Cold War cover-up to continue
Museum has no plans to uncover early socialist mural by Gerhard Richter
By Martin Bailey. Conservation, Issue 224, May 2011
Published online: 12 May 2011
dresden. A mural eulogising socialism by Gerhard Richter lies hidden in the foyer of Dresden’s Deutsches Hygiene Museum (German Hygiene Museum). A casualty of Cold War censorship, The Joy of Life was painted over in 1979. The artist had fled from communist rule in 1961 and fell foul of the German Democratic Republic again after criticising social realist artists participating in the 1977 Documenta show in Kassel. More than 20 years after reunification, the museum has no plans to reveal what is undoubtedly the most important early work by one of the country’s greatest living artists.
In 1950 Richter applied to study at the Dresden Academy of Arts, but was rejected because of his “wild daubs” and advised to paint pictures of Stalin. He was accepted the following year and decided to specialise in mural painting.
The Joy of Life, which depicts life under socialism, was the artist’s diploma work, completed in 1956 when Richter was 24 years old. Painted in five overlapping sections, the ten-metre wide mural lies between the museum entrance and the temporary exhibition galleries.
In the first section, a young couple whisper secrets to each other. The succeeding scenes culminate with the pair picnicking in the grass with their new-born child. The tractor and factory chimney in the background is meant to symbolise labour in this socialist paradise.
Five months before the construction of the Berlin Wall, Richter fled to the West. In 1979 The Joy of Life was covered up. Although the mural was on display in a public building for 23 years, no colour photographs of the work survive. None of Richter’s paintings done before the age of 28 are in public collections (most were lost or destroyed, and the very few which survive remain in private hands).
When the Hygiene Museum building was renovated in 1994, the idea of uncovering the mural was briefly considered. Two “windows” were opened up so that fragments of the mural could be seen, but these were later covered over. In 2002, the most recent renovation, the wall was repainted white again. The mural could be uncovered, but its large size means this would be expensive.
The Hygiene Museum gives two reasons for continuing the cover-up. The first is that the most recent renovation returned the building to its original 1930 state. A spokesman explained that the museum is abiding with the decision of the heritage preservation authority—and the wall was originally white.
The Hygiene Museum also wants to avoid antagonising Richter, the city’s most important post-war artist, who has said that the mural is “not worth preserving”. Richter has not been explicit, but he may feel awkward about the compromises which he (along with millions of others) had to make under the communist regime. The Art Newspaper approached Richter. His office repeated what the artist had said before: “For God’s sake, it’s a waste of money. I would rather the money went to something of artistic value. It’s only a student work.”
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