Wolf Vostell, Shoah 1492–1945, 1997, Acryl und Beton auf Holz / Acrylic and concrete on panel, 270 x 660 cm. THE WOLF VOSTELL ESTATE. © 2022 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Two artists, one theme – when Wolf Vostell (1932– 1998) and Boris Lurie (1924- 2008) met in the 1960s, they soon shared more than a deeply felt friendship. Both adopted political positions with their art, both conten- ded with the reappraisal of the inconceivable horrors of the Holocaust, and both opposed war, cruelty and crimes against humanity with every means at their disposal. Their raw works resist the simple consump- tion that appeared to them as an abomination of the art business. The works of the two artists seem more relevant than ever today, as they rely on a kind of shock therapy, with which the at- tention of the audience is drawn to the continuity of violence and contempt for humanity.
Wolf Vostell and the studio in Berlin-Dahlem
Wolf Vostell is one of the most important German artists of the 20th century and is known in particular as a co-founder of the Fluxus movement. On the occasion of his 90th birth- day, Kunsthaus Dahlem is dedicating an exhibition to him and his artist colleague Boris Lurie, which will focus on the artistic reappraisal of the Holocaust and the most recent German past.
Wolf Vostell is linked with the exhibition location by a spe- cial history: the politically active artist moved from the Rhi- neland to Berlin at the beginning of the 1970s. The move to the “tragic climatic health resort”, as he called Berlin, ap- peared to him to be absolutely necessary: “Because [the place] contains our history after all, and I process this hi- story in my paintings and in my objects.” The City of Berlin gave Vostell lifetime use of a studio in Dahlem in 1984. The new domain was located in a representative studio building that the National Socialists had constructed for Arno Breker from 1938 to 1942. Breker not only enjoyed many privile- ges as an artist during the National Socialist era, but also actively implemented the ideology and aesthetic of the re- gime with his works. The National Socialist regime wanted to transform Berlin into the future capital of the empire of Germania, and Breker was to provide ornamentation for the buildings with monumental sculptures.
Reappraisal of the Shoah
At this historical site, Wolf Vostell continued the conten- tion with the German history of the 20th century he had begun in the late 1950s. Vostell realised the reappraisal of the National Socialist dictatorship and of the Holocaust in all creative phases, with a density and diversity of artistic means like hardly any other artist of his time.
Three works in the exhibition are exemplary of this, of which two envelop his body of work like brackets. Thus, Auschwitz-Scheinwerfer 568 from 1958/59 and the more than seven-metre-long triptych Shoah 1492–1945 from 1997 stand opposite one another. In the centre of the large-format triptych, a painted concrete column topples onto abstract forms lying on top of one another. In some places, body parts are recognisable and emphasise the brutality of the scene. Vostell, who also lived in Malparti- da de Cáceres in Spain, dedicated the work to the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, as well as to those murdered by the National Socialist regime. The artist had begun his search for motifs in 1992 in numerous studies and fi- nally completed the work in 1997, one year prior to his death. He made a statement regarding the link between the two works in the same year: “That’s the same in green. The first were objects, not a concepti- on of the human being, but the remains of human destruction and of the destruction of humans. This is why the space is dedicated to Auschwitz and Treb- linka. This time I was interested in a figuration that wasn’t illustrative, but instead shows the destruction in the phenomenological sense, linked naturally with the theme. It is the bridge from ‘58 to ‘97, two bridge pillars carrying a bridge that I will probably still walk for quite some time yet.”
Another work by Vostell that is presently hanging as a permanent loan from the estate in the former studio space of the artist is located within this con- text: Hebräische Suite für sieben Violinen (1997) is Vostell’s last work dedicated to the memory of Je- wish victims. The large object picture is composed of seven violins at the top edge of the painting, with seven white plates fixated beneath them and a row of sticks in the bottom section. The number seven, which stands for the perfection of creation and the natural order and plays a significant role in Jewish rites, here becomes the bearer of symbols of Jewish traditions and way of life. The artist died in Berlin a few months after its completion.
Boris Lurie and Wolf Vostell – more than an artist friendship
Select works by Boris Lurie enter into a dialogue with Wolf Vostell in the exhibition. The two artists had been very close friends since the 1960s. Lurie grew up in Riga and experienced the horrors of the Shoah as a Jew at first hand. Vostell strived to re- late to these traumatic experiences as a German. An increasingly intensive exchange developed between the two artists.
While the female members of his family fell victim to the mass murder policy of the National Socialists, Boris Lurie survived. After 1941, he was transported to various con- centration camps and liberated on 18 April 1945 from the Polte ammunition factory in Magdeburg, which served as a sub-camp of the Buchenwald concentration camp. He emigrated to New York in 1946, where he initiated the NO!art movement in 1959.
Lurie’s art was not aimed at eliciting sympathy for the vic- tims of the Shoah, “but instead at horrifying”. In his works, he repeatedly juxtaposed the mounds of naked corpses of the Holocaust with titillating pin-ups as products of what was, in his opinion, the same inhuman system. His declared objective was to tear the public out of its com- placent passivity and bring home to it the continuation of criminal systems. The two artist friends pursued similar goals and strategies, not only thematically, but also styli- stically and formally. The exhibition at Kunsthaus Dahlem traces the many parallels in terms of style and content in detail for the first time.
Curator of the exhibition: Eckhart J. Gillen.
The exhibition is funded by the Stiftung Deutsche Klassenlotterie Berlin.
Get the audio tour of Wolf Vostell HERE or contact the exhibition supervisors.