Horst Dieter Bürkle: Art is the daughter of freedom

Art is also always provocation. Not everyone likes every poem, every picture, every song, or every sculpture. That is why art has something to do with individuality. Art does not always follow the purpose of the political elites, who, for centuries already, have had a Zeitgeist-based interpretation of it. Liberal artistry, thus, undoubtedly has something to do with freedom. Without liberal arts, there is no free intellect – no democracy. Schiller hit the nail right on the head with his famous words: “Art is the Daughter of Freedom.”

On 8 June 1919, Darmstädter Sezession emerged from the Darmstadt circle of friends around the late expressionist magazines “Die Dachstube” and “Das Tribunal. Hessische Radikale Blätter”. The artist association’s assignment was clearly formulated in the first Sezession catalogue: “Darmstadt feels strong enough to return from art province to art capital, from a metropolis of intellectual reaction to a centre of new intellectual creation of value.” At a time of political and economic hardship, artists sought provocation – free intellect. The association was founded by a group of 21 “artists referring to themselves as radical”, including the painters Max Beckmann and Ludwig Meidner.

Already three months after foundation, the artists presented an extensive exhibition in the former art gallery at the Rheintor, followed in subsequent years by further events of supra-regional significance. With the rise of National Socialism, the distinctly blooming exhibition activity came to a standstill in the 1930s. Some members stayed in Darmstadt, others emigrated, joined the resistance movement or simply “took cover”, others again ended up in concentration camps or – like Theodor Haubach – were executed following the attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life.

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It was obvious that those of them who had written the freedom of art on their flags had lost – had to lose – this round. After 1945, however, they were able to resume their battle. For, there must still have existed something else than what “greater German art” had to be for twelve years. Where were we after twelve years of decreed art? Was abstraction the order of the day? No realism? Pure colour? Those were questions that preoccupied artists intensively in those days, besides growling stomachs and tattered clothes. “What have we been deprived of?” they asked themselves. “How much have we missed out on?”

What they had missed, for example, was music like the fugues of Paul Hindemith, which – as a former Sezession member – he composed while in exile in the United States. They wanted to hear it now and, barely half a year after the war, premiered it in the draughty rooms of the technical university, “reclaimed from the ruins”. That was shortly followed by the “Befreite Kunst” (liberated art) exhibition, with which they decisively contributed to the return of modernity in post-war Germany.

The tone was still set by Sezession: from their ranks came the proposal for the legendary first of the so-called “Darmstädter Gespräche” symposiums in 1950, entitled “The image of humanity in our time”. In retrospect, the issue in those extremely emotional debates was mostly the contentious views that the followers of either representational or abstract art held and fought out in front of an audience who was used to judging the success of art mainly by its degree of imitation of an existing or idealized natural and who – as it seems in hindsight – was only marginally preoccupied by the question whether, after all the endured traumas, the image of humanity would forever remain diminished.

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Nowadays hardly anyone could still comprehend the sheer indignation that broke out in Darmstadt’s population when Bernhard Heiliger’s “Two figures in relation” were put up in the school yard of the Ludwig-Georgs-Gymnasium. In the 1950s, they were insulted as “sick negroes” in angry reactions, defaced more than once, and their removal requested from the city council assembly. Once again, it was Sezession that contributed to calm the waves in an equally moderating and liberty-conscious way.

The following decades saw an increasingly rapid evolution of the scene under the motto “expansion of the concept of art”. Sezession answered by introducing the prize for young artists. The goal starting in 1975 was rejuvenation of their own ranks – since prize winners were offered automatic membership. To date, about one third of the members result from that future-oriented decision, and all of them continually contribute to making the “style” of Sezession look all but uniform.

Meanwhile, Darmstädter Sezession is getting older – in 2019, it will celebrate its centenary. And while that is a respectable age, it is no reason at all for them to rest on their laurels. Not even the fact that exactly half of 54 art prize winners in our city so far are from Sezession’s own ranks. There is no need for a “programme change” either. A few key sentences that the great art and architecture historian Josef Adolf Schmoll, called Eisenwerth, wrote in the Darmstädter Sezession exhibition catalogue at the house of the Vienna Secession make that clear. What he – also a member of the asso­ciation – stated more than half a century ago can still serve as a rule: “Affiliation to a certain artistic style”, he then wrote, “is essentially insignificant, it only makes the colourfulness of the Sezession community more vivid and clearer. Naturally, that colourfulness is borne solely by the personalities who Sezession selects, who are attracted to it, and who model its image. It does not swear by any style rules and follows no artistic theory of the day. It dares to experiment, promotes young forces, and walks unfamiliar paths.”

Such a liberal programme – one must conclude – makes ageing come easy.

BüKswHorst Dieter Bürkle was born in Teningen in the Breisgau area in 1934. Since 1960, he has won numerous prizes for experimental, animated, and documentary films from national and international short film festivals. From 1976, he was an independent photographer, film maker and object artist. From 1995 to 2007, he was a member and the manager of Darmstädter Sezession; since 2001 he has been speaker of its executive board. Since 2001, the author has further been co-curator of “Vogelfrei”, the art biennial in Darmstadt’s composers’ quarter. In 2004, Horst Dieter Bürkle was awarded the “Bronzene Verdienstplakette der Stadt Darmstadt” (bronze merit plaque of the city of Darmstadt) for his cultural endeavours.