There is a neat symmetry to the Contemporary Art from Germany exhibition currently on display at the Umm el- Fahm Art Gallery, running in tandem with its sibling show at the Mishkan Museum of Art in Ein Harod. The bicultural- binational ethos is apparent, both in the chosen venues and in the items the curators went for.Berlin-based art historian and lecturer Prof. Matthias Flügge, who curated the Umm el-Fahm half of the show, says he had his work cut out to tailor the layout to the premises up North.“It was quite difficult to prepare the exhibition. We originally had about 400 artworks to choose from, and we had to decide what goes to Umm el- Fahm and what goes to Ein Harod.”In the end, it was a relatively simple matter of size that helped Flügge and for his compatriot counterpart at the larger facility at Ein Harod, Prof. Matthias Winzen, to channel the works to each gallery.“Ein Harod is more spacious, and we visited both places in February when we decided what goes where.”Space constraints notwithstanding, Flügge still managed to put together a fascinating lineup of works from across a broad swath of disciplines and, intriguingly, from across numerous decades that, naturally, also span the seismic shifts in Germany’s political and sociopolitical equilibrium in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Add to that the fact that the exhibition’s time frame begins during World War II, and also takes in the physical division of Berlin with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
‘M. Crosses the Lake at Gallenthin,’ 1984, Kunst, Bonn (photo credit: UWE WALTER) “Our task was to tell a story about what was going on in Germany from different aspects,” Flügge explains.“The political aspect was one of them, but more important for us – for my colleague Matthias Winzen and me – was the art history.”Interestingly, it is not always apparent which works date from the Communist era, and which were created in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. After that momentous occurrence, one presumes, artists from the eastern side of the erstwhile impregnable partition – where the communist leaders decided, often on a whim, what was considered “kosher” – could really let their creative hair down.Surprisingly, Flügge does not go along with the idea that artificially imposed limitations serve to clip a true artist’s wings. As a former citizen of East Germany, he should know.“We had about 22,000 artworks to choose from [stored at the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations]. We wanted to tell a story about what’s going on, and about different aspects. We wanted to tell the story of the art history, independently from the political developments.”That noble objective was helped by the fact that, after the Berlin Wall fell in late 1989, artworks from both the east and west sides could be amalgamated. “That helped us, in a way, to tell the story from both sides,” Flügge observes. “The story had never been seen in that way before.”The works may have come from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and anyone from the West who visited the east side of divided Berlin prior to 1989 can attest to the chasm-like contrast between life on either side of the wall – I did that in 1986 – but Flügge says that he and Winzen did not immediately note any striking differences between creations from the free Western world and those that emanated from the draconian and heavily controlled society in the East.“The collections from the East and the West came together, and you don’t see, from first view, which is from the West and which comes from the East,” continues the curator. “It was interesting for Prof. Winzen and myself too, as he comes from the West and I come from the East.”A black-and-white photography set by Bernhard and Hilla Becher in the Umm el-Fahm exhibition is a case in point. The four-piece work features somewhat gloomy images of statuesque pitheads that, at first glance, conjure up pictures of a heavily industrialized communist society with miners working all hours of the day and night for a pittance, and going home to box-like apartments with drab wallpaper and 40-watt light bulbs. On further investigation, it turns out that the Bechers were, in fact, West Germans who specialized in arresting shots of industrial structures.As you walk through the well-lit rooms of the gallery, you see works from the 1940s until the early 1990s.You cannot know, without checking out the name and origin of the artist, whether you are looking art from East Germany or West Germany, or from pre-partition Germany or the unified country after the fall of Communism.The vintage of the various work is often not clear either, and therein lies part of the charm of the display.Flügge notes that enormous difference between life on either side of the Berlin Wall notwithstanding, there were a lot of twilight areas between artists from both Germanys.“Many artists in the East were very well informed about what was going on in the West. We went to Poland, and to Czechoslovakia before ’68, and they had a very vibrant art scene there.”There was also cultural content on television, which, Flügge muses ironically, has not stood the test of time very well.“I remember in the late ’60s and early ’70s, every evening there was a report on TV about what was going on in art, all the stuff going on in the experimental scene and so on. Now that has been lost. The mass media is about the mass market. In my generation [of East Germans], if you wanted to be informed you had all the possibilities of doing that.”
‘Smiling Buddha (Buddha Looking at Old Candle TV),’ 1992, by Korean-American artist Nam June Paik (photo credit: Courtesy).Despite the intentional non-chronological display, it is still fascinating to try to discern new factors that may have come into play in the artists’ ethos – even in a subconscious way – once the official Communist Party line constraints were lifted from the shoulders of East German artists.“You know things are not black and white, although, of course, people who drew political illustrations, for example, no longer had a career after the wall came down,” says Flügge, “but I wouldn’t really call them artists.I would say that most artists, especially those who were young at the time [of the end of Communism], they mostly kept on telling the same message as they did before. It wasn’t as if it all changed from one day to the next.They didn’t say ‘now we are free, we can paint what we want.’ They could paint what they wanted before also – although they might have had problems with exhibiting them in public.”East or West, pre- or post-Communism, or slap bang in the middle of the Soviet Union’s iron grip on life in eastern Europe, the Contemporary Art from Germany exhibition makes for fascinating viewing, across all kinds of genres, mindsets and – yes – cultural viewpoints.Contemporary Art from Germany closes on February 13, 2016. For more information: ummelfahemgallery.org/