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Werner Tübke


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German painter, born in Schönebeck, one of the best-known but also one of the most controversial figures in the art of the Communist DDR. He joined the Artists' Union in 1952 as well as the East German Communist Party. His relations with the authorities could be problematic. In 1959 he was criticized for ‘concessions to modernist views of art’. His style drew on medieval and Renaissance sources and was far closer to the Magic Realism of Western Europe in the interwar period than to Socialist Realism. In early paintings he combined religious imagery with state-approved political subjects. The Portrait of the Cattle Breeder Brigadier Bodlenko (1962, Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig), an equestrian portrait in the style of a medieval knight but sporting a modern wristwatch, was attacked as ‘a ghostly, bizarrely estranged relationship to life in a country that is engaged in building a communist society’.

In 1965 he produced a cycle of paintings entitled Die Lebenserinnerungen des Dr. jur. Schulze (Nationalgalerie, Berlin). Although not a commissioned work, it followed official ideology in depicting continuity between the Nazi regime and the present-day politics of West Germany. The principal figure is a judge who, having perverted the judicial system during the Third Reich, remains a lawyer in the Federal Republic. The jumble of images has been compared by Richard Pettit to the apocalyptic scenes of Bosch and Bruegel. Tübke was vehemently criticized for ‘idealism’ and especially for proximity to Surrealism. By the 1970s the complexity of such work had become sanctioned by official criticism under the category of Simultanbild (Painting of Simultaneous Images) or ‘dialogical pictures’, which depended upon an intellectual dialogue with the spectator. The acceptance of Tübke's art was one manifestation of a change in official cultural policy in which artists of the past such as Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach were celebrated. In this context, Tübke, by then one of the leading figures in East German art, was commissioned in 1976 to paint a gigantic panorama entitled Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany. It depicts the Battle of Frankenhausen (1525), which led to the defeat of the peasants, and is housed in a specially constructed building in Bad Frankenhausen. Tübke's ambition was to link the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Peasants' War. The work was completed in 1987. Although he trained his own team of assistants, most were unable to cope with the demands of the project, the largest painting in Germany according to the Guinness Book of Records, and Tübke executed approximately two thirds of the work himself. His leading critical supporter in West Germany, Edward Beaucamp, wrote in 1993 that in the panorama ‘the artist in the end triumphs over the sponsor’ and that he ‘transformed the state monument into a pure art monument’.

By the time Germany was unified in 1989, Tübke already had a substantial reputation in the West. As early as 1972, West German curators had surreptitiously tried to persuade him to defect. His relationship to the Old Masters was very much in accord with the vogue for Postmodern quotation in the 1980s. Nonetheless, his most important post-Communist work, a three-winged altarpiece for the church of St Salvatoris in Clausthal-Zellerfeld (1997), was attacked by the critic Peter Iden as ‘devotional kitsch’. Alongside Fritz Cremer, Wolfgang Mattheuer, and others, Tübke exemplifies the problems of making simple distinctions between conformists and nonconformists among the artists of the DDR, let alone of making moral judgements on their conduct.


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