IRI AND TOSHI MARUKIWater (Panel III) (detail), 1950–82, From “Hiroshima Panels” (series of 15 panels), India ink and Japanese paper, 180 × 720 cm. Courtesy Maruki Gallery For The Hiroshima Panels Foundation, Saitama. 

Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965

Germany China Japan Korea, South Pakistan
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

For three years, Haus der Kunst director Okwui Enwezor, together with Katy Siegel and Ulrich Wilmes, conducted research on art produced in the two decades following the Second World War. Their collective endeavor culminated in “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965,” an exhibition of more than 350 artworks by 218 artists from 65 countries. Challenging the presumption that the genealogies of Modernist languages are rooted solely in a Euro-American narrative, the show resulted in a radical dislocation of one’s perspective on art history in the aftermath of global conflict.

In the grand atrium of Haus der Kunst, visitors found an ensemble of sculptural works, including David Medalla’s Cloud Gates – Bubble Machine (1965/2013) and Atsuko Tanaka’s iconic Electric Dress (1956). These transformative works established a formal dialogue with a gigantic, geometric, black painted wood sculpture by Polish artist Mathias Goeritz, who settled in Mexico in 1949. Titled The Serpent (1953), the work slits a mesmerizing sculptural line that dramatically cuts through space, representing the divisions caused by the trauma of war.

Such a dramatic introduction established the tenor of the show, and primed the audience for its eight chapters. The first was titled “Aftermath: Zero Hour and the Atomic Era,” and gathered works made in reaction to the deployment of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the apocalyptic dehumanization and engineered extermination of Jews in Europe. Gerhard Richter’s paintings, which were modeled after archival photographs of emaciated Jewish men, women and children in concentration camps, were displayed beside the first photographs of Japanese survivors suffering from radiation sickness, taken by Japanese military photographer Yƍsuke Yamahata. This juxtaposition made clear the parallel disappearances of the human body, and the effects of these events on artists in many corners of the world.

The most compelling works in this chapter were found in Iri and Toshi Maruki’s “Hiroshima Panels” (1950–82). Eight of the original 15 were on display, transported to Munich from their permanent home in Saitama, Japan. The panels’ imagery intertwines traditional East Asian composition, abstract forms and experimental figuration to evoke Dante-esque scenes that translate the blast’s carnage and the horrors of fascism. Nearby, formless sculptures appeared as dismembered bodies in Joseph Beuys’s theatrical Monuments to the Stag (1958/1982), transmitting visual echoes of the violence, torture and submission in concentration camps.

The rest of the exhibition presented radical mutations through abstract and figurative languages in art from 1945 to 1965, ignited by postwar conditions across the globe. This included a mapping of Informalist and Abstract Expressionist painting in the second chapter, titled “Form Matters,” which included figures from Japan, Korea and the subcontinent. In this chapter, one also found the results of deconstructive art practices in Europe by immigrant artists such as Marta Minujín, a pioneer of “happenings,” to explore the impulse of freedom among a postwar generation disillusioned with modernity.

In later chapters, geometric abstraction was presented in the contexts of the aesthetic programs in new utopias. Such efforts were widely manifested in Latin America, catalyzed in some scenes by immigrant European artists who were fleeing the war. Within this genealogy of art history, where the Madí group from Argentina and both Concrete and Neo-Concrete art from Brazil connect to Constructivism and Neo-Plasticism, we find a wider context and new terminologies for the postwar periodization of early works by Pakistani-British artist Rasheed Araeen. Even more radical was the exhibition’s fourth chapter, “Realisms,” where Soviet socialist realism met the iconographies of Mexican muralism and China’s Cultural Revolution, but with a curatorial drive to dismantle the idyllic, fictional heroism of these artistic genres. This occurred, for instance, by placing a poetic, propagandistic painting by Li Xiushi near a canvas that depicts a queue of women, each waiting for a turn to visit her husband in prison, which is the work of Inji Efflatoun, a political prisoner herself in Egypt in the 1950s.

“Postwar” left viewers pondering the conclusion that experimentation in art, even that which we conceive as formalist, is always affected and transformed by chronic political turmoil.

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