Brilliant Dilletantes
Shvantz 1979 – The Frankfurt Art Scene

The city Frankfurt am Main
The city Frankfurt am Main | Photo (detail): Colourbox

The fun of wrestling with their own limits and the unashamed pleasure of failure were characteristics of West Berlin’s Geniale Dilletanten (i.e., Brilliant Dilletantes). But the 1980s also left deep traces in the Frankfurt art scene.

The irreverent spirit of do-it-yourself, the fun of wrestling with their own limits and the unashamed pleasure of failure: all this could be found in West Berlin’s Geniale Dilletanten (i.e., Brilliant Dilletantes), but also in other German cities – for example, in Düsseldorf and Munich. The times left particularly deep traces in the Frankfurt art scene. But why, of all places, in the banking metropolis, the supposedly the most American city in Europe, “Mainhatten”?

Frankfurt and the beginnings of Shvantz

The cultural life of Frankfurt in the 1970s was strongly conservative; there were only a few cultural institutions. Almost all today’s significant cultural institutions are foundings of the 1980s: the museum embankment with the Museums for Architecture, Film and Design, the Schirn Kunsthalle and the Museum of Modern Art. The world-famous art academy, the Städel School, was then a respected but rather inaccessible place. It was precisely here that probably the most influential protagonist of the young scene did his studies: Walter E. Baumann. Under the title Shvantz, Baumann published small numbers of an artists’ magazine that he produced on the school’s photocopier, which dealt in essence with art and music in Frankfurt and beyond. In 1979 he organized the Shvantz Festival under the motto forget about ART – here is SHVANTZ!… and brought the Düsseldorf bands Der Plan and Mittagspause to a concert in the auditorium of the Academy of Arts. The festival attracted a good deal of attention even in the boring daily press and is today looked upon as a kind of initial spark: one year later Baumann again organized a concert, this time with the British noise and industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle, whose performance became legendary. The aggressive gig of the singer Genesis P. Orridge, the brute volume of the electronic music and a film showing a castration in close-up, permanently changed the Frankfurt art scene. From now on it was no longer about theory but about the direct implementation of ideas – immediately, concretely and flat-out. The snotty attitude that still shapes the work of later Frankfurt artists like Manfred Peckl, Anja Czioska and Thomas Zipp is an echo of this time.

From Minus Delta T to the Station Gallery

In the following years Baumann remained as an artist within the circle of the performance group Minus Delta T and grew into a permanent fixture of the Frankfurt art world. He organized festivals, published art magazines, founded in 1999 the Station Gallery for new art at the Mousonturm Artists’ House and wrote for the Frankfurter Rundschau the cult column Walters Wochenende (i.e., Walter’s Weekend), in which he commented on exhibitions, openings and concerts in his inimitably brash style. Baumann died in 2008 of a heart attack. It says a good deal about him and his position in the Frankfurt art world that the Art Association of the Montez Family, headed by the artist Mirek Macke, which Baumann never noticed in his columns, organized a memorial exhibition on the occasion of his death.

Children of the Dilletantes

Baumann’s direct successor as curator of the Station Gallery was Annette Gloser. An essential driving force of the Frankfurt off scene since the early 1990s, she has founded and run several art galleries that see themselves as “missing links” between established art and subculture. These art galleries have been experimental fields for young artists and interdisciplinary projects. Artcargobay, Gloser’s major project of the year 2012, continued the characteristic stylistic mixture of trash culture, music and art: as part of a pop music festival, Artcargobay was staged at the adjacent car park as an informal artists’ flea market and improvised performance art fair. Meanwhile, after the forced closure of their ancestral abode, Mirek Macke sent his Art Association of the Montez Family on a tour of Germany with the exhibition Wurzeln weit mehr Aufmerksamkeit widmen (i.e., Give Roots Far More Attention). Improvised and chaotic, the exhibition was primarily an avowal of solidarity with artists and with the art scene as the fertile ground for new talents and ideas. For this art and for the Art Association of the Montez Family, the city of Frankfurt will provide new spaces at the Honsell Bridge since early 2014. So the dilletante spirit lives on.
Starting 23 April 2015 in Minsk (Belarus) and following with a global tour, the exhibition Geniale Dilettanten (Brilliant Dilletantes) will present the most comprehensive survey of German subculture of the 1980’s to date. It can be seen in Munich’s Haus der Kunst from June–October 2015. Geniale Dilletanten is a touring exhibition by the Goethe-Institut.