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UBC Theses and Dissertations

In the fifth zone : abstract painting, modernism, and cultural discourse in the western zones of Germany after World War II Heibel, Yule Frederike


After the de-feat of Hitler Germany in 1945, modernist painting in a non-geometric, largely abstract style took hold in the western occupied zones of the country (1945-49), and flourished for all intents and purposes unchallenged as the foremost established style of painting during the early years of the Federal Republic of Germany (1949 through the 1950s). Most art historical scholarship to date posits this phenomenon in one of two modes: 1. Germany, enthralled by barbarism for twelve years, in the west opened its eyes to the modern painting of its European neighbors and of the United States, and via studious application, managed to catch up to those allegedly pre-existant standards; or, 2. Western Germany became a pawn of the United States in its Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union and its art "reflects" this. In contrast, my thesis shows that these views, while "tidying up" the contradictions of the period, in the final analysis are untenable since: 1. A static standard or "norm" of modernist painting had nowhere in Europe survived intact the upheavals of the earlier portion of the twentieth century— and in particular of the war; 2. The initial postwar period, from c.1945/46 through to 1948/49, cannot be described as a period of cultural "Americanization" because US cultural policy itself was at this time far from univocal ; and 3. Within Germany, many cultural opponents of Nazism, people who had been proponents of advanced art before the National Socialist period, were actively involved in forging a renewed culture of modernism. Far from being passive recipients, these artists, writers, and intellectuals were helping to create the new index of postwar modernism. Creating this new index took place within the context of great political and social insecurity within Germany as well as within Europe generally, and it took place within the context of renewed international—in particular Franco-German—co-operation. These conditions in turn affected the articulation of advanced art. My thesis then also suggests answers to the question of why the particular style of abstraction based on subverting form, rejecting non-objective painting, and employing archaic and primitive motifs, whilst eschewing all forms of didacticism or other direct address to the viewer, should become the preferred style of advanced painting in West Germany. The discussion includes the artists Willi Baumeister, Fritz Winter, E.W.Nay, Theodor Werner, Heinz Trflkes, and others. To answer these questions and to prove my conclusions, I employ a method of investigation based on a close reading of the critical texts relating to art and culture produced during this period, in particular as found in art magazines like Das Kunstwerk; a comparative analysis of concurrent developments in France and the US, notably similar questionings of traditional high modernism by French "informel" and "art autre" styles; and a re-examination of political movements and tendencies in postwar Germany which today have been largely forgotten, especially those socialist movements which strived for a unified and non-aligned Europe. The underlying assumption throughout is that the postwar period prior to c.1958/52 in western Germany was one of surprising cultural vitality and ferment which was, however, largely eclipsed by the more familiar image of an economically resurgent, artistically more complacent, and supposedly Americanized West Germany in the 1950s.

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