George Herold takes up one aspect of the typical repertoire of German painting from the 1980s: namely a marginal, violent and often tasteless provocation. This depiction deliberately displays political incorrectness: An aggressive mob is using a brick to attack a Black man. The traffic light seems to be giving a green light for the attack. The likewise blatantly racist tile can be read as an attempt by the artist to investigate a general concern of (political) art: namely the question of what art is permitted to do and where its freedom comes to an end. Even at a remove of four decades, the viewer must ask himself whether the artist was using the racist statement of the work and its title to refer to himself. Even if we do not impute a racist background to the artist, both the title and the work – if we take them at their word – are scandalous. And they issue a challenge to both art-historical classification and the exhibiting of art, which deliberately rejects an access devoid of ambiguity or an assertion based on contents.
What do we see?
The aim of the attack is clear: A Black man becomes the victim of a brutal assault attack with a brick. The painting depicts this clearly in an image reminiscent of a woodcut. In front of an aggressive yellow background, only the person being attacked is fully depicted, while the grimacing faces of the aggressors remain reduced to their contours. At second glance, the simplified, comic-like image eludes a clear reading when the traffic light, as a symbol of state power, seems to give the green light for the attack. Further questions arise: Why is green at the top and not at the bottom? What is the significance of the profiles of a Black man and an Asian in the traffic lights, which are deliberately stereotyped in reference to racist caricatures? Is the profile of a white man with a cap in the red field a police officer or a labourer?
1981 Between East and West
Germany 1981: The Cold War has once again gained dynamism. While mass protests against the arms race are forming in West Germany, the GDR is heading for national bankruptcy. This intensified the ideological clashes between the two German states. According to the official rhetoric of the GDR, racism exists only in the capitalist West with its fascist roots. In the 1980s, however, the poor economic situation increasingly led to racist attacks and violent conflicts between citizens of the GDR and migrant workers from ‘socialist brother countries’, such as Vietnam and Mozambique. This is what the artist, who was born in Jena in East Germany, arrested after an escape attempt, and later ransomed by the West, refers to in his depiction of a racially motivated assault.
Painting from the 1980s
Direct and brutal, provocative and ironic: Figurative painting in Germany from the 1980s often crosses the boundaries of good taste with its painterly means and choice of titles. It is not uncommon for political, historical, or social issues to be negotiated. Many artists deliberately refrain from making unambiguous statements or positions and refuse any form of ideological appropriation. Herold, too, paints only what he sees, thus forcing the viewer to abandon the comfortable position of the art consumer: Confronted with the depiction of a racist act of violence, the viewer must now take a stand for him or herself.
Intention and Effect
Is the artistic depiction of violence morally justifiable? Or does the reproduction of terror harm the victims once again? Does such a work turn the viewer into a voyeur and accomplice? There is an uncontrollable field of tension between artistic intention and its actual effect. This remains an insoluble conflict to this day. After the atrocities of National Socialism, it seemed impossible to continue to pursue the tradition of figurative painting. The consequence was a formless, abstract style of painting, which dominated above all in the Western art world. The Cold War between East and West is also reflected in a contradictory understanding of painting: figuration in the East, abstraction in the West. The generation of artists to which Georg Herold belongs evades this ideological appropriation. Herold visualises violence in his work exhibited here with all its severity – including the consequences, intentional or unintentional.
The Role of Painting
For centuries, painting has been considered a ‘window onto the world’. It deals with reality and everyday life, but without depicting them directly like photography. Instead, it conveys reality through the process of a painterly transfer process. The brutal racist assault happened in this or a similar way or was imagined by the artist – and therefore needs not be any less ‘genuine’. In contrast to a documentary photographer, for example, the painter seems to interfere: He shapes what he sees by transferring it onto the canvas by artistic means. Does he therefore also have to comment on what he has seen, evaluate it, or take a stand? When painters devote themselves to controversial subjects, do they automatically become activists who must take a clear position?
The Weight of the Brick
Bricks characterise Georg Herold’s canvases in the most literal sense of the word: Since 1984, an entire complex of works has been dedicated to them. The bricks are applied with industrial glue to the canvas, which is often left raw, and challenge the thin fabric to tear. As early as 1978, Herold produced his first object with bricks. In 1981, the work now on view in the Städel was created. The painterly execution precedes the series in which Herold then worked with real bricks. For the artist, the brick is a metaphor: It loses its actual purpose, is reduced to form, volume, and effect. In the confrontation with the viewer, the brick – as a real or painted object – triggers associations with similar acts of violence and thus becomes a tangible threat.
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