“Kunst in der DDR”

Neue Nationalgalerie

This exhibition was not to be missed. The first—and perhaps, unfortunately, the last—massive museum survey of painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, and film made in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the forty years of its existence (1949–89), “Kunst in der DDR” (Art in the GDR) couldn’t have been timelier. Its opening coincided, albeit unintentionally, with a cresting wave of nostalgia in Germany for East Germany. Six and a half million viewers watched the inaugural episode of the DDR Show on German television the first week in September, and almost as many—six million—went to German movie theaters earlier this year to see Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! Apparently the GDR has become a kind of curiosity cabinet that Germans find sentimentally appealing. Riding on this wave, “Art in the GDR” became an unexpected blockbuster: More than ten thousand visitors saw the exhibition in its first three days.

The GDR was born on October 7, 1949. Almost immediately, its artists were expected to play a leading role in educating the masses by making paintings that presented reality—not as it was, but as the Communist leaders wanted it to be seen. The East German artists’ canvases generally lack the bright colors and vivid light of the Soviet socialist realist paintings that served as their starting points. However, like them their objective was the construction of a new image of man. While West German artists denounced East German realism as outdated and provincial, during the cold war many Americans failed to distinguish between the totalitarian cultural politics of National Socialist Germany and aesthetic practice in Communist East Germany. Finally, Westerners on both sides of the Atlantic perceived the Neue Sachlichkeit and Expressionist roots of many East German paintings as simply too German. Those who were lucky enough to view both Max Beckmann’s recent traveling retrospective and “Art in the GDR” (which didn’t travel, sadly) may have been surprised to discover that his most fervent followers were East rather than West German artists.

Coming thirteen years after Germany’s reunification, “Art in the GDR” was overdue. Its East German curators, Eugen Blume and Roland März, selected more than four hundred works—by some 145 artists—whose aesthetic merit “remains valid” and “enduring.” As the show’s title indicates, the organizers approached their rehabilitation of this art’s troubled reception geographically: The exhibition presented art made “in” former East Germany rather than as a product “of” its ideological mechanisms. As a whole the exhibition effectively addressed what Peter-Klaus Schuster, general director of the state museums of Berlin and director of the Nationalgalerie, perceives as one of the central tasks of the institution: to confront the Germans with who they are.

This exhibition did so through the vehicle of East German art alone. There were no wall texts summarizing the political events that conditioned the emergence of this art; no photographs; nothing, in fact, that attempted to remind viewers of the repressive atmosphere in which these works came into existence. Of course, this history is so well known to Berliners that re-creating it may have seemed unnecessary. Blume and März, both longtime staff members of the Nationalgalerie, decided as well to omit works “commissioned” by SED (Socialist Unity Party) cultural authorities or “sponsored by the state.” I found this slightly problematic because it implied that blatantly political art is aesthetically tarnished. Furthermore, emphasizing purely formal qualities didn’t actually work: Not only are at least half the pieces in the show not really visually arresting—at least not to my eye—but it deprived the many still lifes, nudes, landscapes, and genre scenes that dominate this exhibition of any possible political dimension.

The exhibition began with several eyeopening rooms arranged chronologically. The first, entitled “1945 ‘Zero Hour,’” was dominated by stunning paintings, drawings, and photographs by Heinrich Ehmsen, Hans Grundig, Bernhard Kretzschmar, Wilhelm Rudolph, and Richard Peter Sr. The exhibition also showcased the work of A.R. Penck, who was forced to leave East Germany in 1980, just two years before the first West German show featuring East German art (“Zeitvergleich” [Time Comparison]) finally opened, at the Hamburger Kunstverein. By then, he and two of his former GDR colleagues—Georg Baselitz and Gerhard Richter—had profoundly influenced the development of painting in West Germany. It was not until 1989 that the first and only show to date devoted to East German art (“Twelve Artists from the German Democratic Republic”) opened in the United States, at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Interestingly, the best wall within the Mies van der Rohe building housing the Nationalgalerie was devoted not—as might have been expected—to the Leipzig artists Bernhard Heisig and Werner Tübke but to the presentation of three paintings by Berliner Harald Metzkes. Its centerpiece, Das Pferd (The Horse), 1968, painted at the height of student revolts taking place throughout the West, is a hesitant horse, which, though completely different from Franz Marc’s apocalyptic stallions, subtly alludes to them. Metzkes’s riderless blue horse, which isn’t heroic or pretentious, seems to quietly take issue with the elitist utopianism of artists affiliated with the Blaue Reiter group. Neither realist nor abstract, his isolated animal appears stuck. Teetering in a barren landscape, all nose and seemingly aged, it bespeaks both an enduring inquisitiveness and an exhausted condition that may allude to the conditions of making art in the East. Just as effective but almost overlooked in a room packed with art demonstrating the “Intelligence of the Hand” were extraordinary works by Gerhard Altenbourg and Carlfriedrich Claus. If an American can experience such a thing as Ostalgie, then it would be for such paintings and drawings as these, which, regrettably, remain almost unknown to the museum-going public in New York.

Pamela Kort is a New York–based art historian and curator.