“Auftrag: Kunst”

Deutsches Historisches Museum

After reunification, even the old image-icons of the GDR (East Germany) were taken down. From the objects that decorated the waiting room at the party’s headquarters to the 10,000 paintings commissioned by the SED (United Socialist Party of Germany), memorabilia disappeared from factories, administrative offices, and organizations intended to serve the people. These works were placed in a former bank vault on the Leipziger Straße in Berlin, not far from Potsdamer Place. Put into storage it was taken out only to be stored at another site.

All of this caused a major scandal. The media, artists, and politicians demanded to know where these cultural artifacts were being held. The committee that had removed these works from public view (in the former GDR a great deal of public art, particularly murals, was produced) had made no effort to distinguish between Socialist realism, depoliticized subjective pastoral painting, and antifascist monuments. A work by an Ethiopian artist completed in honor of Erich Honecker was placed in that depository along with Max Lingner’s social-realist mural that dates from the late ’40s, and Fritz Cremer’s plastic plaque designed in memory of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Entitled “Auftrag: Kunst 1949-1990/Bildende Künstler in der DDR zwischen Ästhetik und Politik” (On Commission: Art 1949-1990/Visual art in the GDR between esthetics and politics), this exhibition attempted to trace the history of art under communism. One work was chosen by curator Monika Placke to represent each year—a very cursory selection that made the exhibition seem somewhat arbitrary. The accompanying catalogue attempted to document not only how much esthetics suffered under the direction of the party—but also how little.

After the debates about formalism that took place between 1953 and 1956, art in the GDR was driven into a corner, charged with promoting a positive, naturalistic image of man, so that the “personal interests of the artists are a priori identical with the interests of society.” The result was that anyone who worked in the lyrical-abstract mode was suspended from his/her university post. The painter Willi Sitte renounced Picasso and Léger as well as his predilection for “formalist experimentation” and rose to the presidency of the organization for visual artists in the GDR. Many of the works that depict the German people breaking free from capitalism borrow heavily from the tradition of French history painting. For example, three works by Erich Enge, Gerhard Bonzin, and Sitte echo Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, 1830.

The worker as the central focus of art began to appear in 1959. Up to the late ’70s, almost every painting centered on workers at work or at home completing useful tasks. Then, in the late ’70s, art began to turn against its subject. While the party line is not criticized in a single painting, the workers in paintings such as Brigadefeier—Gerüstbauer (Brigade celebration—Scaffold builder, 1975–77) by Sighard Gille come increasingly to resemble fat, complacent philistines, looking more like caricatures of the bourgeoisie than able-bodied workers. The criticism is leveled directly against the people, but it is produced for the party.

Though at times exhausted from battling the state, artists in the GDR continued to examine Western art. In his portrait of a farmer, Walter Womacka not only uses collage techniques à la Rauschenberg, but he also works with photograhy and silkscreen printing processes. Not surprisingly, Womacka is included along with Sitte, Wolfgang Mattheuer, and Bernhard Heisig in the list of GDR artists whose works have been acquired by the chocolate-baron and collector of Pop art from Cologne, Peter Ludwig. In this respect the exhibition also seems to lack conceptual clarity, hanging the “stars” of the art scene next to amateurish works from the “artists collective.”

Even after 1987 when the GDR officially participated in the Venice Biennale for the first time, East Germany continued to promote realism. In 1989, the painter Werner Tübke received a commission to make a painting 12 meters in length depicting the “early bourgeois revolution in Germany” in the style of Altdörfer. The commission seemed oblivious to the mounting political tensions. Half a year later, the Monday demonstrations that were taking place in Leipzig marked the beginning of the GDR’s demise.

Because “Auftrag: Kunst” focused entirely on state-sponsored art, it neglected to give a sense of those artists who lived and worked in East Germany but did not necessarily buy the party line. Critics from the former GDR condemned the show for doing nothing but perpetuating this one-sided view of cultural production in the GDR. Just as the SED denied nonconformist artists the opportunity to publicly exhibit their work, performance artists like E. Twin Gabriel, conceptual artists like Via Lewandowsky, and experimental painters like Eberhard Göschel and A.R. Penck were excluded from this show.

Auftrag: Kunst” achieves its goal of showing how art suffered from state control, though several years after reunification, the fate of these paintings remains unclear. The dilemma of the unloved art treasure from the GDR is akin to the one posed by the extensive reservoir of testaments to state-supported tastelessness from the Nazi era. Almost 6,500 pieces commissioned by the Nazis were given back to the Federal Republic by the Americans after the war. Since the beginning of the ’80s, they have been stored in a depository owned by the Bavarian Office of Finance.

Harald Fricke

Translated from the German by Franz Peter Hugdahl.