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Realism does not aim for the surface of things. Instead, it unmasks, reveals, even exposes. As a tool, it is well suited to addressing painful issues in contemporary life. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Johannes Grützke (1937-2017) painted pictures that were provocative because their blend of figuration, history painting and academic styles seemed to be at odds with his times and his subject matter. Some critics still have trouble with this apparent contradiction - those, that is, who don’t simply label Grützke outdated and ignore him entirely.
The tolerance of an audience that had learned to accept Op, Pop, conceptual and performance art often ended when Grützke entered contaminated terrain: an allegorical visual idiom, with much nudity, that falsely suggested parallels to realist currents in the totalitarian systems of National Socialism and Stalinism, or to the prevailing Socialist Realism in East Germany. Grützke chose his weapons very deliberately and with great conceptual rigor. As Lucius Grisebach has written: “With regard to the external form of his pictures, he adopts the rationally distanced position of a historian. In this way, he sets himself fundamentally apart from those artists of his generation who – often with evident nostalgia – advocate the traditional principle of realism. His approach is as rational as that of conceptual artists, even if his pictures look nothing like conceptual art.”
In its six glass-fronted exhibition spaces, Neues Museum presents almost twenty paintings from the Böckmann Collection by the main proponent of the “School of New Magnificence”. The selection focusses on the 1960s and ‘70s, portraying Grützke as a mordant chronicler of his time who did not shy away from caricature when holding a mirror up to the smug, sated society of West Germany. In his self-portraits, to which a separate section is devoted, literally “gazing out of the picture” is essential to this study of the artist’s own physiognomy. The dramaturgy of his other works, too, however, is characterized by direct eye contact between his figures and the viewer, drawing them into the picture. All of these aspects are hinted at in the show’s title.