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A Regional Focus on Germany, Austria and Switzerland

Most people know about German art through contemporary well-known names, such as Gerhard RichterSigmar PolkeJoseph Beuys or Andreas Gursky. One basic reason is that Americans dominated art writing of the postwar period and American attention to Germany until the 1960s was highly complicated because of the second world war. 

With so much focus on Berlin in the art world in the last decade, we thought we’d take a moment to explore some of the genes that relate to this country, beginning with the Germany, Austria and Switzerland gene.

This gene is one of our Geography Genes, which apply to artists who have lived in or were born in a particular region or country. You might wonder why we have combined these three countries into one gene. One reason is that they share a common language—German (Switzerland’s official languages, it should be noted, also include French, Italian, and Romansh) —and in many ways a cultural and political heritage. Germany and Austria were nearly united, then went to war in the 19th century, and finally Austria was absorbed into Germany under the Third Reich in 1933 While it may be controversial to “lump together” three distinct countries with distinctive regional differences, dialects, cultural accomplishments, etc., a brief look at the states that have exercised jurisdiction over Berlin throughout the course of its history highlights the difficulty of creating geography genes that correspond to any fixed, national boundaries. In chronological order, then, these are: the margraviate of Brandenburg, the German Empire, the Third Reich, the Soviet Occupied Zone and the three Allied Occupying powers (Britain, the United States and France), The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and now since 1990, just a re-united Federal Republic of Germany.

While most French art movements have tended to originate in Paris, the German speaking world never had a central focal point - in part because Germany itself was not unified as a nation until 1871. Each region had its own artistic hub, and cities like Munich, Dresden, Leipzig, or Cologne in Germany or Vienna and Salzburg in Austria had long and active artistic traditions of their own. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, many of the major modern Swiss, Austrian and German art movements were founded in cities other than the capitals, though many of their members eventually found their way to The Grey City in the tumultuous first half of the century: The Blue Rider was active in Munich between 1911 and 1914, while for the artist’s association Die Brücke (meaning “The Bridge”), Dresden was its center from 1905-1914, before its best known members, Max Pechstein and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, left for Berlin.

Today, with Berlin’s recent ascent as a global art capital, it seems a truth universally acknowledged that any contemporary artist must pass through Berlin, which is partially why we have created a gene called Based in Berlin. Berlin has a distinctly global feeling to it (as Claudia Schiffer has said, “Berlin is like being abroad in Germany”), but many of the most iconic post-war and contemporary tendencies to come out of the German speaking world originated elsewhere and continue to retain unique regional qualities. The New Leipzig School, most widely associated with the painter Neo Rauch, reflects the East German Leipzig Art Academy’s educational focus on figurative painting technique; while the sister cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf have been fertile ground for the New Fauves and the Dusseldorf School of Photography.

Like the larger Germany, Austria and Switzerland gene, these regional styles and movements themselves are not without issues: affiliations change over time, and some artists and critics contest the application of a label to disparate artistic practices. There is also the consideration that, particularly from 1900-1960, there existed hundreds of fly-by-night associations that have since fallen into obscurity (groups like the “Hessian Secession” or the Saarbrücken-based “Neue Gruppe Saar”). We have included the most commonly known and influential of these in The Art Genome Project, which include, in addition to those already discussed, Neue SachlichkeitAustrian and German ExpressionismBauhaus, and Viennese Actionism. Artists within Fluxus movement were also active in Germany, and Dada originated in Zurich, Switzerland before spreading to Germany. We hope you enjoy exploring this rich artistic tradition this week and, as they say in German, viel Vergnügen!

-Jessica Backus, Director of The Art Genome Project

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