“KAPITALISTISK REALISME / Capitalist Realism”
In 1968, the year of student revolts, and at the height of the politicization of society, René Block brought out a portfolio in an edition of 80 with Stolpe Verlag, Berlin: Grafik des Kapitalistischen Realismus [Graphic Art of Capitalist Realism]. The works were by KP Brehmer, K. H. Hödicke, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and Wolf Vostell and had all been created within the previous year. The six screen prints comprising the portfolio are comments on affluent Western society that range from droll to critical. Already ironic is the text of the print used as a foreword, where Block commends the works of the artists, then largely unknown, to true connoisseurs among art collectors as “the type of realism made, cultivated and tended by true masters in cities like Berlin, Düsseldorf and Cologne”.
The works of Polke, Richter and Vostell stake out the artistic territory in which their colleagues’ work can also be situated. While Polke aligns the banal promises of West Germany’s economic miracle with the halftone dots of cheap newsprint in Wochenendhaus [Weekend Cottage], the threatening presence of Vostell’s spangled Starfighter is a critical, dissent-provoking metaphor for rearmament under Adenauer. The moody privacy of Richter’s Hotel Diana, a screen print based on the artist’s photograph of himself and Polke in an Antwerp hotel room also is an ironic comment on prevailing artistic pretensions about assuming social responsibility. In the prints by Brehmer and Lueg, advertising images and impressions from daily life are reworked into statements variously erotic or emblematic, or critical of consumerism, while Hödicke shifts his investigation of optical impressions from painting to printing, tackling themes such as painterly methods, artistic gesture and the relationship between reality and illusion.
All six works use contemporary artistic means to reflect on living conditions in Western industrial society, which justifies the label “capitalist realism” if “realism” is defined as an artistic method with which the artist influences “contemporary reality in a way that not only informs and confirms, but also transforms and enlightens”. (Klaus Herding: “Mimesis und Innovation. Überlegungen zum Begriff des Realismus in der bildenden Kunst” [Thoughts on the Concept of Realism in the Visual Arts] in: Klaus Oehler (Ed.), Zeichen und Realität, Tübingen 1984, 2. 102 f.) The term did not come from René Block, though; it was first used in 1963 in connection with an exhibition in Düsseldorf by Gerhard Richter together with Manfred Kuttner, Lueg and Polke. Except for Hödicke, who had studied in Berlin with Fred Thieler, all of the portfolio’s artists had studied at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf – even Vostell, for a time, after his studies in Paris. By the time Joseph Beuys was appointed professor in 1961, the school had become a mecca for artists and students. During those years, two advanced positions that had decisive and lasting significance for many artists could be observed in academy circles: Fluxus und Pop.
In this exciting environment, and inspired by activities in London, New York and Paris, which they were familiar with from the relevant art journals, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and their fellow student Manfred Kuttner appeared on the scene in the spring of 1963. From May 11th to 26th, their works were shown in a storefront gallery in Düsseldorf’s Kaiserstraße (diagonally across from the former Galerie 22) in a “special exhibition of graphic art and painting” that was described in a press release signed by Richter as the “first exhibition of ‘German Pop Art'”: “For the first time in Germany, we are showing pictures that can be labeled with terms like Pop Art, Junk Culture, Imperialist or Capitalist Realism, Neo-figuration, Naturalism, German Pop and a few other similar terms.” Just half a year later, on the night of October 11th, in the Berges furniture store, also in Dusseldorf, Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg organized the Demonstration for Capitalist Realism, in which they proselytized “Life with Pop”. The anarchic aspect of this event is unmistakably indebted to the Fluxus aesthetic. The evening’s focal point was not so much the pictures, painted in the Pop style, but the event’s action character: the presence of the artists and the inclusion of the entertained audience were elements of the happening. And beyond that, the claim was to bring life and art closer together by attempting to eliminate the distinction between mass-merchandise and high-level art in a furniture store.
The novelty of this artistic approach fascinated René Block. At a German Künstlerbund exhibition in the spring of 1964, Block took note of Vostell, Lueg and Richter, afterward visiting them in Düsseldorf, where he also got to know Polke, and he was able to enlist their collaboration; then came the Berlin based artists Brehmer and Hödicke. From September 16th to November 5th 1964, Block presented his first exhibition under the title Neodada, Pop, Décollage, Kapitalistischer Realismus. The “demonstrative exhibition”, which Block also envisioned as introducing his upcoming program, attracted attention. For the gallery’s first anniversary celebration in September 1965, Block, who conceived his gallery as a “program and struggle gallery”, showed Hommage à Berlin, wrestling with artistic confrontation with the divided city. While harmless clichés or random motifs were depicted by Lueg, with a picture composed of stuck-on gummy bears, Polke, with the halftone image of a Berliner jelly doughnut, and Richter, with a painted piece of furniture from the Charlottenburg Castle, Vostell’s collage Hommage à Peter Fechter was a critical commentary on victims of the Berlin Wall. Brehmer’s contribution also was frankly political and consisted of three postcards: one a black, red and gold iris print of a soldier in an embrasure, one of the Brandenburg Gate shortly before the Wall was erected, and one of eight targets with Berlin motifs such as Willy Brandt and the Angel of Peace atop the Victory Column. At Hommage à Berlin, it became even more apparent than at Block’s first exhibition that, by expanding his circle of artists, Block was lending his program of “Capitalist Realism” a political direction that was not present with Lueg, Polke and Richter. This heterogeneity might contribute to the fact that even today; the term is difficult to define. The diversity of artistic works that were held together by Block’s programmatic ideas for his gallery could be experienced once again in 1967 at the exhibition Hommage à Lidice.
By 1971, the time of “Capitalist Realism” had come to an end. René Block published Grafik des Kapitalistischen Realismus, catalogues raisonné of the prints that Brehmer, Hödicke, Lueg, Polke, Richter and Vostell had produced to date, also marking an end to that chapter. In his introduction “My last word”, Block explains once more, in the jargon of the day, his conception of the term, which he sees not as the opposite of “Socialist Realism” but as denoting artistic expression in Late Capitalism which – “had it taken its ‘partisanship’ for the masses seriously” – would at some point have merged with its socialist opposite number. Block locates the reason for its demise in the fact that the participating artists had turned away from socially committed art-making, essentially due to their ongoing development.
So “Capitalist Realism” never really designated a group of artists or a fixed program; rather, it denoted a particular, at times contradictory, artistic stance that manifested itself for a few years after 1960, between Düsseldorf and Berlin, during a period of West German optimism, and that mirrored daily life and living conditions in affluent society in a variety of humorous to critical ways.
(Excerpted from Björn Egging´s introduction to: Kapitalistischer Realismus.Grafik aus der Sammlung Block, Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld 2010)
The exhibition is supported by Statens Kunstråds Internationale Billedkunstudvalg.