The Cold War may be over, but it is still being fought in terms of its artists

With LACMA's “Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures” opening soon, the artistic heritage of Germany is again under the microscope


In the new year, Germans will be looking to California with some excitement: at the end of this month the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) opens its comprehensive panorama exhibition, “Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures” (25 January-19 April, see p53). The exhibition completes the three-part German series at the museum, designed by its curator, Stephanie Barron, following “Degenerate Art” (1991) and “Exiles and Émigrés” (1997). Announcing the first exhibition since the end of the Cold War, she promises that it will look beyond western claims to sole legitimacy and polemic clichés, beyond commercial interests and political stigmatisation, to do justice to the intrinsic qualities of both traditions.

But this raises questions: must the Americans once again take the Germans by the hand and show them how to handle such a dual heritage, its duplication the consequence of the country’s fatal division that is nonetheless a source of great riches? Can the Californian exhibition help to resolve the intra-German artistic tension or will its Cold War theme reignite or perpetuate the Cold War?

It is a tragedy: nearly 20 years after the wall came down the two post-war art histories have still not been reunified. For nearly half a century the two art scenes went their separate ways. They hated, insulted and fought with each other. In no other sector of the arts world was the opposition so radical or so embittered as in the fine arts. Art was taken seriously as a weapon in the “battle of the systems” and was used for the purpose of mutual abuse and proselytisation. Post-1945, the free art scene of the west was blessed: it was more diverse, varying and experimental than the eastern scene, which had to wrest itself more slowly and painfully from the clutches of dictatorship, circumventing or eluding its prescriptions and only gradually formulating alternatives. The first Stalinist decades were politically rigid: at this time the GDR sought to bend art to its aims of “re-education” and “agitation” and persecuted and banished artists who resisted.

This is the image that became fixed in the minds of the west’s opinion-forming art circles. The concept of “state art” is still invoked today to kill off discussions. Only the art of exiles and dissidents is regarded as free and self-determined. There is a refusal to acknowledge the different qualities and radical changes in the art of the east from the 1960s onwards. The key year was 1965 when the Leipzig artists Bernhard Heisig, Wolfgang Mattheuer and Werner Tübke articulated the contradiction with historical and parable pictures full of latent critical independence of mind. Their works provoked vigorous objections from the authorities and resulted in disciplinary measures.

The story of the misunderstandings and polemic confrontations is long and rather ugly. The first altercation, which set the tone for later conflicts, occurred in 1977 when the new art of the east appeared at that avant-garde showcase, Kassel’s Documenta, and the star painters of the west took their pictures down in protest against the competition from the east. After the wall came down the eastern artists were easy prey for their western counterparts, who called for boycotts, and for a ruthlessly commercial art business that discovered political morality and claimed to have a monopoly on progress.

When West Berlin’s Nationalgalerie merged with its East Berlin counterpart in 1993 and incorporated 16 East German artists, right-wing politicians were outraged and threatened to intervene. Yet the museum stood its ground and ten years later, in 2003, presented a retrospective of GDR art that unexpectedly aroused great public admiration. In contrast, a Weimar exhibition of 1999 with the title “Aufstieg und Fall der Moderne” (the rise and fall of modernism) crudely lumped GDR painting together with Nazi art, dismissing it as a phenomenon of decline and relegating it to the dustbin of history. The battle over the decoration of the new Bundestag (German parliament) in Berlin’s rebuilt Reichstag, from which the representatives of the east were to be excluded, has not been forgotten, either. After fierce disputes a highly dramatic narrative work by Heisig was accepted and consigned to the cafeteria.

The battle over two opposing belief systems and histories within German art was a conflict devoid of equal opportunities. Hardly any traces of the “other” German art are to be found in West German museums today. Even those institutions which inherited the best art from the GDR, like the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, continue to practise censorship today, rigorously marginalising these works and keeping them in store under lock and key. The western public cannot form its own picture of the controversial east in its own museums. In the museums of the east, where western curators generally hold sway, the great painters are kept to a statutory minimum. These missionaries took their re-education drive seriously: they wanted to bring these institutions into line with the latest western standards as quickly as possible. Internationally the older art of the east remains almost unknown today, because after 1989 the art networks of the west conspired to keep a lid on the competition, excluding it from its cultural exports and its international cultural programmes.

This rather bitter summing-up would be incomplete without a mention of the helpful spirits. Alongside committed dealers, the collectors Peter Ludwig, Bernhard Sprengel and Henri Nannen should be named. Intellectual sympathisers were Golo Mann, Günter Grass, Helmut Schmidt, who entrusted Heisig with his chancellor portrait, Joachim Fest and the son of Max Beckmann, who recognised in the Leipzig artists the legitimate heirs to his father’s tradition. Emphatic solidarity came from an unexpected quarter—from the churches. The spectacular renaissance of Christian iconography and altarpieces in the painting of the later GDR was not lost on them. And so the commission-less commission artists of the east found support from their oldest advocates, the churches. The important art of the GDR has survived attacks, boycotts, intrigues and harassment. What its enemies so fervently hoped for after 1989—that the GDR’s decline would also dispose of its art, permanently—has not come about. The Leipzig School is still going strong, in its third and fourth generation.

The writer is a contributor to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung