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Web salvation for workers’ art as GDR artists are digitally rehabilitated

Shunned since the Wall fell, East German works are now catalogued on the 'Bildatlas'

East German works of art that have largely been kept in store since German reunification are emerging from obscurity. Thanks to the online database Bildatlas: Kunst in der DDR (Picture atlas: art in the German Democratic Republic), 20,000 works have been catalogued and made publicly accessible. The project sheds light on a period that many had relegated to the dustbin of art history.

“After Georg Baselitz famously said there were no artists in East Germany, a prejudice developed around art [made] there,” says Karl-Siegbert Rehberg, a sociologist from the Dresden University of Technology, who worked on the project. “In the GDR, artistic production was tightly controlled, and the thinking was that art can only exist when it’s autonomous,” he says. According to Rehberg, when the Berlin Wall fell, many museum directors from the West took the helm at former East German institutions and continued to marginalise these works by rarely putting them on display. Other works, which hung on the walls of GDR schools, ministries and public institutions, were scattered across German stores.

To bring these works back into the public realm, the team behind the new database has united pieces from 165 collections, including those belonging to museums, private collectors, archives and businesses. However, obtaining the image rights for the works has proved difficult. “We calculated that the fee would come to €1m if we wanted to illustrate all the works,” Rehberg says, adding that he hopes these fees can be renegotiated.

A major exhibition to mark the launch of the database is on show at the Neues Museum in Weimar. “Farewell to Icarus: Imagery in the GDR—Seen Again” (until 3 February) comprises 180 works, including paintings, drawings and photographs. It is complemented by two further shows linked to the database. “Table Talk with Luther: Christian Paintings in an Atheist World” (until 20 January) at the Angermuseum in Erfurt focuses on religious motifs in GDR art. “Creative Spaces: Studio Pictures and Artistic Myths” (until 3 February) at the Kunstsammlungen Gera has turned its attention to the studios of GDR artists.

The Bildatlas database was commissioned by the German ministry of education and research, and was produced by the sociology department of the Dresden University of Technology, the Dresden State Museums, the art archive in Beeskow and the Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Web salvation for workers’ art'