December 02, 2010

Book explores 20th century German art, artists

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Works of art may or may not represent a time in history faithfully, but art -- at least in 20th century Germany -- is a representative of history.

So argues Peter Chametzky, director of the School of Art and Design and professor of art history at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in his new book, “Objects as History in Twentieth-Century German Art: Beckmann to Beuys.” The book has just appeared from University of California Press.

Chametzky focuses on several artists prominent in Germany’s tumultuous 20th century, including Max Beckman, George Grosz, Hannah Höch, Willi Baumeister, Gerhard Richter and several others. He examines their works -- and their exhibitions, appearances, and disappearances -- as historical events, not just artistic events. The artists are, in this study, historical figures as well as artists. It’s a subtle difference, but a significant one.

“Not confined to a discrete historical period or artistic movement, ‘Objects as History’ offers a synthesizing view of art’s role as it lends visual and material form to processes and events, ruptures and continuities in 20th century German history,” Chametzky wrote in his introduction to the book.

He goes on to explain that his analysis includes not only how style and images in art create meaning, but also how artworks as material objects take on historical significance, as does the public reception of the artwork. Art that offends the contemporary audience but appears more neutral to a later audience informs us about the original audience. And that, Chametzky argues, is, at least in 20th century Germany, deliberate.

“German artists of the past century often intended a social and historical role for their art,” he wrote. “And their public, which included politicians and government officials, readily perceived that role.”

Chametzky traces the history of some of the individual pieces of art as part of his study. Artworks that were suppressed or destroyed or which were taken from Germany to avoid that fate tell as much about historical epochs, even in their absence, as those that survived or were hailed as great. In this way, he insists that art is created in an historical context, and received in an historical context. Different audiences, in different times, may interpret the art differently but always with reference to their own historical context.

For example, a now-famous work created by Hannah Höch, a Dadaist, survived the Nazi regime, while other works from the same Dadaist movement that were perhaps less provocative did not. Chametzky suggests that sexism rather than accident or luck is to thank for the survival of Höch’s work. Her work was not collected by German museums until the 1960s, so was not among those seized from public collections when the Nazis claimed to “cleanse” German museums of what they called “degenerate art.” And Höch herself did not fall under the same scrutiny that some of her male counterparts did, so was able to preserve both her own and their work in her home.

Chametzky began research on the book with an SIUC Office of Research and Development (ORDA) grant in 2000. A sabbatical year spent in Berlin furthered his research, and he gained a publishing contract in April 2007. The adventure continued as Chametzky finished writing and began acquiring high-quality photographs and copyright permissions for the 113 illustrations in his book.

While the book is undeniably academic, Chametzky said the book is not just for art history professors. In fact, the book ties in closely with some of the art history courses he teaches to both undergraduates and graduate students.

To learn more about the book, visit and follow the art and architecture link. To learn more about the School of Art and Design at SIUC, go to