Partisan Perspectives

Politics of Painting

Werner Tübke's Happening in Pompeii, 1980, shows violence on Rome's Palatine hill.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Werner Trübke’s and Michael Triebel’s paintings display technical skill and art historical knowledge. An exhibition challenges art world assumptions about modern and traditional styles and questions western attitudes to an East German painting tradition.

  • Facts


    • Works by Werner Trübke (1929 – 2004) and Michael Triebel (b.1968), two painters from the Leipzig school, are on display in Rostock, north Eastern Germany.
    • The two Leipzig school painters admired the Old Masters, adopted a figurative style, used Christian images but referred to these referentially in expressing their own questioning subjectivity
    • After reunification, critics from West Germany denigrated work by the Leipzig school; the Rostock exhibition reopens a debate about art between the two parts of the country.
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An exhibition in an East German town continues a quarrel about art which has been running since reunification.

“Werner Trübke and Michael Triebel, two masters from Leipzig,” shows work by painters from a school in Leipzig. Its artists were renowned for their admiration of the old masters and for their masterly technique.

“The argument about images is not over,” said Jörg-Uwe Naumann, the director of the Rostock gallery who came up with the idea of the exhibition.

At the Leipzig school, painters pursued an artistic doctrine focusing on tradition, technique and historical knowledge. When Germany was reunified, their work clashed with the modernism of western collectors, dealers and critics. They denigrated the Leipzig school, calling the artists “state painters.” An exhibition of the school’s work during the nineties was widely criticized as government art unworthy of display by critics defending a different market and a different aesthetic doctrine which pursued the modern.

The work of the painters, Mr. Tübke and Mr. Triegel, does resemble the old masters. Mr. Triegel paints like Raffael, Bronzino or Mantegna. Mr. Tübke’s work resembles that of Bosch, Altdorfer or Watteau.

Their pictures have not only masterly technique but wealth, beauty and strangeness.

They create unsettling, questioning visions and use optical illusions to make the pictures tell stories within stories.

Mr. Triegel became well known when he was asked to paint a portrait of Benedikt XVI. Although not directly a student of Mr. Tübke at Leipzig’s Academy for Visual Arts, he was versed in the knowledge of tradition and mastery of technique that characterized the school. “He can still paint,” Mr. Tübke said drily, referring to Mr. Triegel.

“I want to be able to paint like the old masters I love,” Mr. Triegel once said. As a child, he had admired Dürer and Rubens.

The painters depict love, violence and mystery. Their pictures tell of the unholy and wondrous, showing stories which are moving and puzzling.

Both draw on the world of images from Christianity, painting numerous crucifixions, resurrections and annunciations. But this is not Christian art – for Mr. Tübke anyway. The promise of salvation fails, faced with misunderstanding and human wickedness. The cross is without power, the church corrupt and people lust for violence and murder.


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