'Buried Treasure' Rehabilitating the Scorned Legacy of East German Art

Art created inside former East Germany has long been dismissed as a mere product of the communist regime, and much of it has remained hidden from the public. But a new exhibition in Weimar aims to rehabilitate these works as an expression of the failed utopian ideal on which the country was founded.

East German art is a little loved chapter of art history. But from the first room of a new exhibit at the Neues Museum in Weimar, Germany, it's clear that the intention is to prove that this low opinion was a misunderstanding, and in fact things in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were very different than what those from West Germany have always claimed.

Two oil paintings, painted nearly 20 years apart, are meant to demonstrate what East German art was really about: not the endless class struggle, but rather the end of euphoria, a disappointment in oneself.

The first painting is a cityscape, created by Dresden artist Bernhard Kretzschmar in 1955. Much of the picture is green, with factory smokestacks puffing in the distance, an idyll of productivity. In the painting beside it, the surreal emptiness of a brown coal mining area stretches across the canvas. A pair of workers make their way across the coal-colored ground, while between them figures with boxes for heads float by. This enigmatic painting from 1974 is the work of Leipzig-based painter Wolfgang Mattheuer. Here in Weimar, 38 years after the picture's creation and 22 years after East Germany ceased to exist, it's presented as a contradictory work, a record of a destroyed landscape.

These two paintings figure prominently in the exhibition, called Abschied von Ikarus, or "Farewell to Icarus," which opens this Friday. It could well become one of the most important exhibitions of the year, thanks to the great effort it puts into attempting to reevaluate the controversial legacy of East German art. The central thesis presented by the exhibition's curators is that within just a few decades, the initial spirit of optimism in the GDR transformed into a kind of melancholy over the loss of the utopian ideal that had bound the country together -- and that art in particular addresses this failure in a recognizable way. In fact, the curators suggest, artists even played their part in chipping away at the system.

Aesthetic of Conformism

It's an unusual approach. Far more often, precisely the opposite is insinuated about state-sanctioned East German artists. Many art historians, museum curators and gallery owners in West Germany at the time accused these artists of supporting rather than overthrowing the system. And many West Germans -- long accustomed to this defensive reaction toward the former East -- maintain that view to this day.

Artists in post-war West Germany celebrated abstraction, experimenting with radicalism in content and form and dismissing the ideologically founded figurative art of East Germany as stylistically out of date, an aesthetic of conformism. Even the later contributions of East Germany's dissident subculture were never taken seriously in the West. German reunification in 1990 saw a summary dismissal of all art that came out of the communist system, with the West denying that it could in even be called art .

Georg Baselitz, an important German painter who made the decision to leave East Berlin for West Berlin in the 1950s, commented the same year as German reunification that East German artists were "simply assholes."

Another show held in Weimar in 1999 made this disdain more apparent than ever. Titled Aufstieg und Fall der Moderne, or "Rise and Fall of Modernism," it mounted works from the GDR on plastic sheeting in a former Nazi administrative building. The entire look of the exhibition, which was created by a West German curator, seemed to suggest it was dealing with the hazardous waste of art history.

That exhibition became a scandal as well as a political issue -- one of the most significant in recent German art history. Even 10 years later, influential Düsseldorf-based art historian Siegfried Gohr asked why this type of art should be considered important, and whether anyone would even miss these works by people "who were caught in an inhuman dictatorship, or who actively served this dictatorship, or served as a convenient alibi for it."

'Lost Cultural Assets'

But the 2012 Weimar exhibition is not meant to be scandalous. Instead the curators, who come from both the former East and West Germany, are looking to show that there is indeed much that would be missed in its absence.

Dresden's Technical University, with funding from the federal government, carried out the research that forms the foundation for the exhibition. As part of a project entitled Bildatlas: Kunst in der DDR, or "Picture Atlas: Art in the GDR," researchers tracked down over 20,000 works, many of them in storage at mining museums and factory collections. These paintings and sculptures were originally distributed to institutions by the East German government and most of them disappeared from view, locked away after the fall of the Berlin Wall. To this day there are museum directors who don't quite dare to open these poison cabinets in their own basements.

It's a situation that Karl-Siegbert Rehberg, 69, has come to know well. A cultural sociologist originally from the Rhineland area of former West Germany, he is now a professor in Dresden and head of the research project. The Weimar exhibition, together with smaller, supplementary presentations in the cities of Gera and Erfurt, is meant to give insight into the Technical University's study. Rehberg calls East German art "lost cultural assets, a buried treasure." He believes time is of the essence in uncovering these works, since "at the moment this art still has a personal connection for many people."

The Icarus team, quite rightly, wants to save the art of the GDR from oblivion. But it wants something even more than that: for these works to finally be viewed as art.

Dissidents and Regime Supporters

The exhibition's presentation makes this position clear. It first shows early, determinedly representational communist paintings. This is followed by works of realism that increasingly depict a sense of exhaustion -- weary workers, weary souls. The works of nonconformists are also shown here, with abstract paintings, purist presentations of objects and photographic experiments.

Then there's the pro-regime oil painting Kosmonauten, or "Cosmonauts," by Lothar Zitzmann, painted in 1958. In the picture, men in white suits float through the black of outer space, an image as utterly contradictory as the country itself was. Just a few years later, a wall would be built to hem East Germany  in, yet above, out there in the universe, endless freedom beckoned.

The same exhibition room also presents an early, almost archaic-looking painting by A. R. Penck, who later emigrated from East Germany and became one of West Germany's most important painters in the 1980s.

Then there are the dissidents who stayed in East Germany, whose art is often undervalued in retrospect even more than that of artists who created works in support of the regime. Yet the truth is that the GDR even had something of an underground counterpart to West Germany's provocative avant-garde artist Joseph Beuys. His name was Klaus Hähner-Springmühl, a man who once gave a performance in a boxing ring, and whose paintings are just as wild looking as ones that came out of West German cities such as Düsseldorf or Cologne. Hähner-Springmühl died in 2006, forgotten even before his death.

Another example is Annemirl Bauer, an East German artist who was similarly invisible to the general public. Bauer was born in 1937 and died in the summer of 1989, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many of her drawings are simultaneously reduced and expressive, with unwieldy, daring titles such as "Victim of the wall II (…and never did a mother mourn her son more …)".

A Shift in Interpretation

This was art created for insiders, since much of it wasn't allowed to be shown publicly. But now a strange shift is occurring in Weimar, with the outsider status of some serving to enhance the opportunism of others. Courage and conformism now seem to form two opposing poles of an exciting East German art world -- even though this diversity never actually existed publicly there.

Important early East German painters Werner Tübke, Willi Sitte and Bernhard Heisig are also represented here, artists who took themselves, their art and their country very seriously. Some of their works seem overbearing in their clear sense of purpose. But simply possessing a certain grimness doesn't automatically mean a painting is also profound.

Wolfgang Mattheuer, the painter of the surreal brown coal mine, is described in the exhibition catalogue as a creator of "sly counter-images." These notes add that the organizers of the exhibition were asked whether Mattheuer could even be considered to have belonged to the GDR -- yet the fine print in the biographical section clearly lays out the various phases of the artist's career within the East German art system.

Illusion and disillusion are the ideas behind the show, along with the utopia of a better nation, an idea that swallowed a country whole. "Utopia," after all, sounds better than "dictatorship," and casts a more favorable light on those involved. The Weimar exhibition credits the GDR's artistic elite with various traumas -- wartime experiences, run-ins with the ruling party, career lows -- and almost always interprets any ambiguity on the canvas in the artist's favor. The absurdism and the absurd dangers of the system as a whole, on the other hand, remain strangely theoretical, almost abstract.

Another prominent work is a painting by Wasja Götze, an artist who painted some of the GDR's most colorful pictures. The exhibition catalogue unfortunately fails to mention that informants working for the Stasi, East Germany's secret police, spied on Götze, identifying "a true apocalyptic mood" and "a heavily fortified isolation" in his compositions, which they suspected may have been a reference to politics in Moscow.

The catalogue only mentions that the Stasi was tireless in its intrigues concerning an artists' group known as Clara Mosch, with more than 120 informants keeping tabs on the group. Still, Clara Mosch co-founder and talented artist Carlfriedrich Claus, who died in 1998, is among the later discoveries included in the Weimar project.

Fog of Goodwill

Sociologist Rehberg has done extensive research on the cultural landscape of the GDR, and he certainly doesn't want to trivialize the regime's actions now. Indeed, he says that the East German government was perfidious to the very end. But while Rehberg clearly wants to present an objective view of East German art, he also comes across as somewhat patronizing. He wants to establish clear differentiations, but creates a fog of goodwill in the end instead.

His rhetorical style and the little digs included in the catalogue are often aimed at the art world created and shaped by the West. Rehberg also writes that it's possible to observe, in the case of current stars such as Neo Rauch, "that he's looking to cover the tracks" that connect him back to role models such as Bernhard Heisig and Werner Tübke, as well as those that connect "to his own works created before 1990." Rehberg accuses painters Georg Baselitz and Gerhard Richter, who also chose to leave East Germany, of having "an attitude of moral superiority."

But Rehberg offers praise as well. One text in the catalogue is dedicated to Eduard Beaucamp, an art critic for many years at the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who was an early and unabashed supporter of work by state-sanctioned East German artists, even collecting their pieces himself. Rehberg says with a laugh that Beaucamp has always been akin to a lawyer representing East German art.

With its selection of works from the GDR and its often emotional interpretations of these pieces, the Neues Museum in Weimar paints a portrait of a family torn apart, a family whose individual members should now acknowledge one another and appear as a single unit once again. But this interpretation pushes aside other important aspects of this complex topic -- and that's not how art history works.

"Abschied von Ikarus,"  at Weimar's Neues Museum, runs from Oct. 19, 2012 through Feb. 3, 2013.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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