Lothar Zitzmann, Frauen der Welt (Women of the World), 1974, oil on board, 63 × 76 3⁄8". From “East German Painting and Sculpture 1949–1990.”

Lothar Zitzmann, Frauen der Welt (Women of the World), 1974, oil on board, 63 × 76 3⁄8". From “East German Painting and Sculpture 1949–1990.”

“East German Painting and Sculpture 1949–1990”

Little is truly permanent in a museum’s permanent collection. Holdings wax and wane; new works are purchased each year, old ones sold off to fund new accessions. Sometimes, politics intervene. Western museums face increasing pressure to return antiquities seized illegally or under colonial duress; the call for such repatriation echoes efforts to restore Nazi-looted art to descendants of its original, Jewish owners.

Both the precarity and polemics of museological “permanence” are highlighted in an excellent showcase of East German painting and sculpture at Dresden’s Albertinum, one of the leading art institutions of the former German Democratic Republic. The exhibition displays a selection of the museum’s acquisitions dating from 1949 to 1990 in chronological order by purchase date, tracing the institution’s attempts to build a new, socialist-minded canon—one meant to launch, in Soviet style, a new and better era in artistic practice. What that era should look like, however, was not self-evident. Though the museum initially promoted a strict adherence to socialist realist style, which excluded all “non-representational or abstract trash,” in the words of its director at the time, Max Seydewitz, this policy proved somewhat fickle. Purchasing guidelines changed in accordance with the whims and preferences of museum directors and the local officials to whom they reported, as well as in response to political winds from the Soviet Union.By the 1970s, the range of acceptable artistic styles and motifs had expanded significantly, and in the mid-1980s, the liberal-minded director Horst Zimmermann pushed to bring into the collection the most avant-garde art being produced in East Germany, including works of total abstraction, and acquired pieces by artists previously deemed too experimental to merit state recognition or patronage.

As a result, the nearly 150 paintings and sculptures on view express more nuance and diversity than might be expected. To be sure, there are socialist-realist odes to smiling, brawny workers, and busts of revolutionary icons such as Lenin. But there are also pieces that bear the traces of other movements: from Constructivism, as in Hermann Glöckner’s geometric compositions, to the neo-expressionism of Christine Schlegel’s symbolically rich figurative painting Der Tod der Clownesse (The Death of the Clown), 1982, or Thea Richter’s haunting sculpture Sitzende (zweifigurige Gruppe) (Seated [Two-Person Group]), 1986. Even Anglo-American-style Pop art makes an appearance with Willy Wolff’s collagist Selbstbildnis (Self-Portrait), 1970. Nor should the more overtly socialist pieces be automatically discounted or dismissed. Oskar Nerlinger’s feverish Die freie Welt des Imperialismus (The Free World of Imperialism), 1958, presents the so-called free world as a Boschian hellscape—an island of precariously stacked buildings (a bank, a military base, an oil refinery) swimming in a lavalike sea tainted by nuclear radiation. Though intended as satire, Werner Tübke’s oil-on-wood painting of an Italian nobleman, Sizilianischer Großgrundbesitzer mit Marionetten (Sicilian Landowner with Marionettes), 1972, gives the artist’s subject a soft beauty that now looks contemporary, recalling, for instance, the pastel-toned, nostalgic figuration of Lukas Duwenhögger, while Lothar Zitzmann’s Frauen der Welt (Women of the World), 1974, presents a dreamy vision of feminist intersectionality, depicting nude women of all races harmoniously intertwined and floating across the sky.

That the Albertinum has chosen to present these works in a self-contained and temporary exhibition suggests that the museum is still questioning how to include East Germany within its institutional narrative and within the larger story of modern German art. Many of the paintings and sculptures here deserve if not a permanent then at least a less qualified or siloed place within the modern and contemporary canon. These are far more than historical curiosities, and the forty-odd years of the GDR are not just an art-historical parenthesis. The work of reunification is still unfinished.

Hannah Stamler