hermann Nitsch, Niki de Saint Phalle, Tetsumi Kudo, and Shigeko Kubota began combining gestural painting with experimental body performances. The exhibition, jointly curated by Okwui Enwezor and Ulrich Wilmes of Haus der Kunst and the American art historian Katy Siegel, seeks to make these parallel developments visible across countries and continents.

The section called Nations Seeking Form is particularly fascinating. As a consequence of National Socialism and the catastrophe of the Second World War, the idea of nationalism was hotly contested in the post-war era. Particularly in Western Europe, many artists vigorously rejected their governments’ attempts to co-opt them. It was another matter entirely in countries that had only recently achieved independence. Artists in India, Pakistan, Israel, Nigeria, and Senegal looked for opportunities to portray a new national identity. Debates took place over whether local traditions should be abandoned in order to be as “modern” as possible, or if it wasn’t precisely these traditions that should form the basis for national identity.

The situation in the individual countries was for the most part contradictory: while the nationalist movement in India, for instance, fought against Western colonialism, many Indians viewed the West as their future. How should a regional cultural self-confidence be fostered? Within the Indian artists’ group Progressives, which had its highpoint in the years following independence in 1947, the answer to this question varied. Francis Souza, who painted dark-skinned people enacting Biblical scenes in his paintings, moved to London, where he was celebrated by British critics. The situation was very different for Maqbool Fida Husain, who remained in India and dedicated himself to painting Hindu deities, although the visual aspects of these motifs interested him far more than their religious meaning. They are both very good painters. These approaches stand side by side now at the Haus der Kunst—two equal possibilities for an artist to react to a specific social situation. It is because the exhibition juxtaposes a large number of these different positions that Postwar enables the viewer to experience the fascinating interplay between politics, ideology, and art in the years following World War II.

Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965

10/14/2016 – 3/26/2017
Haus der Kunst, Munich