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 sociologal 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, which is presumably what motivated many people active in politics to join it.
Ulrich Roloff-Momin, long-standing member of the executive committee described his first impressions of a meeting of the nGbK, in which there were clear signs of the substitution of a bourgeois understanding of the cultural institution “art society” with the politically active groups of the “68er” generation, as follows:

“First of all, I […] was impressed by the chaos that prevailed there. I could not understand the relations between the individual artist groups: who did what with whom, why and for what reason, not that and so forth. This productive chaos impressed me. […] There was the SEW, the KPD/ML, the KPD/AO or who knows what. Who else was there? The Trotskyists, well, pretty much everybody who was politically active on the left-wing scene back then.”1

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, developing a blueprint of an alternative history from the perspective of a marginalised stand-point in order to give a voice to those excluded from official history. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière defined this Distribution of the Sensible in his eponymous book as a place in which both aesthetics and politics can act. Who is allowed to speak and who is listened to?

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.2
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 era, which had slipped into obscurity as a result of the National Socialist era, and its artistic practices. 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 was in stark contrast.3
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.4

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”5. 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.6

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”[^7]. 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”7. The historical-sociological exhibition examined American 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”8.

Thus, the nGbK 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

  1. Interview Leonie Baumann und Ulrich Roloff-Momin „Das produktive Chaos hat mich beindruckt.“, in: 40 Jahre NGBK, Berlin, 2009, S.63. 

  2. 1971 Pariser Kommune in zeitgenössischen Dokumenten, in: 21 Jahre was nun?, S.98
    Bernhard Schulz, Kommentar, in: NGBK 69−99. 

  3. Vgl. Fritz Raddatz: Kontrast zu „Tendenzen der 20er Jahre“, erschienen am 9. September 1977, Die Ausstellung Tendenzen der Zwanziger Jahre fand in der Orangerie, der Akademie der Künste und der Nationalgalerie statt. 

  4. Vgl. Leonie Baumann, in: 40 Jahre, Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst NGBK 2009. 

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

  6. Vgl. Dossier (Neue)Welten.
    [^7]Kommentar von Bernhard Schulz, Mitglied der nGBK, in: 1969−99 Broschüre, NGBK 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. S. 7−16, Elefanten Press 1983.