Visual Arts in Germany: Exhibitions and Artist Portraits

A Panorama of the Photographic Art of the GDR: “The Shuttered Society”

Jens Rötzsch, Berlin (Ost) 1989, Pfingsttreffen der FDJ – Stadion der Weltjugend; © Jens Rötzsch/Sammlung Berlinische Galerie, BerlinMatthias Leupold, Im Kino (in the cinema) / Teil II, Berlin 1983; © Matthias Leupold/VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2013/Sammlung Berlinische Galerie, Berlin

From the socially committed to the purely experimental, “The Shuttered Society. Art Photography in the GDR from 1949 to1989”, as the full title of the exhibition goes, is a showcase of about 250 images taken by 34 photographers – a veritable panorama of the photographic art of the GDR. It is on from 5th October 2012 until 28th January 2013. Never before has there been a more comprehensive exhibition devoted to this topic.

The exhibition was conceived as a panorama of the photographic output of that period, consisting of a prologue and three aesthetic exhibition sections.

Erasmus Schröter, Frau in Rot (Women in Red), Leipzig 1985; © Erasmus Schröter/Sammlung Berlinische Galerie, BerlinOne of the main emphases was on the 1980s - a decade which saw the birth of new visual languages. Back then innovation was the yardstick used to determine which artistic positions were to be chosen, with the photographer’s own visual language playing a decisive role, too.

“Our aim was not to stage a photography show about the GDR, but more about the medium of photography in the GDR,” says Ulrich Domröse, Director of the Photographic Collection of the Berlinische Galerie and one of the exhibitor’s curators. “The fact that the subtext of the images also conveys a lot about daily life in the GDR is a valuable side effect.”

A scene develops

Of course The Shuttered Society is a showcase of magnificent photography, but at the same time it also opens up the historical dimension of the development of artistic photography in the GDR. The films accompanying the exhibition make it clear just how significant the famous The Family of Man exhibition by Edward Steichen in the New York Museum of Modern Art (1955) was for many of the GDR’s photographic artists - it was under their influence that the East-German version of “straight photography” came into being.

It is also quite clear just how important the Leipzig College of Printed Graphic and Book Art was - it was the only university in the GDR that offered courses in photography. Edmund Kesting’s photography book, Ein Maler sieht durch‘s Objektiv (A Painter Looks Through The Lens - 1958), for example, turned out to be one of many important reference sources for the development of experimental photography in the 1980s. Just as the 1970s was the time above all when socially committed photography came into its own, it was not until the 1980s that a broad spectrum of artistic forms of expression developed in the realm of photography. Photography was not officially recognised as a form of art until the Medium Fotografie exhibition in Halle in 1977.

Attempts to bring about some kind of order

Sibylle Bergemann, Susi, Rathenow 1976, © Nachlass Sibylle Bergemann/Sammlung Berlinische Galerie, BerlinThe exhibition divided this spectrum of artistic forms of expression into three sections, with each one focusing on the visual language of that particular generation. The exhibition actually starts with a prologue of post-war pictures by Richard Peter sen. und Karl Heinz Mai that depicts destruction and the “Trümmerfrauen” (women who cleared away all the rubble after the war). This is followed by the first section, “Reality, Commitment, Criticism”, that presents the socially committed photography of Arno Fischer, Evelyn Richter or Gundula Schulze Eldowy.

The tired, strained faces of the women working on machines in Richter’s portraits or Gundula Schulze Eldowy’s raw, unadorned “Nude Portraits” reveal impressively trenchant and critical views of the realities in the GDR.

It was in this period that photographers like Manfred Paul and Ulrich Lindner grappled with the formal and the aesthetic mechanisms of their medium. Paul’s wonderfully reduced still-life images are reminiscent of the “Schule des Neuen Sehens” (School of New Vision), whereas Lindner’s quest for new artistic forms of expression led him to his sombrely mounted “Fotografiken”.

The youngest generation of photographers was presented in the section entitled “Medium, Subject, Reflection”. These artists made use of the more enhanced ways to express themselves, in order to convey a self-image that had been affected by their disillusioned view of the GDR. They placed their own bodies and their own individual perception in the spotlight and often produced provocative works, like those of Tina Bara and Sven Marquardt or Klaus Hähner-Springmühl.

Subversion as a strategy

Matthias Hoch, Halle / Saale II, 1988; © Matthias Hoch / VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2013/Sammlung Berlinische Galerie, BerlinThe main achievement of The Shuttered Society exhibition is of course its consistent emphasis on the artistic dimension of GDR photography - and at the same time its opening up of the historical conditions and forms of artistic creativity. This was what enabled Roger Melis to depict autonomous, artistic life in his portraits of writers or the youngest generation to develop their provocative visual languages.

As was also the case with the Die Kunst in der DDR exhibition (Art in the GDR) that was held at the Neue Nationalgalerie in 2003, not all artistic endeavours in the GDR were in line with the dictatorial system. The protagonists were very often artistic players who worked subversively within the system and expressed objection to the system in their images.

The aim of The Shuttered Society is to prompt more exhibitions being devoted to the art of the GDR, in order to convey its strategies and visual languages that are still relevant today and to consolidate its position in the realm of art history.

Sven Marquardt, Ohne Titel, 1986, aus der Serie: Berliner Traum; © Sven Marquardt/Sammlung Berlinische Galerie, Berlin

Katharina Schlüter
has a doctorate in art history and lives in Berlin.

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
February 2013

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