Young & Wild? Art in 1980s Germany; Pre-Raphaelite: Drawings and Watercolours – review

·6-min read

One of the problems I have with German neo-expressionism is that there seems to be such a lot of it about. But maybe this goes some way to explaining why, against all expectations, I found myself quite enjoying Young & Wild? at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Not only is this exhibition, comprised mostly of work from the museum’s collection, diminutive enough to be fairly painless even for someone who feels distinctly sceptical when faced with the talents of an artist such as AR Penck or Salomé; it’s also mildly invigorating, its fizzing brevity working to replicate the feeling of the heady historical moment in which some of these pieces were made. It has an explosiveness – riotous colour; an intense resistance to circumstance – that will carry you along, if not for the rest of the day, then at least into a few of the Ashmolean’s bigger and more contemplative galleries.

Bodies tumble. Legs are splayed. Genitals (sorry) dangle

Its first half is devoted to those artists – Penck, Georg Baselitz, Markus Lupertz – who were known as Junge Wilde (Young Wild Ones – or, as the Ashmolean has it, Young Fauves) in the 1980s, though they were, of course, well on the way to middle age by then (Penck and Baselitz were born in the late 1930s, Lupertz in 1941). Its second focuses on drawings and prints by younger artists associated with the movement, all of whom worked in West Berlin in the 1980s: Elvira Bach (b.1951), Salomé (b.1954), Rainer Fetting (b.1949), Luciano Castelli (b.1951). Either way, the atmosphere overall is relentlessly youthful. Bodies tumble. Legs are splayed. Genitals (sorry) dangle. It’s a show that seems to beat out an unceasing rhythm (and perhaps this is unsurprising: Penck and Lupertz played in a jazz band; Castelli and Salomé were into punk). The only moment of tranquillity, albeit of a somewhat bleak kind, comes via Lupertz’s trio of etchings Landscape I, II, III (1998), in which clumps of leafless trees form bridge-like compositions that suggest not the countryside, but the liminal half-green spaces to be found on a city’s outskirts.

The older artists liked to work in series, playing on a theme, pushing the limitations of their chosen media. In the 1960s, Penck developed Standart, a pictorial alphabet incorporating elements of graffiti, calligraphy and symbols like stick figures. Untitled (Standart), which dates from about 1973, is a series of largely abstract work on paper made from everyday stuff such as foil and newsprint (artists’ materials were scarce in East Germany, where Penck lived and worked until 1980). But though perfectly pleasing in its way, it’s hard to shake off the sense that you’re looking at the efforts of a cut-price Kurt Schwitters. More convincing is Berlin Suite (1990), a series of 10 primary-coloured aquatints in which every figure, whether stick or not, is at play, exuding even at their simplest the optimism and possibility that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Every high-living international banker should (and probably does) own a set.

Baselitz is less of a phoney than Penck. But not much less. His provocations are so obvious. In 1998, for instance, he made a series of eight etchings based on a detail of Arkady Plastov’s A Fascist Flew Past (1942-7), in which a shepherd boy lies injured or killed by a Nazi aircraft. Baselitz repeatedly and skilfully depicts this boy, sometimes in colour and sometimes in black and white, sometimes in stark outline and sometimes half-obscured by shading. He is, of course, upside down (if we know one thing about Baselitz, it’s that since 1969 he has depicted his subjects upside down, the better to encourage focus both in himself and in his audience). These images, while not precisely poignant, certainly have something to say about the way victims of war may be dehumanised. However, the something in question seems to me to be neither subtle nor terribly searching.

What of the younger artists? Elvira Bach’s work is laughably crude and reductive; the exhibition includes four self-portraits from the early 1980s, including one in which the artist “celebrates her sexuality” with a violent daub of red gouache next to the woeful scrawl that represents her. But I did stand for several minutes in front of Salomé’s pastels and prints. Red Dots (1978-95), based on a large-scale painting in which the artist poses in trunks, is strangely inanimate; his production-line homoeroticism is able, in all its plastic ineptitude, to convey neither joyfulness nor futility (perhaps it’s boredom that he’s going for). But I couldn’t help but warm to Shower III (1987), in which a group of abstracted men stand (and in one case, kneel) beneath a shower. Their tingling pinkness among the variegated blues of tiles and water made me think of the British painter Keith Vaughan; of how different his work might have been had he been born 40 years later. It goes without saying that I prefer his muddy mournfulness to Salomé’s exaggerated freedoms; he’s a thousand times the better painter. But the connection was pleasing, nevertheless: a still moment among all that prolific energy.

You may feel you’ve had your fill of pre-Raphaelite shows. But the Ashmolean’s huge Pre-Raphaelite: Drawings and Watercolours – its second outing, following the cancellation of the museum’s July exhibition, Russia! Icons and the Avant-Garde, due to the war in Ukraine – really is worth an extended detour, and not only to soothe retinas rattled by Young & Wild? Scuttle past, if you will, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “stunners”, all cheekbones and red hair; whiz by all the Ruskins, Holman Hunts and Waterhouses. Gaze instead on those things you may never have seen before. For me, these included Elizabeth Siddall’s gorgeously sharp and spare drawing Two Men in a Boat and a Woman Punting (1853-5) and Thomas Seddon’s stunning watercolour The Great Sphinx at the Pyramids of Giza (1854).

Most of all, though, I was thrilled beyond words to see Henry Wallis’s sketch of Mary Ellen Meredith (1858), the woman with whom he scandalously ran off in 1857 (Mary Ellen was married to the novelist George Meredith). Wallis kept this tiny pencil drawing until his death in 1916, and if you know their story – it’s wonderfully told in Diane Johnson’s recently reissued The True History of the First Mrs Meredithit is impossible not to be moved by it. Here is love, you think, taking in the cap of dark hair, her almond-shaped eyes. Against all the odds, doesn’t it always find a way?

Star ratings (out of five)
Young & Wild?
★★★
Pre-Raphaelites
★★★★