This is an abbreviated version of my text. The full review can be read in:
Art Monthly, 403: February 2017
Post War: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-65
Haus der Kunst Munich 14 October to 26 March
‘Post War: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965’ is a gargantuan exhibition in an expansive space. It is the first in a series of three exhibitions at Munich’s Haus der Kunst exploring art in the 20th century, to be continued by shows on the postcolonial and on post-Communism.
Fittingly, the exhibition that aims to establish a global view on the postwar era is displayed in the building that in 1937 was built as the space to glorify the art of Nazi Germany. The Haus der Kunst stands as a symbol of how it all began, the catastrophe of the Holocaust and the Second World War, and is in itself a fitting starting point to investigate divergent futures.
Okwui Enwezor, the director of Haus der Kunst who devised this exhibition (together with Katy Siegel and Ulrich Wilmes), writes: ‘From the defeat of Japan and Germany to the retreat of empire; from the creation of the Atlantic charter, the Pacific alliance, and the Warsaw pact to the building of a system of multilateral global institutions; from decolonisation and the emergence of new nation states to the partition of others; from revolutions to dictatorships, “Post War: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965” probes the creative ferment in which artists attempted to come to terms with the dawn of a new contemporary era.’
The exhibition sets out with the horrors of the concentration camps and of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki: right next to the entrance to the exhibition is a small screen that displays an interview with philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt from 1964. In it, Arendt discusses her life in Germany and her exile, she details how she understands herself as Jewish and not as German, though she never practised her religion and can never be more at home than in her German mother tongue. Arendt describes the threshold, the before and after, and thus the starting point of this exhibition.
The exhibition is extraordinary, when it brings together the political and the artistic, when art is mixed with documentary material, when the period comes alive through very different and dense layers of information. There lies Enwezor’s strength, to contextualise art, popular culture and politics, as he had previously in ‘The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994’ in 2002.
There are other problems, of course. An exhibition like this, that hopes to produce a global portrait of an era, has to omit parts of the story. It cannot provide the full picture. In the section ‘Realisms’ which focuses on ‘Eastern’ figurative or socialist realist art, there is no mention in the exhibition of the pressure of the state or of the freedom of the artist. The works presented seem to be shown more for their exoticism – Stalin, Mao and the like – than for their artistic integrity. There is no dissident artist from behind the Iron Curtain, apart from a few East German artists who emigrated to the West (AR Penck, Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz); no notion that variant brushstrokes could convey meaning. But then, this might be the task for a different exhibition – for example the concurrent show at ZKM in Karlsruhe ‘Art in Europe 1945-1968: The Continent that the EU does not know’.
Altogether this is a very impressive and ambitious exhibition, one that will initiate new lines of research. It changes the perspectives of curatorial inquiry. It is therefore rather incomprehensible why Catrin Lorch in the German broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung criticised the global approach of this exhibition as unnecessary, since in her opinion ‘global perspectives and internationally shared responsibility have become curatorial standards’ and ‘many large museums such as the Tate Modern in London have not only expanded their exhibition programme, but also their permanent collection with art from Latin America, Africa, Asia and Australia’. All of them are nowhere near where they should be. It is only just the beginning of a larger story.
Axel Lapp is a writer, curator and director of MEWO Kunsthalle in Memmingen.