Making histories: the exhibition of postwar art and the interpretation of the past in divided Germany, 1950-1959



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The exhibition of painting and the public discourse around it were vital tools in the postwar ideological differentiation of liberal-democratic West Germany and socialist East Germany. This dissertation examines six major German art exhibitions of the 1950s: the West German shows Iron and Steel, sponsored by West German industrialists in 1952, the first postwar exhibition of the Federation of German Artists in 1951, the first and second documentas in 1955 and 1958, and East Germany’s Third and Fourth German Art Exhibitions, held in 1953 and 1959. I consider the organization and contents of these exhibitions as well as their reception in the press, and I examine the wider discussion of contemporary art that these shows engendered. In each case, lingering National Socialist styles and sentiments required Germans to create selective histories for their postwar states. I reveal the intense competition between East and West Germans to define postwar German culture in different arenas: in corporate public relations within West German industry, among the surviving members of the prewar German avant-garde in West Germany, in West Germany’s major forays into the international contemporary artworld, within the East German state bureaucracy and among East Germany’s elite, progressive artists. At these exhibitions, East and West German artists, critics, and politicians defined their respective states as distinct from the National Socialist state, but also as radically different from one another.