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The Expressionist Aesthetics of Anke Feuchtenberger’s Graphic Narrative


By Elizabeth Nijdam

Figure 1: Anke Feuchtenberger, “Horror-Skop,” in PGH Glühende Zukunft (1991).

In 1991, the East German graphic arts collective PGH Glühende Zukunft (1989-1993) hosted an art opening in their workshop and exhibition space at Oderberger Straße 17. The studio in Prenzlauer Berg had operated as the headquarters of the group since before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (Handloik 2). At the top of the stairs through a door on the left was the collective’s twenty-square-meter workshop shared by its four members, Anke Feuchtenberger, Henning Wagenbreth, Detlev Beck, and Holger Fickelscherer (“PGH Glühende Zukunft präsentiert”). With printing presses under windows bearing gold-varnished frames in a room decorated with pirate flags and black, red and gold flowered cloth, no less than a hundred guests encountered a cacophony of color, a deluge of media, and a myriad of representational styles (Marianne 28).

Even as early as PGH’s next major exhibition in the Galerie am Chamissoplatz that same year, however, one particular aesthetic began to define Feuchtenberger’s style – the visual rhetoric of early German expressionism (Figure 1). The solitary example of Feuchtenberger’s comic art in the exhibition’s accompanying catalog, “Horror-Skop,” is a testament to this evolution in Feuchtenberger’s visual language, demonstrating many of the expressionist features characteristic of her later work. Here, we already see the artist’s inclination towards detailed patterning and use of flat planes of black and white to create space and depth as well as the primacy of her interests in the female body and the politics of gender.1 Emulating the aesthetic of the woodcut print, the claustrophobic and angular space of German expressionist cinema, and the deformed bodies and elongated appendages of the work of expressionist forefathers George Grosz and Otto Dix, this early sample of Feuchtenberger’s sequential art unequivocally reveals its affinity to the aesthetics of early 20th-century German modernism.

Feuchtenberger’s turn to expressionism might not seem surprising considering her graphic art training at the Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee during the most radical and experimental decade of East German artistic practice, which had already canonized the aesthetics of expressionism by way of neo-expressionism. By the collapse of the GDR, East German neo-expressionism was as accepted an artistic language as Soviet-style socialist realism. Furthermore, while East German Plakatkunst (poster art) is often naively associated with the artistic mandates of socialist realism, it was, in fact, a genre with its own set of modernist – often neo-expressionist – aesthetics that allowed room for artistic experimentation. After the 1970s, when the legacy of classical German expressionism was officially adopted as part of East Germany’s artistic tradition, neo-expressionism became an important mode of representation in all areas of East German artistic practice.

Yet, Feuchtenberger’s artistic idiom draws from an entirely different era of German expression. Echoing the aesthetics of pre-WWI printmaking and German expressionist cinema as well as the anxiety, disillusion, and politics of the Weimar-era avant-garde, Feuchtenberger adopted the representational style of the prehistory of neo-expressionism instead of neo-expressionism itself. This recourse to an earlier form of expression can therefore be neither essentialized as an extension of her graphic arts training in the GDR, as some commentators have observed, nor perceived as a fundamental break with East German artistic practice, as the artist herself has characterized it (Feuchtenberger, Personal Interview, June 2016).2 Ultimately, a fuller understanding of Feuchtenberger’s mobilization of classic German expressionism requires a closer evaluation of the GDR’s complex relationship with the aesthetics and politics of early German modernism. By outlining the processes of early German expressionism’s integration into the teleology of socialist realism, this article demonstrates how Feuchtenberger’s return to early German modernism after 1989 was a political and artistic intervention that drew from a variety of expressionist modes of representation to critique the processes of German unification.

Figure 2: Feuchtenberger, Film Festival for Fünf Abende, circa 1988.

Turning to Feuchtenberger’s work before the fall of the Berlin Wall helps to differentiate her pre-1989 artistic practice from her later work. For example, we see the aesthetics of neo-expressionism manifest in Feuchtenberger’s graphic art as late as 1988, while this visual language disappears entirely from her artistic production only two years later. For her final project for her degree at the Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee (1983 to 1988), she created the publicity material for a Russian (Soviet) Film Festival – film posters, portraits of Russian actors, and theatre costumes (Nevins 68). Much of this material is lost, but the poster Feuchtenberger created for the 1979 film Fünf Abende, directed by Nikita Mikhalkov and starring Ludmila Gurtschenko, remains (Figure 2). As one of the few examples of her pre-1989 poster work and the culminating project for her degree in the graphic arts, I read this poster as representative of Feuchtenberger’s pre-unification artistic production.3

Feuchtenberger’s film poster for Fünf Abende features a centrally-located, sombre female figure facing the viewer with her eyes cast downwards. Presented from the waist up, we observe her head-on as she stands, clutching her purse. While the protagonist appears to almost recede into the darkness behind her, the bright white surface of her face contrasts sharply with the grey and black shading that makes up the space around. The atmosphere of the scene is dreamlike – neither exterior, as her clothing suggests, nor interior, as the telephone present would indicate – with the architectural forms that surround her also contradicting themselves, appearing both concave and convex simultaneously.

Across the surface of the image are small rectangular markings that mirror the salmon-color of the film title, which is itself situated in the upper left. They are scattered not quite uniformly across the picture plane like elongated confetti moving in a single direction. Their static quality, however, implies that they are in no way part of the imagined space of the scene and instead draw attention to the flatness of the representation. They reinforce the image’s architectural optical illusions by collapsing the picture’s surface with the scene’s background, thereby flattening the image, while also recalling the cinematic medium for which this poster was created.

Figure 3: Volker Pfüller, “Totentanz,” 1986.
Figure 4: Pfüller, “Bertolt Brecht: Baal,” Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, 1982.

Comparing this poster to the neo-expressionist poster art of her mentor and role model Volker Pfüller (Figure 3 and 4) elicits numerous parallels: the centrally-located figures are also represented head-on, with the surface of the faces contrasting sharply with the overall grey and black shading of the figures and space; and the only colors – again highlights in orange, yellow and red – function to flatten the image. These and other similarities already situate Feuchtenberger’s pre-1989 artistic production within Pfüller’s own artistic context, while also demonstrating its adherence to many of the conventions of the neo-expressionist artistic style. However, looking to two of Feuchtenberger’s earliest theater posters from after 1989 illuminates the dramatic shift in her aesthetics after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Figure 5: Feuchtenberger, “Komo?die der Eitelkeit” Studiobu?hne an der FU Berlin, 1991.
Figure 6: Feuchtenberger, “Das doppelte Friedchen,” 1992.

Produced in 1991 and 1992, these posters (Figure 5 and 6) are excellent examples of Feuchtenberger’s earliest artistic endeavors during and after German unification, exhibiting features of her visual language that continue into her comics and graphic narratives Herzhaft und Lebenslänglich published by Martin Barber in 1993, Mutterkuchen published by Jochen Enterprises in 1995, and the earliest iteration of Die Hure H trilogy published by Jochen Enterprises in 1996. Most importantly, however, they look quite different from her pre-1989 film poster.

Once again, Feuchtenberger presents the viewer with a central figure, however, the spaces within which she sets her characters are rendered imaginary by virtue of the decorative frames, detailed patterning of the facial features, décor and fabric, and the unrealistic spaces these figures occupy. Again, these posters exhibit flattening techniques that draw attention to the materiality of the poster, but these strategies hail from early German expressionism, harkening back to the aesthetic of the woodcut print and the angular architecture and claustrophobic spaces of German expressionist cinema. Furthermore, instead of a rounded and sensual representation of the female body, like that featured in her poster for Fünf Abende, Feuchtenberger’s post-Wall theater posters adopt an early German expressionist style of figuration that exhibits the angular and elongated proportions of early German modernism, most notably in the painting of Egon Schiele. Ultimately, Feuchtenberger’s poster art after 1989 exhibits both continuities and breaks with her earlier work by explicitly mobilizing a different, earlier era of German expressionism.

Figure 7: Bernhard Heisig, Die Beharrlichkeit des Vergessens, 1977.
Figure 8: Willi Sitte, Höllensturz in Vietnam (Triptych, right side), 1966/67.
Figure 9: Wolfgang Matteuer, Kain, 1965.

So while the techniques Feuchtenberger mastered at the Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee informed some of her artistic experimentation after 1989, Feuchtenberger’s expressionist influences were not entirely born of her artistic training in the GDR and the artistic hegemony of East German neo-expressionism. As I have shown, the expressionist visual rhetoric of Feuchtenberger’s graphic art after 1989 diverges significantly from both her pre-1989 work as well as the experiments in neo-expressionism which occurred in the last three decades of the GDR (Figure 7, 8 and 9). Furthermore, even though American alternative comics demonstrated a similar impulse towards expressionist expression in the 1980s and early 1990s, particularly in Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine (1980-1991), Feuchtenberger’s graphic art – which is unequivocally indebted to this comics anthology – does also not emulate the same visual aesthetic. Yet, her work nevertheless remains in dialog with all three of these expressionist visual traditions. This essay therefore draws out Feuchtenberger’s nuanced engagement with the aesthetics of expressionism by outlining the history of those aesthetics in the GDR. It acknowledges the influence of American alternative comics but focuses on East German neo-expressionism and the legacy of German modernism in the GDR as essential precursors for the development of Feuchtenberger’s expressionist aesthetics. I thereby demonstrate how Feuchtenberger’s adoption and adaptation of an expressionist representational language connects the visual rhetoric of early German expressionism with the expressionist representational modes of East German neo-expressionism and American alternative comics, while also functioning to distance her work from East German artistic production before 1989, thus rendering it a visual political intervention in post-unification Germany.4

The Shifting Politics of East German Aesthetic Policy: from Die Brücke to East German Neo-expressionism

German expressionism, the leading style of German modernism, refers to a number of related artistic movements that emerged before the First World War (Lowry 6). Reaching its peak in the 1920s, German expressionism is as essential to the evolution of modern art as simultaneous developments in Fauvism and Cubism in France, Futurism in Italy, and the Russian avant-garde (Lowry 6).

As a visual language, expressionism is typically defined by sharp angles, deep shadows and dramatic contrasts, surreal landscapes, extensive symbolism, and emotive and often unrealistic representation. It emphasizes personal expression over objective reality, characterized by simplified or distorted forms and exaggerated color (Figura and Jelavich 10). With exterior and interior worlds fusing in visual synthesis, the expression of subjective emotion became expressionists’ visual subject matter (Moeller 240). However, as Glenn Lowry observes in his forward to the exhibition catalog German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse (2011), the defining characteristic that set it apart from other modernist movements – and indeed almost any other period of art history – was the expressionist dedication to printmaking and works on paper in general (Lowry 6). While not more influential or iconic than other expressionist media, such as painting and film, it was an important aspect of artistic production for many expressionist artists.

Traced to the formation of the artist collective Die Brücke (The Bridge, 1905-1913) and inspired by a feeling of dissatisfaction with the existing political and social order, German expressionism developed through the 1910s over the First World War and into the Weimar period, manifesting as a desire for revolutionary change (Figura and Jelavich 10). The movement initially materialized during the period of intense social and aesthetic transformation before WWI, and its emphasis on printmaking aided expressionists in advancing their goals, including pioneering formal innovations, disseminating their images and ideas on paper, and promoting or criticizing social and political causes (Lowry 6). The woodcut print therefore became an invaluable tool of the movement, as expressionists encouraged essentially every painter of the period to turn to the graphic arts (Figura and Jelavich 10). With an emphasis on geometric forms accompanied by alternating planes of solid color and carved pattern to produce texture, shading and depth, the aesthetic of the woodcut print and its variants, particularly the linocut print, are immediately recognizable and associated with German expressionism.

The expressionism that re-emerged after WWI, however, looked very different than the visual language that came before it. The war had left Germany in economic and moral ruin (Barron 10). Many German expressionists, who had enthusiastically embraced the war, were soon profoundly shocked by the grotesque realities of the battlefield. This disillusion politicized them and their art after 1918, at which point many expressionists joined the radical artists’ groups that began to appear throughout Germany, including the Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists of Germany (Asso) of the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands or KPD), which was founded in 1928. But by as early as 1919, expressionists’ revolutionary fervor was already being replaced by a growing disenchantment that emerged as the complicated political realities of the new German state became more pronounced (Barron 10). Printmaking continued to be an important avenue for political intervention, in particular the socialist-leaning caricatures of Georg Grosz and the print cycles by Otto Dix and Käthe Kollwitz, most notably Dix’s The War (1923-1924) and Kollwitz’s War (1921-22) and Proletariat (1924-25). However, the tone of the expressionist graphic art to emerge after WWI was decidedly less optimistic as artists began to criticize the war effort and politics of the period.

The rise of National Socialism brought an explicit end to the expressionist work of many artists in Germany. In February 1933, Kollwitz was forced to quit the Prussian Academy. Two months later, a law that allowed the dismissal of civil servants of “non-Aryan” descent was passed. As a result, Jewish and politically undesirable artists teaching at public institutions and directing museums supportive of modern art were discharged, including Max Beckmann (Städel Art School, Frankfurt) and Dix (Art Academy Dresden). Also starting in 1933, a series of “Defamatory exhibitions” toured a number of German cities, culminating in the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1937, which displayed 650 paintings, sculptures and prints by 112 artists, including the expressionist work of Beckmann, Kollwitz, Dix, Grosz, Erich Heckel, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner among others. Consequently, artists began to flee Germany en masse after 1933, including Beckmann and Grosz who emigrated to the Netherlands (Beckmann, 1937) and the United States (Grosz, 1933) (Schmeisser 281).

In the immediate post-WWII period, very few stylistic differences existed between the occupied zones of divided Germany, where all artistic production attempted to distance itself unequivocally from the Nazi past through a number of aesthetic practices. By 1946, however, cultural ambassadors were encouraging the Soviet-occupied sector to adopt Soviet-style socialist realism as the model for postwar German artistic production. Then, with the founding of the GDR in 1949, the Stalinization of art was institutionalized in the battle against capitalism. Two years later, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED) adopted a policy against formalism, and in 1953, socialist realism became the official cultural policy of the GDR.

Even before the official adoption of socialist realism, however, the exclusion of the prewar avant-garde was problematic for artists and East German cultural authorities alike. Ostracizing the communist artistic production of the Weimar period alienated an entire generation of artists who had initially been very excited to witness the Red Army liberating the German people. The modern and socially conscious art of Dix, Kollwitz, John Heartfield and other Weimar leftist artists was said to belong to the prehistory of the revolutionary worker’s struggle now resolved by the end of capitalist exploitation and the “triumph” of socialism in the GDR (McCloskey 109). Many artists sought to adopt socialist realism in their work but did not understand that German modernism – and their own painterly legacy – had no place in contemporary East German artistic practice. Consequently, the postwar work of Wilhelm Lachnit (Figure 10), Horst Strempel (Figure 11), Hermann Bruse (Figure 12), and Oskar Nerlinger (Figure 13), all of whom had been advocating for communism as members of the KPD during the interwar period, was categorically deemed formalist (Leeb 119). Despite the leftist focus of early expressionism, socialist realism – not prewar avant-garde art – became the official aesthetic of the GDR. These and other East German artists had to therefore either conform to the new aesthetic mandate or no longer be considered supporters of the socialist project.

Figure 10: Wilhelm Lachnit, Der Tod von Dresden, 1945.
Figure 11: Horst Strempel, Nacht über Deutschland, 1945/46.
Figure 12: Hermann Bruse, Hungermarsch, 1945/46.
Figure 13: Oskar Nerlinger, Der Letzte Soldat, 1947.

By 1960, however, the SED began to re-evaluate its position on the proto-revolutionary art of the prewar period and began sponsoring working groups that would reverse the GDR cultural policy that lambasted German modernism to institute a liberalization of the party’s cultural politics over the following decades.

Figure 14: Käthe Kollwitz, In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht (Gedenkblatt für Karl Liebknecht), woodcut print, 1920.5

The SED continued to maintain a stranglehold on artistic production; however, the rigidity of East German mandates on the socialist realist aesthetic loosened. Previously unimaginable formal developments emerged in the visual arts, as painters adopted art historian Ullrich Kuhirt’s reassessment of the origins of socialist realism by way of Käthe Kollwitz’s In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht (Figure 14) and slowly incorporated once-taboo modernist traditions into their work (McCloskey 116).6 Furthermore, the central committee began to tolerate modernist experimentation as long as the artistic message explicitly addressed anti-fascism, a reimagining of East Germany’s foundational narrative, which established the GDR’s historical roots in the anti-fascist activities of the KPD during the interwar period (Mesch 34-35).

April 1964 marked a turning point in East German aesthetics. At the 5th Congress of the Association of Visual Artists (Verband Bildender Künstler or VBK), art historian Hermann Raum, sculptor Fitz Cremer, and Leipziger Schule painter Bernhard Heisig shocked VBK administrators and members by attacking official cultural policy that rejected the methods of modernism as unusable for socialism (Mesch 34-35). Warning that artistic stagnation and provincialism would result from SED policies, Heisig spoke in favor of artistic experimentation with modern art styles (Mesch 34-35 and Eisman, “In the Crucible” 26). He believed that artistic freedom should be given back to the artists and that the artists themselves – not politicians – should decide what constituted communist art. Heisig was harshly criticized for his comments and was forced to subsequently release a self-criticism six months later to prove his loyalty to the party (Eisman, “Cultural Politics of East German Art” 140-141). Official artistic doctrine did, however, begin to ease. In his article “Wir müssen über den Form sprechen” (1964), Siegfried H. Begenau, editor and chief of SED art publication Bildende Kunst, wrote that many artistic paths could lead to realistic art, with the statement of the work being more important than the mode of representation (Peters and Prügel 68-70). This perspective on socialist realist art culminated in Erich Honecker’s closing remarks at the 4th Conference of the Central Committee of the SED on December 17th, 1971, where he concluded that “[i]f one starts out from the solid position of socialism, then there cannot be, in my view, any taboos in the field of art and literature. That applies to both the shaping of content and of style” (“[W]enn man von der festen Position des Sozialismus ausgeht, kann es meines Erachtens auf dem Gebiet von Kunst und Literature keine Tabus geben. Das betrifft sowohl die Fragen der inhaltlichen Gestaltung und auch des Stils…”) (qtd. in Wolle 239). His election marked a shift in cultural policy, and even though this official relaxation of artistic mandates only lasted until 1976 when Wolf Biermann was expatriated (which also led to a mass exodus of artistic and intellectual figures out of the GDR), it left a lasting impact upon all East German artistic production to come.

While the aesthetics of modernism came under attack again and again, from the 1970s onward, the SED officially changed its perspective on the prewar art of the Weimar Left. Seeking to legitimize socialist realism by claiming it naturally stemmed out of the expressionist art of the prewar proletarian/revolutionary artists and these same artists’ “antifascist” work in the immediate postwar period, East German cultural authorities began to incorporate the socially conscious art of the KPD’s Asso artists, early German expressionism and the German avant-garde into the artistic traditions of socialist realism.7 Consequently, all prewar humanist and antifascist art was reinterpreted from the 1970s onwards as early socialist art, thus creating a continuity between the socialist realism of the day and the artistic practices of German modernism.8

Feuchtenberger’s education in the last decade of the GDR had already incorporated this lineage of German expressionism. Neo-expressionist aesthetics therefore no longer offered the radical visual rhetoric that they had in the 1960s and 1970s in the GDR. Instead, neo-expressionism possessed a stylistic language that had become a convention in some areas of East German artistic practice. This was especially true in GDR poster art, and specifically in the genre of theater posters, which was both an important aspect of Feuchtenberger’s training in the East German graphic arts and an essential avenue of income for her after 1989. Yet, while Feuchtenberger’s work before 1989 exhibits parallels to East German neo-expressionism, Feuchtenberger’s graphic art after 1989 emulates early German expressionism, a radical aesthetic move that has become of primary interest in evaluations of her art but is misunderstood by commentators and misrepresented by the artist herself.

The Early German Expressionism of Feuchtenberger’s Comic Art

Feuchtenberger’s series Bärmi und Klett (1993-1997) is an excellent example of the emergence of the expressionist visual rhetoric emblematic of her theater posters in her comic art. Featuring surreal narratives of a mother and child as they traverse a frightening reality of strange nightmares and mysterious men in an alienating world, the Bärmi und Klett series provides an extended look at the earliest iteration of Feuchtenberger’s expressionist visual language, offering clues and parallels to its inspiration in early German expressionism by linking these aesthetics to the anxiety of the post-unification moment.

The four narratives of Bärmi und Klett span Feuchtenberger’s first four publications: Schräge Schwestern (1993, Figure 15), a collection of comics from German-speaking female artists by Elefanten Press; Herzhaft und Lebenslänglich (1993, Figure 16), part of the Crunch series edited by ATAK’s brother, Martin Barber;9 Mutterkuchen (1995, Figure 17), Feuchtenberger’s first publication by Jochen Enterprises; and Die kleine Dame (1997, Figure 18)the artist’s first collaboration with Katrin de Vries, which was also published by Jochen Enterprises.

The narratives are highly imaginative and symbolic, offering allegorical interpretations of the relationships between mother and child and man and woman. Their aesthetics evolve over the half-decade of their production, but each graphic narrative maintains unequivocal aesthetic links to German expressionism: Feuchtenberger’s bodies’ feature sharp angles and elongated appendages, the spaces in which action unfolds are constricted and claustrophobic, and the perspectives from which the images are drawn are angled sharply to the picture plane, changing dramatically between panels (Figure 16-18).

Figures 19 and 20: Egon Schiele, Kneeling Nude with Raised Hands, 1910. Schiele, Nude Self-Portrait in Grey with Open Mouth, 1910.

In Feuchtenberger’s 1993 Bärmi und Klett story featured in Herzhaft und Lebenslänglich, “Der Schatz” [“The Treasure”], the protagonist’s emaciated body is represented topless with unusually long arms and unrealistically sharp shoulders, recalling the angularity, nudity and even tiny nipples of Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele’s self-portraiture (Figure 19 and 20). The panels’ perspective also changes remarkably as the reader observes the protagonist and her child from four different angles across the first four panels of their search for treasure among the foliage outside of the city in which they live (Figure 18).

The first panel features a perspective from directly in front of the protagonist, with the observer’s viewpoint positioned opposite the figure’s midsection. The second and third panels feature views from above; however, Feuchtenberger complicates these representations of space by making elements of the scene visible that contradict the perspectival view. For example, the lower left-hand panel of “Der Schatz” (Figure 16) presents the reader with a view of both the top of the protagonist’s hair and the bottom of her left foot. Furthermore, the architecture behind the protagonist is towering over her, threatening to break out of the picture plane, while the flat surfaces of the buildings’ uppermost levels are also visible to the viewer. Again, in the third panel, space seems to be folding in on itself, where the viewer’s perspective is simultaneously looking up from the ground, with sight almost obscured by plant life, while also looking down from above, with the back of the heads of both mother and child visible as they bend down to inspect the earth.

Figure 21: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene, 1920.
Figure 22: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene, 1920.

With the panels’ stark geometric impulse, claustrophobic and collapsing spaces, angular and nonparallel architectural lines and dramatic and changing perspectives, Feuchtenberger’s art does not only harken back to the visual grammar of expressionist painting and graphic arts; it also echoes the aesthetic of expressionist cinema. Specifically recalling film stills of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Figure 21 and 22), which follows the story of an insane hypnotist (Werner Krauss) who uses a somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) to commit murders, Bärmi und Klett’s distorted landscapes, collapsing and claustrophobic architectural spaces, irregular lighting, deep shadows and imaginative cityscapes mirror the aesthetics of the dark and distressing stories of early German cinema.

Figure 23: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Der Kranke,” 1919.
Figure 24: Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, “Frau in den Dünen,” 1914.
Figure 25: Erich Heckel, “Krankes Mädchen,” 1913.

While Feuchtenberger’s construction of space in her panels and her figures’ angular and elongated proportions also recall expressionist painting on a fundamental level, the expressionist impression of Feuchtenberger’s art rests primarily on her style of artistic representation. Even though she is not mobilizing the technical aspects of expressionist printmaking, the surface of Feuchtenberger’s early art echoes the aesthetics of expressionist engraving, and specifically the art of the woodcut print. Like in the graphic works of the founders of Die Brücke, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938, Figure 23), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976, Figure 24), Erich Heckel (1883-1970, Figure 25) and Fritz Bleyl (1880-1966), the space represented in Feuchtenberger’s graphic art is textured with repetitive geometric forms that flatten the picture plane and patterned line-work that develops depth. However, in these images of early German modernism, figure and ground seem to merge in a way that Feuchtenberger’s do not. Unlike Feuchtenberger’s panels, where figure and ground are more distinct from each other, the protagonists of Schmidt-Rottluff, Heckel and Kirchner’s print work blend into the “textured” space around them (nature, architectural space, etc.).

Despite this obvious contrast, Feuchtenberger’s panels share important characteristics with the work of Schmidt-Rottluff, Heckel and Kirschner. Her flat and dense planes of black and white stand in stark contrast to the texture she builds in the background and foreground of her images. Her line-work is clear and bold, featuring lines that rarely blur or fade into the background. She develops her deviation in tone, saturation and shade through complex patterns of crosshatching, dots, and parallel and non-parallel lines. Feuchtenberger’s sense of space is thereby simultaneously flattened through the planes of black and white and assigned depth through the intricate pattern work. This visual style is particularly legible in the Bärmi und Klett series, but Feuchtenberger’s mobilization of the woodcut print aesthetic is apparent in all of her graphic art between 1991 and 2003.

Feuchtenberger’s black and white palette recalls the print work of the Brücke collective, but her emphasis on the female body and the intimate relationship between mother and child echoes the engravings of another important German expressionist printmaker, Käthe Kollwitz, while the sequentiality of her art points to the influence of Frans Masereel’s woodcut novels. Yet, despite her visual references to the woodcut print aesthetic and the many individuals working in this artistic idiom, Feuchtenberger does not employ the technical aspects of such printmaking; instead, she mobilizes the characteristic texture of expressionist engraving with pencil and ink on paper, painstakingly reproducing the geometry and detailed patterning of the medium by hand. She thereby creates works that emulate the printmaking culture of Germany before World War I, but in her own undeniably unique signature style.

Conclusion: the Politics of Feuchtenberger’s Expressionist Aesthetics

Just as Feuchtenberger’s stylistic innovations are not entirely born of her East German training and the neo-expressionism specific to the GDR in the 1970s and 1980s, neither is her visual rhetoric wholly indebted to the early German expressionism that predated East Germany. Like many of her peers in the alternative comics scene, Feuchtenberger’s turn to comics was inspired by the American alternative comics anthology RAW, which she began reading after 1989 (Feuchtenberger, Personal Interview, June 2016; Schneider). However, considering that Feuchtenberger’s art bares striking resemblances to some of the alternative comics published in RAW magazine in the 1980s and 1990s, I argue that American alternative comics inspired Feuchtenberger to adopt more than just the comics form. For example, there is also a clear impulse towards expressionistic expression in the alternative comics of RAW, many of which exhibit striking aesthetic and narrative parallels to the sequential art of Feuchtenberger, such as the comics of Mark Beyer (Figure 26) and Marc Caro (Figure 27).

Figure 26: Mark Beyer, “City of Terror,” in RAW 2, eds. Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly (New York: Raw Books, 1981), 18-19.
Figure 27: Marc Caro, “Jailbreak Hotel,” in RAW 8, eds. Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly (New York: Raw Books, 1986), 5.

Ultimately, Feuchtenberger’s aesthetics come from a synthesis of expressionist influences, bringing together the expressionist visual rhetorics of early German modernism and alternative comics simultaneously. These visual languages work in combination with her poetic form of graphic storytelling to impart a representation of a world rife with political conflict. The tumult, transition and optimism of the revolutionary moment of 1989 were quickly followed by disillusion. The ups and downs of East Germany’s Peaceful Revolution thus mirrored, to a certain extent, the socio-political situation and collective sentiment of post-WWI Weimar Germany. Feuchtenberger’s adoption of the expressionist aesthetics of the woodcut print, the sharp corners and collapsing and contradicting architectural spaces of German expressionist cinema, and the distorted and grotesque bodies of German modernism therefore transferred the potent anxiety of an earlier period of German artistic practice – one that also sought reform – into her own. Expressionism thereby emerged as a visual language to contend with political discontent after 1989 as much as after 1918. However, that society in transition was not the same as the one in post-war shambles during the Weimar Republic; instead, Feuchtenberger mobilized these aesthetics to graphically capture the tumult, transition and politics of 1989, along with the economic chaos and moral quandaries of the post-unification period – and specifically, its gender politics.10

Similarly, her mobilization of the expressionist representational style specifically in the comics medium recalled the ethos of comparable impulses in contemporary alternative comics. Integrating the aesthetic experiments of the American alternative comics scene aligned her project with the leftist politics of that form, while also building on Art Spiegelman’s intervention in the possibilities of comics content. Feuchtenberger’s graphic art’s early expressionist aesthetic thus anticipated the political interventions of her work, specifically in her poster art for the East German Women’s Movement and related comics in Mutterkuchen (1995).11 Feuchtenberger’s graphic narrative should therefore be set in conversation with the sequential art of other important women working internationally in the comics form during the 1980s and 1990s, such as Phoebe Gloeckner, Trina Robbins and Aline Kominsky-Crumb.

Essentially, Feuchtenberger’s adoption of the representational style of early German expressionism was neither an extension of the aesthetics of East Germany, as some German comics historians have argued, nor as the artist herself articulates, wholly a reaction against them (Feuchtenberger, Personal Interview, June 2016); instead, the expressionist visual rhetoric of Feuchtenberger’s early sequential art was a combination of both of these impulses. Appropriating the aesthetic of the woodcut print in the comics form simultaneously differentiated her work from the neo-expressionist art to emerge out of the last decades of the GDR and the state-mandated aesthetics of socialist realism, while also allowing her to continue to work within a familiar aesthetic idiom with a radical political legacy and engage an important artistic style in international comics art.


[1] For more information, see Elizabeth Nijdam’s “‘Drawing for me means communication’: Anke Feuchtenberger and German Art Comics after 1989,” dissertation, University of Michigan, 2017.

[2] In his essay “German comics are back!,” Andreas Platthaus contextualizes the innovations of the German comics avant-garde in East German artistic practice by stating that the graphic art of PGH made conscious reference to the art movement most closely associated with Germany, expressionism, while also citing this as the foundation of their international appeal (5). He comments that Feuchtenberger and other members of PGH were not beholden to the economic demands of successful comic art production due to their employment as graphics artists, which granted them the space to experiment in the comics medium. He continues his assessment of their innovations by implicating their “solid education” in the East German graphic arts, which instructed them in techniques such as hand presses, woodcut and linocut printmaking techniques, calligraphy and book design “that had long been abandoned by West German art colleges and other educational establishments” (5). Platthaus thereby situates their technical and aesthetic innovations in their training in the GDR and its artistic traditions, neglecting to acknowledge the radical political implications of Feuchtenberger’s adoption of early German expression.

[3] Feuchtenberger lost a lot of her archival material in a flood (Feuchtenberger, Personal Interview, June 2014).

[4] Feuchtenberger’s adoption of the comics medium has been attributed to her discovery of comics through Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine (1980-1991) and bandes dessinées, but no scholar has traced her expressionistic aesthetics to the alternative comics collected in RAW between 1980 and 1991. For more information, see Nijdam’s “‘Drawing for me means communication’: Anke Feuchtenberger and German Art Comics after 1989,” dissertation, University of Michigan, 2017.

[5] Kollwitz created this image in response to the brutal murder of communist Karl Liebknecht, who led an armed revolt against the government in January 1919. Assassinated by right-wing paramilitary units, Liebknecht is memorialized in Kollwitz’s work based on traditional Christian lamentation scenes, thereby positioning Liebknecht in the role of martyr.

[6] A pivotal moment in this transition was art historian Ullrich Kuhirt’s opening address for a symposium at the Humboldt University in Berlin in November 1960, in which he provided his reconsideration of the history of German proletarian/revolutionary art. He spoke about a tradition that harkened back to the nineteenth century and culminated in the work of Kollwitz, who had previously been harshly criticized and not regarded as a positive contributor to socialist realist art. In direct contradiction to the origins of socialist realist art publicized in the 1950s, Kuhirt cited the origins of German socialist realism as the founding of the KPD in 1919 and those artists aligned with the party in creating a “proletarian/revolutionary” art. Kuhirt identified the key components of socialist realism to include the thematization of the worker with the goal of awakening the worker’s movement in Germany, while also maintaining an “organic” tie between the people and art. Importantly, Kuhirt proscribed no specific style or medium, considering Kollwitz’s notably German expressionist memorial woodcut print for Karl Liebknecht (1920, Figure 14) as exemplary of the origins of socialist realism (Figure 9) and acknowledging the German expressionist members of the Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists of Germany (Asso), George Groz, John Heartfield, Rudolf Schlichter, Otto Dix, Otto Nagel and Oskar Nerlinger as having the most significance to East German socialist realism. See Claudia Mesch’s Modern Art at the Berlin Wall: Demarcating Culture in the Cold War Germanys (New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 2008), specifically pages 24-36, for an extended discussion on Kuhirt’s speech and its impact.

[7] Martin Damus, Malerei der DDR: Funktionen der Bildenden Kunst im Realen Sozialismus (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1991) 33.

[8] While GDR aesthetics evolved to adopt German expressionism into its aesthetic traditions, East German artists such as Bernhard Heisig, Wolfgang Mattheuer and Willi Sitte developed their own variations of neo-expressionist art. While Heisig’s work blatantly recalls the grotesque bodies and collapsed space of George Grosz and the political and pacifist themes of German expressionism, his art, evolving out of a different socio-political context, cannot be essentialized as German expressionist. East German neo-expressionism art may have integrated the aesthetics and themes of expressionism, but they also adapted the visual strategies of other modernist painterly movements, specifically the inter-war avant-garde. Mattheuer’s dark and expressive figuration also integrated surrealist elements into the landscape and metaphorical content of his work. Sitte’s paintings, on the other hand, depict abstracted figuration incorporating painterly strategies in expressing movement derived from the visual vocabulary of futurism and cubism. Their integration of modernist painterly strategies was a radical and subversive gesture that undermined socialist aesthetic doctrine to force its evolution. Postwar German neo-expressionism also emerged in West Germany, but its development took a very different path than its adaptation in the GDR. Also called New German Figuration, this movement was spearheaded by radical painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, Markus Lüpertz and A.R. Penck, many of whom emigrated from East Germany and rejected the Federal Republic of Germany’s dominant aesthetic of abstraction to embrace figuration as a means to address West Germany’s resistance to come to terms with its National Socialist past.  Importantly, several of these artists, include Beselitz and Penck, started their artistic careers in the GDR before fleeing to West Germany to find success.

[9] Feuchtenberger’s “Bärmi und Klett: Der Schatz” is also featured in the exhibition catalog Bei Walter: Comics in Berlin (Berlin: Ed. Monade, 1994).

[10] For more information, see Nijdam’s “‘Drawing for me means communication’: Anke Feuchtenberger and German Art Comics after 1989,” dissertation, University of Michigan, 2017.

[11] For more information, see Nijdam’s “German Comics after Unification: The Politics of Anke Feuchtenberger’s Feminist Aesthetics” in International Journal of Comic Art 17.1 (Spring 2015): 417-445.

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