For many centuries, Germany has been major cultural centre in Europe, influencing the way arts developed in different countries. Classical German art contributed to the world’s art treasury with works of masters such as Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald, Caspar David Friedrich, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Peter von Cornelius, and many others.
Daring inquiry, prevailing experimentation, freedom to create, as well as finding new semantic and artistic interpretations of familiar themes and images, which acquired a “genetic code” in German art, set the foundation for the emergence of different trends in the German avant-garde in the first half of the twentieth century, and later – of postmodernism in contemporary art.
Germany’s contemporary art is the product of a specific historical context, certain social and political realities, artistic environment, mentality and traditions, and, at the same time, the denial of all that.
The introduction of the Uzbek audience to the contemporary art of Germany was facilitated by exhibitions jointly organized by the Goethe Institute in Tashkent and the Foreign Countries Relations Institute (IFA) and run regularly in Tashkent in recent years. These displays have become an important spiritual component that allows getting in touch with the country’s art and culture and to know the soul of the German people, presenting megastars not only of the German art, but also of the European avant-garde and post-modernism in general. Each artist follows his own life-path and career; for the majority of them, these are closely linked with the dramatic history of the twentieth century. Every artist whose works were displayed at these exhibitions experienced some sort of spiritual crisis or a clash between the individual and the world around; hence the understandable social orientation of their art. Their works reflect the particular historical period: the World War I, the post-war time, and the reunification of Germany, which have left their mark on the artists’ creative identity.
One of the first exhibitions to run was that of the well-known German graphic artist Max Ernst (Fine Arts Gallery of Uzbekistan, 2006), whose art represents a milestone in the art of the twentieth century and earned this assessment of William Rubin, curator of the New York Museum of Modern Art: “in the extraordinary variety of his styles and techniques, Max Ernst is to Dada and Surrealism what Picasso is to 20th century art as a whole.” (1, p. 93). The world of Max Ernst is the world of fiction and imagination, troubled and surreal, filled with metamorphoses, warped shapes and proportions, and unreal images such as bird-headed humans and fantasy creatures. His universe and imagery are deeply meaningful, expressing not only his artistic, but also civic position of a man who opposed hypocrisy and banality of his epoch, brutality of the years of war… The works of Max Ernst represent a mix of drawing techniques, collage, frottage, and all sorts of handy materials that communicate personal vision and conceptual thinking of the great master. His works cannot be explained by formal logic; they have to be experienced and comprehended.
Another discovery of German art by the Uzbek audience was the exhibition of Gerhard Richter (Fine Arts Gallery of Uzbekistan, 2007), one of the most famous German artists whose life and work reflect a turning point in the German history. Having moved from East Germany to Düsseldorf in 1961, Richter realized that besides social realism as an art style there were other ways of informal painting that can be proactive in “finding the reality of today”. Richter’s themes, subjects and characters do not fit into available formulas and definitions. Every one of his works on the display is an artefact filled with deep meaning. Originally presented cultural history in his graphic work “Overview”, paintings, photographs, and memoir-pictures revealing the potential of abstraction in art, or rather, of abstract conceptualization, the kind of the artist’s topoi, which existed in the art of the past as systems and structures – all this is aimed to galvanize sensations, experiences, and psychological impulses in the viewer’s mind. The art of Gerhard Richter shows that not all the possibilities of modern art have been tried yet, and there still is room for experimentation. …And not just for the sake of experimentation, but for the sake of finding the most optimal means of expressing a particular concept.
Of great interest was the exhibition of the renowned German graphic artist and photographer Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, better known as Wols (Fine Arts Gallery of Uzbekistan, 2007). Wols’ sorrowful and cartoon-like characters come from the pain of man’s exposure to the world. The artist often worked in a trance-like state, spilling onto the canvas the associative reflections of his senses and emotions. The exhibited photographs by Wols were quite striking as the author photographed things random, accidental and elusive, looking for unusual aspects and compositions, and revealing unexpected connections. In his works, reality appears to yield to some kind of space that has the right to be. Wols’ drawings clearly show the “surrealistic principle of playing around random and surprise combinations” (2). The purpose of the artist is to go beyond reality while keeping the images familiar to the viewer, and, through the language of shapes, create the reality of his own.
The word ‘Bauhaus’ is known not only to artists and intellectuals. It is the construction and design academy – Germany’s art school and art association (1919-1933) that produced many great ideas and prominent artists. The Bauhaus motto is “The New Union of Art and Technology”. The Bauhaus activity is associated with the twentieth century architecture mega-stars such as Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and others.
The exhibition “Bauhaus Photographs” (Fine Arts Gallery of Uzbekistan, 2008) brought photographic achievements of the famous art centre even closer to the Uzbek audience. Department of Photography at Bauhaus was officially opened in 1929. Photography here was understood not just in a narrow, purely artistic sense, but considered an important visual impetus and opportunity to generate form, serving the purpose of the Bauhaus Manifesto formulated by the famous Walter Gropius: “The ultimate aim of all visual arts is the complete building!” (3, p. 8).
The Bauhaus’ most famous photo artists were Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Walter Peterhans, apparently unlike in their creative pursuits. Moholy-Nagy took the road of experimentation and innovation, picking up new ideas that brew in the artistic milieu. Peterhans worked in the genre of still-life, bringing it to perfection. The display showed self-portraits, pictures of buildings in the Bauhaus style, portraits of the Bauhaus artists, and the world of objects. These works demonstrated the enormous potential of modern photography, where the dominant feature could be either formal representational means, or the aesthetics of play. Photography can serve the interpretation of socially significant themes, turn into a short cinematic narration, or be conceptual. It was the Bauhaus that came up with the term ‘photoplasticity’, which implied a sophisticated assembly of multiple elements into a wholesome product.
The “Bauhaus Photographs” exhibition displayed the works of Herbert Bayer who offered this explanation to the term ‘photoplasticity’: “The notion was introduced by Moholy-Nagy to emphasize plastic qualities of a photograph. Here it is used in relation to organic and geometric forms placed in a natural and fantastic environment.” (4, p. 162). One may or may not accept some of the Bauhaus photographs, but one thing is certain: these works that determined the content, the worldview, and the formal-plastic fundamentals for the development of contemporary world photography demonstrate freedom of creative experimentation and thinking, along with high artistic quality.
A significant event in the cultural life of Uzbekistan was the exhibition of the world-famous German artist Günther Uecker, “The Oppressed Man: Fourteen Ways of Consolation” (Fine Arts Gallery of Uzbekistan, 2009), as well as the artist’s visit to Tashkent. Günther Uecker organized over 140 solo action-displays and participated in more than 400 exhibitions in Germany and abroad. Experts note that Uecker’s works combine contemplation, meditation and intuitive spiritual enlightenment intended to direct the viewer’s eye to the “core of the world” and engage him in the artist’s works. Uecker creates an object-free world that manifests itself in symbols having a high degree of sensory reality and producing enormous, properly artistic, impact.
The fourteen items of the “The Oppressed Man: Fourteen Ways of Consolation” display presented “the artist’s inner portrait, through which he conveys his vision of life and suffering, analyzes his experience, registers his emotions and employs subtle symbolism trying to show the forces driving reality: aggression, hurt, and destruction that he meets with conciliatory gestures emanating calm and consolation” (from the G. Uecker’s interview with D. Honish, March 27, 1993) (5, p. 2). The number of items chosen for the display is not accidental: it commemorates the Passion of Christ and refers to the Fourteen Stations on the Way of the Cross.
Visitors to the exhibition perceived it as the artist’s confession; a kind of cautioning to the mankind of the need to stay human. The exhibition of Gunther Uecker is an interactive dialogue with the audience. Exhibits also included numerous photographs and a video showing the artist wounding and then bandaging himself. He claims that he draws his inspiration from somewhere beyond the realm of art. His works are the formulation of sensual comprehension of how life experience is expressed in the existential form.
Gunther Uecker’s exhibition is quite striking not only in terms of unusual artefacts it presented, but also in terms of their profound philosophical background and the proper “laboratory” of their making, the author’s extraordinary mindset and his peculiar reflection about the events in the world around. Gunther Uecker’s evolution as the original artist was influenced not only by specific historical and political environment or the European post-modernist aesthetics, but also by his travels around the world and his studies of Christianity, Judaism, Indian philosophy, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Hinduism, which the artist describes as “the still living forms of cultural and spiritual reality of this world” (5, p. 14).
Another significant event in the cultural life of Uzbekistan was a solo exhibition of Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix, one of the most important artists of the twentieth century (Fine Arts Gallery of Uzbekistan, 2011). Otto Dix is a German expressionist painter and printmaker, the author of shocking and emotionally intense pictures and drawing series depicting war and biblical subjects. The exhibition displayed his 1920-1924 prints showing the horrors of the World War I. Death, violence, destitution and a sense of apocalypse in Otto Dix’ works are presented in expressionist aesthetics. No surprise that the harshness of his first portfolio of fifty etchings (“The War”) caused a shock in the German society as it depicted the war without embellishment, the mass destruction of human beings, and degradation of human mind.
German graphic art has a long-standing tradition of expressionism. Suffice it to recall the works of Albrecht Dürer, Käthe Kollwitz and many others. Graphic sheets by Otto Dix strike the viewer with their expressive power, honed compositional solutions and strong emotional impact. The artist excellently conveyed the atmosphere of the World War I and the post-war period. It was no accident that in 1937 in Berlin 260 of his paintings were burned by the Nazis as they saw them as a threat “to the normal revival of the nation”.
Projects of the Goethe Institute and the Foreign Countries Relations Institute (IFA) introduced the Uzbek audience not only to the twentieth century German classics, but also to the contemporary German art. The “Contemporary Photo Art of Germany” exhibition (The Young People’s Art Centre, 2010) impressed Uzbek photographers of different generations and stylistic persuasions. Contemporary photo-art of Germany, as well as of other countries, includes amateur photography, photo-reports, advertising and fashion photography, as well as photographic documentation of industrial facilities – a trend that already in the 1920s was known as “New Objectivity”. Notwithstanding the fact that photography art in the present-day Uzbekistan is developing quite rapidly, the exhibition has lent a certain momentum and set new directions to the artistic self-realization of the national artists. The display included works of the well-known contemporary German photographers such as Dieter Appelt, Anna and Bernhard Blume, Thomas Florshuets, Jurgen Klauke, Astrid Klein, Sigmar Polke, Klaus Rinke, and Katarina Ziverding. Although they represent different generations and styles, there is something they have in common: what they wanted to express could only be expressed by means of photography and no other visual media.
The works of contemporary German photo-art included series and panels, images in large- and medium-size format, combination shots and collages, “chemical processes” and the so-called “defects”, reflecting the subtlest nuances of colour and showing advertising techniques. The displayed works have once again asserted the idea of Martin Kippenberger: “The medium of photography is justified in provoking thoughts” (6, p.7).
Specific mention should be given to the international video art exhibition, “Climate and Art” (The Young People’s Art Centre, 2010). The Goethe Institute representatives from Germany invited the renowned video-artists Jan Verbeek and Aki Nakazawa to Tashkent to deliver a master-class for young artists. The project had a regional scope and brought together young video-artists from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. On completion of the intensive practical session of the master-class, the participants, back in their home country, created their own video-art pieces on the subject of man’s relationship to climate-shaped cultural life and traditions; in other words, on the human attachment to a particular natural landscape. The authors created videos that were not only relevant, but also presented interesting solutions. The exhibition had a mobile format, and, after Tashkent, was shown in Dushanbe and Almaty. This arrangement is typical for exhibitions organized by the Goethe Institute (Tashkent) and the IFA: to travel the world, introducing it to Germany’s unique art.
These are just a few major exhibition projects run by the Goethe Institute and the IFA in Tashkent. They gave the Uzbek audience an opportunity to see first hand the remarkable specimens of Germany’s twentieth century art and get to know the work of renowned German artists who contributed greatly to the development of the European avant-garde and post-modernism. And, most importantly, they exposed amateurs and professionals to another, non-standard vector of creative inquiry, characteristic of German artists. This art has a different context and different reflection of the world around, and, consequently, different imagery and expressive means and conceptual categories. It pushes the boundaries of our worldview, enriches our experience and opens new possibilities to interpret reality. The exhibitions of German art have strongly influenced artists and photographers of Uzbekistan, the country’s actual art, and particularly its young artists, encouraging them to create and expand the habitual artistic horizons.
Another important mission of these exhibitions is that they contribute to the strengthening of intercultural dialogue between Uzbekistan and Germany and facilitate contacts between people of art, which help them cooperate and generate new plans for the future. This was made possible only with the attainment of independence and the coming awareness that we are open to the world, and the world is open to us.