Eugen Schönebeck was born in Heidenau near Dresden in 1936. In 1954, he enrolled at the College of Applied Arts in East Berlin. He left the German Democratic Republic in the following year for West Berlin to study at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. In his years at the academy from 1955 to 1961, he became familiar with the more recent developments in European art and showed himself impressed by the works of Nicolas de Staël, Jean Fautrier, Henri Michaux, Wols, Hans Hartung, and others.
Eugen Schönebeck, Mao-Tse-tung, 1965
In 1957, he made friends with Georg Baselitz. An intense exchange of ideas about art ensued, which was to last for five years. Shortly after the publication of “Pandemonium II – Manifesto”, a poster-sized leaflet with texts by both artists, their collaboration found an end in 1962. Schönebeck had already turned his back to gestural painting at that time and gradually come to the conclusion that art had to be pointing a way forward. In Pandemonium II, he and Baselitz had called for a new art which was to detach itself from the prevailing abstract painting of Art Informel and Tachisme. This was how they hoped to open up a new approach to reality. “I regard the abyss of sincerity as a raison d’être, a bestiary, an entire life, an inner swelling force", Schönebeck emphasized in the “Manifesto”.
Eugen Schönebeck, Tortured Man, 1963
Schönebeck’s paintings and drawings from that time show mutated beings that seem to float between the world of the dead and the world of the living – fragmented and torn, oscillating between abstraction and figuration. The painting “Tortured Man” (above) describes a ghastly slaughter. We see the mutilated limbs of a man whose intestines are spilling to the floor.
Eugen Schönebeck, Ginster, 1963
These often grotesque works by Schönebeck draw on the childhood of the artist, who was only nine years old when the war was over, but still remembers the disfigured bloated corpses floating in the Elbe River and the German hordes marching through the destroyed scenery in and around Dresden.Schönebeck's and Baselitz's pictures were among the earliest works by German postwar artists giving form to the traumatic loss of belief in the lasting values of Fatherland and family.
Georg Baselitz, Acker, 1962
Schönebeck broke an explicit taboo with these pictures. In a manner more radical than his colleagues dared embarking on, he began giving a face to the dismantling of the pride in a German identity that was based on the crimes of World War II. Günter Grass, who enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts to study sculpture in 1953, later remarked in regard to those years that “arts ran the risk to drift off into the non-committal . . . the non-representational triumphed. Whether here or over there [in the German Democratic Republic]: who reflected circumstances in his pictures, was at loggerheads with reality, was dismissed by the jury.”
Eugen Schönebeck, Crucifixion, 1963
From 1963 on, Schönebeck, who had left the GDR as an anti-Stalinist and now found himself unable to return to his home country after the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, developed a growing political awareness in the confrontation with the European Left. In this atmosphere, he began to explore the subject of crucifixion which until 1964 was to manifest itself in four paintings which cleared a path for figures and colors. With these works, the artist succeeded in proceeding to an aesthetics which he would, within only one year, transform into an unmistakable style that had no real precursors and has remained without followers.
Eugen Schönebeck, True Man, 1964
It was the painting “True Man” (above) that rang in the new style in 1964. Schönebeck made a series of portraits of persons which might be called “Heroes of the East.” These are followed by two pictures showing Lenin and Mao as well as large-size portraits of the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, the Russian writer Boris Pasternak, and the Mexican painter and communist activist David Alfaro Siqueiros. For these paintings Schönebeck relied on a flat kind of style which he had learnt in a mural training course in the GDR.
Eugen Schönebeck, Majakowski, 1965
There was no market for such paintings at that time. In 1967, Schönebeck painted his last pictures and withdrew from the art scene. Though several of Schönebeck's works are to be found in important public collections, he has been largely forgotten among art historians. A current exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Francfort wants to correct this by assembling almost all his surviving canvases, of which there are about thirty in number, as well as thirty works on paper.
Eugen Schönebeck, Leo Trotsky, 1966
Eugen Schönebeck, Lenin II, 1965
Eugen Schönebeck, Der Rotarmist (Red Army Soldier), 1964