Comment Germany

Take East German art seriously

No amount of historical understanding can replace aesthetic judgement. As the Weimar exhibition shows, only a few of the artists active during the GDR years would have prospered outside the microcosm of the regime

Werner Tübke, History of the German labor movement II, 1961

For 20 years, the majority of the art created in the German Democratic Republic (the GDR, or former East Germany) was kept in store. What had previously been presented as proof of an emerging “Socialist German national culture” became, after German reunification, too ideologically loaded for the unified state. What was forgotten, however, was how vast, diverse and contradictory art in the GDR had been.

Now a large database of this art has been compiled. It is the culmination of a federally funded project, Bildatlas: Kunst in der DDR (Picture atlas: art in the GDR), for which research began in 2009. Around 20,000 works from 165 public museums (but also from former GDR companies and private collections) have been assembled. The result is a comprehensive survey of this closed, bitter chapter in German art.

The basic idea of the database is simple: art that was created in the “other” German State, whether privately or publicly commissioned, or created independently, has every right to be perceived as art and to be viewed and evaluated.

To mark the completion of the Bildatlas, an exhibition featuring 240 works from four decades of the GDR is currently taking place in Weimar. It seeks to find a balance between official State art and the work of dissidents. The show includes works from the 1987 edition of the Dresden Art Exhibition, the last in the landmark series, in which even the cheeky portraits of Clemens Gröszer or the deliberately non-working-class ones of Wolfgang Peuker were on show.

Incidentally, this was also the time when works by Neo Rauch were first presented, at a point when he was still heavily influenced by the style of his teacher Bernhard Heisig. A painting by Rauch, who now considers all the work he produced before 1993 not part of his oeuvre, completes the Weimar exhibition. This work was created in 1996 and is appropriately called Der Auftrag (The order).

Debate about East German art has suffered from misperceptions for many years. At the time of the country’s division, East German artists were often perceived as representatives of “their” government. This was confirmed by Documenta 6 in 1977, when works by the so-called Leipziger Viererbande (Leipzig gang of four)— Bernhard Heisig, Wolfgang Mattheuer, Willi Sitte and Werner Tübke—made their first appearance in the West and became, in the minds of curators and critics, representative of GDR art.

Heisig showed a work titled Ikarus. Schwierigkeiten beim Suchen nach Wahrheit (Icarus:?difficulties in the search for truth), an almost prophetic title, considering the reception of East German art. It is no coincidence that the current Weimar show is titled “Farewell to Icarus: Imagery in the GDR—Seen Again”. Icarus is the embodiment of hubris, one of the visual metaphors that GDR artists often used in the late period of the regime. Another mythological Greek, Sisyphus, appeared in Mattheuer’s painting Der übermütig Sisyphos und die Seinen (The arrogant Sisyphus and his people) at Documenta in 1977, where he was portrayed pushing not a boulder but a stone portrait head, which can easily be understood to be a bust of Karl Marx.

This is how it looked, the supposedly coded art that, depending on your outlook, could be interpreted as either conforming to government edicts or resisting them. This intermediate zone is where East German art had established itself since the 1970s.

The inclusion of Rauch’s 1996 work in the current Weimar exhibition can be understood as a subtle indication that the story of East German art did not abruptly stop with reunification. In 1990, just four days after the GDR ceased to exist, the Dresden State Art Collections, under the ever unruly Werner Schmidt, organised the exhibition “Expatriate”. Schmidt reminded his countrymen of those who had been driven away or had left the GDR of their own accord, and had thus been overlooked in their homeland. This was a correction that needed no explanation.

Only three years later, the Nationalgalerie in Berlin succeeded in showing the newly reunited collections. Other exhibitions followed, such as “Commission: Art 1949-90” at Berlin’s German Historical Museum in early 1995.

A profound rupture came in 1999, when an exhibition of East German art was staged in Weimar as the third part of a project called “The Rise and Fall of Modernism”, shown on the premises of the Gauforum, which the Nazi powers had left to Goethe’s city. And it was with Nazi art that the GDR paintings were shown, crammed together and presented in a way that can at best be seen as a failure but can more precisely be described as vile: densely hung on black plastic foil as at a cheap flea market.

The polemical intent was clear yet the results as ahistorical as can be imagined. East German art in all its breadth and variety, which peaked in the last two decades of the Communist state, cannot be fairly compared with the Nazi art that, with the exception of Hitler, even the Nazis considered lacking. Comparing aspects of works produced under the two regimes, which is difficult given the different ideologies of the two political systems, can be done only with great care, and not with a mallet, in the way of the exhibition organisers in 1999.

So the current show, which is again in Weimar but in a different, more worthy location, can be regarded as a kind of compensation for the first exhibition. Around 240 works are on show in a partly chronological, partly thematic order, interrupted by monographic presentations of several previously unknown “resistance fighters”.

All these works deserve to be shown in their own right, but they can only be properly appreciated with historical, contextual information that is lacking in the Weimar exhibition. Paintings made just after the Second World War—before the Formalism debate was imported from the Soviet Union—or during the rigid years when Walter Ulbricht was head of state, during the economic growth of the 1970s or the increasingly hopeless 1980s, show huge differences in the conditions of their production, in the prevalence of censorship and in the opportunity to exhibit, as well as in the reactions of audiences.

No amount of historical understanding can replace aesthetic judgement, however. As the Weimar exhibition shows, only a few of the artists active during the GDR years would have prospered outside the microcosm of the regime.

Chief among these is the gnarled Werner Tübke, who oscillated between the official party line and a sovereign contempt for it. More than ever, this show confirms that he is the most important artist of the GDR era, a stupendous painter who had no equal in the West. His monumental works about Germany’s labyrinthine past demonstrate the heights to which history painting could soar, even in the 20th century.

So what is the future for the art of the GDR? It will continue to be displayed where it can stand its ground artistically, certainly in Leipzig and Dresden, but it deserves to be seen in Cologne or Munich as well—not least to put the importance of the dominant Western post-war abstraction in context, by keeping an eye on the German division, the Cold War that paralysed Europe until 1989.

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