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Germany wins in the art world

Is Germany the greatest European art nation of the 20th century?

Which country leads Europe in contemporary art? Britain, of course, you answer. Look at all those people flocking to Tate Modern. Wrong. The best artists in Europe today are German. The towering geniuses Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer radically contrast in how they conceive art yet both, from their divergent perspectives, one super-cool, the other romantic, achieve a profundity that makes most British art look trite.

But to widen the question – which was the greatest European art nation of the 20th century? France? Wrong again. It was Germany. Only Germany has been at the forefront of modern art from the early 20th century right up until today. Paris declined as a creative capital after 1939, but German artists have been revolutionary for 100 years without missing a beat. The passion of expressionist painting and cinema, the fragmentation grenades of Dada, the idealism of the Bauhaus and realism of Neue Sachlichkeit – these German art movements of the early 20th century did not give way, as in France, to cultural decline but instead burned on into the 1960s and 70s, when Joseph Beuys showed that art can still reach into myth and memory to renew the world. Beuys and his legacy – continued by Kiefer, rejected by Richter – coincided with a great renewal of German cinema: for one aspect of the German genius is that fine art and film have merged there since the days of Murnau.

And a final question – who created the Renaissance? Well, Italy did, but Germany was the first northern country to adapt Renaissance ideas to its own culture, and the only land north of the Alps to produce one of the masters of the High Renaissance – the towering figure of Albrecht Dürer, whose genius is celebrated in a timely new book by Norbert Wolf. It was Dürer whose readiness to embrace the new technology of the printing press – his prints are as great as his paintings, or greater – set the modernising, forward-looking, and productive tone of German art right down to today, when new art flourishes in a Berlin that is the worthy heir to the cosmopolis portrayed in Kirchner's painting Potsdamer Platz. Anyone who spends a couple of days in Berlin's museums and galleries will come to the conclusion that the Germans really are better at art.


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