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Sigmar Polke - Biography and Legacy

German Painter, Sculptor, Photographer, Filmmaker, Performance and Conceptual Artist

Movements and Styles: Capitalist Realism, Pop Art

Born: February 13, 1941 - Silesia, Poland

Died: June 10, 2010 - Cologne, Germany

Sigmar Polke Timeline

"The conventional definition of reality, and the idea of 'normal life', mean nothing."

Sigmar Polke Signature
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Biography of Sigmar Polke


Sigmar Polke was born in Oels, a small town in Lower Silesia, Poland. He was one of eight children and though his father was an architect, according to Polke, the family had very little money. Born in the middle of World War II, he remembers the "trauma" of the war, which "dominated [his] childhood." Polke recalled his engagement with art in this early years, "I began drawing as a very young child and had a grandfather who experimented with photography, so those things constituted my first exposure to art."

Like thousands of other Germans living in contended areas of Poland, the family was expelled from the country at the end of the War in 1945 and escaped to Thuringia, East Germany. In 1953, when he was 12 years old, Polke succeeded in crossing the border from East to West Germany, thus escaping the harrowing post-war years in communist German Democratic Republic.

It has been suggested that Polke's father may have worked, whether willingly or not, as an architect for the Nazis, which may complicate further the artist's references to both the Nazi reign of terror and Germany's repressive silence following the Holocaust. Polke's work includes images from a publication on eugenics that had influenced Hitler and his followers; the familiar Nazi symbol, the swastika, appears in some of his works as well. According to one source, Polke "once broke into a Düsseldorf gallery at night and installed a slideshow of ex-Nazi leaders under a banner that read, 'Art Will Make You Free'," a direct reference to the words displayed on a sign over the entrance to the concentration camp, Auschwitz: "Work Will Make You Free."

Early Training

In 1959, Polke became an apprentice at a stained glass factory in Düsseldorf and in 1961 he enrolled at the Düsseldorf Arts Academy, where he studied until 1967. Teachers at the school included Karl Otto Gotz and Joseph Beuys, both of whom had radical approaches to the creation of art that would strongly influence the young Polke. The artist later recalled how Beuys in particular "broke up the old structure of teaching and brought new life into German art, so it was an interesting time to be there."

Mature Period

In 1963, while he was still studying in Düsseldorf, Polke co-founded the Kapitalistischer Realismus (Capitalist Realism) movement along with Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg. Conceived of as a response to Pop art and to what Polke saw as the rigid formalism of the art world of the period, the movement parodied and criticized the trappings of both Capitalism and Communism. The group put on exhibitions, including a show in a furniture shop, where Polke and Richter sat in the shop window as exhibits themselves. Polke's first solo show was held in Rene Block's innovative new gallery in Berlin in 1966. After the show the young artist found himself, somewhat surprisingly, quickly established on Germany's experimental art scene. Turmoil in his personal life and a failed marriage prompted Polke to begin an itinerant phase of his career.

In 1971, he took to the road, traveling extensively around the world for most of the 1970s, usually alone. His wanderings took him to Paris, Pakistan, Afghanistan, South America, and the USA. He took along a camera and created a series of images documenting his travels, experimenting with photographic development and printing techniques. During this period, he is also well-known for having experimented with mind-altering drugs, including LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms, as a part of the process of producing art. When not on the road, Polke resided in an artists' commune called Gaspelshof near Düsseldorf. Although he was eventually divorced from his first wife, the artist maintained a connection with his two children, Georg and Anna, sometimes taking them along with him on his travels.

Late Period

In 1977, he was given a position as a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg, Germany and remained in the post until 1991. He moved permanently to Cologne in 1978 where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life aside from when he was traveling. In the 1980s, Polke's art took on a more serious tone, eschewing the colorful Pop art and drug influenced-work, which had comprised his earlier work. At the beginning of the decade, he traveled to Australia and Southeast Asia where he discovered a variety of non-traditional materials that he used in his artworks. For instance, Polke began incorporating meteor dust and arsenic, which reacted chemically on the canvas.

The 1980s saw a significant international revival of painting as a medium and Polke was at the forefront of this, along with his former collaborator, Gerhard Richter. At the time, he married his second wife, the Berlin sculptor Augustina von Nagel. In 1986, he was awarded the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Biennale. In 1988 he became interested in Buddhist philosophies; he was inspired in part by his travels to the Far East and also by his daughter's choice to begin practicing Buddhism in the same year. Polke continued to produce art until his death in 2010, often in collaboration with his wife, and always experimenting with new materials and media including photocopies and holograms.

The Legacy of Sigmar Polke

Polke's unorthodox style proved a significant influence on a large group of younger artists, most of whom came to prominence in the 1980s when Polke was at the height of his fame and had been featured in several high-profile international exhibitions. Among the younger generation of artists who cite Polke as an inspiration are sculptor, Annette Messager and multimedia artists, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, whose work echoes Polke's own anti-authoritarianism and his interest in everyday objects and materials. Later, Polke's critical role in reviving painting practices lends him influential status with painters such as David Salle, Julian Schnabel and Richard Prince.

Most Important Art

Sigmar Polke Famous Art

Chocolate Painting (1964)

This work, painted while Polke was still a student, demonstrates the strong influence Pop art had over the artist in his formative years. Since Pop art had not become a phenomenon in Germany at that point, Polke's exposure to it was largely via its dissemination in art magazines and newspapers. Monika Wagner has argued that this painting added to the breadth of Pop art's subject matter by "expand[ing] the iconography of food to include everyday meals." However, while American Pop was primarily concerned with brands and consumer goods, Polke instead chose to represent an unbranded chocolate bar that had already been opened, implying a different and perhaps a more subtle sensibility to that found in Andy Warhol's iconic and untouched Campbell's soup cans, for example.

Having escaped from post-war, communist East Germany to the West, Polke always viewed the commodities of capitalism in contrast to his own personal knowledge of the restrictions of communism. He once claimed, "When I came to the West, I saw many, many things for the first time. But I also saw the prosperity of the West critically. It wasn't really Heaven." This dual criticism of capitalism and communism came to the fore in the Capitalist Realist movement he co-launched the year before this work was executed.

The Capitalist Realist movement mocked the Socialist Realist style of art endorsed by the Soviet Union, which dominated the art of many communist countries. Typically, Socialist Realism was openly nationalistic. Most often, art produced in this style -- the only art sanctioned by the state -- emphasized loyalty to the communist party and featured content that promoted party ideology. Polke exposes the bright, idealism of Socialist Realism as well as Western consumerism in this work. Chocolate Painting is a confluence of seemingly opposing ideologies: this chocolate bar, sans label, becomes a sort of signifier for banality, uniformity, and uncritical consumption. It mocks the sometimes sickeningly sweet imagery of Socialist Realism and blurs the line between the consumer and the ideology of consumption.
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