8-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.GDR.8-1.6 | Eis­man­PDF

Abstract | Begin­ning with an overview of paint­ing in East Ger­many, this arti­cle exam­ines the Ger­man-Ger­man Bilder­stre­it (image bat­tle) of the long 1990s and two major art exhi­bi­tions in the new mil­le­ni­um, Kun­st in der DDR (Art in the GDR, 2003) and Abschied von Ikarus (Farewell to Icarus, 2012-13). It ulti­mate­ly argues that the his­to­ry of East Ger­man art has been rewrit­ten since uni­fi­ca­tion in ways that reflect West­ern expec­ta­tions and desires more than social­ist real­i­ties, and shows how art his­to­ri­ans, schol­ars of the Ger­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic (GDR, or East Ger­many), and those seek­ing alter­na­tives to the neolib­er­al present can ben­e­fit from a less biased view.
Résumé | Com­mençant par un résumé de la pein­ture en Alle­magne de l’Est, cet essai exam­ine la bataille de l’image alle­mande-alle­mande dans des longues années 1990 et deux grandes expo­si­tions d'art dans le nou­veau mil­lé­naire, Kun­st in der DDR (L’Art en la RDA, 2003) et Abschied von Ikarus (Adieu à Icarus. 2012-13). Il fait val­oir en fin de compte que l’histoire de l’art est-alle­mand a été réécrit depuis l’unification d’une manière qui reflète les attentes et désirs occi­den­tales plus des réal­ités social­istes, et mon­tre com­ment les his­to­riens de l’art, les chercheurs de la RDA, et ceux qui cherchent des alter­na­tives au présent néolibéraux peu­vent béné­fici­er d’une per­spec­tive moins préjugé.

April A. Eis­man | Iowa State University

Whose East German Art is This?
The Politics of Reception after 1989

East Ger­man stud­ies today is thriv­ing in Eng­lish-lan­guage schol­ar­ship. From his­to­ry to cul­tur­al stud­ies and espe­cial­ly film, schol­ars have shown us the com­plex­i­ty of East Ger­man soci­ety, which was not just a top-down repres­sive sys­tem but also a place where cul­ture played an impor­tant if con­test­ed role in the mak­ing of the social­ist per­son.[2] This schol­ar­ship, which start­ed pri­mar­i­ly in the field of lit­er­a­ture in the 1970s and 1980s, expand­ed into his­to­ry, film, and mate­r­i­al cul­ture in the wake of the Cold War.[3] But the visu­al fine arts—including paint­ing, graph­ics, and sculp­ture as well as per­for­mance and instal­la­tion art—have been almost com­plete­ly over­looked.[4] In Eng­lish-lan­guage schol­ar­ship, for exam­ple, not a sin­gle mono­graph has been pub­lished on paint­ing despite its cen­tral­i­ty in the East Ger­man art world.[5] In Ger­many, by com­par­i­son, the visu­al fine arts have been the focus of numer­ous stud­ies and sev­er­al large exhi­bi­tions. Much of the Ger­man schol­ar­ship writ­ten after uni­fi­ca­tion, how­ev­er, is per­me­at­ed by lin­ger­ing Cold War-era stereo­types and con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal agen­das.[6] A sim­i­lar ten­den­cy can be seen in most areas of East Ger­man stud­ies, but it has been chal­lenged by schol­ars, often work­ing out­side of Ger­many, who take a more nuanced approach (Port 15). In art his­to­ry, by com­par­i­son, such cor­rec­tives are rare, so although one might assume that greater access to archival mate­r­i­al after the fall of the Berlin Wall has led to a deep­er under­stand­ing of the art scene and the mech­a­nisms at work, the real­i­ty is that much of what is writ­ten today is more biased than schol­ar­ship on either side of the Wall in the 1980s.[7]

In this arti­cle, I show how our cur­rent under­stand­ing of art cre­at­ed in the Ger­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic (GDR, or East Ger­many) is quite dif­fer­ent from what it was thir­ty years ago and argue that it has been rewrit­ten to ful­fill West­ern expec­ta­tions. Although some changes to the nar­ra­tive have expand­ed our under­stand­ing, oth­ers have sig­nif­i­cant­ly dis­tort­ed our view of East Ger­many, thus depriv­ing us of an alter­na­tive per­spec­tive from which to under­stand the cap­i­tal­ist West. Such dis­tor­tions also deny us a source for alter­na­tives to the neolib­er­al present. I begin by look­ing briefly at the devel­op­ment of art in East Ger­many, focus­ing on paint­ing, the most pres­ti­gious visu­al arts medi­um, in order to estab­lish a base­line for under­stand­ing the his­to­ry that has been sub­se­quent­ly rewrit­ten. I then turn to the Ger­man-Ger­man Bilder­stre­it (image bat­tle) of the long 1990s, a series of vehe­ment debates in the Ger­man press about what role East Ger­man art and artists should play in the new Ger­many. These debates offer insight into the larg­er issues at stake and the actors involved, and thus allow us to bet­ter under­stand the more recent rewrit­ing. I then argue that the Bilder­stre­it entered a new, quieter—and there­fore more insidious—phase in the new mil­len­ni­um, a shift that began in 2003 with Kun­st in der DDR, eine Ret­ro­spek­tive (Art in the GDR, a Ret­ro­spec­tive), a block­buster exhi­bi­tion held at the Neue Nation­al­ga­lerie in Berlin. This high­ly praised exhi­bi­tion marks a high point in East Ger­man art’s recep­tion after 1989/90, but it also inad­ver­tent­ly opened the door to a sig­nif­i­cant rewrit­ing of East Ger­man art that reached its cul­mi­na­tion in the 2012 Abschied von Ikarus (Farewell to Icarus) exhi­bi­tion in Weimar. I con­sid­er how both of these exhi­bi­tions pre­sent­ed East Ger­man art before explain­ing why the rewrit­ing of this art mat­ters for both art his­to­ri­ans and schol­ars of the GDR.

Art in East Germany

In Anglo­phone schol­ar­ship, East Ger­man art is vir­tu­al­ly unknown, the result in part of the Cold War era’s polarization—and politicization—of the visu­al arts, which were divid­ed rough­ly in two since the late 1940s: abstract vs. real­ist, good vs. bad, Art vs. non-Art. Accord­ing to these bina­ries, East Ger­many did not cre­ate art, mere­ly polit­i­cal pro­pa­gan­da and kitsch. It is a stereo­type that, despite the pas­sage of more than a quar­ter cen­tu­ry since the end of the Cold War, remains large­ly unex­am­ined and there­fore dom­i­nant in the minds of most Anglo­phone aca­d­e­mics who, if asked to describe “East Ger­man art,” would prob­a­bly men­tion the term “Social­ist Real­ism” and imag­ine paint­ings of Com­mu­nist lead­ers or hap­py work­ers por­trayed with an almost pho­to­graph­ic real­ism. While such images were cre­at­ed through­out the forty-year his­to­ry of the GDR, they reached their offi­cial apex in 1953 with works such as Otto Nagel’s Junger Mau­r­er von der Stali­nallee (Young Brick­lay­er from Stali­nallee, 1953) [Fig. 1].

In the wake of Stalin’s death and the work­ers’ revolt in June 1953, East Ger­man artis­tic pol­i­cy loos­ened, and visu­al artists began to exper­i­ment open­ly with mod­ernist styles in the vein of Pablo Picas­so and Fer­nand Léger. In fact, there was a mul­ti-issue dis­cus­sion of Picas­so as a pos­si­ble role mod­el for East Ger­man artists in these years in Bildende Kun­st, the GDR’s main art jour­nal. Picas­so seemed a par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing fig­ure because he com­bined a mod­ernist aes­thet­ic with a polit­i­cal com­mit­ment to com­mu­nism (Lüdecke). His influ­ence can be seen in the flat­tened space and sim­plifed forms vis­i­ble in paint­ings by Willi Sitte [Fig. 2] and Har­ald Met­zkes, among oth­ers.[8]


By the mid-1960s, artists in Leipzig—and, in par­tic­u­lar, Bern­hard Heisig, Wolf­gang Mattheuer, and Wern­er Tübke, along with Willi Sitte from neigh­bor­ing Halle—had devel­oped a unique­ly East Ger­man style of con­tem­po­rary art that would come to rep­re­sent the GDR in the more relaxed cul­tur­al atmos­phere of the Honeck­er era in the 1970s and 1980s. Paint­ings such as Heisig’s Der Wei­h­nacht­straum des unbelehrbaren Sol­dat­en (The Christ­mas Dream of the Unteach­able Sol­dier, 1964) [Fig. 6]—multivalent works that reflect a com­mit­ment to the mod­ernist tradition—would be exhib­it­ed in the West to great praise in the final decades of the Cold War era. Although this gen­er­a­tion of artists includes East Germany’s best-known artists today, they were not the only ones work­ing in a mod­ernist style but rather the first of sev­er­al generations.

In the 1970s, their stu­dents emerged with works that looked not only at the Expres­sion­ist tra­di­tion but also at Neue Sach­lichkeit and Sur­re­al­ism. Arno Rink, for exam­ple, respond­ed to the 1973 putsch in Chile with a Daliesque paint­ing about the Span­ish Civ­il War, Spanien 1938 (Spain 1938) that was exhib­it­ed to great praise at both the dis­trict and nation­al lev­els (Feist 223). By the 1980s, a third gen­er­a­tion of artists was cre­at­ing large, Neo­ex­pres­sion­ist can­vas­es not unlike those of their Neue Wilde (new Fauves) coun­ter­parts in West Ger­many, and both instal­la­tion and per­for­mance art were gain­ing in pop­u­lar­i­ty and were even rec­og­nized by the offi­cial art world. Stef­fen Fis­ch­er and Angela Hampel’s instal­la­tion, Offene Zweier­beziehung (An Open Rela­tion­ship, 1989) [Fig. 3], for exam­ple, was includ­ed in the Dis­trict Art Exhi­bi­tion in Dres­den in 1989. The work shows a num­ber of men and women strung up indi­vid­u­al­ly in nets that hov­er above upright mis­siles, a ref­er­ence to the dif­fi­cul­ties of sex­u­al entanglements.

As this brief overview reveals, art in East Ger­many was much more com­plex than is often assumed in the West. Rather than uni­form­ly repres­sive, the East Ger­man sys­tem was marked by a series of freezes and thaws in artis­tic pol­i­cy, but with an ever increas­ing open­ness to mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art, such that by the late 1980s no style was com­plete­ly taboo, not even per­for­mance and instal­la­tion art.[9]

The Bilderstreit and the Staatskünstler Label

In sharp con­trast to the lack of knowl­edge in the Anglo­phone West, the devel­op­ment of art in East Ger­many after 1953 is bet­ter rec­og­nized in both schol­ar­ship and muse­um exhi­bi­tions in the Fed­er­al Repub­lic of Ger­many (FRG, or West Ger­many until 1990, uni­fied Ger­many there­after), albeit prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly so. Already in the late 1960s Eduard Beau­camp was writ­ing about Heisig, Mattheuer, Sitte, and Tübke—the so-called “Leipzig School”—in the major dai­ly news­pa­per Frank­furter All­ge­meine Zeitung. A few years lat­er, in 1977, these same four artists were invit­ed to exhib­it works at the inter­na­tion­al art exhi­bi­tion doc­u­men­ta 6 in Kas­sel, West Ger­many. This event marks the emer­gence of con­tem­po­rary East Ger­man art onto the West­ern art scene.[10] In its wake these four artists would become vir­tu­al­ly syn­ony­mous with East Ger­man art in the minds of many West Ger­man cura­tors, and their work the most high­ly praised, col­lect­ed, and exhib­it­ed in the 1980s.[11] In the wake of 1989/90 they were also the artists most fre­quent­ly at the cen­ter of con­tro­ver­sy in the Ger­man press, which labeled them “Staatskün­stler,” or State Artists. The con­tro­ver­sy around artists such as Heisig, Mattheuer, Sitte, and Tübke was not new to the Mauer­fall (fall of the Berlin Wall), but rather began already with their inclu­sion in doc­u­men­ta 6 (Schirmer, DDR und doc­u­men­ta). Pro­tes­tors deliv­ered leaflets and con­duct­ed a sit-in; the artist Georg Baselitz pulled his work from the show. Yet these voic­es did not com­mand the press’s atten­tion the way they would in the wake of Novem­ber 1989. In large part this was due to the left­ist lean­ings of West Ger­many in the 1970s and 1980s. With the sud­den col­lapse of the GDR, how­ev­er, the author­i­ty that left­ist intel­lec­tu­als had enjoyed since Willy Brandt’s Ost­poli­tik (also known as détente) was under­mined, and con­ser­v­a­tive voic­es came to the fore in a wave of victor’s glory.

The change in East Ger­man art’s recep­tion after the Mauer­fall occurred almost imme­di­ate­ly. A major exhi­bi­tion of Heisig’s work that had opened in West Berlin to pos­i­tive reviews in Octo­ber 1989 was being crit­i­cized by the end of Novem­ber. What became known as the Ger­man-Ger­man Bilder­stre­it began a few years lat­er when, in 1993, eigh­teen promi­nent West Germans—including the GDR emi­grants Georg Baselitz and Ger­hard Richter—left the visu­al arts depart­ment of the west­ern Berlin Acad­e­my of Arts in protest against the en-bloc accep­tance of col­leagues from its east­ern coun­ter­part when the two acad­e­mies were merged (Gillen). The fol­low­ing year the Neue Nation­al­ga­lerie in west­ern Berlin became the cen­ter of con­tro­ver­sy for an exhi­bi­tion of post­war art from their per­ma­nent col­lec­tion that placed mas­ter­pieces from the East and West side by side. The right-of-cen­ter Chris­t­ian Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (CDU) in Berlin ignit­ed the debate, liken­ing the muse­um to a Parteis­chule (school of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty) because of its inclu­sion of Heisig, Sitte, Tübke, and Mattheuer (Kahlcke). A third major con­fronta­tion took place in 1998 when Heisig was invited—as one of only two East Ger­man artists—to con­tribute work to the Reich­stag build­ing in Berlin. Heisig was attacked for being a teenage sol­dier in the Waf­fen SS and for being a Staatskün­stler. In fact, the two were con­flat­ed by the politi­cian Uwe Lehmann-Braun from the CDU, who stat­ed that Heisig had “loy­al­ly served two dic­ta­tor­ships” (quot­ed in Hecht 3).

The height of the Bilder­stre­it, how­ev­er, was reached the fol­low­ing year with the exhi­bi­tion Auf­stieg und Fall der Mod­erne (The Rise and Fall of Mod­ernism) in Weimar. In this exhi­bi­tion, the west­ern Ger­man curator’s con­tempt for the East Ger­man works on dis­play was obvious—the paint­ings were crowd­ed togeth­er and hung up hap­haz­ard­ly against drop cloths in a space with­out cli­mate con­trol (Wol­bert; Osmond). More­over, a more care­ful­ly con­sid­ered exhi­bi­tion of Nazi works else­where in the build­ing sug­gest­ed not only a con­nec­tion between the two regimes, but also that the Nazi works were more valu­able. This was fol­lowed by one final clash over the planned 2001 exhi­bi­tion of Willi Sitte’s work at the Ger­man­is­ches National­mu­se­um in Nurem­berg for his 80th birth­day (Gross­mann). Ulti­mate­ly, the furor in the press over Sitte’s con­nec­tions to the East Ger­man state—his posi­tion as Staatskün­stler—led to Sitte can­celling the show.

The var­i­ous debates with­in the Bilder­stre­it fall into two main cat­e­gories, both of which draw upon Cold War-era prej­u­dices about East Ger­man art. The first dis­missed East Ger­man art and artists as infe­ri­or to their west­ern coun­ter­parts. This view was often accom­pa­nied by the term Auf­tragskun­st (com­mis­sioned art) and by images like Hein­rich Witz’s Der neue Anfang (The New Begin­ning, 1959) [Fig. 4], which were read­i­ly acces­si­ble in the 1990s in exhi­bi­tions at his­to­ry muse­ums such as the Deutsches His­torisches Muse­um in Berlin (see Flacke). This focus on an assumed infe­ri­or qual­i­ty can be seen in the con­tro­ver­sy over the deci­sion to uni­fy the East and West Ger­man Acad­e­mies of Art and in the Auf­stieg und Fall der Mod­erne exhi­bi­tion.

The sec­ond cat­e­go­ry of the Bilder­stre­it focused on dis­miss­ing East Germany’s most impor­tant artists—those pre­vi­ous­ly praised and col­lect­ed in West Germany—based on their biogra­phies and, in par­tic­u­lar, their large­ly pos­i­tive rela­tion­ship to the state. In these cas­es, the art itself could not be dis­missed as “bad art,” and thus the focus shift­ed to the per­son. Exam­ples of this type of dis­missal appear in the con­tro­ver­sies around the exhi­bi­tion of post­war art at the Neue Nation­al­ga­lerie, Heisig’s com­mis­sion for the Reich­stag build­ing, and Sitte’s can­cel­la­tion of his solo exhi­bi­tion in Nurem­berg. These artists were labeled Staatskün­stler, mean­ing “state artist,” a term that requires unpack­ing in order to be able to under­stand the recep­tion of East Ger­man art in Ger­many today.

On the sur­face of it, the term Staatskün­stler is not a neg­a­tive one. The his­to­ry of art is filled with them, from the Romans to Jacques-Louis David, artists who ful­filled com­mis­sions for—and whose art came to represent—the state. From this per­spec­tive, Heisig, Mattheuer, Sitte, and Tübke—among many oth­er East Ger­man artists—were indeed Staatskün­stler. They ful­filled artis­tic com­mis­sions, and their work rep­re­sent­ed the GDR in major inter­na­tion­al exhi­bi­tions. Yet the term Staatskün­stler in the con­text of East Ger­man art has a num­ber of neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions that upon clos­er exam­i­na­tion do not apply, at least not to most of the artists so labeled. The exam­ple of Bern­hard Heisig—who was not only one of East Germany’s best-known and most suc­cess­ful artists but also a key fig­ure in the Bilder­stre­it—should suf­fice to illus­trate some of the prob­lems with this label.

The first con­no­ta­tion of the term Staatskün­stler is that these artists for­feit­ed artis­tic integri­ty in exchange for fame and pow­er. In Heisig’s case, how­ev­er, it was just the oppo­site. He changed from an Adolf von Men­zel-inspired real­ism in the 1950s, as evi­denced in Zirkel junger Natur­forsch­er (Cir­cle of Young Nat­ur­al Sci­en­tists, 1952) [Fig. 5], to one inspired by Ger­man mod­ernists such as Lovis Corinth, Max Beck­mann, and Otto Dix in the ear­ly to mid-1960s, as vis­i­ble in Der Wei­h­nacht­straum des unbelehrbaren Sol­dat­en (The Christ­mas Dream of the Unteach­able Sol­dier, 1964) [Fig. 6]. That is, he changed from an artis­tic style that was accept­able to con­ser­v­a­tive polit­i­cal func­tionar­ies to one that was not.

This change in style led to a num­ber of clash­es with author­i­ties in the lat­ter half of the 1960s that have been large­ly over­looked or mis­in­ter­pret­ed in Ger­man schol­ar­ship.[12] It was only with Erich Honecker’s rise to pow­er in 1971 that Heisig became a high­ly val­ued artist at the nation­al lev­el, the result of a change—and con­sid­er­able relax­ation in—cultural pol­i­cy. One could even argue that Heisig had led the way through his repeat­ed provo­ca­tions in the 1960s to the mod­ern style for which East Ger­man art became known in the Honeck­er era.

A sec­ond impli­ca­tion behind the term Staatskün­stler is that these artists active­ly oppressed oth­ers. In Heisig’s case, the implied accu­sa­tion is that he, as pro­fes­sor at and rec­tor of the Leipzig Acad­e­my (Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkun­st Leipzig), pre­vent­ed those with a more rad­i­cal view of art in terms of styl­is­tic inno­va­tion from becom­ing artists. Yet a clos­er exam­i­na­tion of the record reveals that Heisig actu­al­ly worked with younger artists to make the Leipzig Acad­e­my more mod­ern. In the 1970s, he hired Hartwig Ebers­bach to cre­ate and teach a mul­ti­me­dia class and ran inter­fer­ence with polit­i­cal func­tionar­ies in Berlin for years before the class was ulti­mate­ly shut down (Lang, Malerei und Grafik 275; Grund­mann and Michael 10-11, 43-46, 48). Sim­i­lar­ly, as vice pres­i­dent of the nation­al Union of Visu­al Artists (VBK), he helped nego­ti­ate a com­pro­mise for the con­tro­ver­sial Herb­st­sa­lon (Fall Salon) in Leipzig in 1984, a so-called “under­ground” exhi­bi­tion of young artists who were able to dis­play works not con­sid­ered accept­able by the gov­ern­ment (Lang, Malerei und Grafik 210-11). All of these facts—and more—suggest that Heisig was open to the younger gen­er­a­tion and worked to include them and their broad­en­ing inter­ests in the sys­tem, even if he was not inter­est­ed in cre­at­ing such works him­self. Indeed, Ebers­bach defend­ed Heisig on just such terms dur­ing the debate around the inclu­sion of Heisig’s work in the Reich­stag in 1998.[13]

In the end, how­ev­er, the truth of whether or not Heisig and the oth­er so-called Staatskün­stler had actu­al­ly oppressed others—or sold out their artis­tic integrity—did not real­ly mat­ter to those mak­ing the accu­sa­tions. What mat­tered was these artists’ high-pro­file asso­ci­a­tion with the GDR, the col­lapse of which in 1989/90 seemed to prove it had been an Unrecht­staat (ille­git­i­mate state). In the high­ly charged polit­i­cal atmos­phere of the 1990s, the so-called Staatskün­stler were seen by many (west­ern) Ger­man con­ser­v­a­tives as hav­ing helped legit­i­mate the East Ger­man regime—and thus hav­ing con­tributed to its longevity—by the very fact that they had not left. This sub­tly poi­so­nous accu­sa­tion recalls the exiles vs. Hierbleiber (those remain­ing here) debates of the Third Reich, in which exiles were cas­ti­gat­ed for aban­don­ing the Ger­man peo­ple in their time of great­est need, and Hierbleiber for tac­it­ly lend­ing their sup­port to the regime by not leav­ing. Artists such as Heisig were thus cas­ti­gat­ed for being Hierbleiber, for stay­ing in the GDR and attempt­ing to change it from with­in rather than aban­don­ing it.[14]

Not all of the crit­i­cism came from west­ern Ger­mans. There were, in fact, at least three dis­tinct groups of east­ern Ger­mans in the art world whose con­dem­na­tions of the so-called Staatskün­stler were used to buoy con­ser­v­a­tive west­ern Ger­man crit­i­cisms. The first came from a younger gen­er­a­tion of artists from the GDR, artists whose rad­i­cal­i­ty in terms of for­mal inno­va­tion had caused con­flict with the gov­ern­ment, and for whom the Mauer­fall had end­ed the GDR before such con­flicts could be worked out or, in the case of those who had recent­ly emi­grat­ed to the West, before they could dis­so­ci­ate them­selves from their East Ger­man past.[15] This group in particular—artists such as Lutz Damm­beck (b. 1948) and Han-Hen­drick Grimm­ling (b. 1947)—sees the so-called Staatskün­stler as hav­ing sold out their artis­tic integri­ty and mis­used their pow­er to oppress younger, more for­mal­ly rad­i­cal artists.[16] Archival evi­dence and inter­views, how­ev­er, sug­gest that the issue at stake here is less one of aes­thet­ic repres­sion than a gen­er­a­tional con­flict.[17] These younger artists were rebelling against the hege­mo­ny of the 1920s gen­er­a­tion of artists—the so-called Staatskün­stler—who were not only great­ly praised in the GDR and inter­na­tion­al­ly in the final decades of the Cold War but also large­ly con­trolled the art acad­e­mies and insti­tu­tions and, as such, dic­tat­ed policy.

A sec­ond group of east­ern Ger­man voic­es crit­i­cal of the so-called Staatskün­stler came from artists who had left the GDR and made inter­na­tion­al names for them­selves as “Ger­man” artists. The most notable exam­ple is Georg Baselitz, who stat­ed in a much-quot­ed 1990 inter­view in Art mag­a­zine: “There are no artists in the GDR, they all left […] no artists, no painters. None of them ever paint­ed a pic­ture […]. They are inter­preters who ful­filled the pro­gram of the East Ger­man sys­tem […] [they are] sim­ply ass­holes” (quot­ed in Hecht and Welti 70). Both he and Ger­hard Richter left the GDR as adults for the West, where they estab­lished inter­na­tion­al rep­u­ta­tions. Until recent­ly, their East Ger­man backgrounds—including artis­tic training—have been glossed over.[18] Yet this back­ground pre­sum­ably con­tributed to their pos­i­tive recep­tion, lend­ing them an aura of Oth­er­ness that also seemed to con­firm the pre­sumed supe­ri­or­i­ty of the West by their choice to emi­grate there.

The third group of east­ern Ger­man voic­es is com­prised of artists, crit­ics, and art his­to­ri­ans from places oth­er than Leipzig or Halle. These indi­vid­u­als have attempt­ed to reconfigure—perhaps unconsciously—the his­to­ry of East Ger­man art in recent years. In par­tic­u­lar, they down­play the impor­tance of the Leipzig School. This view was par­tic­u­lar­ly appar­ent in the Kun­st in der DDR, Eine Ret­ro­spek­tive exhi­bi­tion where the Leipzig School had only one small, arti­fi­cial­ly lit room, while artists from Berlin enjoyed three of the five rooms open to nat­ur­al light­ing. For those unfa­mil­iar with the his­to­ry of East Ger­man art, the Leipzig School would have seemed no more impor­tant than Con­struc­tivism, which also had a small room in the exhibition.

When exam­ined in con­text, the Bilder­stre­it reveals itself pri­mar­i­ly as a bat­tle for place with­in the new Ger­many and, for some, a bat­tle over what role, if any, East Ger­man art and artists should play in help­ing to define Germany’s post-Wall cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty. In the new mil­len­ni­um, how­ev­er, the vocif­er­ous bat­tles over East Ger­man art dimin­ished, in part, because of the pas­sage of time.

The Quiet Rewriting of East German Art

The shift to a new, qui­eter phase in the recep­tion of East Ger­man art began in 2003 when the Neue Nation­al­ga­lerie in Berlin held a major exhi­bi­tion, Kun­st in der DDR, eine Ret­ro­spek­tive. Not only did the exhi­bi­tion avoid con­tro­ver­sy in the press, it attract­ed large num­bers of vis­i­tors and was ulti­mate­ly named “Exhi­bi­tion of the Year” by the Inter­na­tion­al Art Crit­ics Asso­ci­a­tion (AICA). The exhi­bi­tion ben­e­fit­ted in part from for­tu­itous tim­ing: the wild­ly suc­cess­ful film, Good­bye Lenin, released ear­li­er that year, marked a high point in Ostal­gie (nos­tal­gia for the East). The exhi­bi­tion also addressed a west­ern audi­ence with the intent of show­ing that East Ger­many did indeed have art of val­ue. It was intend­ed, at least in part, as a response to—and per­haps the final word on—the con­tro­ver­sy sparked near­ly ten years ear­li­er when the Neue Nation­al­ga­lerie exhib­it­ed works from both East Ger­many and the West next to each oth­er.[19] Curat­ed by two for­mer East Ger­man cura­tors, Roland März and Eugen Blume, Kun­st in der DDR includ­ed 400 works of paint­ing, draw­ing, sculp­ture, pho­tog­ra­phy, and video by 130 artists. The intent was to show that the GDR had a “dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed and rich vari­ety of artis­tic voic­es, espe­cial­ly in the art cen­ters of Berlin, Dres­den, Halle and Leipzig,” regard­less of the pol­i­tics and lim­i­ta­tions of the “closed soci­ety” (Blume and März 12).

The exhi­bi­tion was arranged rough­ly chrono­log­i­cal­ly. It began in the imme­di­ate post­war years with images of wartime destruc­tion, artis­tic self-reflec­tion in the con­text of rebuild­ing, and ear­ly artis­tic exper­i­men­ta­tion in the East­ern Zone. Paint­ings includ­ed Hans Grundig’s Opfer des Faschis­mus (Vic­tims of Fas­cism, 1946) [Fig. 7], Bern­hard Kretzschmar’s Selb­st­bild­nis (Self Por­trait, 1946), and Edmund Kesting’s Land im Versinken (Sink­ing Coun­try, 1949), respec­tive­ly. It then offered two rooms with paint­ings and sculp­ture from the 1950s such as Sitte’s Raub der Sabiner­in­nen [Fig. 2] and Met­zkes’ Abtrans­port der sech­sarmi­gen Göt­tin (Remov­ing the Six-armed God­dess, 1956), works inspired by Picas­so and oth­er mod­ernist artists.

The exhi­bi­tion then shift­ed to a num­ber of rooms ded­i­cat­ed to three of East Germany’s main art centers—Dresden, East Berlin, and Leipzig—reflecting the impor­tance of dis­tricts, or Bezirke, in the devel­op­ment of artis­tic styles. In 1952, the SED had divid­ed East Ger­many into four­teen dis­tricts, each of which had its own local branch­es of var­i­ous nation­al orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing the Union of Visu­al Artists (VBK).[20] These local branch­es inter­pret­ed rules passed down from the nation­al orga­ni­za­tion, dealt with local artis­tic issues such as com­mis­sions and exhi­bi­tions, and were the offi­cial advo­cates for their artists. They also orga­nized the juried dis­trict art exhi­bi­tions held through­out the coun­try every two to three years. These exhi­bi­tions enabled each dis­trict to dis­play its art to the pub­lic and politi­cians alike, and it was large­ly from these exhi­bi­tions that works were cho­sen for the nation­al art exhi­bi­tion held in Dres­den every four to five years. Dres­den, East Berlin, and Leipzig each had an art school and a unique artis­tic pro­file. This empha­sis on the region­al defines much of East Germany’s art, which—unlike the West’s—did not devel­op in terms of move­ments or styles but rather in terms of region­al ten­den­cies. These ten­den­cies were encour­aged, in part, by reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled exhi­bi­tions and exchanges among artists at the local lev­el, the unique his­to­ry of the region, and the spe­cif­ic empha­sis of the art school, whether paint­ing (Berlin and Dres­den), print­mak­ing (Leipzig), or indus­tri­al design (Halle).

For Dres­den, the exhi­bi­tion includ­ed images by artists who worked large­ly out­side of offi­cial art cir­cles in the 1960s and 1970s, includ­ing Peter Graf [Fig. 8], Strawalde (also known as Jür­gen Böttch­er), and Ralf Win­kler (bet­ter known in the West as A.R. Penck). Dres­den artists such as these tend­ed to empha­size the painter­ly qual­i­ty, if not col­oration, asso­ci­at­ed with Ger­man Expres­sion­ism, which was found­ed in Dres­den and remained an impor­tant inspi­ra­tion for artists who lived there.

In the rooms devot­ed to Berlin, the select­ed artists tend­ed to look to Paris for inspi­ra­tion, gen­er­al­ly adopt­ing a qui­et, poet­ic approach to art—from the “black melan­choly” of the 1950s as embod­ied by Ernst Schröder and Man­fred Böttch­er to the more col­or­ful images of the 1960s by artists such as Har­ald Met­zkes. In the 1970s and 1980s, a num­ber of artists from a younger gen­er­a­tion emerged who looked to Neue Sach­lichkeit (New Objec­tiv­i­ty) for inspi­ra­tion, as can be seen in Clemens Groszer’s Café Lio­let [Fig. 9], a clear ref­er­ence to Otto Dix.

Leipzig, too, had a room, albeit small­er than those for Dres­den and Berlin. Paint­ings from Leipzig tend­ed to empha­size com­plex com­po­si­tions and lay­ers of mean­ing, inspired at least in part because it was a city of books and pub­lish­ing: artists in Leipzig not only reg­u­lar­ly illus­trat­ed books but also incor­po­rat­ed lit­er­ary com­plex­i­ty into their work [Fig. 6]. The size of the room and num­ber of paint­ings includ­ed for Leipzig, how­ev­er, sug­gests a down­play­ing of the city’s impor­tance to the his­to­ry of East Ger­man art in com­par­i­son to Dres­den and East Berlin. This is a revi­sion that reveals the impact of the third group of crit­i­cal voic­es about East Ger­man art’s recep­tion: artists, crit­ics, and art his­to­ri­ans from places oth­er than Leipzig or Halle—in this case, two cura­tors from East Berlin. This desire to down­play Leipzig’s role stems in part from long-stand­ing rival­ries between var­i­ous dis­tricts in East Ger­many. Where­as Leipzig empha­sized high­ly intel­lec­tu­al con­tent, ener­getic brush­work, and bold col­ors, Berlin focused on aes­thet­ics: poet­ic voic­ings, sub­tle col­ors, and brush­work inspired by the work of French painters like Paul Cezanne (Blume and März 220-21). For some intel­lec­tu­als in Berlin, the art cre­at­ed in Leipzig was too brash and received too much atten­tion in the press, both before and after uni­fi­ca­tion.[21]

In addi­tion to rooms devot­ed to the indi­vid­ual art cen­ters, there were also rooms that focused on par­tic­u­lar styles or media. There was a small room devot­ed to Con­struc­tivism, a hall­way to pho­tog­ra­phy, and in the cen­ter, a large room to the bright­ly paint­ed Neo­ex­pres­sion­ist works cre­at­ed by a younger gen­er­a­tion of artists in the 1980s, includ­ing Trak Wendisch, Klaus Kil­lisch, and Wolf­gang Smy. There were also the­mat­ic rooms that includ­ed artists who did not fit with­in the oth­er cat­e­gories, such as Ger­hard Altenbourg and Carl­friedrich Claus, two soli­tary fig­ures in the GDR whose work empha­sized draw­ing, and Willy Wolff [Fig. 10], one of the few artists in East Ger­many who engaged direct­ly with Pop Art.

The exhi­bi­tion Kun­st in der DDR suc­ceed­ed in its attempt to show that East Ger­many had art of val­ue to West­ern tastes. Although this may seem obvi­ous, it was an impor­tant fact to estab­lish in Ger­many at this time. In the wake of the many exhibitions—usually in his­to­ry museums—of less­er qual­i­ty works, and the den­i­gra­tions of the Auf­stieg und Fall der Mod­erne exhi­bi­tion four years ear­li­er, the fact that East Ger­many had a flour­ish­ing con­tem­po­rary art scene was not yet an obvi­ous one. Yet in mak­ing this point, the cura­tors were nec­es­sar­i­ly selec­tive, down­play­ing Sovi­et-style Social­ist Real­ist works in favor of those that looked to the modernist—particularly the Ger­man mod­ernist tra­di­tions of Expres­sion­ism and Neue Sach­lichkeit (Blume and März 12). The end result was a high­ly suc­cess­ful exhi­bi­tion that helped change people’s views of East Ger­man art. But the cura­tors’ empha­sis on art in the GDR—as opposed to East Ger­man Art or Art of East Germany—had unin­tend­ed con­se­quences: it opened the door for future cura­tors to include any­thing that was cre­at­ed on East Ger­man soil with­out regard for its impor­tance with­in East Ger­man soci­ety and thus to cre­ate dis­tort­ed accounts of art’s role and recep­tion (Blume and März 31). The evi­dence for this appears in the last major ret­ro­spec­tive exhi­bi­tion on East Ger­man art to be orga­nized in Ger­many, one that took place near­ly ten years lat­er. 

Abschied von Ikarus, 2012-13

Abschied von Ikarus. Bild­wel­ten in der DDR—neu gese­hen (Farewell to Icarus. Imagery in the GDR—newly seen) was a major exhi­bi­tion of East Ger­man art held in Weimar from Octo­ber 2012 until Feb­ru­ary 2013. It includ­ed approx­i­mate­ly 279 works by 96 artists and was intend­ed, in part, as a cor­rec­tive to the con­tro­ver­sial Auf­stieg und Fall der Mod­erne exhi­bi­tion held in Weimar thir­teen years ear­li­er. This time, how­ev­er, the art was treat­ed as art and exhib­it­ed in an art muse­um. The Neues Muse­um Weimar ded­i­cat­ed all sev­en­teen rooms of its impres­sive two-sto­ry build­ing to the exhi­bi­tion. The first floor focused pri­mar­i­ly on the Ulbricht era and was arranged rough­ly chrono­log­i­cal­ly. After an intro­duc­to­ry room of two paint­ings, the exhi­bi­tion had a large room [Fig. 11] of well-known Social­ist Real­ist works from the late 1940s and ear­ly 1950s. These includ­ed paint­ings such as Otto Nagel’s Junger Mau­r­er von der Stali­nallee (Young Brick­lay­er on Stal­in Boule­vard, 1953) [Fig. 1], Kretzschmar’s Die Volk­slehrerin (Teacher of the Peo­ple, 1953), and Mayer-Foreyt’s Ehrt die alten Meis­ter (Hon­or the Old Mas­ters, 1952), works that were absent from the ear­li­er block­buster exhi­bi­tion in Berlin. These paint­ings reflect the offi­cial­ly encour­aged empha­sis in the ear­ly 1950s on real­ism and opti­mism, on works that could help edu­cate the peo­ple and offer mod­els for behav­ior in the wake of the Third Reich.


These were fol­lowed by rooms on the less­er-known sto­ries of the Bauhaus tra­di­tion at the Weimar Academy—the visu­al arts depart­ment of which was closed in 1951—and the mod­ernist painters asso­ci­at­ed with the Galerie Hen­nig in Halle in the 1950s. Sitte’s Volk­mar im Faschingskostüm (Volk­mar in a Fasching Cos­tume, 1954) and Joachim Heuer’s Tod mit Mel­one und Mütze (Death with Mel­on and Hat, 1948-49) reveal the impor­tance of ear­ly mod­ernist move­ments for these artists. The next room focused on the Con­struc­tivist cre­ations of the Dres­den artist Her­mann Glöck­n­er. The focus was pri­mar­i­ly on small­er works he had cre­at­ed, often from non-art mate­ri­als such as med­i­cine box­es or old bro­ken glass­es. Works such as these had been high­light­ed a few years ear­li­er in a major exhi­bi­tion at the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Muse­um, Art of Two Ger­manys / Cold War Cul­tures. This small, solo space was fol­lowed by a large room of paint­ings focus­ing on East Ger­man work­ers cre­at­ed from the 1950s through the 1980s. These includ­ed Volk­er Stelzmann’s famous Junger Schweißer (Young Welder, 1971) [Fig. 12] and the car­toon-like, less­er-known Die Aura der Schmelz­er (The Aura of the Smelters, 1988) by Eber­hard Heiland.

Where­as the exhibition’s first floor offered a rough­ly chrono­log­i­cal overview of art dur­ing the first two decades of the Cold War era, most of the works on the sec­ond floor dat­ed from the Honeck­er peri­od and were orga­nized the­mat­i­cal­ly. As on the first floor, these rooms offered a com­bi­na­tion of well-known works and new dis­cov­er­ies, espe­cial­ly from the alter­na­tive scene. The Leipzig School was shown in a room titled, “The Apoth­e­o­sis of Hor­ror.” It includ­ed work by Heisig, Mattheuer, Sitte, and Tübke, as well as by younger artists, includ­ing Hartwig Ebers­bach and Huber­tus Giebe. Many of these paint­ings focused on the Nazi past or the impe­ri­al­ist present. Ebersbach’s polyp­tych, Wid­mung an Chile (Ded­i­cat­ed to Chile, 1974) [Fig. 13], for exam­ple, was a response to the 1973 putsch in Chile in which Augus­to Pinochet, with CIA back­ing, vio­lent­ly over­threw the demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed com­mu­nist leader Sal­vador Allende and installed a mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship that tor­tured tens of thou­sands of peo­ple, sev­er­al thou­sand of whom were “dis­ap­peared.”


Anoth­er room, titled “Melan­choly Antiq­ui­ty,” focused on the use of mythol­o­gy in East Ger­man art. It includ­ed works by Heisig, Mattheuer, and Met­zkes, among oth­ers. Mythol­o­gy was a major theme in the 1970s and 1980s, enabling artists to com­ment on cur­rent events through alle­gor­i­cal fig­ures such as Sisy­phus, Penthe­silea, and espe­cial­ly Icarus, who appeared in more than six­ty works in these years (Arlt 116). In Hans-Hen­drick Grimmling’s dip­tych, Ikarus zu Hause (Icarus at Home, 1978) [Fig. 14], Icarus appears as a bird-like fig­ure bound to a chair in the left-hand pan­el, where­as in the right-hand pan­el he is gone: only the upturned chair and bird mask remain, pre­sum­ably hav­ing been swat­ted down by the hand of the giant face that hov­ers out­side the win­dow. It is a work that per­haps reflects the artist’s frus­tra­tion at try­ing to make a name for him­self as a young artist at the time.

A third room was devot­ed to women artists. Titled, “Old Adam, New Eve,” it con­tained work by a num­ber of impor­tant painters, includ­ing Angela Ham­pel, Nuria Queve­do, and Doris Ziegler. Many of the paint­ings, such as Ziegler’s Ich bin Du (I am You, 1988) [Fig. 15] and Hampel’s Angela und Angelus I-IV (1986), were self-por­traits. This exhi­bi­tion marks the first time that so many impor­tant female painters were includ­ed in a major exhi­bi­tion of East Ger­man art after uni­fi­ca­tion. The room also includ­ed alter­na­tive artists such as Anne­mirl Bauer and Gabriele Stötzer, artists whose work was hard­ly rec­og­nized dur­ing the Cold War period.

 A fourth room, “Out­break and Dis­in­te­gra­tion: the 1980s” [Fig. 16], focused on large-scale works of paint­ing and instal­la­tion cre­at­ed in the final decade of the Cold War, includ­ing large, expres­sion­ist paint­ings by Wol­fram Adal­bert Schef­fler [Fig. 16, left] and Cor­nelia Schleime [Fig. 16, mid­dle].[22] As in the room “Old Adam, New Eve,” some of these artists had been exhib­it­ed in major exhi­bi­tions in East Ger­many, while oth­ers had had a much small­er audi­ence. The exhi­bi­tion did not dis­tin­guish between those artists who were well known and those who were not.


Abschied von Ikarus suc­cess­ful­ly expand­ed the view of East Ger­man art to include art­work from both the canon and the alter­na­tive scene, two art worlds hith­er­to gen­er­al­ly treat­ed sep­a­rate­ly in exhi­bi­tions.[23] Indeed, the inclu­sion of Social­ist Real­ist, mod­ernist, and alter­na­tive art togeth­er in one space was the exhibition’s real achieve­ment, offer­ing a nev­er-before-seen breadth of art cre­at­ed in East Ger­many. Abschied von Ikarus there­fore con­tained great poten­tial for offer­ing insight into the com­plex­i­ty of artis­tic pro­duc­tion in East Ger­many. In many ways the first floor ful­filled this promise in its chrono­log­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion of Sovi­et-inspired Social­ist Real­ist works next to the Bauhaus-inspired art at the Weimar Acad­e­my and the mod­ernist art and artists—some well-known in offi­cial cir­cles, some not—around the Galerie Hen­ning in Halle. These rooms added impor­tant new dimen­sions to the nar­ra­tive around East Ger­man art, espe­cial­ly in the 1950s. The sec­ond floor, how­ev­er, did not; orga­nized the­mat­i­cal­ly, it offered lit­tle guid­ance for how to under­stand the works in rela­tion to the larg­er con­text in which they were cre­at­ed. Instead, the the­mat­ic group­ings orga­nized the mate­r­i­al through a Western—often negative—lens that ulti­mate­ly dis­tort­ed the mate­r­i­al and imped­ed under­stand­ing. The rooms “Melan­choly Antiq­ui­ty” and “Out­break and Dis­in­te­gra­tion: The 1980s,” for exam­ple, imposed a neg­a­tive frame­work on the works shown as evi­denced by the terms melan­choly and dis­in­te­gra­tion.[24] “The Apoth­e­o­sis of Hor­ror,” on the oth­er hand, framed the works as a spec­ta­cle of vio­lence rather than a cri­tique of the Nazi past or impe­ri­al­ist present, as intend­ed by the artists. As such, the title of the room deflect­ed atten­tion away from the idea held by many East Ger­man artists—as well as politicans—of “art as a weapon” in the fight against war and fas­cism.[25]

The exhibition—and espe­cial­ly the catalogue—privileged a West­ern per­spec­tive in a num­ber of oth­er ways as well, most notably in its under­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women artists. Although Abschied von Ikarus includ­ed more women painters from the 1970s and 1980s than many of its pre­de­ces­sor exhi­bi­tions in the West, the per­cent­age of women was nonethe­less far low­er in com­par­i­son to the real­i­ties of the East Ger­man art world. Of nine­ty-six artists in the exhi­bi­tion, only nine were women, a ratio of less than one in ten, which erro­neous­ly sug­gests that art is pri­mar­i­ly a mas­cu­line endeav­or. This small pro­por­tion stands in sharp con­trast to the actu­al East Ger­man art world where, as of the 1980s, women com­prised more than 33 per­cent of the artists in the nation­al Union of Visu­al Artists and more than 20 per­cent of artists includ­ed in the nation­al art exhi­bi­tions in Dres­den (Zen­trum 12; Müller, Appen­dix 1).[26] Indeed, women had been above 15 per­cent of the artists includ­ed in that exhi­bi­tion since the 1950s (Eis­man, “Eco­nom­ic” 177). Abschied von Ikarus’s low per­cent­age reflect­ed West­ern expec­ta­tions for women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion more than East­ern real­i­ty. Not only did Abschied von Ikarus include far few­er women, their art, with only a few excep­tions, was con­fined to just one room—and not one of the larg­er ones—which effec­tive­ly ghet­toized them with­in the exhi­bi­tion. While group­ing women togeth­er is com­mon in the West, it was vir­tu­al­ly unheard of in the East. The sug­ges­tion was thus that women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the East Ger­man art world was as low as it was—and con­tin­ues to be—in the West.[27]

Anoth­er way the exhi­bi­tion dis­tort­ed East Ger­man art was through an overem­pha­sis on the alter­na­tive scene. This appears notice­ably in the des­ig­na­tion of most of the cor­ner rooms to alter­na­tive art and artists, includ­ing the Bauhaus in Weimar, Her­mann Glöck­n­er, Carl­friedrich Claus, Lutz Damm­beck, and Klaus Häh­n­er-Spring­mühl.[28] No offi­cial artist received sim­i­lar treat­ment. The exhi­bi­tion thus obscured the dif­fer­ence between well-known works and those that had a lim­it­ed audi­ence with­in the GDR. Indeed, it often invert­ed the two. The result was an exhi­bi­tion that showed that a lot of art had been cre­at­ed in East Ger­many and in a wide vari­ety of styles and media, but offered lit­tle indi­ca­tion as to which works were impor­tant and to whom, be it the offi­cial art scene, artis­tic sub­groups, or the cura­tors who had put the exhi­bi­tion togeth­er.[29]

Anoth­er sig­nif­i­cant dis­tor­tion was the neg­a­tive tone of the exhi­bi­tion, which appeared most promi­nent­ly in its pre­sen­tist insis­tence on the GDR’s fail­ure and, with it, the loss of the utopia East Ger­many had promised, rather than schol­ar­ly engage­ment with the art and art sys­tem in which it was cre­at­ed. The exhibition’s ten­den­tious nature is evi­dent from its title, “Farewell to Icarus,” which refers to a mytho­log­i­cal fig­ure who came to sym­bol­ize the ideals of the GDR in many artists’ work in the 1970s and 1980s; Icarus also sym­bol­ized the artists them­selves and the strug­gles they faced in try­ing to real­ize these ideals. To say farewell to Icarus is thus to say good­bye not just to the GDR, but also to its art and artists as well as its hope for a bet­ter future. The empha­sis on East Germany’s fail­ure also appeared in the first room of the exhi­bi­tion, which con­tained a wall text and two paint­ings, Bern­hard Kretzschmar’s Blick auf Eisen­hüt­ten­stadt (1955) [Fig. 17] and Wolf­gang Mattheuer’s Fre­undlich­er Besuch im Braunkohlen­re­vi­er (Friend­ly Vis­it to the Lig­nite Region, 1974) [Fig. 18]. Kretzschmar’s ear­ly paint­ing cap­tures a high point in East Ger­man con­struc­tion: the com­ple­tion of an entire city built from scratch, the smoke in the back­ground a sign of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty rather than pol­lu­tion. Mattheuer’s paint­ing from near­ly twen­ty years lat­er, in com­par­i­son, depicts a land­scape of dirt with a pow­er plant in the dis­tance ringed in clouds or smog. The sug­ges­tion is that the ideals of the ear­li­er work have result­ed in the seem­ing­ly destroyed land­scape of the lat­ter one. Sim­i­lar­ly, both images show fig­ures in the fore­ground. Yet where­as in Kretzschmar’s paint­ings, the many tiny peo­ple are enjoy­ing a beau­ti­ful day—there is a dog on a leash, a cou­ple hav­ing a pic­nic, and many bikes—the lat­ter shows a fig­ure, per­haps head­ing off to work, while oth­ers, their heads con­cealed in box­es with smil­ing faces paint­ed on the sides, head the oth­er way. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of these two paint­ings thus not only sug­gests that the ear­ly hopes and dreams have result­ed in envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion but also the need for peo­ple in the GDR to mask their true thoughts and feel­ings. In oth­er words, it sug­gests that the GDR was doomed to fail, and it is this idea of fail­ure, com­ing as it does in the very first room, that sets the stage for the rest of the exhi­bi­tion despite the fact that the artists them­selves were unaware of this out­come and were not engag­ing with it in their work. To empha­size East Germany’s fail­ure thus not only mis­rep­re­sents the art­works shown, it also sub­tly under­mines their impor­tance since it frames the works as the artis­tic cre­ations of a failed state. Like the title of the exhi­bi­tion, this empha­sis on fail­ure sug­gests that these works belong to the “dust­bin of his­to­ry,” a com­mon refrain in what his­to­ri­an San­drine Kott and oth­ers have iden­ti­fied as a total­i­tar­i­an approach to East Ger­man stud­ies, an approach that was preva­lent in Ger­many in the 1990s but has since been wide­ly crit­i­cized (Cohen; Kott).[30]

The neg­a­tive tone of the exhi­bi­tion is most explic­it, how­ev­er, in the exhibition’s cat­a­logue. A quick glance at the arti­cles’ titles reveals words and phras­es such as impos­si­bil­i­ty, fatigue, coer­cion, melan­choly, a Pyrrhus vic­to­ry, dic­tat­ed stan­dards, ugly, apoth­e­o­sis of ter­ror, apoc­a­lypse and redemp­tion, demise and hor­ror, resis­tant paint­ing, and escape (Rehberg, et al. 4-5). East Ger­many is pre­sent­ed as a place whose real­i­ty was “infil­trat­ed” by melan­choly, which was per­haps a “pre­mo­ni­tion of the fail­ure of the ‘great Project’” (61). Else­where it is com­pared to George Orwell’s dystopi­an nov­el, 1984 (51). Even when authors acknowl­edge that some peo­ple chose to live in the GDR, the exam­ples sug­gest it was a bad choice: the jour­nal­ist Rudolf Herrnstadt—who moved to the East and made his career in the SED but was lat­er forced to resign and was essen­tial­ly banned to a small town after a clash with Ulbricht—is com­pared to Hel­mut Kindler, a jour­nal­ist who moved to the West and became one of West Germany’s most suc­cess­ful pub­lish­ers (51-52).

The neg­a­tive tone also appears in the catalogue’s empha­sis on repres­sion, which is par­tic­u­lar­ly evi­dent in how it por­trays Her­mann Glöck­n­er, a Dres­den artist who is best known today for his many Con­struc­tivist paint­ings and sculp­tures. The cat­a­logue states that Glöck­n­er first “broke through the cul­tur­al polit­i­cal ice” of the art world in 1984 at the age of 95 (160). In this year, he com­plet­ed a major sculp­ture in Dres­den and received the GDR’s nation­al Art Prize. Accord­ing to the cat­a­log, this marked the end of a “peri­od of […] offi­cial igno­rance and humil­i­at­ing lim­its” on the artist (160). Not only is the lan­guage loaded, but the infor­ma­tion is false. Glöck­n­er exhib­it­ed work in East and West Ger­many through­out the 1950s, cre­at­ed numer­ous works of archi­tec­tur­al art through the end of the 1960s, and had his break­through in 1969 when he was giv­en a major solo exhi­bi­tion at the Kupfer­stichk­abi­net in Dres­den that includ­ed more than 150 works. There­after, he reg­u­lar­ly exhib­it­ed work in local and nation­al exhi­bi­tions in Dres­den and was the focus of numer­ous arti­cles, sev­er­al cat­a­logues, and a book. Indeed, the major sculp­ture men­tioned in the cat­a­logue was a mul­ti-year com­mis­sion giv­en to him in the mid-1970s that cost upwards of 45,000 Marks to cre­ate and install (BfaK-D). Yet the Abschied von Ikarus exhi­bi­tion and cat­a­logue main­tained the fic­tion that Glöck­n­er was a repressed artist who received recog­ni­tion in the GDR only a few years before his death. While Glöck­n­er did not share the lev­el of fame of the Leipzig School of artists, he was a well-known and well-respect­ed artist in East Ger­many through­out the Honeck­er era.[31] To sug­gest oth­er­wise is to rewrite East Ger­man art along West­ern expec­ta­tions of repres­sion. Such rewrit­ing not only dis­torts the real­i­ties of the East Ger­man art world, but also deprives artists of their agency and art­works of their mean­ing. The empha­sis through­out the cat­a­logue is thus more on judg­ing East Ger­many than on under­stand­ing the art and the artis­tic con­text in which it was cre­at­ed. As his­to­ri­an Andrew Port has not­ed about some Ger­man schol­ar­ship on the GDR more gen­er­al­ly, the cat­a­logue is an exam­ple of “his­to­ry as com­fort food for those most inter­est­ed in moral­is­tic pos­tur­ing” (Port 14). Rather than ask ques­tions that fur­ther our under­stand­ing of East Ger­many, the cat­a­logue falls back on banal­i­ties: the GDR as a repres­sive, total­i­tar­i­an state, as a foot­note of history.

When exam­ined with­in the larg­er con­text of East Ger­man art’s recep­tion in the West, Abschied von Ikarus exem­pli­fies the sec­ond of what I have iden­ti­fied as four main approach­es to East Ger­man art. The first, often found in Eng­lish-lan­guage schol­ar­ship but also in the Bilder­stre­it of the long 1990s, is the idea that there was no art in East Ger­many or, at least, no art of val­ue to the West, be it aes­thet­i­cal­ly (e.g. kitsch, Auf­tragskun­st) or because of the artists’ polit­i­cal beliefs (Staatskün­stler). The sec­ond approach acknowl­edges that art was cre­at­ed in East Ger­many, but lim­its these works to so-called dis­si­dent or alter­na­tive artists or to those who were oppressed by the sys­tem. This can be seen in the Abschied von Ikarus exhi­bi­tion in its overem­pha­sis on the alter­na­tive scene, which was high­light­ed in the cor­ner rooms, and in its rewrit­ing of artists such as Her­mann Glöck­n­er. The third approach, which I have not engaged with in this arti­cle, acknowl­edges that even the so-called Staatskün­stler cre­at­ed art but attempts to sep­a­rate these artists from the East Ger­man state, most often by overem­pha­siz­ing prob­lems they may have had and ignor­ing or down­play­ing any pos­i­tive con­nec­tions. This approach can be seen, for exam­ple, in the 2005 exhi­bi­tion, Bern­hard Heisig: Wut der Bilder (see Eis­man, “Deny­ing Dif­fer­ence”). The fourth lev­el is the one I am advo­cat­ing for here: an engage­ment with East Ger­man art on its own terms. This approach sets aside moral judg­ments in an attempt to under­stand the art created—and the artists who cre­at­ed it—in rela­tion­ship to the East Ger­man con­text in which it was pro­duced. I am argu­ing, in essence, that art his­to­ry fol­low the lead of East Ger­man stud­ies more gen­er­al­ly and move away from a total­i­tar­i­an mod­el of engage­ment in favor of a more nuanced approach (Kott; Port).

Abschied von Ikarus was the last major ret­ro­spec­tive exhi­bi­tion of East Ger­man art to take place in Ger­many. Its size and claim to be the final word in the Bilder­stre­it will pre­sum­ably make it the last for many years to come.[32] Prob­lem­at­ic as it was, it marks the cur­rent state of East Ger­man art’s recep­tion in Ger­many today and shows how the Bilder­stre­it is over not because it has been suc­cess­ful­ly resolved but rather because time has made East Ger­man art less of a threat to the now not-so-new­ly uni­fied nation. Even an exhi­bi­tion in a major art muse­um is not going to lead to a rewrit­ing of the post­war Ger­man canon more than twen­ty years after uni­fi­ca­tion. Sim­i­lar­ly, the neg­a­tive aspects of the exhi­bi­tion were more sub­tle than in the 1990s and, more impor­tant­ly, were most evi­dent in the cat­a­logue, a mas­sive tome that over­whelms with its size and thus ensures that few of the exhi­bi­tion vis­i­tors will do more than flip through it. As for East Ger­man schol­ars who might voice crit­i­cisms, they have large­ly dis­ap­peared in the new mil­len­ni­um, be it from exhaus­tion, res­ig­na­tion, or death.[33]


For art his­to­ri­ans, East Ger­many offers an unpar­al­leled oppor­tu­ni­ty to study the impact of pol­i­tics on art. Until 1945, what would become East Ger­many and West Ger­many was the same coun­try with the same (art) his­to­ry. How art devel­oped there­after is direct­ly relat­ed to the super pow­er in charge and, more specif­i­cal­ly, the cap­i­tal­ist or com­mu­nist ide­ol­o­gy applied. Hav­ing devel­oped large­ly out­side of a mar­ket sys­tem, East Ger­many offers art his­to­ri­ans an “alter­na­tive mod­ernism,” one in which artists did not need to reject the threat of com­mod­i­ty cul­ture as so many artists in the West did. Indeed, a rejec­tion of the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of art is part­ly what spurred the devel­op­ment of con­cep­tu­al and per­for­mance art in the West. As such, East Ger­many offers an alter­na­tive per­spec­tive from which to view the devel­op­ment of West­ern art. In fact, East Ger­man art reveals the neolib­er­al under­pin­nings of post­war West­ern art with the latter’s empha­sis on the indi­vid­ual, the post­mod­ern play of the sig­ni­fi­er, and diver­si­ty at the cost of chal­leng­ing inequal­i­ty (Michaels). One might even argue that East Ger­man art’s focus on the peo­ple and on chal­leng­ing inequal­i­ty is an old-school cor­rel­a­tive to the activist Social Prac­tice artists who have emerged in recent years—artists whose desire for social engage­ment has been the­o­rized most famous­ly by the French cura­tor and art crit­ic Nico­las Bor­ri­aud in his 1998 book, Rela­tion­al Aes­thet­ics.

A nuanced view of East Ger­man art can also offer new insights for Ger­man Stud­ies schol­ars. First, art was an impor­tant part of East Ger­man cul­ture. Like writ­ers, visu­al artists were expect­ed to play a major role in help­ing to form the new social­ist iden­ti­ty. Ini­tial­ly this meant cre­at­ing hero­ic images of work­ers and com­mu­nist lead­ers as alter­na­tive role mod­els to help edu­cate the Ger­man peo­ple after twelve years of Nazi pro­pa­gan­da. Lat­er it meant cre­at­ing com­plex works that engaged the audi­ence in dis­cus­sions with artists and each oth­er about a vari­ety of issues. Like lit­er­a­ture, art became an alter­na­tive pub­lic sphere (Bathrick). As part of the intel­lec­tu­al elite who helped to cre­ate the very fab­ric of the soci­ety in which they lived, artists shared many of the same social respon­si­bil­i­ties as writ­ers and film­mak­ers, both of whom are bet­ter known in Anglo­phone schol­ar­ship. East Ger­man art is thus not only impor­tant in its own right but also in terms of com­par­isons with these oth­er fields. Like lit­er­a­ture, art offered oppor­tu­ni­ties for dis­cus­sion through its sub­ject mat­ter, but unlike writ­ers, artists need­ed some lev­el of offi­cial recog­ni­tion for their work to be seen. Large paint­ings could not be sur­rep­ti­tious­ly shared or smug­gled across the bor­der (Pach­nicke and Merk­ert 7-8). But like writ­ers, artists could work alone and cre­ate what­ev­er they want­ed, some­thing those in the film indus­try could not do owing to the greater num­ber of peo­ple involved and the larg­er mon­e­tary invest­ment. In addi­tion to dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing the con­di­tions of cre­ativ­i­ty among the cul­tur­al elites, it would also be valu­able to com­pare the freezes and thaws in cul­tur­al pol­i­cy: did they hap­pen at the same time and to the same extent across the var­i­ous fields? Anec­do­tal evi­dence sug­gests not. So what can this tell us?

A study of the visu­al arts is also impor­tant because of the crossover that exist­ed between fields. Visu­al artists were deeply engaged with the lit­er­a­ture of their coun­try, and texts by authors from Brecht to Christa Wolf were fre­quent­ly referred to if not illus­trat­ed out­right in their work. Indeed, the Leipzig Acad­e­my was known for its lit­er­ary approach to paint­ing, an approach encour­aged by the city’s many pub­lish­ers and book fairs, and many of the artists who stud­ied or taught there also cre­at­ed lit­er­ary prints through­out their careers. Artists and writ­ers also knew each oth­er and some were friends. Christa Wolf’s cir­cle, for exam­ple, includ­ed both Nuria Queve­do and Angela Ham­pel, both of whom cre­at­ed numer­ous works inspired by her nov­els. Indeed, there is a tremen­dous amount to be learned about the lit­er­a­ture of East Ger­many as seen through the eyes of East Ger­man artists, and pre­sum­ably that influ­ence moved in both direc­tions. More­over, artists and writ­ers also some­times worked togeth­er on projects. In 1975, for exam­ple, the Mit­teldeutsch­er Ver­lag in Halle pub­lished a near­ly 300-page over­size book titled Chile: Gesang und Bericht (Chile: Song and Report). It was cre­at­ed through a joint effort of writ­ers and artists—including Volk­er Braun and Anna Seghers as well as Heisig, Sitte, and Tübke—in response to the 1973 putsch in Chile. There was also crossover between the visu­al arts and film. The film­mak­er Jür­gen Böttch­er, for exam­ple, worked ear­ly on as a painter in Dres­den under the name Strawalde. There were also many artists who engaged with the Super-8 film medi­um in the 1980s. To what extent were these lat­ter artists informed by or per­haps even inform­ing DEFA filmmakers?

Such com­par­isons across media can­not take place in a con­text in which East Ger­man art is pre­sumed to be lit­tle more than polit­i­cal pro­pa­gan­da or kitsch. Yet this is the view that con­tin­ues to dom­i­nate Anglo­phone schol­ar­ship, one that was evi­dent in the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Museum’s 2009 exhi­bi­tion, Art of Two Ger­manys / Cold War Cul­tures, the first—and to date only—major Amer­i­can exhi­bi­tion of post­war Ger­man art to include East Ger­man works.[34] Rather than show the diver­si­ty of what exist­ed, how­ev­er, the exhi­bi­tion con­tin­ued Cold War stereo­types: East Ger­man art was Sovi­et-inspired Social­ist Real­ism, mod­ern artists were repressed, and the only good art was that cre­at­ed by so-called dis­si­dents or expats. The Leipzig School—indeed, the great vari­ety of artis­tic styles evi­dent through­out East Ger­many after the 1950s—was almost entire­ly absent from the exhi­bi­tion, as was any dis­cus­sion of the Bilder­stre­it (Eis­man, “Review” 628-30). Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, one of the cura­tors was from west­ern Ger­many, which per­haps explains why this exhi­bi­tion so close­ly reflect­ed the west­ern rewrit­ing of East Ger­man art that was attempt­ed in Ger­many in the 1990s. Where­as Ger­many con­tained six­teen mil­lion peo­ple who knew bet­ter, some of whom spoke out, the Unit­ed States did not. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the LACMA exhi­bi­tion then trav­eled to two loca­tions in Ger­many as Kun­st und Kalter Krieg (Art and Cold War), where it was praised as an Amer­i­can view on the top­ic of post­war Ger­man art (Poschardt).

Since 1990, East Ger­man art has been rewrit­ten to ful­fill West­ern expec­ta­tions. This rewrit­ing not only neg­a­tive­ly affects our under­stand­ing of East Ger­many, but it also deprives us of a per­spec­tive from which to bet­ter under­stand the world in which we live today and the choic­es made in the West after 1945—whether about art, women’s rights, or democ­ra­cy more gen­er­al­ly. Under­stand­ing East Ger­many on its own terms offers an unpar­al­leled oppor­tu­ni­ty to under­stand how pol­i­tics affects art—by com­par­ing it to West Germany—and a valu­able resource from which to search for alter­na­tives to the neolib­er­al present in which we find our­selves as well as a cau­tion­ary tale for how a good idea can fail. East Germany’s val­ue in this regard has only increased in recent years as an entire gen­er­a­tion of adults—all born after the end of the Cold War—shows that it is no longer will­ing to accept the decades-long taboo against social­ism nor the claim that neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism is our only option.

Works Cited

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Flacke, Moni­ka, edi­tor. Auf­trag: Kun­st, 1949-1990. Bildende Kün­stler in der DDR zwis­chen Ästhetik und Poli­tik. Deutsches His­torisches Muse­um, 1995.

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Image Notes

All Fig­ures © VG Bild-Kun­st, Bonn except 4, 11, and 16.

Fig. 1 – Otto Nagel, Junger Mau­r­er von der Stali­nalle, 1953. Oil on can­vas, 116 x 79.5 cm. Stiftung Stadt­mu­se­um Berlin.

Fig. 2 – Willi Sitte, Raub der Sabiner­in­nen, 1953. Oil on hard fiber, 126.5 x 165 cm. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preusßis­ch­er Kul­turbe­sitz, Nationalgalerie.

Fig. 3 – Stef­fen Fis­ch­er and Angela Ham­pel, Offene Zweier­beziehung, 1989. Mixed media. Prop­er­ty of the artists.

Fig. 4 – Hein­rich Witz, Der neue Anfang, 1959. Oil, 95 x 120 cm. Kun­st­samm­lung der Wis­mut GmbH Chemnitz.

Fig. 5 – Bern­hard Heisig, Zirkel junge Natur­forsch­er, 1952. Oil on Can­vas. 120 x 190 cm. Muse­um der bilden­den Kün­ste Leipzig.

Fig. 6 – Bern­hard Heisig, Der Wei­h­nacht­straum des unbelehrbaren Sol­dat­en, 1964. Oil. Destroyed through overpainting.

Fig. 7 – Hans Grundig, Opfer des Faschis­mus, 1946. Oil on hard fiber, 110 x 200 cm. Muse­um der bilden­den Kün­ste Leipzig.

Fig. 8 – Peter Graf, Selb­st­bild­nis mit Papagei, 1971. Oil on hard fiber, diam­e­ter 41 cm. Galerie Neue Meis­ter, Staatliche Kun­st­samm­lun­gen Dresden.

Fig. 9 – Clemens Grosz­er, Café Lio­let, 1986. Mixed col­lage on can­vas, 140 x 120 cm. Bran­den­bur­giss­che Kun­st­samm­lun­gen Cot­tbus, Muse­um für Zeit­genös­sis­che Kun­st, Fotografie und Plakat.

Fig. 10 – Willy Wolff, Lenin zum 100. Geburt­stag, 1970. Oil on hard fiber, 116 x 95.5 cm. Pan Wolff.

Fig. 11 – Wall of Social­ist Real­ism in Abschied von Ikarus.

Fig. 12 – Volk­er Stelz­mann, Junger Schweißer, 1971. Mixed media on hard fiber, 121 x 76 cm. Kun­sthalle Rostock.

Fig. 13 – Hartwig Ebers­bach, Wid­mung an Chile, 1974. Oil on hard fiber, 12 pan­els: 6 pan­els 200 x 60 cm, 6 pan­els 120 x 60 cm. Lud­wig Forum für Inter­na­tionale Kun­st, Aachen.

Fig. 14 – Hans-Hen­drick Grimm­ling, Ikarus zu Hause (Dip­ty­chon), 1978. Col­lage on hard fiber, each pan­el 160 x 100 cm. Kun­sthalle der Sparkasse Leipzig.

Fig. 15 – Doris Ziegler, Ich bin Du, 1988. Mixed tech­nique on hard fiber, 170 x 170 cm. Prop­er­ty of the artist / on per­ma­nent loan to the Klas­sik­s­tiftung Weimar, Neues Muse­um Weimar.

Fig. 16 (cov­er image) – “Out­break and Dis­in­te­gra­tion,” room in Abschied von Ikarus.

Fig. 17 – Bern­hard Kret­zschmar, Blick auf Eisen­hüt­ten­stadt, 1955. Oil on can­vas, 105 x 160 cm. Muse­um Junge Kun­st Frank­furt (Oder).

Fig. 18 – Wolf­gang Mattheuer, Fre­undlich­er Besuch im Braunkohlen­re­vi­er, 1974. Oil on hard fiber, 100 x 125 cm. Pri­vate collection.


[1] This arti­cle start­ed as a con­fer­ence paper about the Bilder­stre­it at a Ger­man Stud­ies Asso­ci­a­tion pan­el in 2005; it was expand­ed for a con­fer­ence at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty in 2009 and again for a con­fer­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son in 2016. I would like to thank Grant Arndt, Katrin Bahr, Stephen Brock­mann, Michael Drey­er, Can­dice Hamelin, Paula Hanssen, Seth Howes, June Hwang, Franziska Lys, Gisela Schirmer, Marc Sil­ber­man, and two anony­mous read­ers for their help­ful com­ments on ear­li­er ver­sions of this manuscript.

[2] For a recent exam­ple of this in lit­er­a­ture, see Brockmann.

[3] Recent exam­ples include Rubin; Creech; and Jampol.

[4] Although the New Leipzig School has con­nec­tions to East Ger­many, most notably through Neo Rauch, it is a post-uni­fi­ca­tion phe­nom­e­non. In Ger­many, the con­nec­tions between the New Leipzig School and the “old” Leipzig School are well known; in Eng­land and the Unit­ed States, where there is lit­tle knowl­edge of the “old” Leipzig School or mod­ern art in East Ger­many more gen­er­al­ly, the New Leipzig School is often pre­sent­ed in tri­umphal­ist terms that assumes these artists had lit­tle con­tact with mod­ern art before 1989/90. For more on this, see Eis­man, “Paint­ing.”

[5] One of the dif­fi­cul­ties in rec­og­niz­ing the absence of paint­ing from cur­rent schol­ar­ship is the ten­den­cy to use “art” as a gen­er­al term for the arts. A recent exam­ple is Jampol’s tome, Beyond the Wall, Art and Arti­facts from the GDR. Although a wel­come addi­tion to East Ger­man stud­ies, it focus­es on design and every­day life in the GDR. Of its 900 pages only 13 focus on art, and all of them focus on so-called dis­si­dent artists (“Dis­si­dent Art” 244-45). More­over, none of the works shown are paint­ings, which was East Germany’s most impor­tant visu­al arts medi­um. Although the book is lim­it­ed to the Wende Muse­um col­lec­tion, one has to won­der why “art” was includ­ed in the title. Even Kel­ly and Wlodarski’s edit­ed vol­ume, Art Out­side the Lines: New Per­spec­tives on GDR Art Cul­ture, which con­tains the largest num­ber of texts on art to date in an Eng­lish-lan­guage book, ded­i­cates more than half of its chap­ters to film, lit­er­a­ture, and espe­cial­ly music.

[6] For a recent dis­cus­sion of some of the prob­lems with schol­ar­ship on East Ger­many, see Port. There are many exam­ples of good schol­ar­ship on East Ger­man art in Ger­man, most fre­quent­ly as mono­graphs. See Damus; Goeschen; Lang, Maleri und Grafik; and Schirmer, DDR und doc­u­men­ta. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, these works are often less known by non-spe­cial­ists and those work­ing out­side of Ger­many than texts writ­ten for major exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logues. By their very nature, major exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logues on this top­ic are prob­lem­at­ic: they are often writ­ten by non-spe­cial­ists under time con­straints and the exhi­bi­tions them­selves, which require sig­nif­i­cant exter­nal fund­ing, gen­er­al­ly do not assume a crit­i­cal stance toward west­ern assump­tions. On the polit­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions of con­tem­po­rary art exhi­bi­tions, see Stal­labrass; on West­ern assump­tions toward East Ger­many, see Parkes; and Ahbe.

[7] For a case study of Ger­man schol­ar­ship before and after uni­fi­ca­tion, see Eis­man, “Deny­ing Dif­fer­ence.” The rea­sons for art’s eli­sion in com­par­i­son to oth­er media are mul­ti­ple. For one, the visu­al arts were a weapon in Cold War pol­i­tics. Abstrac­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly Abstract Expres­sion­ism, were export­ed as evi­dence of the Unit­ed States’ new cul­tur­al pow­er and as a visu­al cor­rel­a­tive to demo­c­ra­t­ic free­dom. See Barn­his­el; Her­mand; Guil­baut; and Saun­ders. Anoth­er rea­son that the visu­al arts, par­tic­u­lar­ly paint­ing, has been over­looked in the West is the dif­fi­cul­ty in see­ing orig­i­nals. Where­as lit­er­a­ture, music, and film can cross bor­ders rel­a­tive­ly eas­i­ly, paint­ings can­not. Even today, the expense of ship­ping and insur­ance pre­vents any but the largest of insti­tu­tions in the U.S. from mount­ing an exhi­bi­tion of East Ger­man art. A third fac­tor in why art has been over­looked in com­par­i­son to lit­er­a­ture, film, and mate­r­i­al cul­ture is insti­tu­tion­al. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ger­man depart­ments in the Unit­ed States focused on lit­er­a­ture. Bertolt Brecht and his lega­cy in East Ger­many was an impor­tant area of study; anoth­er, inspired by the increas­ing impor­tance of fem­i­nism in acad­e­mia, was of East Ger­man authors such as Christa Wolf (see Sil­ber­man). Seri­ous stud­ies of East Ger­man film, in com­par­i­son, first emerged in the 1990s, encour­aged by Bar­ton Byg, who found­ed the DEFA Film Library in Amherst, Mass­a­chu­setts. This insti­tu­tion has been instru­men­tal in mak­ing these films avail­able to Eng­lish-speak­ing audi­ences through sub­ti­tles and in bring­ing schol­ars togeth­er in sum­mer work­shops and reg­u­lar pan­els at the annu­al con­fer­ences of the Ger­man Stud­ies Asso­ci­a­tion. Sim­i­lar­ly, the recent inter­est in East Ger­man mate­r­i­al cul­ture has been encour­aged by Jus­tin­ian Jampol’s Wende Muse­um, found­ed near Los Ange­les, Cal­i­for­nia, in 2002.

[8] Some of these artists were engag­ing with Picasso’s work well before the cul­tur­al relax­ation of the mid-1950s, which then enabled them to do so open­ly. Sitte’s exper­i­ments with Picasso’s style, for exam­ple, can be seen already in work from 1950 (see Schirmer, Willi Sitte).

[9] Freezes and thaws in the visu­al arts were often relat­ed to polit­i­cal events. The for­mal­ism debates (1948-51) marked a freeze in the face of increas­ing Cold War ten­sions. The work­ers’ upris­ing in 1953, in com­par­i­son, result­ed in a thaw as East Ger­man author­i­ties attempt­ed to gain sup­port from artist intel­lec­tu­als. The build­ing of the Berlin Wall in 1961 sim­i­lar­ly result­ed in a thaw after the freeze that fol­lowed the Hun­gar­i­an upris­ing in 1956. When Erich Honeck­er came to pow­er in 1971, a last­ing thaw set in for those artists who were com­mit­ted to social­ism and worked in a tra­di­tion­al medi­um like paint­ing. For overviews of East Ger­man art his­to­ry, see Damus; Lang, Malerei und Grafik.

[10] Indi­vid­ual artists had had exhi­bi­tions in West Ger­many before 1977, but doc­u­men­ta 6 marked the emer­gence of “East Ger­man Art” as its own category.

[11] Major West Ger­man exhi­bi­tions of East Ger­man art include Zeitver­gle­ich: Malerei und Grafik aus der DDR (Ham­burg 1982); Durch­blick, Lud­wig-Insti­tut für Kun­st der DDR (Ober­hausen 1984); DDR heute, Malerei / Graphik / Plas­tik (Worp­swede 1984); and Men­schen­bilder, Kun­st aus der DDR (Bonn 1986).

[12] For more infor­ma­tion about these clash­es, see Eis­man, “In the Crucible.”

[13] Hartwig Ebers­bach, Let­ter to the Press (11 Feb­ru­ary 1998). “es geht gar nicht um eine inhaltliche Auseinan­der­set­zung mit Werk und Leben, son­dern es werde lediglich ein Klis­chee bedi­ent: Heisig, das ist der DDR.”

[14] Sim­i­lar accu­sa­tions arose in the lit­er­ary con­tro­ver­sy around Christa Wolf. It should be not­ed, how­ev­er, that not every­one who remained in East Ger­many believed in the sys­tem or was try­ing to change it.

[15] Many of these artists and cul­tur­al fig­ures were born in the late 1940s and ear­ly 1950s and thus belong to what Mary Ful­brook calls the First FDJ Gen­er­a­tion. This gen­er­a­tion played a dis­pro­por­tion­ate role in bring­ing about the end of the GDR, but they were also the great­est losers after uni­fi­ca­tion: too young to retire, they often faced unem­ploy­ment and oth­er hard­ships such as the loss of afford­able child­care. The “State Artists,” in com­par­i­son, were able to retire and faced few­er chal­lenges (Ful­brook 213-14).

[16] Dammbeck’s ten­den­tious movie, Dür­ers Erbe, cas­ti­gates Leipzig School artists such as Heisig, Tübke, and Mattheuer for their con­nec­tion to the East Ger­man gov­ern­ment, but his sto­ry ends around 1961, i.e., before these artists devel­oped the mod­ern styles for which they are known and before their con­fronta­tions with the gov­ern­ment began.

[17] Dis­cus­sion between Hans Hen­drick-Grimm­ling and the author, 2005.

[18] Recent exam­ples of texts engag­ing with these artists’ West Ger­man past include Lang, “Expres­sion­ism”; Nugent.

[19] Dis­cus­sion between Roland März and the author, sum­mer 2003. The west­ern works were not lim­it­ed to West Germany.

[20] The four­teen dis­tricts were Cot­tbus, Dres­den, Erfurt, Frank­furt (Oder), Gera, Halle, Karl Marx Stadt, Leipzig, Magde­burg, Neubran­den­burg, Pots­dam, Ros­tock, Schw­erin, and Suhl. (East) Berlin lat­er became a fif­teenth district.

[21] This moti­va­tion became clear to me after sev­er­al dis­cus­sions with Roland März and oth­ers in 2003, when I worked as a vol­un­teer (Prak­tikan­tin) on the Kun­st in der DDR exhi­bi­tion held that year at the Neue Nationalgalerie.

[22] The sec­ond floor had a total of ten rooms. In addi­tion to the four already men­tioned were: Tech­no­crat­ic Utopia, Every­day Strug­gles (“Mühen der Ebene”), Chil­dren of the Night, and three cor­ner rooms that each focused on an indi­vid­ual artist (Carl­friedrich Claus, Lutz Damm­beck, and Klaus Hähner-Springmühl).

[23] For an exam­ple of a major exhi­bi­tion on the alter­na­tive scene, see Kaiser and Petzold.

[24] This neg­a­tive fram­ing can also be seen in the title of anoth­er room, “Every­day Strug­gles” (“Mühen der Ebene”), which focused on images of work and every­day life. The title refers to a 1949 poem by Bertolt Brecht, “Wahrnehmung” (Obser­va­tion), that speaks of the “every­day strug­gles” of the post­war peri­od after the “moun­tain­ous strug­gles” (“Mühen der Gebirge”) against the Third Reich. In the con­text of the poem, every­day strug­gles are prefer­able; for those unfa­mil­iar with the poem, how­ev­er, the title sug­gests a neg­a­tive inter­pre­ta­tion of the every­day. More­over, one has to won­der why the cura­tors did not use “Moun­tain­ous Strug­gles” as a title instead of “Apoth­e­o­sis of Hor­ror” for the neigh­bor­ing room.

[25] In East Ger­many, works such as those shown in the “Apoth­e­o­sis of Hor­ror” room were often shown with titles such as “Art as a Weapon” (1960), “Art in the Fight against Fas­cism (1975), “The Hor­rors of War” (1983), “Artists against Fas­cism and War” (1985), or “Antifas­cist Art in the GDR” (1988).

[26] Accord­ing to the Zen­trum für Kul­tur­forschung in Bonn, women were approx­i­mate­ly 36 per­cent of the VBK mem­ber­ship in 1989/90 (12). Accord­ing to Müller, women were 28 per­cent of the VBK mem­ber­ship in 1983 (Appen­dix 1, Table 4).

[27] See East Lon­don Fawcett’s (ELF) Art Audit, 2012-13 and Brain­storm­ers, Accessed 6 Sep­tem­ber 2016.

[28] Although one might be tempt­ed to read the cor­ner rooms as a ref­er­ence to the mar­gins of offi­cial East Ger­man art his­to­ry, in the exhi­bi­tion space, these rooms func­tioned to high­light the artists chosen.

[29] This blur­ring of bound­aries can be seen in the 2016 exhi­bi­tion, Gegen­stim­men: Kun­st in der DDR, 1976-1989, at the Mar­tin Gropius Bau in Berlin, which includ­ed art­work shown at the pres­ti­gious “Art Exhi­bi­tions of the GDR” next to work by artists who had received lit­tle or no recog­ni­tion in the GDR; it did not dis­tin­guish between them. Indeed, the cura­tor sug­gest­ed at a sym­po­sium in Sep­tem­ber 2016 that all the artists includ­ed were part of a large­ly over­looked alter­na­tive scene that need­ed its due.

[30] This idea of the “dust­bin of art his­to­ry” fits with a larg­er dis­cus­sion with­in East Ger­man stud­ies about whether the GDR was a mere “foot­note of world his­to­ry,” as Ste­fan Heym stat­ed after the fall of the Berlin Wall (Port).

[31] For the 100th anniver­sary of Glöckner’s birth in Jan­u­ary 1989, two years after he died, there were two exhi­bi­tions in his hon­our: Her­mann Glöck­n­er zum 100. Geburt­stag in Dres­den and Halle and Homage à Her­mann Glöck­n­er at the Galerie am Sach­sen­platz in Leipzig. The lat­ter includ­ed work by more than 70 East Ger­man artists.

[32] There have been many more exhi­bi­tions of East Ger­man art than those dis­cussed in this paper, which focus­es only on major ret­ro­spec­tive exhi­bi­tions with a res­o­nance that extends beyond Ger­many. Many of the most illu­mi­nat­ing exhi­bi­tions on East Ger­man art, in com­par­i­son, take place in small­er set­tings or less promi­nent loca­tions and there­fore do not reach an inter­na­tion­al audi­ence. The Muse­um Junge Kun­st in Frankfurt/Oder and the Kun­st Muse­um Dieselkraftwerk in Cot­tbus (both locat­ed in east­ern Ger­many) both reg­u­lar­ly orga­nize mean­ing­ful exhi­bi­tions on East Ger­man art. It will be inter­est­ing to see what, if any, impact the Muse­um Bar­beri­ni in Potsdam—which opened in Jan­u­ary 2017 with works from Has­so Plattner’s collection—will have on schol­ar­ship about East Ger­man art. It orga­nized a sym­po­sium in April 2017 in prepa­ra­tion for an exhi­bi­tion on East Ger­man art sched­uled to open in Fall 2017, Hin­ter der Maske: Kün­stler in der DDR. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the muse­um is the result of a pri­vate ini­tia­tive, a west­ern Ger­man busi­ness­man not unlike Peter Lud­wig, whose own impor­tant col­lec­tion of East Ger­man art is now on long-term loan at the Muse­um of Art in Leipzig.

[33] A quick look at the authors includ­ed in an exten­sive book about the Bilder­stre­it pub­lished in Ger­many in 2013 is reveal­ing in terms of who writes about East Ger­man art today. Of the six­teen authors who con­tributed texts to the vol­ume edit­ed by Karl-Sieg­bert Rehberg and Paul Kaiser, only five were from East Ger­many, and two of these were just teenagers when the Wall fell. The major­i­ty of the texts—eleven of sixteen—were writ­ten by peo­ple who lived in the West (all but one from West Ger­many), the youngest of whom was approx­i­mate­ly 34 when the Wall fell. This is a strik­ing imbal­ance that favors a west­ern per­spec­tive. It should also be point­ed out that of the six­teen authors, only four are women.

[34] There have been a hand­ful of exhi­bi­tions in the Unit­ed States such as Twelve Artists of the GDR at the Busch Reisinger Muse­um in 1989 and New Ter­ri­to­ry, Art from East Ger­many at the School of the Muse­um of Fine Arts in 1990. Although impor­tant, these exhi­bi­tions were small and direct­ed at a spe­cial­ist audi­ence. More­over, framed sole­ly in terms of East Ger­man art, they did not direct­ly chal­lenge the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive of post­war Ger­man art as a sole­ly West Ger­man production.

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