Eugen Schönebeck

 

Eugen Schönebeck occupies a crucial position in the trajectory of post-1945 art. He not only pioneered a unique manner of integrating historical content into his work but almost singularly reinvigorated the genre of portraiture in Germany. This survey—the artist’s first gallery exhibition in more than a quarter of a century—brings together some sixty of the drawings Schönebeck made between 1957 and 1966. Schönebeck, who was born on the outskirts of Dresden, began to draw at about thirteen years of age. In 1954 he received a scholarship to continue his training as a decorative wall painter at the Fachschule für angewandte Kunst in Oberschöneweide in Berlin’s East sector. Convinced that he couldn’t develop his artistry further in East Germany, he successfully applied for admission to the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in West Berlin, where he began to take classes in October 1955. Two years later, his first mature drawings emerged. These Tachist-style works and those that followed during the next four years, retained figurative elements absent from the abstract paintings he was also making at the time. It was not until late in 1961, the year he graduated the Hochschule that Schönebeck decided in favor of a more figurative mode of working. At times strangely humorous, the subsequent drawings that flowed from his hand also abounded with a good dose of the grotesque. Later Schönebeck stated his primary aim had been “to try . . . to let a certain tenor rise to the surface . . . a consciousness of crisis, pervasive sadness, gruesomeness, and even perverseness—that I found missing in the work of my colleagues.”

In 1964 Schönebeck broke through to a new monumental style of painting. That year he began to transform mass media photographs of politicians, poets, and artists who sympathized with variants of socialism into quasi-religious emblems. These likenesses and the few large scale drawings that followed them attest to Schönebeck’s struggle to find a middle way between art made for the capitalist market and work harnessed to political ends. Disinclined to turn his back on either of these aesthetic traditions and unwilling to compromise the moralistic edge of his art, Schönebeck decided in 1967 to stop painting. Nevertheless, since the early 1980s curators, aware of the significance of his work, have included his work in almost every important survey exhibition of postwar German art presented internationally. His art was ahead of its time, and its meaning continues to endure, especially for a younger generation of artists.