It might seem like a strange question, but what does it mean to be German? What is German art?
The new special exhibit Storm of Progress: German Art After 1800 from the Saint Louis Art Museum, seeks to answer that question. Co-curated by Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art; Hannah Klemm, associate curator of modern and contemporary art; Melissa Venator, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow for Modern Art; and Molly Moog, research assistant for modern and contemporary art, the exhibit draws entirely from the art museum’s permanent collection to show the breadth and depth of German art over the last 200 years. The exhibit runs November 8, 2020–February 28, 2021, and admission is free. While many works of art have never been on display ever, a large number have not been exhibited in years, making this an opportunity for visitors to rediscover the art museum’s holdings from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. The exhibit draws upon paintings, prints, photography, and the decorative arts to tell the complex story of German art over two centuries.
“We have this wonderful collection and great expertise on staff here,” Kelly explains, who is looking forward to displaying the museum’s recent acquisition of Gabriel Münter’s Cemetery with a New Grave. “It’s a show we haven’t done before of this scope.”
“The public will get to see their favorite works in a total new context,” Klemm adds, as the exhibition will place popular works such as Gerhard Richter’s Betty next to lesser-known artist’s works in the collection.
The title is fitting for an exhibition of German art. The concept of the storm, or Sturm, in German culture, has appeared frequently in both positive and negatives connotations for centuries. While storms certainly bring rain, they also blow away and shift what was present before the tempest arrived, a fitting metaphor for change, or progress. Sturm und Drang, or Storm and Stress, was an 18th-century literary movement reacting against Neoclassicism that helped usher in Romanticism with its greater focus on emotion and drama. In the early 20th-century, Der Sturm was an avant-garde magazine published in Berlin by Herwarth Walden that promoted Expressionist art.
“Storm of Progress was my rejected title idea. It was scooped from the dustbin,” Venator says of the tile that was inspired by the famous German Jewish art critic Walter Benjamin, who wrote a celebrated essay titled the “Storm of Progress” about Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus.
But the concept of the storm also began to take on negative connotations in World War I as the brutality of the conflict began to tear the fabric of German society apart. The Sturmtruppen, or stormtroopers, were a late introduction by the German army to break the stalemate of trench warfare. The Sturmabteilung, or Storm Division, was the violent paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party as it rose to power in the 1920s and ’30s; Der Stürmer, The Stormer, was the ugly propaganda newspaper that spread antisemitism. What was once a symbol of positive change became a symbol of brutality and hatred.
Perhaps that is the contradiction one is always faced with when dealing with German history and art over the last 200 years: remarkable beauty as Germany saw renewed confidence and progress over the 19th century, and then horrible crimes and atrocities committed by that same country in the 20th.
We see the beauty of the natural world in Caspar David Friedrich’s Sunburst in the Riesengebirge, one of the most critical additions to the art museum’s collections in decades in my opinion. Hiking in German culture is an almost intellectual pursuit, and sublime images of towering mountains (Riesengebirge literally means “giant mountains” in German) evokes that philosophical connection with nature. Another landscape painting from German-American artist Charles Ferdinand Wimar, who was active in St. Louis for much of his career, depicts the Romantic ideal with a view of Heidelberg with its now militarily obsolete and ruined castle.
Conversely, Carl Hoeckner’s The Homecoming of 1918 captures the beginning of the end of optimism that had reached an apex with the founding of the German Empire in 1871 at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. Instead of returning victorious from the west against their eternal French enemy, a ragged, wraith-like army of skeletal figures marches toward the viewer. Militarism as an ideology has failed the German people.
But the resulting period of economic and political turmoil also was a time of blossoming for the decorative and visual arts. While the museum’s German Expressionist painting collection is well known, the Side Chair from 1927 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or the Combination Teapot from 1923 by Theodore Bogler shows there was an alternative, progressive Germany to the Nazi Party that was growing in strength at the same time. German history didn’t have to end the way it did in the 1930s and ’40s; there was a choice Germans could have made between a cosmopolitan, inclusive future or a reactionary and destructive path.
Unfortunately, Germany made the wrong choice, and wrought untold destruction and suffering on the world, and in the years after World War II was forced to come to terms with crimes it had committed. What emerged was art that questioned what it meant to be German, made by Germans who had realistically wondered if Germany would even continue to exist. This artistic revolution emerged in the contradictory reality of West Germany becoming the third-largest economy in the world only decades after coming to the brink of complete destruction in 1945.
More so than before World War II, German artists were now pushing the boundaries of different media. While photography had long existed before and had been used as an artistic and not just a documentary medium (Albert Renger-Patzsch’s Industrial Valves from 1930 is another great example in the exhibition), I can’t help but see political subtexts in works such as Ulrich Görlich’s Hohenzollerndamm from 1990, depicting a ruined building on a street named after the now-deposed imperial family of Germany.
In my opinion, the most compelling works of the postwar era are the paintings of Gerhard Richter. Born in 1932, he was old enough to witness firsthand the violence and destruction Germany faced, and to experience that confrontation with the past. Richter’s Ölberg from 1986 is abstract, but it also holds religious connotations, as its title means “Mount of Olives” in German. The artist is now 88 years old, having lived for a sizeable portion of the years covered in the exhibition, and has left his mark on much of that time.
In the end, though, I often find it ironic, that in St. Louis, a city with such a large German-American population, how little knowledge residents hold of the history and art of their ancestral home. German culture has frequently stood at the center of progressive artistic and cultural movements even in the midst of tragic historical events. Storm of Progress is well worth the visit to see what you’ve been missing.