From February 23 to May 15, 2011, the Schirn
presents a comprehensive retrospective dedicated to the German painter Eugen Schönebeck, which will feature almost all of his surviving paintings and his most important drawings. After devoting himself to Tachist drawing in his beginnings, Schönebeck turned to figurative drawing and painting and was one of the first German artists to thematize the traumatic experiences of World War II. He created unique works combining the abstract and the figurative. In 1961 and 1962, he and Georg Baselitz pilloried the jaded bourgeois art world in their two Pandemonic Manifestos. In the mid-1960s, Schönebecks growing awareness of the Socialist intellectual world inspired the artist to create timeless portraits of various Heroes of the East, none of which were produced for propaganda purposes. In these pictures, Schönebeck not only examined the character and behavior of revolutionaries such as Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao, but also fathomed the significance of the artists willingness to take risks. Schönebecks paintings and drawings were indeed ahead of their time, and to this very day the issues they deal with have retained their topicality. Comprising thirty paintings and an equal number of drawings, the exhibition at the Schirn shows the first extensive survey of Schönebecks oeuvre after the retrospective prepared by the Kestnergesellschaft Hannover in 1992.
Eugen Schönebeck was born in Heidenau near Dresden in 1936. In 1954, after being apprenticed to become a stage-set painter at the Municipal Arts and Crafts College in Pirna, Saxony, he enrolled at the College of Applied Arts in East Berlin. He left the German Democratic Republic in the following year for West Berlin to study at the citys Academy of Fine Arts. In his years at the academy from 1955 to 1961, he became familiar with the more recent developments in European art and showed himself impressed by the works of Nicolas de Staël, Jean Fautrier, Henri Michaux, Wols, Hans Hartung, and others. The intellectual atmosphere of Paris had a lasting influence on him. He read Baudelaire, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, and Artaud. His impressions inspired him to highly expressive gestural drawings. In 1957, he made friends with Georg Baselitz. An intense exchange of ideas about art ensued, which was to last for five years. Shortly after the publication of Pandemonium II Manifesto, a poster-sized leaflet with texts by both artists, their collaboration found an end in 1962. Schönebeck had already turned his back to gestural painting at that time and gradually come to the conclusion that art had to be pointing a way forward. In Pandemonium II, he and Baselitz had called for a new art which was to detach itself from the prevailing abstract painting of Art Informel and Tachisme and in which, like in Surrealism, art and life were to be more directly related to each other again. This was how they hoped to open up a new approach to reality. I regard the abyss of sincerity as a raison dêtre, a bestiary, an entire life, an inner swelling force. A truth that will always be hanging in the balance! . . . Its about life, not about narcissism, Schönebeck emphasized in the Manifesto.
Schönebecks paintings and drawings from that time show mutated beings that seem to float between the world of the dead and the world of the living fragmented and torn, oscillating between abstraction and figuration. The painting Tortured Man (1963) describes a ghastly slaughter. We see the mutilated limbs of a man whose intestines are spilling to the floor. Form only emerges to dissolve in this still not really figurative painting. Ghostly and supporting itself on its buttocks, the figure mercilessly conveys the shocking brutality of what man can do to man. These often grotesque works by Schönebeck draw on the childhood of the artist, who was only nine years old when the war was over, but still remembers the disfigured bloated corpses floating in the Elbe River and the German hordes marching through the destroyed scenery in and around Dresden. These pictures are probably the earliest works by a German postwar artist giving form to the traumatic loss of belief in the lasting values of Fatherland and family. Schönebeck broke an explicit taboo with these pictures. In a manner more radical than his colleagues dared embarking on, he began giving a face to the dismantling of the pride in a German identity that was based on the crimes of World War II. Günter Grass, who enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts to study sculpture in 1953, later remarked in regard to those years that arts [ran] the risk to drift off into the non-committal . . . the non-representational triumphed. Whether here or over there [in the German Democratic Republic]: who reflected circumstances in his pictures, was at loggerheads with reality, was dismissed by the jury.
From 1963 on, Schönebeck, who had left the GDR as an anti-Stalinist and now found himself unable to return to his home country after the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, developed a growing political awareness in the confrontation with the European Left. In this atmosphere, he began to explore the subject of crucifixion which until 1964 was to manifest itself in four paintings which cleared a path for figures and colors. With these works, the artist succeeded in proceeding to an aesthetics which he would, within only one year, transform into an unmistakable style that had no real precursors and has remained without followers.
It was the painting True Man that rang in the new style in 1964. Schönebeck made a series of portraits of persons which might be called Heroes of the East. These are followed by two pictures showing Lenin and Mao as well as large-size portraits of the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, the Russian writer Boris Pasternak, and the Mexican painter, graphic artist, and communist activist David Alfaro Siqueiros. For these paintings Schönebeck relied on a flat kind of style which he had learnt in a mural training course in the GDR. He rendered subjects floating through his mind like phantoms, transforming them into icons. Fascinated by the twodimensional character of Pop Art emblems, he thwarted the neutral-favorable attitude other artists had adopted toward Capitalist consumerism. His new view of the Heroes of the East lies in the way he uses them to expose the mechanisms of Socialist Realism, its modes of influence, and the ideologys power of bewitchment. Schönebeck reveals the impact of pictures in a twofold way: pictures can ensnare people in an ideology on the one hand, but can also unmask the way they affect people on the other. The pictorial language Schönebeck used was clearly taboo in Germany at that time. The artists oversized portraits marked a new peak of the Utopian, cinematic quality of the best that Socialist Realism had to offer.
There was no market for such paintings at that time. In 1967, Schönebeck painted his last pictures and withdrew from the art scene.
Eighteen years have passed since the presentation of Schönebecks oeuvre in a first major retrospective at the Kestnergesellschaft Hannover. Though Schönebeck is praised as an artists artist and several of his works are to be found in important public collections, he has been largely forgotten among art historians. The exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle wants to correct this by assembling almost all his surviving canvases, of which there are about thirty in number, as well as thirty works on paper. An extensive essay by Pamela Kort presents the first comprehensive biography of the artist and situates him in the context of the sociopolitical development of postwar Germany. The exhibition and the catalogue are aimed at securing Schönebecks work the place in art history it deserves.