THE NEUE WILDE
“There was punk and sex and all of those things. There was an awakening. Something new.” (Der Tagesspiegel)
“What did the 1980s smell like?” asked the daily newspaper Die Welt in in an article on the Neue Wilde. Considering the art scene at the time, the answer would probably be: like paint. In the early 1980s painting experienced a brief, yet intense renaissance. Young artists joined together—in Berlin, in the Rhineland, in Hamburg and Austria—to paint in protest against the formal asceticism of Minimal and Conceptual Art, rebelling against the positions taken by Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter. “To us, good old Uncle Richter in Düsseldorf seemed to be further away than the moon,” said Jiří Georg Dokoupil, one of the Neue Wilde in Cologne, summing up the artistic awakening. Their paintings arose from their individual experiences: “Having the courage to simply bring one’s personal experience to one’s art was incredibly taboo at the time,” revealed Helmut Middendorf. This new subjectivity resulted in a wide diversity of styles, but an emphatically powerful brushstroke, a mostly strong color palette, and a frequently cavalier relationship to art historical sources were common characteristics of the Neue Wilde. In short: they had an inexhaustible, fierce desire to create figurative paintings.
“I respect Mr. Malevich’s black and white squares, because these paintings were done during a period when they instigated something. But now, in our time, when everything is a box, a square, or a high-rise, when everything is rectangular, when there are no more romantic forms any more, no libidinous form—well, this Minimal Art bores me.” (Salomé)
In Germany the Neue Wilde came together in loosely organized groups. One of the large centers was Berlin, mainly represented by Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf, Salomé, and Bernd Zimmer, who founded the Selbsthilfegalerie (Self-help gallery) on Moritzplatz in 1977. Formally speaking, the “Mortiz Boys” shared a spontaneous, expressive visual vocabulary, so that they were quickly labeled Neo-expressionists. Thematically speaking, they were inspired by the spirit of the city, revolving around the Berlin underground, the punk scene, and New Wave culture. Furthermore, special significance was attached to personal obsessions and sexual leanings—as in Salomé’s work—or to the classic landscape motif, as in the paintings of Bernd Zimmer.
“My paintings are about me.” This statement—made by Peter Bömmels, one of the members of the Cologne group—could be considered a good caption for the paintings produced by the artists in the Rhineland. Bömmels and his “colleagues”—Hans Peter Adamski, Walter Dahn, Jiří Georg Dokoupil, Gerard Kever, and Gerhard Naschberger—all rented a studio together at 110 Mülheimer Freiheit, the street that gave the group its name. Their works were not as unified in style and content, in comparison to the work by the Berlin Wilde. In remarkably individualistic styles, each artist integrated himself and his radical experience of his own reality into his art.
In contrast, the artists in Hamburg—Werner Büttner, Martin Kippenberger, Albert and Markus Oehlen—devoted themselves to protesting the “affluence-based apathy of the 1980s” (ZKM), expressed in oil paintings in often gloomy hues.
Parallel art movements were the Figuration Libre in France, the Transavantguardia (or later, the Arte Cifra) in Italy, and the New Image Painting in the United States.
The term Neue Wilde (roughly, “new savages”) first employed by the art historian and museum director Wolfgang Becker, can be traced back to the exhibition of the same name at the Neue Galerie – Sammlung Ludwig in Aachen in 1980, which drew attention to similarities between early twentieth-century French Fauvism and neo-expressive contemporary painting: Les nouveaux Fauves – Die neuen Wilden. Unlike the term Heftige Malerei (heavy painting),which was also initially applied to the new movement—the term Neue Wilde did not refer so much to the savagery of their art as it did to the savagery of the artists themselves. It was received critically, especially by the artists themselves, who pointed out their entirely subjective visual vocabulary and lack of an overarching agenda, while at the same time rejecting the comparison between their art and an art movement from the past. Yet, despite all of the skepticism, the term stuck.
The “hunger for paintings” sensed by the art theoretician Wolfgang Max Faust in his 1982 book was stilled in the early 1980s by a number of exhibitions. For example, Heftige Malerei was the title of a show at the Haus am Waldsee in Berlin in 1980, which introduced the Berlin Wilde to a broader audience for the first time. “It was a dream come true; we established ourselves overnight. And now we want to try it and see how it goes—commercially,” commented Salomé on their success, “I had been a graduate student in art, and only a year later the Museum of Modern Art was showing my paintings.” The exhibition Rundschau Deutschland in 1981 gathered the major figures from the various centers in Munich and Cologne. 1982’s documenta 7, organized by Rudi Fuchs, featured the Neue Wilde and finally elevated them to the international stage. That same year Christos M. Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal presented a show titled Zeitgeist at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, featuring what Die Zeit called the “snotty, heavy, and agilely painted pictures” (Die Zeit) by this generation of artists.
Within a few months the Neue Wilde became a star cult; art dealers bought out their studios; the works found their way into renowned collections before they even had time to dry. Furious critical voices did not fall on deaf ears, though; just as it does now, the movement polarized experts at the time. “Are the Neue Wilde really doing something new?” was the suspicion of the critics, who tended to perceive the parallels to the French Fauvists and the German Expressionists, rather than the inimitable zeitgeist of the large paintings. “A lot of really bad art,” was, for instance, the judgment of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in a retrospective of the documenta.
After a few rambunctious years with “punk and sex and all of those things,” as Der Tagesspiegel put it, the anarchic forces behind the Neue Wilde were exhausted; the movement was forgotten, and only a few of them remained influential. Painting, however, was back in vogue. Only years later did some exhibitions allow for new encounters with the art of the Neue Wilde as a whole, but the issue of the quality of the works from those paint-crazy years has yet to be fully addressed.
April 30, 2015