Günther Schaefer interviewed by Rory MacLean
Under the hot Berlin sun, Günther Schaefer, 55, stood before a bright white, eleven-metre stretch of the Berlin Wall. At his feet were brushes and paints. His forehead was creased with worry lines. ‘I have no idea how to begin the repainting,’ he said, gazing at his blank concrete canvas. Then he laughed out loud, ‘But that has never stopped me. I am an optimist.’
Twenty years ago this autumn the Berlin Wall fell. As the East German military began removing the heinous concrete barrier, graffiti artists rushed to tag the white, eastern side of the Wall (the Wall’s western face had been accessible and covered with murals for years). An informal group of artists – including Schaefer – hit upon the idea of turning a mile-long stretch near the Ostbahnhof into the world’s largest open air gallery. While keeping the demolition teams at bay, they invited 110 artists from 44 countries to paint on the Wall. The initiative produced many of 1990s most enduring images: Dmitri Vrubel’s larger-than-life painting of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing his East German counterpart Erich Honecker, Birgit Kinder’s iconic Trabant smashing through the Wall and Schaefer’s own, controversial Fatherland.
‘In the beginning we were spontaneous and quite disorganized,’ admitted Schaefer. ‘We thought that the gallery would last for no more than a year.’
But the first and last freely-elected East German government slapped a preservation order on the East Side Gallery, before it voted itself out of existence. The painted Wall became a protected historical monument.
‘For forty years this was the border of the whole world,’ Schaefer told me. ‘For the people of East Germany it was the real end of their world.’ He pointed at long, busy road which runs alongside the Wall. ‘Mühlenstrasse was a Protokollstrecke, part of the official route between the centre of East Berlin and Schönefeld airport. Honecker travelled this way with Brezhnev, with Gorbachev so the Wall was always kept in pristine condition. He swore that it would remain standing for 100 years…but he lied.’ Schaefer laughed again, ‘It was so badly constructed that it began falling apart almost as quickly as East Germany.’
The Berlin Wall had been built of twelve-foot-high reinforced concrete slabs. Weather and pollution eroded the cement which joined the separate sections. The internal steel bars started to corrode and crack the surrounding concrete. Modern-day souvenir hunters and graffitists further damaged the Gallery with hammers and spray cans.
Last year the East Side Gallery artists’ group secured funding from the German government, the Berlin Senat and the lottery to restore the paintings to their former glory. But the renovation turned into a reconstruction. In order to preserve the Wall, all the remaining art works had to be removed with steam. The corroded metal was sealed, the concrete replaced then painted white. Finally the original artists – including Schaefer – were invited to repaint their section of the Wall. The completed work will be protected by a twenty-four hour, forty-man security patrol and – paradoxically – anti-graffiti paint. The reborn East Side Gallery will open in November and plans are afoot to create an information and teaching centre where artists from around the world can meet to consider the histories of divided countries.
With brush in hand, Schaefer stared on at the blank white Wall. He had grown up in West Germany near to the border, watching East Germans flee, deeply moved by the division of his people and land. On Sundays his own, separated family often greeted each other across no-man’s-land by hanging white banners from special viewing platforms. Schaefer studied book printing in Frankfurt before becoming a photographer and moving to New York. By a stroke of luck he happened to be in Berlin on November 9th 1989. He captured the fall of the Wall in powerful back-and-white images, and changed his life.
‘For me photography – especially black and white photography – is an art form with the ability to destroy illusions,’ he said. ‘The photographer chooses either to lie with his camera, or to reveal the naked truth. I prefer the second option.’
He decided to move to the city and over the next twenty years set about documenting the city’s ‘history with images, saying something even beneath the visible’. He published his finest photographs in Berlin: Pictures from Two Millennia and mounted a series of exhibitions in New York, Moscow, Paris, Beirut and dozens of other capitals.
But it was his controversial East Side Gallery painting which first brought him into the public eye. Fatherland combines the German and Israeli flags and is – in Schaefer’s words – ‘a symbol for peace and a memorial against any kind of fanaticism’. The painting refers to two November 9ths: ‘Reichskristallnacht’ – or the night of broken glass – in 1938 when Nazis attacked Germany’s synagogues and arrested at least 25,000 Jews, and the day in 1989 when the Wall fell. Since 1990 the painting has been defaced by vandals – and restored by Schaefer – a remarkable 44 times. ‘As long as fanatics destroy paintings like mine, such paintings are necessary,’ he insisted.
Schaefer is not a romantic. Unlike Caspar David Friedrich he does not paint contemplative figures silhouetted against night skies, morning mists and Gothic ruins. But like the master of the Romantic movement, Schaefer does seek to convey a subjective, emotional response to the world. He paints and photographs both what he sees before him and inside himself. As I watched him standing beside the former border between two worlds, he looked inside himself, picked up his brush and started to (re)paint Fatherland.
* ‘Der Maler soll nicht bloß malen, was er vor sich sieht sondern auch, was er in sich sieht. Sieht er also nichts in sich, so unterlasse er auch zu malen, was er vor sich sieht.’ Caspar David Friedrich