CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Inventur — Art in Germany, 1943–55 is a remarkable exhibition, but not because any of the work itself is particularly groundbreaking. It isn’t. What’s notable is that during this specific time, the decade or so after the end of World War II, any art was made at all. Indeed, historians still refer to this period as a gap in the study of German art history. This is understandable, given the restrictions placed on artists by the Nazi government before and during the war and the collapse of Germany afterwards. The thread is only picked up again in 1955 during the first iteration of “Documenta” in Kassel where German reengagement with the international art world began to take place.
Inventur situates itself between the utter depravity of the war and the beginning of moral and economic recovery. It offers insight into both the cultural fanaticism present during the 30’s and 40’s and how Germany produced an indoctrinated population both mostly unfamiliar with modern art and highly antagonistic toward it. The exhibition doesn’t assume that any artists were complicit with the crimes and atrocities of the Nazis, though to what degree some might have been, even in some small way, is less clear, and perhaps impossible to tell. Stories changed after the war and not only in Germany.
The show’s title is taken from a poem written in 1945 by Günter Eich, and means “Inventory.” Eich, at the time a prisoner in an American POW camp, takes humble stock of his meager belongings. It’s a hobo’s list of small things magnified by their significance for someone with little left. Writ large, the title implies a moral reckoning of sorts, a revaluation of the past via the material scarcity of the present — all amid the bleakness of a broken state. Eich’s poem highlighted a situation that often, in the short-term, left Germans feeling (rightly or wrongly) like victims themselves.
Inventur includes the work of nearly 50 artists all living and working under varying circumstances during the war — all, to one degree or another, reemerging to begin reshaping German art and a national psyche fractured by both war and the barbarous crimes committed in their name.
Chargesheimer (Karl Heinz Hargesheimer), a photographer from Cologne, depicts the ruined cityscape, “Ruinwände, Köln” (Ruin Walls, Cologne, 1949) as a figureless abstraction, a vertical architecture sliced open to the sky, uninhabited and monumental in scale. Chargesheimer witnessed (and survived) the Allied bombing raids during the war, which destroyed most of the city. This image, which is only available in the exhibition catalogue starkly contrasts with the almost buoyant street scenes he took later in the 1950s. In these, you can almost sense an unrestrained optimism on the faces of the people he photographed. In “Untitled” (Unter Krahnenbäumen, 1956/57) a man in a suit strides confidently into the foreground of the photograph with two women moving behind him. The relationships are hard to determine but the momentum isn’t. In a sense, the man embodies the crushing weight of history falling away as he strides into the future.
Karl Hofer survived, too, though his Berlin studio was destroyed during an air raid in 1943. Hofer, a former art professor, lost his academic position in 1933 and had hundreds of his paintings purged from German museums because they were deemed “degenerate art.” His only painting in the exhibition, called “Ruinennacht” (Night of Ruins, 1947) is a great jumble of chalk and ash configured into a glowering human countenance that suggests a passing inferno. Verging on abstraction, the muted depiction also resembles a city resting upon its own heated rubble.
Gerhard Altenbourg, who was conscripted into the German Army in 1944 when he was 18, killed a young Russian soldier in combat during the final weeks of the war. Despite what must have been an act of self-preservation, the killing continued to haunt him well after the war ended. In 1949, after writing a book based on his experiences, Altenbourg turned to art making. A drawing called “Ecce Homo Sterbender Krieger” (Ecce Homo Dying Warrior, 1949). The work, made atop childhood drawings of his that feature tanks, soldiers, and armored cars, is a skeletal overlay of the human figure stretched across two pieces of glued-together paper. Here, the fantasies of war a younger Altenbourg might have held, are forever changed. The haunted, corpse-like image that he deposits across his childhood sketches is both a correction and rebuttal to a boy’s misconceptions about war and its cost.
The creeping fascism and alt-right extremism (both American and European) we see reemerging today make this exhibition not only timely but also exceedingly important. A great deal of credit goes to the curator, Lynette Roth, not only for the academic rigor surrounding this exhibition, but for the passionate and rational approach to a rather fraught period of German history that is as complex as it is troubling.
The work to mount this exhibition took five years, and as Roth says in the acknowledgments of the exhibition catalogue:
During the last year of the project’s development, amid turmoil spurred by the new administration in Washington, I faced questions of my own regarding the role of the individual in the political process. The issues prevalent in the works I was studying began to feel increasingly topical …
Her observation, coming after years of historical scholarship focused on Germany during this time is something that should frighten us all. The parallels that Roth observes locate this exhibition at the heart of a moral reckoning, not only with past events, but perhaps more importantly, with the disturbing and unstable situation America is faced with today.