August 27, 2020
Before David Bowie’s “Heroes”, the German artist painted a series of the same name, taking a past tainted by Nazis and making it new. Now two exhibitions celebrate his subversive brilliance
In 1977, at the Hansa studio in West Berlin, David Bowie was recording some new songs when he happened to look out of the window. The pop legend saw his musical collaborator Tony Visconti kissing his girlfriend in front of the heavily guarded concrete barrier built by communist East Germany to keep its citizens in. He wrote “Heroes”, one of his best loved songs, that contains the lines: “I, I can remember / Standing by the wall / And the guns shot above our heads / And we kissed as though nothing could fall.”
But Bowie wasn’t the first person to juxtapose totalitarian brutality and the frailty of the individual in a modern masterpiece called Heroes. A decade earlier, as the cold war began to intensify, a young German artist named Hans-Georg Kern painted a series of ironic paintings also collectively titled Heroes. They turn the happy smiling people who featured on propaganda posters of the time into bleeding, dismembered figures of pathos and tragicomedy. This September, both the early rage and the latest work of this great artist can be seen in two London exhibitions.