Between Heimatfilm and the Avant-garde

The Arts in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s

Philharmonie Berlin 1963
(Photo: Landesarchiv Berlin, Bernd Sass)

The 2023 Biennale of the Berliner Philharmoniker takes a trip back in time to the 1950s and 60s, a period full of contradictions, between a spirit of new beginnings and post-war crisis. This was also reflected in the different artistic genres of the time.

In 1947, an appeal by renowned German architects called for “unhistorical simplicity from the spirit of the victims”. The aim was to counter the neoclassicism of the Nazi era with new buildings, with clear forms and without decoration, just as the Bauhaus had done in the 1920s and its masters and students had continued in exile.

The so-called “Stunde Null”, zero hour, was very different for the various arts in Germany. For music and architecture, it meant a real, new start. And in other genres, too, the post-war period was – at least for the young artists – a time of new beginnings, of confidence in the future and the possibilities of art.

However, to restrict the art of that time to the new, not to say to pigeonhole it, would be very simplistic – as would all thinking in terms of eras and clear stylistic sequences. In film, for example, “grandpa cinema” dominated, and among all the Heimatfilme (sentimental dramas in idyllic, rural settings) and shallow musical comedies of the time, the many ambitious German films of the 1950s and 1960s were – and still are – completely forgotten.

Literature: the form was the new thing, not the vocabulary

And in literature, “classic” storytellers like Konsalik and Simmel remained much more successful than the Gruppe 47 authors such as Böll, Grass or Enzensberger, and even more so than the avant-gardists like Arno Schmidt or Ernst Jandl. Just as in literature in general, it was the content, the form – for example the short story or the docu-drama – that was the new thing, not the vocabulary.

It was different in music, and also in the fine arts: realistic, indeed representational painting in general, was ruined by Nazi art, and creating sculptures like Arno Breker was also forbidden as a matter of course. In painting and sculpture, things became abstract in the 1950s – right up to the extremes of Yves Klein’s monochrome blue or Lucio Fontana’s slit canvases.


Spatial Conception von Lucio Fontana
(Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel )

The reconstruction of German cities took place under the guiding principle of the car-friendly city – people still believed absolutely in progress through technology. Old city layouts were radically replaced with buildings that represented a blatant break with the history of architecture up to around 1920. Gone are decoration, ornament and classical structure, and in are clear forms and pure colour!

New musical worlds

The battle cry of young composers was similar. But where the young architects could refer to a decades-old tradition of the Bauhaus or old masters such as Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, composers such as Stockhausen and Boulez, Maderna, Xenakis and Ligeti started almost from scratch. The great role model Anton Webern was dead. And the composers who had returned from inner or outer emigration, such as Hindemith, Blacher and Hartmann, were honoured and respected, but played less and less.

Instead, the young guns developed Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique into breathtakingly radical “serial” music, creating completely new musical worlds from the basic elements of pitch, rhythm, dynamics and sound. The fact that this avant-garde was influential in the music world, but did not have a broad impact, should not be ignored. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven remained the mainstays in German concert halls, and (tonal) “light music” drifted away from “serious music” at a rapid pace: Schlager (German “easy listening” music) for the older generation, jazz and rock’n’roll for the younger generation.

Iannis Xenakis: Shaar for big string orchestra / Peter Eötvös, conductor - Berliner Philharmoniker / recorded in the Philharmonie Berlin, 8 September 2019

A time of contrary images

Consequently, when we thinks of the 1950s in Germany, we have quite contrary images in our minds: inner cities full of modern buildings, but also flats with kidney-shaped tables and lots of plush upholstery, abstract paintings in museums and the film Schwarzwaldmädel (The Black Forest Girl) in cinemas, Wieland Wagner’s bare stages in the opera house, Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect in the spoken theatre, but on the bedside table, “Ich denke oft an Piroschka” (I often think of Piroschka), the most successful German novel of the 1950s. And as a soundtrack, a mixture of Stockhausen and Ligeti, Peter Alexander and Elvis Presley.

Nevertheless, it has to be said: in all areas of art, young artists in particular followed exciting new paths in the 50s and 60s, creating highly interesting works that have one thing in common: the search for a “moral” purity and power. Not every path taken was really viable, but even artistic dead ends can be immensely stimulating. And many works from the German post-war period have indeed forged paths to the future and continue to impress us today.

Arnt Cobbers

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