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.

Quote of the Day: Mephistopheles on Professors

Many visitors to German universities puzzle at the tendency of many professors to 'lecture' by reading from their most recent textbook in a flat monotone, and ask themselves: 'Whoever thought this was the way to teach?'

The answer: Mephistopheles — who else? Jaroslav Pelikan's prose translation of a passage (g) in Faust in which the demon explains the facts of life to a prospective student:

For … five hours a day, the student should be prepared to listen to the professor, in accordance with the pedagogical method of the universities, "in such a way that afterwards you will be able to recognize better that he is not saying anything except what is already in the book. But you must be writing it down, as thought the Holy Spirit himself were dictating it to you!"

Norton Critical Edition of Faust, p. 590.

Max Planck Institute for Machine-Gun Fellatio Research

The Chinese poem printed on the cover of the most recent newsletter from the Max Planck Institute (MaxPlanckForschung),

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means, according to Victor Mair of Language Log:

With high salaries, we have cordially invited for an extended series of matinées

KK and Jiamei as directors, who will personally lead jade-like girls in the spring of youth,

Beauties from the north who have a distinguished air of elegance and allure,

Young housewives having figures that will turn you on;

Their enchanting and coquettish performance will begin within the next few days.

Mair comments drily:

Clearly this is an advertisement for some kind of burlesque business. I did find quite a few references on the Web to a "KK Juggy" from a group called "Machine Gun Fellatio," and apparently the KK in her name stands for "Knickers" and "Knockers." Perhaps KK in the sense of "Knickers and Knockers" is an Australian expression, since KK Juggy (Christa Hughes) is from Sydney.

In the interests of fairness, I should note that the MPI immediately issued a heartfelt apology and replaced the cover. [h/t JR]

Water-Mills and Boring Jobs

I subscribe to a German-language mailing list for the humanities called H-Soz-U-Kult. It sounds ugly but is harmless. It delivers to my inbox conference reports, calls for papers, book reviews, and announcements of upcoming conferences. That’s how I became aware of this upcoming important conference (G): "Symposium on Water-Power Use in the Cologne/Bonn Region." Among the presentations: "Historical Development of So-called Industrial Mills"; "Mills and Hammers as Formative Elements of the Cultural Landscape."

However, I’m sure the presentation that will provoke the most controversy — even more controversy than the explanation of why "Industrial Mills" should really be thought of as "So-called Industrial Mills" — will occur at 3:20, when the Director of the Rhine-Erft Mill Society presents her "Conceptual Outline for a Documentation Center Concerning Rhenish Mill Culture."

What kind of person would even try to capture the juicy majesty of watermills in a dry, bloodless "outline"? I’m tempted to engage in the favorite pastime of a many marginally-employed Germans. That is, travel to a conference, sit impatiently in the audience until questions are allowed, run up to the microphone, and deliver a 5-minute long, rambling, question-free tirade in which I accuse the speaker of unconscionably ignoring the ‘philosophical aspects’ or ‘social consequences’ of the question under discussion.

I admit it, I’m making fun of this conference, just as I previously made fun of a treatise on hail insurance. I know it’s rude, but it’s irresistible. I can’t help myself. But now I’d like to get all serious, and praise boredom.

Germany is packed with people who do boring jobs. (Yes, many of these people are also boring, but not all.) But it’s important to realize that Germany is as safe, pleasant, clean, and prosperous as it is because it has so many people who (1) are content to spend their entire lives doing boring jobs; and (2) take these jobs very, very seriously. In many areas of Germany and especially Austria, men had their job title engraved on their tombstone: "Here Lies Karl-Friedrich Hitzlgraber; Assistant to the Traveling Secretary in the Currency Transfer Department of the Royal and Imperial Customs Service of the Kingdom of Austria and Hungary. Sept. 4, 1865 — Jan. 22, 1928." 

Very few German civil servants still engrave their jobs on their tombstones, but working for the civil service is still prestigious. A person I know just became the supervisor of the legal department of a small airport near where I live. Actually, not the whole legal department — only the employees of the customs service who work at the airport. This job is well-paid and very hard to get — you had to have multiple university degrees and pass an Orwellian series of psychological tests to even be considered for it. You think Italy, Botswana, or Bhutan can afford to detail a state-paid lawyer to oversee the operation of customs at every single chickenshit airport in every single province of their respective countries?

"Actually," you may be saying to yourself, "I bet there are lots of government jobs like that in these countries." True enough, but in Germany, the head of the customs department legal service at the small regional airport is (1) not chosen on the basis of his family connection to the Transport Minister; (2) has recognizable tasks to perform; and (3) actually shows up to work every day and performs them. Except during his 28 days of paid vacation per year. Same thing with park wardens, street cleaners, insurance employees, and the countless other jobs that keep Germany functioning so smoothly.

So, to bring this post back to the original departure point, I may gently mock the Rhenish Mill Society, but I am also glad they exist. I take leisurely bicycle tours through the nearby countryside, and I see these mills. They’re charming and well-preserved. Thanks to a complex network of government subsidies, you can actually still buy the bread they produce, and it tastes delicious. All this historical preservation doesn’t just happen, it’s expensive and complex and requires the input of dozens of experts, who occasionally get together and share their ideas. I hope the conference is a smashing success.