There has been a dramatic shift in recent years, and where once American and English painters held the Auction high prices and headlines, German artists are now defining the contemporary art scene. Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, and Sigmar Polke are the big hitters in a rampaging German art market. In Sotheby’s upcoming auction on the 8th of March, German artists make up over a quarter of the entire number of lots on offer.
Before, works by artists such as Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, and Andy Warhol, would form the centerpiece of a contemporary art sale, but over the past 5 years there has been a 31% increase, internationally, in bidders for contemporary German art. In Sotheby’s previous sale in October, German artists accounted for 43% (£21million) of the total sale. The fact that this domination is taking place in a globalized art world, is nothing short of astonishing.
The unprecedented interest has meant that even established artists such as Thomas Schütte, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Günther Uecker and Thomas Ruff are year on year breaking their own auction records. Perhaps the standout work in the entire auction is Baselitz’s Mit Roter Fahne (With a Red Flag), a painting expected to raise the bar for Baselitz at auction. Featuring a bare-footed, decrepit figure in a barren landscape, it is believed by many to be one of his most important works. Estimated at between £6.5 and £8.5 million, the work dating from 1965 hails from his famous Heroes series. Dramatic and ambivalent, the work confronts Germany’s difficult past, at a time when it was reinventing itself as Europe’s economic powerhouse.
But what is behind the rise of German artists? Some critics believe that the strength of German art schools, including Düsseldorf’s Kunstakademie and Frankfurt’s Städelschule, in part accounts for the wave of German artists. As indeed is Germany’s decentralization, unlike in the UK for instance—which is dependent on the cultural capital of London—Germany’s federal set-up boasts influential and powerful centers spread out across the entire country.
But perhaps the single most significant point, according to art critic Alastair Smart, is the complicated matter of subject and inspiration. Richter and Baselitz were old enough to witness the carnage at the end of the Second World War, indeed both their fathers were members of the Nazi party. Aged just seven when the war ended, Baselitz grew up on the edges of a decimated Dresden. After the war, although he never consciously embraced the German process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (the process of coming to terms with the past), he once remarked: “It’s just there. It has many sides, but the most unpleasant is that wherever you go as a German, you’re called out for it.”
The work of Anselm Kiefer has perhaps more than any other German artist, dealt with the country’s dark past. Born during World War II, his practice explores the postwar consciousness and the mindset of his parent’s generation. His work Athanor is one of the lots on offer. The enormous painting depicts the charred remnants of a Reichstag style building. Its title refers to the name of the furnace devised to turn lead into gold. Created at the time of the fall of the Berlin wall, the painting is a metaphor for Germany’s turbulent history. Sold at an auction at Christie’s in 2011 for $1,539,950, even its lowest estimate at today’s auction more than doubles that estimate and Sotheby’s are confident that this will be surpassed.
Richter, Baselitz, and Kiefer are now in their seventies or eighties, each of them in their own way, have explored the legacy of their country’s history, both on themselves and the world at large. The world is still fascinated by how Germany’s advanced and educated society was capable of descending to such levels of moral depravity. The artists who have dealt with these unanswerable questions, and turned the upheaval and turbulence of War’s aftermath into great art, have in the process, turned themselves into highly bankable stars.
By Duncan Ballantyne-Way — Senior Editor