Visual Arts

Art in the GDR

More than a decade after the fall of the Wall a large exhibition of 40 years of East German art is on view in Berlin.

Under the title of ‚Art in the GDR’ the exhibition in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie shows the various facettes of the work of artists who had the austere choice of isolation or fitting in with the state system. Whoever chose to work within the system had to maintain traditional standards and not seek to make any statements on society.

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"The National Gallery is pleased to celebrate the return of a culture produced by the GDR, a state which collapsed 13 years ago. In the errors and confusion of the reunification of Germany and what over the years has been forgotten, condemned or suppressed our retrospective show sets out to revise the view of an essential, special and energy filled art created 40 years ago by broad spectrum of personalities, groups and artistic viewpoints, work that was created for the sheer pleasure of looking at. So write the two curators of the Berlin exhibition, Dr Eugen Blume and Dr Roland März. They set great worth on the work being well hung, well displayed and they have taken on the challenge of presenting the show in that ‘Temple of modernity’ – Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie. It is art from a closed society, the totalitarian state of the GDR, the German Democratic Republic, with its constant tension between fitting in or resisting, between turning off mentally or being stripped of citizenship, of preservation, of affirmation or just sheer survival.

After the end of the Second World War and Nazi domination East German artists tied themselves to the Modern Classics and the artistic currents of the early 20th century. All of this was stopped in the crucial debate on Formalism in the 1950’s. The GDR decided to create its own state theory of art – Socialist Realism. The artists chose not to follow these demands and turned back instead to a renaissance style of painting. But whoever wanted to work and live in this state as a painter had to do so in a traditional and figurative style. Those that did not had to face isolation, or turn off mentally or even face losing their citizenship.

Only in the late 80’s when the Soviet Union began its reform policy and the East Germans became even more obdurate did cracks occur in its isolation and constriction. Not only young artists sought to free themselves and express themselves in new and different forms.

The exhibition is not arranged chronologically but rather deals with its themes in 20 different sections. Either with centres like Leipzig, Dresden of Halle or with styles, or themes or influences. The stance of a painter and his art are often marked by a remarkable ambivalence.

On the one side they are supporters of the state, which is also their patron and in public life they are known to be party members on the other side their work is many layered and interpretable. For example it could be suggested that Werner Tübke cheated on official commissions by indulging in alien subjects and historical styles.

One of the 20 sections is dedicated to the art of film and videos of performances which only really began in the early 80’s or were produced in the late 80’s. Of particular importance as far as the curators are concerned is the photography which has been neglected up until now. While painters could only deliver a conditional view of GDR reality, particularly when the painter was on shaky ground, the photographer had direct access even when the topic and the approach was subjective. Above all today much can be shown that was once rejected and stuck away somewhere in a drawer and from which there are no surviving prints.

The melancholy in the photography corresponds to the dreariness and gravity that characterises the art of the GDR.

"The collapse of history" is a telling metaphor for their own collapse. Behind that lies the situation in which these people found themselves; their personal failure in a real society that had nothing at all to do with a glorified Utopia.
Goethe-Institut e. V. 2004

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