Maarten Vanden Eynde

Vision und Schrecken der Moderne – Industrie und künstlerischer Aufbruch

As a contribution to the anniversary year "Engels 2020", with which Wuppertal celebrates the 200th birthday of Friedrich Engels, the Von der Heydt Museum explores the question of how the cultural and social aspects of industrialisation have been reflected in art from the 19th century to the present. The new economic system of capitalism that emerged in the course of the industrial revolution, the foundations of which were critically analysed by Marx and Engels, has not only led to technical progress and cultural development, but also to fierce social conflicts, which the visual arts reflect.

The Wupper Valley, birthplace of Friedrich Engels (1820 Barmen, today Wuppertal-Barmen - 1895 London) and a centre of the textile industry in the 19th century, was a starting point for the industrial boom with its world-shaking dynamics. Portrait painting flourished here and reflected the new self-confidence of the economic bourgeoisie. At the same time, around 1850, artists from the Düsseldorf School of Painting were the first to address the difficult living conditions of the workers.

Under the influence of naturalism, artists* such as Hans Baluschek in painting, Max Klinger and Käthe Kollwitz in graphic art, Constantin Meunier and Bernhard Hoetger in sculpture intensively dealt with the misery of the proletariat from the 1880s onwards. With an ominous alliance between industry and militarism, the First World War marked a historical turning point. Its effects led to an intensification of social problems. In the tense post-war situation, painters such as Conrad Felixmüller, George Grosz, Otto Dix and the Cologne progressives around Heinrich Hoerle and Franz Wilhelm Seiwert turned to left-wing political endeavours. At the same time, artists of the New Objectivity, such as Carl Grossberg, Max Beckmann or Franz Radziwill, were impressed by the phenomena of the new industrial landscape, by the dynamics of the big city, by the equally magical and uncanny attraction of the machine.

A separate chapter within the exhibition is devoted to photography's examination of industrial architecture: from its discovery as an object worthy of depiction in the 1920s by photographers such as Eugen Batz or Albert Renger-Patzsch, whose works express the spirit of a new epoch, the development leads to the artistic documentation of the industrial era. For example in the "subjective photography" of a Peter Keetmann in the 1950s or in the 1970s by Heinrich Heidersberger.

The exhibition ends openly and takes a temporal leap in its final chapter: with positions of contemporary art, including those of Andreas Sieckmann, Thomas Locher, Maike Freess and Maarten Vanden Eynde. For industrialisation and its consequences are currently challenging numerous critical formulations: the artists* denounce globalisation and environmental destruction, materialism and militarisation and point out the loss of control over technical developments. Thus, Friedrich Engels' historical diagnosis is confirmed, especially today: The vision of a better modernity can only emerge when the horrors of capitalist society are recognised.