This illuminating show shows Penck is a hugely underrated artist, says Ben Luke
A. R. Penck grew up and lived for the first 40 years of his life in Dresden. He was five when Allied bombs turned the city into a fireball and then a ruin in 1945, and grew up amid post-apocalyptic rubble in a morally devastated and divided Germany.
Unlike other leading painters born in what became East Germany, like his friend Georg Baselitz who left for the West in the Fifties, Penck’s artistic identity was forged under totalitarian oppression. Unable to show his work in his homeland after 1965, or to attend exhibitions elsewhere, he worked under the radar — even changing his name from Ralf Winkler.
Most works in this illuminating show from the Sixties are so early that they’re signed “Ralf” or “R”. They feature stick figures — a head, limbs and genitals — and simple symbols, simultaneously primeval and ultra-sophisticated, infused with scientific and mathematical theory. The figures are often set against ominous skies and ponder human isolation, oppression and struggle.
In an untitled work from 1966, one figure eats from a tree while another boxed figure defecates, watched from above by one myopic figure and cajoled by another — an Orwellian allegory, perhaps, for an existence where every gesture is observed and controlled. Paintings with groups of figures evoke violence and propaganda; one features figures apparently fleeing from East to West. There’s a roughness about the paintings, made on unevenly shaped board, blankets and hessian, that lends an authenticity to Penck’s voice, as do the playful sculptures, made with aluminium foil, bottles and jars, cardboard and Sellotape. They reflect the development of a unique language and a hugely underrated artist.