Representations of the Peasant in German Art and Culture: Faces of the Volk

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Edinburgh College of Art


This book project is an innovative thematic study that explores the genealogy of peasant ('Bauer') representation in German art and culture, demonstrating how through various media, the motif of the peasant has been used as a cipher for multivalent and often conflicting ideological positions, and was particularly prevalent in the period from Unification to Reunication.

The early part of the study focuses on the development of peasant motifs in the Late Medieval/Northern Renaissance period, especially in the carnivalesque prints of artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, Hans Weiditz, and Hans Sebald Beham (an iconography that includes the 'dancing peasant couple', the 'subversive peasant', the 'German Peasants' War' etc.). The study will then examine through the central chapters how C19 and C20 artists responded to their C15 and C16 predecessors with their own highly charged representations, sometimes in relation to the formation of a 'blood and soil' ideology, as expressed in the writings of Wilhlem Riehl, Julius Langbehn, and others. The impact of the much shorter French tradition of peasant representation (Gustave Courbet, Jean-Francois Millet et al.) on Max Liebermann, Fritz von Uhde and others will also be examined, while such influence was often criticised by German commentators for its 'foreignness'. The cultural politics of the period is of great interest. In this regard, the study is intended to provide a fresh nuanced response to T.J. Clark's seminal 'Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution' (1973; reprinted 1999), and more generally, through the process of writing this work it is hoped that the possibilities of a 'social art history' will be expanded.

Many artists and writers attempted to encapsulate 'peasant life' as articulations of German 'character', perhaps most notably Wilhelm Leibl and Adolf Bartels. However, the idea of the peasant as a symbol of conservatism was later challenged in different ways by artists suchas Paula Modersohn-Becker and Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz, for instance, explored the notion of the peasant as oppressed agitator (in accordance with her own socialist value system) in a manner that would later impress other artists more directly connected to the German Communist Party (KPD). Later chapters will examine the Expressionist articulation of the peasant motif as exemplified through a form of 'domestic primitivism', a seeking out of the untainted quality of life in remote coastal and mountain locations, both in the work of Brücke and Blauer Reiter artists. The study will also take into account the acid humour of Weimar Dada artists such as Georg Schloz in lampooning peasant bigotry, as well as the huge photographic project of August Sander, who represented peasants in attempting to classify different social types. Sander's arresting images can be compared with that of Erna Lendvai-Dircksen, whose typological photographs of peasant youth from Schleswig-Holstein appeared in the book 'Das deutsche Volksgesicht' (1930), a work endorsed by the National Socialists.

The roots of the National Socialists' archaising propagandist celebrations of the 'blood and soil' peasant and the paradoxes of their defamation of Expressionist interpretations of the peasant motif will be drawn out. In the post-45 period, the deconstruction of the peasant subject by Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, particularly through the 'Germanic' medium of the woodcut, will be fully considered. Finally, the idealization of the peasant in the GDR (also known as the 'Workers' and Peasants' State) will be explored, culminating in an examination of the largest painting in the world by Werner Tübke, completed in 1989, and commemorating the 'Battle of Frankenhausen', the final act of the Peasants' War. The study will move toward a conclusion by discussing David Levine's 'postmodern' theatre/art projeect 'Bauerntheater' (2207), set in a field in Brandenburg and referring back to the early days of GDR.

Planned Impact

The non-academic beneficiaries of the research include a number of government, commercial, and non-government 'third sector' organisations, both in Britain and abroad, including the National Galleries of Scotland, Talbot Rice Gallery, Goethe-Institut, German Consulate General Edinburgh (the Media, Culture and Education Department), DAAD (German Academic Exchange Programme), Courtauld Art Galleries, Tate, Sotheby's Institute of Art, British Museum, V&A, New Walk Museum Leicester, Hamburg Museum for Arts and Crafts, Staedel Museum Frankfurt, Brücke Museum Berlin, Neue Galerie New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I have worked with and will continue to work with all these organisations in an advisory capacity, through being commissioned to work on exhibition catalogues and museum journals, through other publications, and through the facilitation of research networks. In time, my Research Forum for German Visual Culture website will link to all of the above and other institutions in the UK, US, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. See

My work will be published as a single-author monograph in 2013, and delivered to the publisher in July 2012. The work will be disseminated through various channels as explained in the Case for Support and Pathways to Impact. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) have already supported one month of preliminary research for this project with a DAAD Study Trip grant (Aug 2010).

In sum, it is my overall objective to introduce members of the public and more museum professionals to German artists, groups, and movements examined in this project, which hitherto have not been made so familiar to British audiences. I hope to heighten awareness and widen British public appreciation of the excellence of much German visual culture through effective future collaboration with museums and galleries, ad engagement with the media. In the last few months, I have had meetings with many museum curators/ education programmers from the National Galleries of Scotland, Talbot Rice Gallery, New Walk Museum Leicester and others, to see how I can contribute to their exhibition programmes both individually and through my management of the Research Forum for German Visual Culture. I am in the early stages of planning an exhibition with the highly experienced and high profile independent curator, Jill Lloyd, which will draw on my research for this proposed AHRC project, as well as earlier research. This will ensure a much wider public appreciation of my research, which will effectively be 'knowledge transferred' into an exhibition format. I am also currently liaising with Simon Lake (Senior Curator at New Walk Museum Leicester) to discuss the possibility of writing a new catalogue essay (drawing partly from this research) for their world-class collection of Expressionist art, in order to academically underscore and draw attention to the holdings of what is a tremendously important provincial museum. I also hope to gain more media exposure for my research and to promote German art more generally, and will explain how I intend to achieve this in the Pathways to Impact statement. The impact of my research is international and I have recently given talks at academic fora open to the public in Bath (Oct 2010), Mainz (Dec 2010), Berlin (Jan 2011), and Edinburgh (Feb 2011).


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Description I have discovered how the peasant motif in German art has been used as a cipher for varied and often conflicting ideological positions, and was particularly prevalent in the period from Unification to Reunification (1871-1989). In one published case study, I examined August Sander's Der Bauer (The Farmer) group of photographs in relation to the historical representation of peasants in German art. I have been able to draw distinctions between Sander's interest in peasant types and the ideological agendas of National Socialist proponents of racial purity. This exploration of German peasant representation in the visual arts will be expanded in my monograph on this subject to be published in 2018. Aspects of my research into peasant representation have also been published in other forms, such as my catalogue essay on Anselm Kiefer for the 2014 major retrospective at the Royal Academy, and in my Tate ARTIST ROOMS research summaries on August Sander.
Exploitation Route My findings will be taken forward in a wider monograph on this subject to be published in 2018. My findings will also be transferred to a degree in an exhibition that I have been contracted to work on as a co-curator. This exhibition is on Expressionism and will be held at the Royal Academy, London in 2019.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Description To date, my findings have been published by Tate Papers and Tate ARTIST ROOMS Research Summaries. These are open access online projects and are read by interested members of the public as well as academics. I have also drawn on some of my discoveries for a Royal Academy exhibition catalogue on the artist Anselm Kiefer (a catalogue with a large print run that will have great public and academic impact), and also for a forthcoming edited volume with MUP (to which I am a contributor) on the Blaue Reiter. My findings will also be disseminated in a monograph, which will come out in 2018. This research also helps inform my work as a co-curator of an exhibition on Expressionism, which will be staged at the Royal Academy in London in 2019.
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural