János Pilinszky reading 'Apocrypha'
Georg Friedrich Haas and His 'Perverted Negress'

That '70s Feeling: Jörg Immendorff's Revolutionary Struggle

MAO -- Materialien zur Analyse von Opposition (Materials for Analysis of the Opposition) is an online archive (g) of documents from the heyday of German Maoism. It collects flyers, magazines, manifestos, artwork, banners and other ephemera from the early- to mid-1970s, when some factions on the German left became enthusiastic adherents of Chairman Mao thought. The website is a bit hard to navigate, but you can tell it's a labor of love and probably dates from the 1990s, so gratitude is in order.

I stumbled on an interesting document, a review of a book by Jörg Immendorff. First, a bit of background. Immendorff was a Düsseldorf-based artist famous enough to have an English Wikipedia entry. He was a fixture of the Düsseldorf culture scene and a teacher at the Kunstakademie until his death from ALS in 2008. More on him later.

The book the Maoists review is entitled (my trans.): 'Here and Now: Do What Must Be Done. Jörg Immendorf. Materials for a Discussion: Art in Political Struggle. Whose Side Are You On, Culture-Creator?' Despite this engaging title, the book doesn't seem to have sold many copies and is now rare. This is the cover (from this antiquarian website (g) where you can buy the book for €120):  

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I'm sure this painting is by Immendorff himself. It isn't Hockney/Currin-esque ironically self-aware textureless or 'bad' painting. It's just clumsy. This is what most Immendorffs look like. If you're getting the idea that I don't dig him, you're right-on, man. I've always found his stuff unconvincing: either crowded and ugly, or flat and cliched.

But what about his political views? Like so many German lefty/culture types, Immendorff jumped onto the bandwagon of Maoism in the early 1970s. This book is obviously from that period.

A review of the book and the associated exhibition can be found in this 1973 agitprop flyer (g) from the Revolutionary Artists' Group, found on the archive website. Let me apologize in advance for the layout of this page from a self-proclaimed 'Artists' group'. Clearly, these Revolutionary Artists are mostly untrained, given what's on display in most of the pamphlet. Yet no matter how limited your means are, there's no excuse for pages clogged with unreadable clots of text like the one below. Apparently columns are tools of the bourgeoisie.

But let's forge ahead anyway. The handwritten title reads: "Progress at the anti-imperialist Culture Front!" and begins: "A book has just appeared from Comrade Jörg Immendorff, who is active in the Group of Revolutionary Artists -- Ruhr Struggle." 

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The review, misspelling Immendorff's name, reports breathlessly that he has decided 'to consciously place his artistic activity in the service of the people and the revolutionary proletariat'.

The article then reports on the exhibition accompanying the book, which was held in the Westphalian Artist's League in Münster. Both the exhibition and the book, the review states, 'show the attitude of a partisan artist who has developed away from bourgeois philistinism towards cultural creation marked by class struggle. Both (the exhibition and the book) are a declaration of war on the brainless bourgeois avant-garde...which have learned nothing from the anti-imperialist movement of 1968.'

During the entire exhibition, young members of the 'anti-imperialist league' staffed a book-table with 'revolutionary writings' inside the museum.

The exhibition also featured a roundtable discussion with members of the Communist Students' Association, the Anti-Imperialist League, the Group of Revolutionary Artists, and Immendorff. Immendorff admitted his works were not yet fully 'revolutionary', given their incompleteness and flaws, and thus that he sought 'discussion and critique' from the audience.

One critique focused on Immendorff's portraits of 'Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung', which were based on the works of Chinese 'people's artists'. One cannot simply import the stylistic devices of the Chinese revolutionary artists' Social Realism into German conditions, because the international class struggle is always defined by the particular historical, social, etc. etc. -- you get the picture. 

Immendorff's later history is well-known to all Germans. He continued producing masterpieces of socialist-realist artwork in the service of the international proletariat, donating every penny of profit to Third World liberation movements. He lived in a humble apartment in the working-class section of Düsseldorf, volunteering much of his time teaching painting to Turkish immigrant children. Even those who disagreed with his political views couldn't help admiring the depth of his commitment to social justice.

Oh wait, wrong Immendorff. While no doubt continuing to mouth the occasional revolutionary slogan, he went on to amass a fortune of between 15 and 18 million Euros (g) at the time of his death. He described his own philosophy of life as 'selfishness'. Late in life, he married a Romanian ingenue 30 years his junior (former student) and rechristened her Oda (after a Germanic god), last name Jaune. The French word for yellow, Immendorff's favorite color. Not hers.

But that didn't stop Immendorff from regularly renting luxury hotel rooms, to which he would invite groups of up to 15 prostitutes. There, he held hours-long cocaine orgies with them costing sums in the five-figure range. He was caught white-handed during one of these, so to speak, and eventually sentenced to 11 months' probation. At the time of this coke and champagne orgy, his wife Oda was in an advanced state of pregnancy. As a result of the prosecution, Immendorff nearly lost his comfortable civil-servant position as a teacher at the Düsseldorf art academy -- run by the state he no doubt routinely claimed to despise.

Just before he died, he changed his will to try to bestow upon the long-suffering Oda his entire fortune. This came as rather a disappointment to Immendorff's illegitimate son Jean-Louis, born in 1999. Immendorf ignored the letters and pictures his son sent him during his life, and took no interest in him. Fortunately, German law guaranteed the son an 1/8 of Immendorff's inheritance, no matter what Immendorff tried to arrange.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is yet another object lesson in why nobody should pay the slightest attention to the political opinions artists claim to have.

Especially, it must be said, German ones.

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