Four decades after the foundation of the neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst, the art society is anything but new. From the beginning, the combination of the words “new” and “society” was not intended as an expression of an organisational form or entity but aimed to place art in a sociological context. Hence, the art society bears a name that points out its social embedment and is active far removed from a prestigious, market-oriented or serviceable interpretation of art.

In the late 1960s various political movements collided at the nGbK. What they had in common was the desire to set social priorities, practice new forms of political activity and question bourgeois conventions.
This took place through intensive basic research into the function of visual art in a capitalist society and calling into question canonical (art) history-writing and, at the same time, and attempt was made at an alternative writing of history.

In the field of tension between art, society and politics, between bourgeois and avant-garde understandings of art, historical exhibitions such as Kunst des Vormärz und die Revolutionszeit, Pariser Kommune 1871 or Portugiesische Realisten were realised at the nGbK, which “[emerged] from the interest in knowledge of the student movement era, [in search of] epochs in which social upheaval and processes of emancipation from below were possible.1
One reference that recurs time and again from this perspective was to the Weimar Republic. The extensive arts and culture show Wem gehört die Welt? recalled this period, which had slipped into obscurity as a result of the National Socialist era. Crossing all genres and social fields, the exhibition recalled the density of artistic, political and cultural formations as well as confrontations between “left” and “right”, the historical avant-garde, agitprop theatre, urban planning and architectural reforms and everyday life in the inter-war era. The exhibition marked the opening of the Staatliche Berliner Kunsthalle in 1977. With 7,000 copies of the catalogue sold and some 45,000 visitors, it remains to this day one of the most successful exhibitions in the history of the nGbK.
While the simultaneous double exhibition Tendenzen der zwanziger Jahre, under the auspices of the European Council, was devoted to a “bourgeois writing of history”, the nGbK’s exhibition represented a stark contrast.2
The art society remained true to this approach. In the publication commemorating the 40th jubilee, Leonie Baumann concluded that the nGbK often drew attention to topics that received only fleeting notice at the academic institutes.3

Especially in the 1970s and 1980s, exhibitions looked further afield, marked by a “Revolutionary spirit – coupled with the belated frustration of a failed 1968 movement”.4. A series of exhibitions were realised at the nGbK which examined the progressive political forces and the respective, specific art movements and aesthetic phenomena of Latin American countries.5

In addition to addressing marginalised issues, the nGbK also looked at the question of a history writing that was free of nation branding. For example, in two exhibitions about the history, art and culture of the US, which took place in 1980 and 1983, controversies and political debates about (national) history writing were clearly discussed.
Amerika - Traum und Depression was devoted to painting and photography in the times of the global economic crisis and the New Deals and had been obliged “in the years of preparation, to defend itself against the constant suspicion that it was departing from the politically correct line and throwing its arms around imperialism”6. It was followed by the exhibition Das andere Amerika, which had consciously set itself the goal of correcting the “possibly too affirmative impression” created by the ‘Traum und Depression’ exhibition”[6]. The historical-sociological exhibition examined colonialism, the workers’ movement of the 1920s and the black civil rights movement and, using 3,000 exhibits, formulated the demand for “history [to be written] from below”7.

Thus, the nGbK also established early on an exhibition practice dedicated to the cultural-scientific approach and which looked away from the museum-like character of individual works of art in favour of cultural formations and phenomena in an overall social context. Both everyday culture and political upheaval provided the basis for shifting existing perspectives and looking for social alternatives.

Eylem Sengezer, 2015, revised 2019

  1. 1971 Pariser Kommune in zeitgenössischen Dokumenten, in: 21 – NGBK – was nun?, Berlin 1990, S. 98 

  2. Vgl. Fritz Raddatz: Kontrast zu „Tendenzen der 20er Jahre“, in: Die Zeit, 9.9.1977, Die Ausstellung Tendenzen der Zwanziger Jahre fand in der Orangerie, der Akademie der Künste und der Nationalgalerie statt. 

  3. Vgl. Leonie Baumann, in: NGBK – 40 Jahre, Berlin, 2009. 

  4. Norbert Ahrens: Anmerkungen zur zeitweiligen bundesdeutschen Revolutions-Begeisterung, in: Falsch belichtet. Nicaragua im eurofotografischen Blick. Bildentdeckung, NGBK, Berlin 1991. 

  5. Vgl. Dossier (Neue)Welten. 

  6. Kommentar von Bernhard Schulz, in: 1969−99, NGBK, Berlin 1999. 

  7. Ebd. 

  8. Vgl. Philip S. Foner und Reinhard Schultz: „Das ‚andere’ Amerika“, in: Das andere Amerika. Geschichte, Kunst und Kultur der amerikanischen Arbeiterbewegung, Elefanten Press, Berlin 1983, S. 7−16.