Penck’s art is informed by decades spent working in East Germany. While many of his contemporaries, including Georg Baselitz, fled to West Germany to pursue painting with more freedom, Penck remained on the other side of the Berlin Wall until 1980. Labeled a political dissident by the government, Penck was monitored by the secret police throughout his early career and Penck was forced to sign his works with pen names and smuggle them out of East Germany. He soon achieved international recognition, with his works included in a number of Western museums and galleries in the 1980s.
Penck’s Belagerung und Einnahme von Beirut 1 from 1982 was acquired directly from the artist by Ileana Sonnabend, who included it in several museum exhibitions in the eighties and nineties. Penck’s painting, the title of which translates to The Siege and Capture of Beirut 1, is an energetic and chaotic visual depiction of the Lebanon War. Limiting his palette to black and white, Penck encourages viewers to focus on his animated forms. Like Paul Klee, Penck utilized hieroglyphic human forms, primitive enough that they could have been drawn by a child, to capture the horrors of war and human suffering. Penck’s figures are helpless, trapped in a dense, chaotic composition with no means of escape. The central figure raises his arms to the sky as if pleading for help; the face of the figure on the right side of the canvas is nothing but a mouth contorted in a silent wail.
Lebanon had long been plagued by internal political conflicts. A civil war broke out in 1975 between the largely Christian east and predominantly Muslim west. As a result of these conflicts, Palestinian Labor Organization factions strengthened, eventually seizing control of the Lebanese government. In 1982, Israeli forces invaded Beirut, after a PLO- and Syrian-influenced government launched attacks on Israeli ground and organized for the assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London. They seized Beirut and cut off electricity and food supplies for seven weeks as they bombed streets and buildings in the city. A multitude of civilians lost their lives.
Penck’s flat, pictographic forms have historical referents in primordial cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the arts of Oceania. At the time Penck created this work, American artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were also utilizing primitive figural styles in their paintings to address political and social issues. Working in expressionist styles allowed them to distort the human body to convey the extreme depths of physical and emotional suffering. Living in the fractured world of East Germany, Penck was no stranger to suffering and the yearning for liberation. Belagerung und Einnahme von Beirut 1 is not only his attempt to convey the suffering of the Lebanese, but also Penck’s message of empathy to the oppressed all over the world.