Artworks and Artists of Capitalist Realism

Stag (Hirsch) (1963)

Artist: Gerhard Richter

Abstraction and figuration merge in this ghostly, monochrome scene. A stag is painted with near photographic detail, yet it has been blurred to resemble an out-of-focus snapshot, suggesting the slightest trace of movement. Around the deer a thick network of spiky, jagged branches are drawn only as a series of abstracted outlines that weave in and out of one another over a washy grey ground. Richter made this painting while he was still a student at Düsseldorf Academy, copying the motif from an old photograph he took as a teenager. His close friend, Konrad Fischer, persuaded him to leave the work in a somewhat unfinished condition, prompting Richter to describe the work as a "finished painting, courtesy of Konrad Fischer."

This painting is seen today as an early example of Richter's trademark "blur" technique, where images copied from photographs appear hazy and out of focus, lending them a painterly quality. But Richter's blurring process is far more than a formalist device; he deliberately creates a sense of distance between image and viewer, reminding us that photographs, whether personal or published, are one-dimensional, biased depictions rather than a complete reality. Writer Tom McCarthy says, "What is a blur? It's a corruption of an image, an assault upon its clarity, one that turns transparent lenses into opaque shower curtains, gauzy veils."

Many of Richter's earlier paintings, like Stag, were copied from photographs relating to his past, portraying people and places that no longer exist, which when painted through a hazy lens suggest the natural erasure of time. But Richter's blurring process was also applied to public photographs, such as political figures and consumer items, including planes, boats, and even toilet rolls. With his critical and subversive eye, Richter reduces the capitalist culture that surrounds us into an indistinct blur, a reminder of how superficial and one-dimensional the media really is, encapsulating the Capitalist Realist critique. He wrote, "I blur to make everything equal, everything equally important and equally unimportant."

Oil on canvas - Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

Neuschwanstein Castle (Schlob Neuschwanstein) (1963)

Artist: Gerhard Richter

The painted towering spires of Germany's famous Neuschwanstein Castle are nestled among an expressively painted landscape, and yet the castle seems to have been collaged onto the canvas. Much like many of his early, student paintings, Richter deliberately uses multiple styles to create a disjointed, broken version of reality. While the castle is portrayed with clean, graphic simplicity, the background has a pointillist quality, comprised of flickering dots and dashes of color, reminiscent of Jean Dubuffet's series Landscapes of the Mind, in which he created layered, monochromatic surfaces. It is likely Richter appropriated the image from a cover of Germany's Stern magazine, which celebrated Germany's famous Bavarian castle set amongst the dense, mountainous solitude of Lake Forggen.

By reproducing imagery from popular culture with a detached, deadpan eye, Richter echoed the language of his American and British Pop Art contemporaries. It is telling that the famed castle inspired Walt Disney's castles in both Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and that Andy Warhol made a silkscreen image of this same very castle in 1987. But Richter's image has a darker, more subversive edge which it is distinctly German. The castle has achieved a cult status in German culture with its mystical, fantasy appearance, built by the famously eccentric King Ludwig II, who had a complicated, troubled life and who is often superficially referred to as the "Fairy-tale King." Richter was also well aware that the site was used to store stolen works of art by Nazis during the Second World War. Moreover, his painting's cut-and-paste, disjointed aesthetic parodies Germany's nationalistic tradition for Romantic landscape painting - such as works by Caspar David Friedrich, which were championed by Adolf Hitler.

During his Capitalist Realist phase, Richter was keen to explore the ways art could address Germany's painful, difficult past rather than gloss over it with the veneer of American advertising and consumerism. Paintings such as this one point to the hidden meaning lying beneath a supposed "fairy-tale" surface, exploring art's powerful role as a carrier of cultural trauma.

Oil on canvas - Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden, Germany

The Sausage Eater (Der Wurstesser) (1963)

Artist: Sigmar Polke

On the right side of the canvas, a cartoonish face in profile, with bulging cheeks, opens his mouth wide, ready to devour a long string of sausages that spreads across the surface of the canvas into a configuration that resembles the lines on a map delineating lands. Polke made this work early in his career while still a student at the Düsseldorf Academy, where he began appropriating imagery and ideas from popular culture and creating various forms of parody and satire.

Polke was raised in East Germany before leaving to study in West Berlin, where he encountered for the first time the encroaching consumerism that accompanied an economic surge in prosperity. On the one hand Polke was fascinated by the materialistic decadence around him, but on the other hand, he also saw it as a vulgar form of excess, which he explored in his works. Here, Germany's national sausage becomes a symbol for general indulgence and gluttony, as a single figure tries to consume far more than he needs. While the work undoubtedly has a humorous quality, writer Faten Hakimi points out the dark streak running through it, writing, "Polke's humour wasn't sarcastic, it was a form of rebellion."

In contrast with his American Pop contemporaries, who undoubtedly had an impact on his practice, Polke's work was less about glamorizing the world of media and advertising and more about pointing out its inherent failings. In contrast with Roy Lichtenstein's various Hot Dog paintings, Polke's image has a deliberate ordinariness, with a complete lack of decoration or aesthetic appeal, as museum director Kathy Halbreich points out, "Compare Roy Lichtenstein's Hot Dog with Polke's The Sausage Eater.... Same subject matter, but Lichtenstein's has a triumphant cleanliness, and Polke's is dirty, dusty and contaminated."

Dispersion paint on canvas - Estate of Sigmar Polke

Girlfriends (1965-66)

Artist: Sigmar Polke

Two glamorous young women strike a pose for the camera in Girlfriends, typifying the stylized imagery of women from in 1960s media and advertising. Polke copied this motif from a cheaply printed newspaper image, deliberately emphasising its rasterized, or pixelated pattern, which becomes increasingly obvious in parts of the composition and threatens to engulf the subject matter.

Much like his Pop Art contemporaries, Polke mined the world of advertising and consumer culture for his paintings and prints, but, as painter Peter Doig points out, "[H]is take on popular culture was not always about things that were recognizable. They were more quirky, idiosyncratic things that he discovered for himself and that he seemed to find personally amusing." The women seen here are not well-known celebrities, but simply referred to as "girlfriends."

Polke's work is often compared with the slick, Ben-Day dot patterns of American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, but as we see in this work, Polke's world was full of painterly imperfections and stylistic irregularities. Patches of pink flesh bleed into oversaturated stains or fade out as if bleached by a cheap photocopier, while blue flecks are scattered here and there, lending the work a visceral, expressive quality, while also emphasising the fact that this is a two-dimensional, abstract image, not an imitation of reality. Writer Adrian Searle comments, "Polke revels in mistakes and imperfections, sudden lurches in tempo or the shearing of material and image, the places where something unexpected breaks in." Polke also deliberately left part of the border showing on the right side of the image, lending the work a casual, "anti-art" informality, which was a key component in the Capitalist Realist movement.

There is also a commentary here about the portrayal of women in the media, a criticism of the ways women are objectified and reduced to commodities in the same way as other supposed objects of desire, for as Searle points out, "As with everything he did, there are layers of subtext..."

Dispersion paint on canvas - Estate of Sigmar Polke

Starfighter I (1968)

Artist: Wolf Vostell

There is a sinister precision to this seemingly endless, ordered row of fighter jets, which are angled to emphasise their sharp, pointed ends, resembling weapons or a row of jagged teeth. Vostell reproduces the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, a jet that dominated the U.S. Air Force in the late 1960s and early 1970s and came to play a role in West Germany's plan for rearmament during the Cold War in their fight against the Soviet Union and its communist allies in Eastern Europe. Known notoriously as the "widow maker," the jet had a reputation for frequently crashing, and various rumors suggested Lockheed had bribed government officials during sale negotiations. Vostell was one of a number of artists who explored the Starfighter as an emblem of West German corruption.

Vostell produced this work as a series of six to be included in the widely acclaimed folio produced by René Block titled Graphics of Capitalist Realism (Grafik des Kapitalistischen Realismus) (1968). He appropriated the image from a television still, and the horizontal bands seen on the TV screen are still visible in Vostell's rendering. Vostell also added silver glitter to his prints, which was intended to create an ironic satire, mocking West Germany's apparent infatuation with the military, but it also lends the jets an intriguing, haunting form of power. Vostell included jet fighters in various film works, where he related the abstract themes of order, repetition, and banality to the politics of everyday life, as he explains, "[B]oredom, delays, repetitions, and distortions are analogies to processes going on in the world about us."

Color silkscreen with glitter on cardboard - Raphaël Lévy Gallery, Zurich, Switzerland

Untitled (Uncle) (1965)

Artist: Konrad Lueg

A suited, corporate figure stands before us with the trace of a bespectacled face only just visibly rendered in delicate, thin lines. Over the figure, a repeated floral pattern ripples across the surface, flattening the figure into an abstract design. This work was typical of Konrad Lueg's painting style, which parodied West Berlin's penchant for bourgeois interior décor and wallpaper prints lifted from magazines, tea towels, and napkin designs.

These paintings emphasised Lueg's disdain for middle class comfort and domesticity, which he saw as wrapped up in the homogenized world of commercialism and advertising. Lueg and his close contemporaries saw the idealized, tasteful interiors and luxury lifestyles as an attempt to gloss over Germany's recent, Nazi past with a superficial veneer, rather than confronting or processing it. Lueg's figure is rendered inert by his ghostly face as he gradually blends into his innocuous background, rendering him into a faceless consumer.

Lueg's paintings were also a criticism of the increasingly commercialized nature of Modernist painting, with its leaning tendency towards all-over pattern and repetition, with some artists leaving it open to interpretation as a form of decoration rather than critical commentary. While some abandoned painting in favour of new media, others, like Lueg, produced a form of "end-game," or ironic, painting, that was inherently acerbic, questioning the medium's role while simultaneously giving it a new voice. After his brief, five-year stint as a painter, Lueg reinvented himself as renowned gallerist Konrad Fischer, yet his integration of everyday patterns into painting can be seen in various contemporary artists, including German artist Albert Oehlen's freewheeling abstractions and American painter Kehinde Wiley's richly decorated portraits, which challenge perceptions of identity and masculinity.

Casein tempera on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Moos (1963)

Artist: Manfred Kuttner

A network of lurid green and blue diamonds pulls inwards towards the middle of the canvas, where the viewer's eyes are drawn to a red and blue horizon line. There seems to be a mechanical force at play, stretching the diamonds over curved mounds as they curl into the center. Kuttner played with lively Op Art effects in this and similar works, where intense colors painted with fluorescent paint hum and vibrate, reminiscent of Bridget Riley's works, prompting many critics to describe his work as kinetic.

Writer David Rhodes explains, "He sought to break down the picture plane into a series of repetitive and geometric patterns that often appear laconic and improvised." Kuttner made this work with Pelikan's Plaza paint, a newly invented fluorescent paint which came in a range of vivid hues, a medium he later extended into three dimensions, painting his trademark patterns over objects including a piano and a typewriter. In contrast with his more figurative Capitalist Realist contemporaries, Kuttner's paintings were concerned with abstract pattern, although there was an oblique reference to industrial design and the urban environment, as suggested here through structure and movement. Much like his fellow artists Richter, Polke, and Lueg, Kuttner's paintings make a mockery of industry by reducing it to a series of irreverent, dayglow patterns that take on a ridiculous sense of kitsch and gaudy decoration.

Though Kuttner abandoned painting for a career in advertising in the late 1960s to support his family, his disorientating use of color and form continues to influence various contemporary artists, including Christopher Wool's paintings and the musical structures of Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra.

Tempera and fluorescent paint on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

Untitled (1965)

Artist: K.P. Brehmer

Brehmer collaged images of female pin-ups, the roof of a car, and several space-men with an austere, mechanical stance to create a complex, multi-layered design. These elements nestle among geometric panels of color, lending the work a further abstract quality. Like his Capitalist Realist contemporaries, Brehmer incorporated elements of everyday life into his art in order to critique modern society, often borrowing imagery from the American media. Much like his contemporaries Richter and Polke, Brehmer's imagery is distorted through the artistic process, rendering any original context and meaning obsolete.

Brehmer's image bears an uncanny resemblance to the work of American artist Robert Rauschenberg, but Brehmer's methods primarily focused on the role of an artwork as a multiple - here he makes use of offset, commercial printing techniques, which allowed him to reproduce and distribute his art widely as multiples with minimal cost. Brehmer was also deeply sceptical about the media's increasing tendency to reduce women to sex objects as a means of selling products. He formed a reaction not dissimilar to the work of Dadaist Hannah Hoch, by combining images of women with disparate or unrelated imagery such as mechanical elements or references to war, thereby subverting and upending their original meaning.

Graphic material Offset print on paper - Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Spain

Greater Japan Zero Yen-Note (1967)

Artist: Akasegawa Genpei

This image is a fake bank note - a single sided yen-note featuring an anonymous, faceless figure, with a value of zero. The work was made as part of a larger project begun in 1963, in which Akasegawa produced a series of several hundred fake 1000-yen bank notes, which he mailed out as invitations to an exhibition opening in Tokyo. In the next few months, the artist continued to create thousands of new notes, which he incorporated into various projects, such as burning them in a performance and using them to wrap objects.

A year later, the police arrested and charged the artist for producing objects that "may be confused with real currency" resulting in a three-month jail sentence and a one year probation. Akasegawa now refers to the entire experience as the Model 1,000 Yen-Note Incident. He produced a series of Greater Japan Zero-yen Notes, seen here, in response, thereby asserting the complete lack of monetary value in all his notes.

Throughout his trial, Akasegawa argued that his notes were no attempt to imitate real money, but were intended to disrupt and devalue the meaning of the original, echoing French philosopher Jean Baudrillard's assertion that a copy can "render both artificial." Akasegawa was keen to draw attention to the inherent fragility and meaninglessness of a bank note, which is not dissimilar to any other printed sheet of paper, writing, "Real things are not absolute things. Real things are the embodiments of a dictatorial system of coercion which maintains that they are real." Writer Reiko Tomii also asserts that the entire Model 1,000 Yen-Note Incident is a group, participatory project, in which the public, court officials, and police played unwitting roles, writing, "While Akasegawa is its primary author, without whom the work would not have existed, the others played crucial roles, if only inadvertently, collaborating with him in its making."

Offset lithograph

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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Capitalist Realism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 16 Jul 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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