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Sigmar Polke. We petty bourgeois! Contemporaries (Pop)

13 March 2009 – 17 January 2010

Galerie der Gegenwart, 2nd floor

Part 1: Clique, 13 March 2009 – 28 June 2009
Part 2: Pop, 12 July 2009 – 4 October 2009
Part 3: Politics, 16 October 2009 – 17 January 2010


Pop – the second of three successive parts of the exhibition Sigmar Polke. Wir Kleinbürger! Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen (We petty bourgeois! Contemporaries) – opened on 12 July at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. From Clique to Pop to Politics, the complementary presentations have a joint focus: Polke’s 10-part series of works on paper entitled Wir Kleinbürger – Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen. Created between 1972 and 1976, it is largely unknown to the public and its presentation for the first time in over 30 years at the Hamburger Kunsthalle provides an unprecedented opportunity for viewers to engage with this striking body of work. The second part of the exhibition – Pop – looks at artistic explorations of pop cultural themes and images, and also features Polke’s highly unusual series Original + Fälschung (Original + Forgery). The presentation of this 38-part ensemble is an elaborate reconstruction of how the piece was first shown in 1973. As in the first part – Clique – which examined the overall artistic context and the exchange of ideas between the art scenes of Cologne, Düsseldorf and Switzerland, with a particular focus on collaborative practice, the paintings and drawings on show in Pop are also supplemented by films, photographs, and stencils, backed up by documentary material and source images, all of which serve to illustrate the diversity of Polke’s work across a range of media.

Both Wir Kleinbürger – Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen and Original + Fälschung were produced in the period when Polke was living on a farm in the Lower Rhine region. Combining disparate images from the mass media with references to art-historical tradition, they were at the centre of the explosive developments taking place in art during the 1970s. The exhibition in Hamburg provides a unique opportunity to view these two bodies of work in a joint presentation: the juxtaposition of the series emphasizes Polke’s pioneering role as a figurative painter and his influence upon the anarchic actions of younger generations of artists. The post-Pop art of Polke & co. was by no means limited to standard canvas formats or museum-based forms of presentation; it also included actions – some politically oriented – that could not be readily exhibited. In contrast to American Pop art, which by then was long since canonized, the images from everyday life in the work of Polke and his fellow artists were frequently interspersed with references to international countercultures. Pop cultural elements were combined with underground currents and political activism, as can be seen for example in numerous collages, films and photographic works by the likes of Katharina Sieverding or Klaus Mettig.

Wir Kleinbürger – Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen

The Kleinbürger series marks a turning point in Polke’s oeuvre: whereas his work from the 1960s offered ironic visual commentaries on the reality of life at the time of the ‘economic miracle’, here he begins to challenge social norms. He presents a panoramic view of West Germany in the 1970s, a period marked by the hippie culture, the nascent women’s movement and terrorism. Individual and collective dreams and fears are critically addressed, satirized and called into question with a considerable degree of wry humour. Various ways of escaping from bourgeois surroundings are investigated – whether on a small or large scale, by way of consumerism, exoticism, sex or drug use – and possible alternatives to bourgeois existence are explored in images that switch between male fantasy and feminism, peaceful protest and armed resistance.

Original + Fälschung

Polke’s series Original + Fälschung – his first collaborative work with Achim Duchow – consists of 24 ‘main’ images accompanied by 14 ‘commentaries’ in the form of collages. It has rarely been exhibited since it was produced in the 1970s; most recently it was shown at the Kunsthalle Tübingen in 2007/08, but there it was presented in the traditional surroundings of a white cube, whereas the presentation at the Hamburger Kunsthalle recaptures the ‘anti-museum’ spirit of its first showing in 1973, created by Polke and Duchow together with Klaus Honnef for the Kunstverein Münster. In a large-scale installation featuring hundreds of mirrors and coloured neon tubes, Original + Fälschung once again combines a complex critical reflection upon images and authenticity with the glamorous culture of clubs such as the legendary Creamcheese discotheque in Düsseldorf.

The starting point for this multifaceted array of images was a bizarre collection of drawings and newspaper clippings, which served the artists as a basis for the collages they created as additional commentaries to the 24 paintings. Some of the main images are based on a list of stolen old master paintings that had been published by Interpol. The two artists’ appropriation of this compendium of images from police files is intentionally clumsy, and their variations of works by Rembrandt, Rubens or Toulouse-Lautrec are incorporated into a series featuring circus attractions, political satire, machismo, bourgeois conformism and supernatural imagery. By directly addressing topics such as art theft and forgery as well as mythic notions of artistic authorship and authenticity, Original + Fälschung exposes the mechanisms of the art market and challenges the ideals embodied in the bourgeois conception of art. 

Over the course of the exhibition, more than 100 individual works and series drawn from international museums and private collections will be shown, revealing complex methods of appropriating, copying, sampling and reinterpreting visual material. Polke & co. recycled the garish imagery of record sleeves, comic books, international satirical journals and left-wing magazines, using layered, complementary or conflicting references. Polke carried this to the extreme in his paintings rendered on found pieces of patterned fabric. He created images crowded with detail and visual puzzles that not only expand our collective visual vocabulary but also analyze and comment upon it. Innocent-looking visual galaxies are transformed into nightmarish scenarios filled with dark comic figures and grotesque, ghostly apparitions. Here, the garish world of Pop comes face to face with its morbid counterpart, an encounter that is emphasized by the deliberate pairing of specific works. This is the first time since they were made that some of these images are being shown in the form originally intended by Polke.

A comprehensive new publication has been released concurrently with the exhibition: edited by Petra Lange-Berndt and Dietmar Rübel, and published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, it examines the background against which Wir Kleinbürger – Zeitgenossen und Zeitgenossinnen was created and situates the series in a broader context.

Curators of the exhibition: Dr. Dorothee Böhm and Dr. Dietmar Rübel; at the Hamburger Kunsthalle: Dr. Petra Roettig

Supported by the Michael & Susanne Liebelt Stiftung.