Immediately after the establishment of the nGbK there were many individual exhibitions of artists such as Käthe Kollwitz, Constantin Meunier or Carl Meffert, who were often labelled realist painters because they addressed the social conditions of the working class. Realism was understood as “confrontation with unpopular facts about the people’s life“1 to be achieved through an unsparing portrayal of social conditions. Hence, the objects of realist painting were usually specific milieus and their working and living circumstances.

The philologist Roman Jacobson noted how variable the meaning of the term realism could be, which was used for literature, painting and later, film.2 The term was debated on two levels in the nGbK, too, which often interlocked in the artwork itself: on the one hand, what is meant is the form of portrayal itself, which aims to be as similar to the object as possible; on the other hand, the term refers to the selection of the topic. Both cases comprise the question of art’s potential as a political statement, which in the end, constantly alternates between form and content, between an “authentic” portrayal and the selection of a socio-historical object. Käthe Kollwitz pithily summarised the political motivation for her art with the words “I wanted to have an effect”.3

In her catalogue text Anmerkung zur neuen und der alten Realismusdebatte in conjunction with the exhibition of Italian Realists, Christiane Zieseke argues that the question of what can be realistic cannot be restricted to the form of portrayal: “Realism is not a style, rather an artistic method.” 4 In the catalogue, Guiseppe Zigaini, published a letter to the farmers of Comor whom he had painted: “For three years I painted your faces, your bicycles, your bread baskets and for three years I have tried to express everything that I saw flicker across your faces, your shining eyes beneath the peak of the cap.”5 Here, Zigaini is describing a process aimed at establishing contact between the painter and the people portrayed and facilitating a depiction of their living conditions. Nevertheless, his work conveyed the danger of a social romanticism, in which distance to the people portrayed is established from the viewer’s perspective.

The group RealismusStudio had formed at the nGbK in 1974 “from the idea of exploding the hardened understanding of realism in the public sphere […].“6 While realist art was associated with socialist workers’ art, particularly in Berlin, in the post-war years, the RealismusStudio saw the movement as a unilateral declaration of power in which art represented no more than the people made and discussed it. The demand for a documentary or authentic style and socially responsible subject matter very soon led to experimental, artistic formats: video and media art were considered particularly authentic because they were based on a chemical fixation of a light projection and also transmitted sound and movement. The group addressed the topic of computer art as early as the 1990s with the projects Der telematische Raum or Virtualität des Verschwindens. In the catalogue for Der telematische Raum, published in 1996, Frank Wagner writes: “An artistic examination of the new technologies and the attempts to penetrate into virtual worlds prompted us to develop this project. […] It is a case of fundamental research and the clarification of the conditions for boarding [and occupying] the electronic space.”7 In a manner similar to how founding members of the nGbK in the working group Grundlagenforschung had already formulated in 1969: “We assume that the aesthetic activity of the human being has a universal relation to reality that is not restricted to the ‘beautiful arts’ […].”, the changing members of RealismusStudio were focussed on examining the medial structures of society and their cognitive effect through the medium of art. Hence, the work of the group is also characterised by formal experiments: the exhibition chironex fleckeri, inspired by the film Mulholland Drive by David Lynch took place in sequences in 2003, with the effect that the individual sections of the exhibition were never on display at the same time. On the eponymous website, the group commented “Logical and alogical processes are juxtaposed in such a way that their visualisation offers us a new perspective on the topography of our knowledge and certainties and confronts us with our own desire to discover a comprehensible order in everything.”8

To mark the 25th anniversary of RealismusStudio in 1999, rather than showing a retrospective of the group’s work, Hildtrud Ebert, Christin Lahr, Annette Tietenberg, Frank Wagner, Ingrid Wagner and Ute Ziegler curated an exhibition of artists who “address the parameters of the operating system that is art”9 Hence, the appropriation of reality, which stemmed from the political motivation of the art activist had developed from the term Realism to a discursive-analytical investigation of art as social apparatus. Ultimately, however, the same “old questions” were asked here, which led to an examination of institutional structures, social mechanisms and expectations, which determine the art producer’s field of activity and its contribution to knowledge production.

Sara Hillnhütter, 2015, revised 2019
Translation: Don Mac Coitir

  1. Vorwort, in: Arbeit und Alltag. Soziale Wirklichkeit in der belgischen Kunst 1830−1914, NGBK, Berlin 1979, S. 7. 

  2. Roman Jakobson: Über den Realismus in der Kunst (1921). In: Alternative – Zeitschrift für Literatur und Diskussion, 12. Jahrgang, Heft 65 (1969), S. 75ff . 

  3. Vorwort, in: Käthe Kollwitz, hrsg. v. Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt a. M. 1973, o.S 

  4. Christiane Zieseke, Anmerkungen zur alten und neuen Realismusdebatte, in: Italienische Realisten 1945 bis 1974, NGBK, Berlin 1974S. 1.13. 

  5. Guiseppe Zigaini: Brief an die Bauern von Comor [1952, ial.], in: Italienische Realisten, S. 2.21. 

  6. RealismusStudio, in: NGBK 1969-1977. Eine Zwischenbilanz, NGBK, Berlin, 1978, S. 46. 

  7. Frank Wagner, Der telematische Raum, NGBK, Berlin 1996, S. 7. 

  8. (mittlerweile offline). 

  9. Faltblatt zur Ausstellung the search for the spirit, 25 Jahre RealismusStudio