Summary of Capitalist Realism
Though a relatively short-lived movement, Capitalist Realism took a darker, more ironic stance than most of the Pop Art that spread across Western countries at the height of the Cold War. Started in Düsseldorf among a group of art students, including Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, the Capital Realists shared a critical stance toward the invasion of American capitalism and consumerism into West Germany. A play on Social Realism and capitalism, Capitalist Realism used various styles and media to create imagery that called into question middle-class values and aspirations and that hoped to remind Germany of its not-so-distant traumatic past that the artists felt was being too easily repressed and papered over.
Coming out of the international Fluxus movement, the Capital Realists' most recognizable happenings and paintings were made in the mid-1960s, and its tenets and younger artists were later promoted by gallerist René Block. Its influence was consequential for German artists like Martin Kippenberger, who was a provocateur of Bad Painting, and the more contemporary Neo Raush. Additionally, in the increasingly globalized world, many younger artists, including prominent artists such as Ai Weiwei, have taken up the Capital Realists' philosophical critiques of capitalism in their efforts to expose the unseemly side of its global reach.
- Like its British and American Pop Art counterparts, Capitalist Realism employed mass media imagery, including advertisements and photographs to create their compositions, but Capitalist Realists tended to be more critical of consumer culture. This criticality had roots in the international Fluxus movement that often relied on staged events, or Happenings. It shared with Fluxus ideas about the democratization of art and the use of multiples to subvert art market value.
- Capitalist Realism is less a unified style than a set of political ideas and beliefs about art, Western culture, and capitalism. Critical towards traditional artistic and social values, Capitalist Realists employed photorealism, mechanical reproduction, as well as collage to take aim at their subjects. Because they rejected the unique, auratic art work that had traditionally been hailed by Modernism Capitalist Realism is one of the first recognizable Postmodern movements.
- While Capitalist Realism has had a global influence reaching to Japan and China, it was originally calibrated to the specifics of Cold War Germany and specifically West Germany with its influx of postwar capital and American influence. In addition to their leeriness of American influence and values, the Capitalist Realists felt that Germany had not sufficiently confronted the horrors perpetuated by Nazism during World War II, and many of their works address the widespread repression of memory the artists witnessed in West Germany.
Overview of Capitalist Realism
In a politically divided Germany, Berlin in the 1960s was a microcosm of the Cold War, a city in turmoil, physically split into two ideologically opposing halves by the Berlin Wall - the West, American-allied side and the East, Soviet-allied side. The political ideas held by each bled into visual culture; in the East, Socialist Realism was the prescribed doctrine implemented by the artistic powers in the Soviet Union, who instructed artists to portray in a realist style an optimistic, idealised version of factory and farm life. The depiction of negative imagery was banned, and artists were expected to depict joyous, celebratory workers in public murals and sculptures - propagandistic imagery aimed at promoting the benefits of Soviet life. In the West, Germans embraced the stylistic freedoms of the American avant-garde and other Western European art as well as new styles of sculpture and performance art.
Important Art and Artists of Capitalist Realism
Abstraction and figuration merge in this ghostly, monochrome scene. A stag is painted with near photographic detail, yet it has been blurred to resemble an out-of-focus snapshot, suggesting the slightest trace of movement. Around the deer a thick network of spiky, jagged branches are drawn only as a series of abstracted outlines that weave in and out of one another over a washy grey ground. Richter made this painting while he was still a student at Düsseldorf Academy, copying the motif from an old photograph he took as a teenager. His close friend, Konrad Fischer, persuaded him to leave the work in a somewhat unfinished condition, prompting Richter to describe the work as a "finished painting, courtesy of Konrad Fischer."
This painting is seen today as an early example of Richter's trademark "blur" technique, where images copied from photographs appear hazy and out of focus, lending them a painterly quality. But Richter's blurring process is far more than a formalist device; he deliberately creates a sense of distance between image and viewer, reminding us that photographs, whether personal or published, are one-dimensional, biased depictions rather than a complete reality. Writer Tom McCarthy says, "What is a blur? It's a corruption of an image, an assault upon its clarity, one that turns transparent lenses into opaque shower curtains, gauzy veils."
Many of Richter's earlier paintings, like Stag, were copied from photographs relating to his past, portraying people and places that no longer exist, which when painted through a hazy lens suggest the natural erasure of time. But Richter's blurring process was also applied to public photographs, such as political figures and consumer items, including planes, boats, and even toilet rolls. With his critical and subversive eye, Richter reduces the capitalist culture that surrounds us into an indistinct blur, a reminder of how superficial and one-dimensional the media really is, encapsulating the Capitalist Realist critique. He wrote, "I blur to make everything equal, everything equally important and equally unimportant."
The painted towering spires of Germany's famous Neuschwanstein Castle are nestled among an expressively painted landscape, and yet the castle seems to have been collaged onto the canvas. Much like many of his early, student paintings, Richter deliberately uses multiple styles to create a disjointed, broken version of reality. While the castle is portrayed with clean, graphic simplicity, the background has a pointillist quality, comprised of flickering dots and dashes of color, reminiscent of Jean Dubuffet's series Landscapes of the Mind, in which he created layered, monochromatic surfaces. It is likely Richter appropriated the image from a cover of Germany's Stern magazine, which celebrated Germany's famous Bavarian castle set amongst the dense, mountainous solitude of Lake Forggen.
By reproducing imagery from popular culture with a detached, deadpan eye, Richter echoed the language of his American and British Pop Art contemporaries. It is telling that the famed castle inspired Walt Disney's castles in both Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and that Andy Warhol made a silkscreen image of this same very castle in 1987. But Richter's image has a darker, more subversive edge which it is distinctly German. The castle has achieved a cult status in German culture with its mystical, fantasy appearance, built by the famously eccentric King Ludwig II, who had a complicated, troubled life and who is often superficially referred to as the "Fairy-tale King." Richter was also well aware that the site was used to store stolen works of art by Nazis during the Second World War. Moreover, his painting's cut-and-paste, disjointed aesthetic parodies Germany's nationalistic tradition for Romantic landscape painting - such as works by Caspar David Friedrich, which were championed by Adolf Hitler.
During his Capitalist Realist phase, Richter was keen to explore the ways art could address Germany's painful, difficult past rather than gloss over it with the veneer of American advertising and consumerism. Paintings such as this one point to the hidden meaning lying beneath a supposed "fairy-tale" surface, exploring art's powerful role as a carrier of cultural trauma.
On the right side of the canvas, a cartoonish face in profile, with bulging cheeks, opens his mouth wide, ready to devour a long string of sausages that spreads across the surface of the canvas into a configuration that resembles the lines on a map delineating lands. Polke made this work early in his career while still a student at the Düsseldorf Academy, where he began appropriating imagery and ideas from popular culture and creating various forms of parody and satire.
Polke was raised in East Germany before leaving to study in West Berlin, where he encountered for the first time the encroaching consumerism that accompanied an economic surge in prosperity. On the one hand Polke was fascinated by the materialistic decadence around him, but on the other hand, he also saw it as a vulgar form of excess, which he explored in his works. Here, Germany's national sausage becomes a symbol for general indulgence and gluttony, as a single figure tries to consume far more than he needs. While the work undoubtedly has a humorous quality, writer Faten Hakimi points out the dark streak running through it, writing, "Polke's humour wasn't sarcastic, it was a form of rebellion."
In contrast with his American Pop contemporaries, who undoubtedly had an impact on his practice, Polke's work was less about glamorizing the world of media and advertising and more about pointing out its inherent failings. In contrast with Roy Lichtenstein's various Hot Dog paintings, Polke's image has a deliberate ordinariness, with a complete lack of decoration or aesthetic appeal, as museum director Kathy Halbreich points out, "Compare Roy Lichtenstein's Hot Dog with Polke's The Sausage Eater.... Same subject matter, but Lichtenstein's has a triumphant cleanliness, and Polke's is dirty, dusty and contaminated."