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Recreating the Past: The Berlin Wall Gets a Makeover

By Jessica Mann in Berlin

The longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall is known for its colorful and political murals. The iconic images, though, have flaked and faded. This summer, artists from around the world have returned to retrace their brushstrokes.

Silhouetted by the sun-lit white expanse, Muriel Raox daubed pink and green paint onto the drab concrete wall, stretching away in both directions. A number of curious passers-by stopped to gawk. But the French woman in paint-speckled clothes continued to paint her brightly-colored mural, working from a photograph of the one she painted nearly two decades ago.

Those gathered were full of questions. After all, Raox's canvas is a unique one -- an original stretch of the Berlin Wall. In 1990, not long after the fortified border was breached, a group of 118 artists from around the world came to Berlin to decorate this stretch of the Wall with murals both political and poetic. Now, with the artwork damaged and crumbling, many of those artists are back in the German capital this spring and summer -- with the goal of returning the monument, known as the East Side Gallery, to its former glory.

"Now is the time to do it," said Iran-born artist Kani Alavi. Alavi is head of the artists' group responsible for overseeing the outdoor gallery and for getting it recognized as a historical landmark in 1993, thus saving it from potential demolition. "It's very important for future generations as historical evidence," he said.

The goal is to complete the refurbishment by Nov. 9 of this year, a day of celebration in Germany marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Still, most of those watching Raox work were interested in the past, wanting to know more about the euphoric and tumultuous months immediately following the opening of the border between communist East Germany and the capitalist West.

"It was such an amazing mood -- the people were so happy," Raox said. "I really had the feeling I was doing something for history."

A Perfect Canvas

The 1,316-meter-long section of the Berlin Wall, located along the Spree River near Berlin's Ostbahnhof, or East Train Station, is the longest stretch left in the city. Most of the rest of the 43-kilometer-long concrete barrier (the much longer part around the outside of West Berlin was made of barbed wire fencing) was dismantled soon after the border became redundant.

When the artists began work in 1990, however, Germany had yet to unify. "In June 1990, when I first painted the wall it was still real -- there was a border crossing nearby on the Oberbaum Bridge and I couldn't go over to West Berlin with my Soviet passport," said Moscow artist Alexey Taranin. While much of the west side of the Wall was covered in graffiti during the Cold War, East Germans were kept well away from the barrier, and it remained unsullied -- providing a perfect canvas for the East Side Gallery.

Many tourists to Berlin are surprised to learn that so much of the Wall has disappeared. Indeed, a recent initiative to rebuild an historically accurate section of the Wall -- actually two barriers with bunkers, barbed wire, dogs and other security innovations in between -- was rejected by the city for fear of creating a Wall "Disneyland."

The East Side Gallery, murals on the largest still-existing stretch of the Berlin Wall, is being refurbished. This image is from 2008.
AP

The East Side Gallery, murals on the largest still-existing stretch of the Berlin Wall, is being refurbished. This image is from 2008.

As a result, the East Side Gallery has become one of Berlin's most popular tourist attractions, its images having been photographed and duplicated countless times.

It has also become a powerful symbol. "To paint on the wall back then meant to destroy it, to transform the symbol of separation between two countries -- or rather, two worlds -- into a canvas with more or less serious pictures on it," Taranin said.

Gray Concrete Peeking Through

Over the course of the two decades that have passed since the murals were painted, the artwork has faded -- worn down by weather, pollution, graffiti and souvenir seekers who chipped off pieces. The paint flaked and fell off, the gray concrete peeking through.

"A few years after I did it, someone painted over half of my picture with green paint and wrote 'Total Democracy' over it," Taranin said. But, he added, "that was also a sign of freedom and I wasn't mad at all."

Those, however, who sought to preserve the stretch for history -- and tourism -- were, if not mad, certainly worried. The gallery was in danger of wearing down to nothing.

The push to restore the deteriorating wall began years ago. In 2000, a smaller section of it was repainted using donated funds but it wasn't until last year that the group secured enough money to do the rest. They were granted €2.5 million ($3.5 million) from the German lottery and other public funds to finish the job and reimburse the individual artists for a portion of their traveling costs.

Still, there was more to the project than simply repainting the murals. First on the agenda was structurally reinforcing the Wall itself. "It was in danger of falling over," Alavi said. "We had to do it for safety reasons." Doing so required the removal of all the artwork. The old paint was steamed off and the concrete repaired and painted white.

Fading Joy

Finding all of the artists who originally participated has also proved challenging. Some have passed away in the interim and others simply cannot be found. Still, 88 artists have agreed to replicate their works -- this time using longer-lasting, higher-quality paints. A protective anti-graffiti varnish will be added once everything is complete. The remaining murals will be replicated by the artists that are returning to Berlin.

An exact replica of the former wall is important for its authenticity, Alavi said. "We wanted it to be the artists who renovated it, not restorers," he said. "It needs to be the East Side Gallery done by East Side hands. We want to recreate at least 80 percent of the feeling we had back then."

That, though, may be difficult. Even as Berlin and the rest of Germany prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall this autumn, the German capital has changed dramatically since then, with the scar splitting the city in two now largely invisible. The initial joy at reunification has long since faded.

"Almost 20 years have gone by and we've all changed, the world has changed," Taranin said. "The East Side Gallery has become a museum -- but every artist is flattered to show work in a museum.... I have nothing against it."

But some artists are protesting that what they did then can never be recreated. Russian artist Dimitri Vrubel -- whose "Brother's Kiss," depicting a smooch between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German head Erich Honecker, is one of the wall's most iconic images -- has aired his complaints in the media. He told the German tabloid Bild that the sudden removal of his artwork amounted to "artist abuse."

Still, Vrubel is returning to Berlin this summer to repaint his mural. And most of the other artists agree that, while they may be able to replicate their 20-year-old brush strokes, the mood of those days is impossible to recreate.

"If I did this today, I might have painted something different," Raox said. "But the fall of the Wall isn't something that happens every day. That was a unique moment in time. Something special."

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