German contemporary art a big draw as artists come to terms with past
Move over Jackson Pollock? German artists are now defining the contemporary art scene, according to Sotheby's. / Image by C-Monster, Flickr
For years, contemporary art sales at the world’s leading auction houses were dominated by the works of American and British artists. When it came to eye-watering amounts of money, paintings by anglophone figures including Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon were typically the headline-makers.
But in what it has been described as a “sensational development”, Sotheby’s – the highest value auction house for contemporary art sales– has said German postwar masters are now defining the scene.
More than a quarter of the 64 lots at Sotheby’s next big sale of contemporary art in March will be masterpieces by the likes of Georg Baselitz, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer – all of which are due to go on public display from 23 February.
“There is an unprecedented interest being shown in German contemporary art,” said Toby Skeggs, a Sotheby’s spokesman. “To have such a representation from one country is remarkable given today’s globalised art world.”
“There is an unprecedented interest being shown in German contemporary art."
At the auction house’s last big contemporary art sale in October, work by German artists accounted for more than 43% – nearly £21m – of the sale total. Over the past five years there has been a 31% increase internationally in bidders for contemporary German art, a 22% increase in London.
Other big German names represented in the forthcoming sale include Thomas Schütte, Wolfgang Tillmans, Martin Kippenberger, Günther Uecker, Albert Oehlen and Michael Krebber. Most of their auction records have been broken at recent sales, in further recognition of their growing popularity.
All have recently been or are the subject of big museum exhibitions, the most prominent being Tillmans’s, which will open at Tate Modern in London on 15 February.
Meanwhile, the star of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction in London on 8 March will be Baselitz’s Mit Roter Fahne (With a Red Flag), which is expected to break the record for the amount raised by one of his works.
Estimated at between £6.5m to £8.5m, the 1965 work is taken from the Heroes series, considered one of the most important works by Baselitz, who once described himself as having been “born into a destroyed order”.
He was seven when the second world war ended and the subject has defined his oeuvre. In a 2015 interview with the Guardian, he said: “This pressure of being German really made us what we are. Had we not had it, I don’t know whether we would have succeeded as artists.”
Martin Klosterfelde, Sotheby’s senior specialist of contemporary art, believes the surge in interest in German art is in part due to the artists’ attempts to use their work to come to terms with Germany’s history, and also to modern-day politics, which has sensitised collectors.
“There is the unique condition of being German in the 20th century,” he said. “Collectors from as far afield as Asia to North America have been tuning into this and picking up on the very specific way in which the artists have dealt with the trauma, turbulence and upheaval in the wake of world war two and used that to produce great art.
"Many of these German works are not new, but it is as if they have found their moment."
“Amid the current political climate, it would seem these artists works resonate more than ever. Many of these German works are not new, but it is as if they have found their moment.
“What the artists have in common is the way in which the concept of ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’, or ‘coming to terms with the past’, has come to shape and define them as artists, whether consciously or subconsciously. Klosterfelde believes it “will become a very accepted word in modern art history”. Of Kiefer (aged 71), Richter (85), Baselitz (79), he added: “All of them are quite open about this.”
Younger artists represented, such as Tillmans, 49, the first photographer to win the Turner prize in 2000, and Krebber, 63, a former studio assistant to Baselitz, had “inherited the heaviness”, from the older artists who were their teachers, Klosterfelde said.
Richter is arguably the trailblazer in the trend for German art. He has been known for several years as Europe’s most valuable living artist and his record stands at £30.4m, set in London in February 2015 for his abstract painting, Abstraktes Bild.
Five of his works will be included in next month’s sale, the most prominent of them is Eisberg, which is estimated at £8m to £2m. The photo realist painting from 1982 was created following a polar expedition Richter undertook to escape marital strife. It is described as one of the artist’s “damaged landscapes”, series which encompass aerial views of bombed cities as well as the emotional charge of postwar trauma.
Further lots include the late Kippenberger’s four-part 1984 oil painting Die Mutter von Joseph Beuys (Joseph Beuy’s Mother), estimated at £3-4m, and the late Polke’s Die Schmiede (The Blacksmith), part of a series of pop imagery comic paintings. The buyer is advised to mount it on the ceiling so that the predatory faces of the men depicted looking down on the victim of a bloody attack are facing the viewer.
The Reichstag in a charred state – recalling the 1933 fire that was a key event in the establishment of Nazi Germany – features in Kiefer’s 1991 work, Athanor with an estimated price tag of £1.5m to £2m. Like many of the German lots, “it encapsulates such a rich lexicon of memories and histories,” according to Klosterfelde, “its fragility suggesting the weaknesses of the past yet the fact it still barely remains intact evokes a certain hope for the future.”