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.


Mr. Tübke’s pictures show his cool, diagnosing eye that sees only pretense and masquerade and no truth anywhere. He is not interested in philosophy or redemption. What is meaningful for him is the immense panorama of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525, a work stretching 123 meters by 14 meters. It shows an orgy of war and bestiality, heavenly visions and heroic revivals in a cycle without beginning or end. There is no progress, only recurrence.

Then there is Mr. Tübke’s huge deposition from the cross, measuring some three by four meters. Renaissance figures lift the dead Christ from the cross, while in the distance strange groups dance and play the fool, a knight in armor leaps about, and chalk-white figures people a deep green landscape like ghosts. An angel descends from the stormy heavens, trailing a red scarf. It is the only bright color in the picture but the angel’s message is in vain, no-one sees him.

Mr. Triegel, in contrast, plumbs the past for what will prove lasting; his finds are aesthetic and allegorical. His paintings radiate warmth, especially his portraits of his daughter and his wife which show a love and devotion rarely seen.

Mr. Triegel, in contrast, plumbs the past for what will prove lasting; his finds are aesthetic and allegorical. His paintings radiate warmth, especially his portraits of his daughter and his wife which show a love and devotion rarely seen.

He explores the history of art and Christian iconography with almost innocent joy. Mr. Triegel shows us Adam and Eve exhausted, walled in, the only thing that’s left of heaven is a thin strip of blue, the tree of knowledge is a dead skeleton and the picture’s only brightness is the apple in Adam’s hand.

It is exciting to admire anew the art of illusion and the wealth of the imagination in Mr. Tübke’s and Mr. Triegel’s work. The paintings open up a historical space that had almost been forgotten, deliberately closed by the modern. Such narrow-mindedness is confined to the art world; references in literature and music to past greats are long familiar.

Michael Triegel’s Am Kreuz, On the Cross, shows a figure laden with meaning in a still life setting. Source: Kunsthalle Rostock


One of the dogmas of modern art seems to be to discount the importance of craftsmanship, skill and historical knowledge.

Maybe some experts would see these works as scandalous. But for anyone who loves art, they present a feast for the eyes.


The exhibition runs until September 14 in Rostock and can then be seen in Aschaffenburg, south Germany, from January 24 to April 19, 2015.

This is an abridged version of an article which first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: 

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