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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Rasterbilder : Parody in 1960s representational art in West Germany McHugh, Joseph E.


Between 1963 and 1968, German artist Sigmar Polke addressed the subject of disillusioned modernity in a series of paintings called Rasterbilder. Polke selected everyday images from the West German mass media, imitating even the technical "rastering" process used to reproduce them, but with an important difference. His manipulations of the Benday dots used in the process imposed progressive distortions on the original images. This diversion of the viewer's attention to the processing of the image impairs the original image's power to communicate its socialized narrative. The Rasterbilder thus subvert the clarity and stability of the originals, by forcing the viewer to consider not what they "mean", but how they are made. This thesis examines the Rasterbilder as an organic and independent cultural signifying practice that acknowledges the psychological, cultural and economic events of its time: the Cold War, the West German Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle), the formation of a consumer culture, and the rise of the mass media. Art has had a strong tradition of being used as a tool of social ideology in Germany. The Third Reich's efforts to label modern art as "degenerate" and to mold visual culture were partly motivated by their desire to entrench symbols of a collective identity for all Germans. After World War II, the East German government took up the banner of representation to reinforce the ideology of worker solidarity. At the same time, through national exhibitions such as Documenta, the West German government promoted the abstractionism of modern art, attempting to create a new visual culture linked to those of other democratic countries. By 1963, when Polke made the first Rasterbilder, the conflict between representational and non-representational art, and the political ideologies they had come to symbolize, was well-entrenched. In the context of this conflict in German visual culture, the Rasterbilder are an authentic visualization of life in 1960s West Germany. Where the original media image claims a narrative truth by being a conventionally "realistic" picture of events, individuals, or products, Polke's paintings create ironic distance from the original narrative by exaggerating its formal qualities, suggesting new questions and interpretations. His technique sets up a parodic duality very different from the works of Pop Artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. All use mass-media visual dynamics, but with very different effects. The Rasterbilder are a form of parody that give the West German viewer an art that is representational, but that at the same time resists the image's ideological implications of both fascist and communist representation and Western abstraction. The Rasterbilder destabilize the volatile media images that were central to the development of West German culture during the Cold War most clearly in a painting like Bunnies. Here Polke paints four women wearing the identifiable "Bunny" uniform used in the marketing of memberships in the Playboy clubs. His painting focuses on the juxtaposition of dots rather than the idealised female body used by many West German advertisers in the 1960s. This emphasis on the dynamics of processing is what moves Polke's Rasterbilder beyond a fixed narrative ideology at a time when the social, political, and economic forces influencing post-war Germany used visual culture to promote their own social ends.

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