Can the Artists Help Survive? – New Approaches to Art of the GDR, Looking Back while Moving Forward

1.     DDR Noir

The space was filled with cheap, outdated furniture from the late 1980s and early 1990s: geometrically-cut wood veneer and plastic laminate painted in black or white lacquer, chairs covered with vividly-colored flokati textiles, barstools and couches in asymmetrical shapes covered in imitation leather or wildly-patterned cloth carefully placed on organically-shaped synthetic carpets. All was composed in small groupings in front of mint-colored walls, so that the visitor could move from one arrangement to the next—from a house bar, to an entrance ensemble with coat hanger, stool, and mat, to a wall unit with a vitrine, armchairs and a rubber sitting ball, to a corner with a coffee table and a wall rack. Eventually, one arrived at a dining room ensemble composed of black-lacquered high-backed chairs with flokati cushions, grouped around a table of the same black lacquer. And clocks. Clocks everywhere. Clocks in all shapes and sizes. Clocks that had stopped. However, the most striking elements of these abandoned ensembles were certainly the carefully-placed paintings, all in realist style, which were integrated, directly fixed on the furniture elements of the installation or decoratively hung on the walls. The painting behind the bar showed a miner who had just returned from his shift with a coal-smeared face. The one over the couch depicted two young women with headscarves, possibly on a work break. Under the glass of the coffee table, numerous carefully-marked regional newspaper clippings from the East German state of Saxony from the 1950s and 1960s discuss the work of an artist and his artistic achievements—always in relation to the work’s ability to convey the ideals of socialism, or its failure to do so. One article reporting on the artist’s failure in a public commission and the consequent debate about how to properly judge the potentiality of art is partially covered by a photograph of a young woman. The black-and-white image shows her in stylish clothes with a penetrating and serious gaze, casually seated on the floor. She can be recognized in two paintings in the installation: one a classical portrait with flowers in the background hung over the dining room ensemble, the other depicting her pregnant, with her hand reassuringly resting on the hand of the man next to her.

Installation view. Henrike Naumann’s exhibition DDR NOIR: Schichtwechsel, 2018, Galerie im Turm, Berlin. Courtesy Nele Jakob, Daniel Jakob, Henrike Naumann and KOW Berlin. Photo: Eric Tschernow.

On the front side of the coat rack, a painting of a young child with toys and a coloring book was hung, framed by two figures growing out of the coat rack’s metal structure: on the right side, Mickey Mouse; on the other, Little Sandman, a figure from a daily stop-motion TV show that accompanied every German child’s bedtime routine, and whose theme song everyone still knows by heart. At least every child who grew up in the GDR. After the reunification, Little Sandman was one of the few cultural mainstream figures who made the transition well, ultimately moving to other TV channels and becoming known throughout the country, where he extended his circle of friends significantly beyond the motley crew of Schnatterinchen, Pittiplatsch, Herr Fuchs, and Frau Elster. These characters and their adventures—a staple of my childhood—came back to me as I continued to move through the haunting installation of Zwickau-born artist Henrike Naumann’s solo exhibition DDR Noir: Schichtwechsel at Berlin’s Galerie im Turm in the winter of 2018-19. She not only uncannily brought back to life post-unification interior designscapes, but boldly integrated the early Socialist Realism paintings of her grandfather, the artist Karl Heinz Jacob (1929–1997), a GDR artist officially sanctioned via his membership in the country’s Guild of Artists.[1]

Installation view. Henrike Naumann’s exhibition DDR NOIR: Schichtwechsel, 2018, Galerie im Turm, Berlin. Courtesy Nele Jakob, Daniel Jakob, Henrike Naumann and KOW Berlin. Photo: Eric Tschernow.

The question of hanging of artworks from the GDR in the renovated institutional displays and facades of a hastily executed German reunification is one that has recently taken center stage in the East German museum world. The presence or absence of well-known paintings provoked accusations, resulting in the personal discreditation of a museum director, all of which eventually turned out to be a symbolic debate, standing in for the political shift in Germany over the past two years, which is indeed only the culmination of a radicalization rooted in the silent rage of the past three decades. This shift was articulated most visibly when the AfD party[2] was elected into German parliament in 2017, and voting statistics projected an all too familiar image onto TV and computer screens: the contours of the two Germanys. The AfD had the highest results to the right of a thin line whose importance has often been diminished in the past 30 years—the old threshold between East and West, once more underscoring the idea that indeed the “wall had not collapsed.”[3]

I crossed this line for the first time in 1990, when my family left a country torn between joy and fear about the future, but also bedazzled in consumer frenzy. It was a line which for me used to mark a there and a here, a then and a now, childhood and forced independence, being an insider and being an outsider, self-identification and being identified, being carefree and open as well as being careful and private, having and not having, belonging and not belonging. Later, I crossed that line that once ran through Berlin as a double-layer brick marker nonchalantly several times a day. Now, I cross it twice a week—on Friday, when I return to Berlin’s vivid international art world, which is invested in decolonizing institutions, and on Monday, when I go back to Dresden, where I work as a curator for contemporary art at the Albertinum. On Mondays, museums are closed to the public, but Mondays in Dresden stand for something else. This is an attempt at convergence.

2.     Wir müssen Reden / We Need to Talk

The artist Henrike Naumann is part of a new generation of artists and intellectuals[4] who know the GDR only from their childhood and teens, but who experienced firsthand how the GDR became East Germany in the 1990s and the ensuing post-reunification problems of high unemployment, flight of younger generations to the West, and the expansion and entrenchment of neo-nationalist youth culture. Only in recent years have  contemporary artists finally begun to thematize and reflect on the two very different experiences of being German in the past 30 years and on the particular mentalities of the East, which are now playing out in the rise of a full-fledged right-wing political movement and party. How quickly and lastingly this party occupies, twists, and instrumentalizes art discourse has recently become evident in the case of the Albertinum in Dresden, which has been in the crossfire of the latest episode of the German-German “Bilderstreit” (iconoclastic controversy) around artworks created during the time of the GDR and their symbolic potential in a campaign for the “taking-back” of the cultural realm and for overtaking the political one.

The debate was set off in late 2017 by an article by Dresden-based art historian Paul Kaiser in the local newspaper, which was a shortened and slightly updated version of a longer essay Kaiser had written a few years earlier. The article posited a cultural “colonialization” from the West,[5] which ignores art from the GDR due to the strong and ignorant presence of Western leadership in cultural institutions, as well as general positions of power in the East. As a result, no East German thinking, concerns, or discourses could enter cultural institutions. Kaiser consequently charged the Kassel-born Albertinum director Hilke Wagner with deliberately removing, little by little, masterpieces of painting made in the GDR between 1949 and 1990 in favor of art from the West.[6] What followed was a back-and-forth in the local and national feuilletons, creating a climate of hardened fronts.

But this was in fact not a new argument, as this controversy continues to erupt and get reinflamed every 3 to 5 years, mostly on the occasion of overview exhibitions of “German art,” which are accused of failing to equally present art from the GDR.[7] The most significant occasions were 1993/94 and 1998. First, the New National Gallery in Berlin was accused of displaying art made in the West and the East side by side on equal aesthetic footing, and was thus criticized for presenting ideologically-loaded art from the GDR which—produced under a doctrine of state art—was supposedly not able to artistically stand up to its Western counterparts, which supposedly were created without any dogmas.[8] Then, when art was chosen for the reopening of the German parliament building, the Reichstag, a discussion erupted about what kind of contemporary German art was worthy of entering this most symbolic historical building, and where it was to be placed (living artists from the former East felt underrepresented, relegated to unimportant locations, and generally underrecognized). But by far the most significant episode of the iconoclastic controversy was an exhibition in Weimar with the title Rise and Fall of Modernism. The 1999 exhibition is central to an understanding of the complexities of art-making and -perception in the GDR, as well as for the meaning this art holds for a large part of the East German population, and should also be read as the background for Henrike Naumann’s contemporary installation displaying the early Socialist Realist art of her grandfather. In Weimar, the curator, art historian, and professor Achim Preiß (who was originally from the West) presented art from the GDR[9] in the former event hall of an NS administrative and representative building in a vivid hanging reminiscent of the “Degenerate Art” exhibition arrangement, ­­­­­­­­cramped together on plastic planes and construction fences, while the other two parts of the exhibition showed art collected by the Führer himself, aestheticized and placed in a different building further away, and then a part hardly perceptible as belonging to the other part of the exhibition, which showcased early 20th century avant-gardes. Juxtaposing art of the Third Reich and art made in the GDR was not only a false and crude merging of very different official art agendas, but also the low-point in the important and critical debate about how to contextualize art from the GDR. The exhibition had to be closed before its official end date due to protest from art historians, sources of loaned works, the East-German public, and many outraged artists whose works were on display.

In crucial contrast to these past controversies, the current debate takes place in a completely changed political landscape. Today, there is an official and outspoken right-wing political party, which forms the majority-opposition in the German parliament, and has very good chances of taking over three federal states of the former East in the upcoming federal government elections in 2019.[10] For them, a debate like the one around the lack of art from the GDR in the Albertinum—which is perceived by a general audience ultimately as an argument about the value of cultural production from the GDR and thus an East-German identification with this culture—can perfectly be used to strengthen the party’s argumentation of victimhood in the current political system, and can serve their presentation of themselves as the only possibility to protest, revolt and reclaim a cultural heritage. The ongoing “Bilderstreit” in this new political climate is thus central to an understanding of past and present-day Germany, because it is an attempt to publicly renegotiate all of the uneasiness and the continuing rupture caused by the reunification. It is employed as a substitute discourse through art, where the artworks representing GDR history, culture, and identification function as symbols for how a complete declassification and re-evaluation of actual lives lived took place from the outside and from above after the peaceful revolution. To prove this thesis in the case of the Albertinum, the AfD went so far as to submit an official request to the museum to list all recent museum acquisitions by artists working in the GDR. The request is perfectly in line with the party’s program of defining German as something exclusive: a pure German culture, with clear definitions of origin and who can participate in it. The postwar collection presentation of the museum, which presents mainly European art from 1800 to the present, occupies a very limited space. The museum works with art made in the GDR inclusively, by not marking these works as artworks made during the time of the GDR, but—in line with the aestheticized presentation principle of the museum—rather looking for aesthetic and formal points of connection to artworks with a West German or international background.  

Am Strand / At the Beach

Stamp of Walter Womacka: At the Beach, 1962. Issued 1968 with 12 million copies

In order to follow up on the polemics in the newspaper, the museum organized a public event. This first public forum at the Albertinum was organized by director Hilke Wagner on November 6, 2017, only a few weeks after the initial accusational article. The event, entitled Bilderstreit mit Blickkontakt (Iconoclastic Controversy with Eye Contact) aimed to determine and define the real topics on peoples’ minds as a working base for an exhibition and a larger series of events throughout 2018, and was attended by more than 600 people.[11] This event was used to bring art historians and cultural leaders with different opinions together, as well as to give the general public a space to be heard. It quickly became evident that the debate about art was being used as a forum to voice the disappointments many people had had to deal with after the peaceful revolution in 1989. Essentially, it was about the marginal and negative representation of the GDR in general German history after the reunification. Requests and hate mail from the local audience, which reached the museum before and after this event, were often personally addressed to the museum director. The messages made clear that the writers did not perceive art as a medium for gaining new insights, but were seeking old and familiar art from the GDR in the museum and were indeed looking to it for an affirmation of the values of their lives in the GDR in an increasingly confusing world. Many of the commentators had not visited the museum for many years, and were not familiar with what was on show, deriving their information solely from newspaper articles. The paintings most frequently requested to be shown again (which were indeed not on display) were not necessarily the ones by GDR painting masters Sitte, Tübke, Mattheuer and Heisig, but two paintings which played a major part in the visual culture of the GDR: Walter Womacka’s Am Strand, (1962) (At the Beach) depicting a young couple at the beach, and Harald Hakenbeck’s Peter im Tierpark, (1960) (Peter in the Zoo) depicting a young boy in the zoo. These paintings were widely reproduced on stamps, postcards, and posters, or in schoolbooks. Thus, they tap into a collective memory and (n)ostalgia,[12] as positive and simple everyday images that many people growing up in the GDR associate with their home and childhood.

Stamp of Harald Hakenbeck: Peter in the Zoo, 1961. Issued 1967

After this initial event, the museum staged an exhibition of its collection of art from 1949–1990. The exhibition was supposed to show the variety of art made in the GDR. It showed works made according to the prescribed new popularity (Volkstümlichkeit) of the first official GDR art agenda—the“Bitterfelder Weg—but looked more deeply at the nuances of official East German art, while also showing the popular paintings of Womacka and Hakenbeck. The exhibition, which was designed to trace the acquisition policy of an official museum in the GDR, and was thus composed of artworks of the official canon of the GDR, was also able to show the highly specific articulation of affectivity, which was dominant in official GDR art. What the exhibition also managed to show was the gaps that remained in the collection due to the official collecting policy and the failure in the 1990s and early 2000s to look at alternative art from the GDR to complement its collection. As an official museum of the GDR, the Albertinum’s collection is devoid of art that functioned outside of the official artworld of the GDR, art that created its own structures. This is the type of art that the museum’s special exhibition program of the past years has focused on, with a view toward expanding the understanding of art made in the GDR and introducing largely unknown practices to a wider audience. This art was not widely known, as it could not be officially exhibited, and was produced and existed in underground networks, where many of the artists were spied on and suffered repression and prison sentences, resulting in the ultimate flight of many from the GDR.[13]

First Podium Discussion at the Albertinum, 6 November 2017 with 600 participants. Photo: SKD, David Pinzer.

Genial Dilletantes

The debate gained momentum when the museum showed an extended version of the Goethe-Institute exhibition Genial Dilletantes. Subculture in East and West Germany in the 1980s in 2017, and via a newly developed extension, highlighted the East German alternative music and art scene, with a focus on the alternative festival “Intermedia” which took place in Coswig, near Dresden in 1985.[14] In 2017, the Albertinum also presented Dresden concrete art master Karl-Heinz Adler, whose geometric work didn’t fit the official GDR art doctrine of figurative work, and who consequently exhibited abroad and worked in architecture. The museum’s program was one of making visible a vivid art scene in the GDR that developed parallel to an official and accepted one, thereby contributing to an art history of synchronicities and entanglements. It attempted to understand the diverse art practices originating “behind the Iron Curtain” as pathways helping to see and formulate alternative possibilities of creativity in the present, and ways of mediating these to the diverse audiences the museum addresses.

But alternative underground art and abstraction was decidedly not the art from the GDR that the local museum audience sought for comfort and consolidation. This tapped back into the core of this ongoing art historical back-and-forth, where the issues of official and dissident art, of figuration and abstraction, and what is considered conformist and not is a grey zone, with the artists themselves rightly denying categorization. And while from a temporally removed perspective, the alternative practices might speak more to a contemporary understanding to this time, it is important to understand that art history cannot only be told from the position of the dissidents. It is crucial to recognize this discourse as a parallel one: sometimes the argumentation intersects, but mainly, two different kinds of thinking about art collide. One discourse looks at art history through Art with a capital ’A,’ often played out in figurative painting and sculpture—a discourse that was crafted into an art historical continuity. The other is informed by practices that go beyond the conventional and traditional values of an art historical canon, which indeed was already redefined 100 years ago. But due to the rewriting of art history after 1945 according to the different dogmas and the different status art had in the two Germanys, these different entry points are still hard to convey to a more traditional audience who appreciate the art made in the GDR they are familiar with. This also plays into a more conventional perception of history as progress in general. The difference between a historization geared to serve memory culture, and a historicization that makes breaks visible and contextualizes them in a nevertheless continuous genealogy of broken fragments might become most clear when looking at the specifics of art made in the GDR, with its highly specific contexts for art making and art perception.

Installation view of Focus Albertinum: East German Painting and Sculpture 1949-1990. In the front Waldemar Grzimek: Bertold Brecht, 1958, in the back Walter Womacka: At the Beach, 1962 and Harald Hakenbeck Peter in the Zoo, 1961. Photo: SKD, Martin Foerster.

Art in the GDR

Art creation in the GDR was art making in a society that was absolutely politically overloaded. It was also feeding the enemy on the other side of the wall in that it gave Westerners a specific way of thinking about art to oppose. This Western opposition then in turn helped determine the direction the official GDR art system. Artists from the GDR only rarely looked East, to Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, or the USSR, but rather saw the West (West Germany) as the ultimate yardstick.[15] In many artists’ interviews, one can read how many artists felt art making to be senseless after the peaceful revolution. The central frame of reference in the GDR— whether artists were with the system or against it—was suddenly gone. In order to understand the bitterness of the subsequent ongoing lament, one has to understand the change of structure and what this meant for the circumstances of art making and art perception.

Not only did the system for professional artists cease after 1990, but also the circumstances of artists who worked outside of official structures of the GDR changed. Here, self-organized artistic communities, where art without any commercial interests was constantly lived, were breaking up. The resulting frustrations led to the ongoing debates around attention, interpretational sovereignty, and definitions of art, art’s role in society, and art history.

Art in the GDR was, from the very beginning, part of the official political agenda and was rigorously shaped and controlled as an educational and political tool. The state-organized art market under state socialism led to a specific and privileged system of the ‘professional artist,’ who was granted this status by the guild of fine artists. This allowed them to receive commissions for art in architecture or other official surroundings, as well as granting access to the state-run art marke.t[16] Admission to the association, with its highly complex admission process and subsequent control, was the only way to receive an artistic printing license, to be able to exhibit publicly, to get commissions, and to officially make a living as an artist. In the 1950s, a strict canon of form and content for artists in the association was defined, and adopted in order to legitimize state socialism via positivistic image production. The canon was roundly criticized by leading artists, who continuously experimented with forms, seeking creative compromise while supporting the project of socialism. In painting, artists also later attempted to reconnect to certain Modernist traditions of pre-war revolutionary proletarian art, to create the idea of a continuous German art history according to socialist principles. Eventually, the “Weite und Vielfalt (der schöpferischen Möglichkeiten des sozialistischen Realismus)” (Range and Diversity of the fertile possibilities of Social Realism) doctrine, presented at the 8th party congress in 1971 and confirmed at the 6th state party conference in 1972, attempted to officially support the criticality and variety of art in order to make a strong statement about free artistic expression in the sovereign state the GDR wanted to see itself as. This progressive turn ended in 1976 with the expatriation of singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, which led to a wave of artist emigration, the formation of stronger underground networks, or a retreat to inner migration.[17] The economically already struggling GDR was thus stripped of the much-needed creations of engaged artist-citizens who, in one way or another, still believed in socialism, and illustrated and mediated this to disillusioned citizens. Biermann’s expatriation was protested with open letters signed by cultural leaders like writer Christa Wolf, director Heiner Müller, and sculptor Fritz Cremer, for example, who were consequently pressured to withdraw their signatures.[18]Cremer did, and was chosen to participate in documenta 6 one year later.  

            Scholarly research and recent research exhibitions have shown that art making in West Germany was certainly not without state-sponsored influence or free of cultural politics.[19] But this must be read also in relation and opposition to the early instrumentalization of art in the GDR as central power tool, and was at no point as dogmatic and mandatory as it was in the East. Artists in the GDR nevertheless continued to question the art historical lineage in which they were placed on an ideological level, but also in terms of identification with the East German state. Thus, it is important to stress that not only alternative and underground art can be read as speaking truth to power. In the 1970s, in the wake of the newly-allowed freedom of expression, figurative narrative painting became increasingly layered with symbolism pushed to the extreme, which often lent itself to multiple interpretative patterns. The disillusioned general audience often perceived art exhibitions like the Dresden Kunstausstellung der DDR,[20],as the only social and cultural spaces where they could—through art—trace the true status of the crumbling state via a close reading of its official art making and the artists’ presumably underlying critical artistic stance. The 8th exhibition of 1977/78, under the leadership of painter Willi Sitte (president of the Guild of Artists at that time) also showed abstract art by Dresden master Herman Glöckner and by the artist collective Clara Mosch, for example—quite unusual positions for this prestigious show of official art. One could speculate that Willi Sitte did this with the intent to demonstrate that these unusual positions were indeed appreciated in the GDR and were able to be shown, testifying to a new and more open era. At the time, Sitte was extremely powerful in part due to his participation in documenta 6 in 1977, which granted him wide international visibility and media attention, as well as strengthening his position of power in a state that certainly didn’t want to test this central figure after the Biermann case. Here it becomes clear that even an ‘official’ artist like Willi Sitte, president of the Artist’s Guild, also appreciated and supported art practices that were not necessarily in line with party guidelines—thus moving between official agendas and an appreciation for central artistic positions in the GDR, whether historic, like Glöckner, or new and contemporary, like Clara Mosch.

            Participation in the internationally acclaimed documenta, which included other artists from the GDR, such as Wolfgang Mattheuer, Bernhard Heisig, Werner Tübke, Fritz Cremer, and Joachim Jastram, was initiated by the GDR state art trade.[21] Though is was a political project from the start, artists seized this opportunity to break into the Western commercial market. Not only did participating artists enjoy much more freedom and less judgment about whether or not their art was serving the state project of socialism in the GDR afterwards, but they also raised prices for their works in general—which was unheard of in the art history of the GDR. But because these figures were so central, the state simply had to obey.

A distinctive mode of art making, which in the GDR was always determined by a complex situation of permanent self-reflection in an ideological and artistic corset, and for many artists a real-life back and forth movement between official and unofficial scenes, was prone to lose its coordinates after 1989. The success of the new Leipzig School, founded around painters Bernhard Heisig and Arno Rink, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, was a mix of symbolic conversion, strong gallery support, active self-historicization, and the awakening global art market’s hunger for new art from the unknown East, which nevertheless could be safely placed in painterly traditions. It can be understood as a post-socialist simplification for the new market, which at the same time provided East Germany with some sort of continuity in its official painting canon.

Official art in the GDR was understood as a finite project, able to provide a concrete set of answers to all questions of content and form. Artists who continued searching, who reflected on the very circumstances of artistic expression as starting points for further inquiries, like A.R. Penck, Klaus Hähner-Springmühl, Gabriele Stötzer, Cornelia Schleime, or certainly also Carlfriedrich Claus just to name a few, are not accepted as strong positions of art from the GDR by a wider general public. How can an artwork represent a culture that is gone yet is desperately longing for attention and representation? Especially artworks that vehemently refused representation that in fact deeply questioned the concept of that culture and uprooted artistic traditions? How can exhibitions find ways of foregrounding these artists’ processes of continuous search for form and articulation, and mediate them as challenging and important as representative paintings? How can an unlearning of the understanding of practices from the GDR as either/or, as state or dissident art, as identification or accusation, take place, and how can the flexibility of narratives be foregrounded?

Concluding discussion round with artist Mario Pfeifer and guests Petra Köpping (Minister for Integration, Saxony), Jana Hensel (author), Stefan Locke (journalist) and Albertinum director Hilke Wagner on Pfeifer’s work “On Fear and Education, Disenchantment and Justice, Protest and Disunion in Saxony / Germany”, 10 January 2019. Photo: SKD, Oliver Killig.

Parallel to the exhibition Focus Albertinum: Ostdeutsche Malerei und Skulptur 1949–1990, the museum organized a dense program of artists talks and scholarly presentations on various topics of GDR art, and continued the public discussions about different topics of art made in the GDR, its visual culture and the society these works existed in. Experts from East and West were invited to present on a wide range of topics—from art education in East and West Germany, to a general introduction to Socialist Realism, to female performance art, and Mail Art in the GDR.[22] The topical talks took place in the museum’s presentation room, the artist talks gave collection artists a carte blanche to talk next to their works in the exhibition, and the public talks took place in the big hall of the museum, on the seating elements of the work Demos by Greek artist Andreas Angelidakis. This work references not only the founding steps and public speaking rituals of the cradle of democracy, but also the ruins of neoliberalism, with its pixelated outer shell depicting the unfinished concrete blocks of pure investment architecture. The larger public talks continued the open invitation to the audience to participate in the debates, and also featured a broad array of topics and guests. A central condition for the invitation of expert participants to these events was their ability to speak German, as anything else would have been perceived as another exclusionary mechanism. The expert presentations, which were geared towards a general audience and aimed to mediate scholarly research and case studies from the past 30 years around the topics under discussion, vehemently emphasized the idea that an image doesn’t just speak by itself. The viewer has to be able to read it, and to be able to do so, the context outside of the image and its situation in a certain time and system of creation is crucial. In the talks, art history was mediated as precisely not a monolithic and closed notion, but as something that changes according to the interests that address it. The new interest in art from the GDR can be seen as part of a slow extension of the field of Eastern and Central European art studies, with more and more topics around art from the GDR entering conferences and readers, contextualizing it within the East, as well as making it more and more interesting for a global art history and its newly angled institutions, which are eagerly looking for ways of telling the story of modern art more comprehensively.[23] Despite this new international appreciation, the local perception is a different one, hence the main motivation of the Albertinum talk series was to discuss the different approaches and interests, and to convey these changing notions to a general public. But in the rounds of public discussion, it became clear that a very different larger reconstruction project was taking place on the side of the outspoken critics, and the reconstructed Baroque splendor of Dresden—a model of reunification glory—was the perfect stage for it. The desire was for the lost home (Heimat) of a country that no longer exists to be revived, in what simply is a different country.[24] The specific role assigned to art in the GDR—as means of education—is undergoing a strange transformation in calls for the return of the official art of the GDR, which is now being used as a tool for re-educating, or rather disciplining the ignorant West and its neoliberal agenda (whose crumbling is now becoming perceivable). This became most evident in the last event of the series: a discussion session addressing the 9-hour video work of Dresden-born artist Mario Pfeifer On Fear and Education, Disenchantment and Justice, Protest and Disunion in Saxony / Germany from 2016, which was recently acquired by the Albertinum. The work deals precisely with what its title promises through discussions with an array of Saxon citizens, whom the young artist invited to speak extensively about their experiences before, during and after 1989. The piece is an emphatic portrait of widely varying states of mind in the East. And for the museum, it is a central acquisition, which documents a specific and important historical moment. This last discussion, which took place after more than a year of events, was meant to look forward and continue the museum’s engagement in widening closed and often generalizing opinions about the potentials of art and art history. Instead, it was once more employed to pick a political fight around the question of who the museum belongs to and why.[25] After a year of public programs with emphasis on active engagement and actual employment of heritage, of putting the past to work as a way to keep it alive and use it to the fullest, we were back at the beginning. The journey of extensive and serious exploration of the potential of art arrived where it had started. The question posed by GDR typewriter and mail artist Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt in her two-person show upstairs resonated deeply:

Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt: Can the artists help survive????

The exhibition For Ruth, the Sky in Los Angeles. Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt and David Horvitz depicted a transgenerational dialogue between Wolf-Rehfeldt in East Berlin and Horvitz in the US. The exhibition of Ruth and Robert Rehfeldt’s Mail Art archive showed how artists managed to subvert a supposedly closed system via its own public services. Through Mail Art, a small group of artists in the GDR[26] participated in a worldwide network which proposed that art could circulate free of its object form, that it can indeed to be understood as potentiality and not solely as property.[27]

3.   Tightrope

The central task of a lively cultural institution should not be to provide answers, but to develop questions that provide the grounds for a comprehensive involvement with the present we share. This can happen through a reinvestigation of older pieces in the collection, or through research projects that tackle questions about the nature of the society that we live in, what kinds of stories we have to tell, and how we can tell them. The Albertinum’s discussion program showed that the purported interest in talking with each other is only a sort of tactical maneuver in the current culture wars. After a year of collective rethinking of the status of art in the GDR, the discourse of victimhood was the only discourse that emerged, strengthened, and unscathed. For the museum, the contents of the program did indeed point to important issues, and it was indeed crucial to widen the view beyond what now is seen as progressive art, because a critical and multifaceted art history cannot solely be presented as a story of the alternative, the underground, and the dissidents. Even if these artistic practices might speak much more to our now extended understanding of global art histories of resistance, concentrating solely on them would create a blind spot, especially since the support the GDR offered artists often went hand in hand with repressive structures, and artists often had to perform complex balancing acts.

Taus Makhacheva: Tightrope, 2015. 4K video, color, sound, 58.10′. Courtesy of the artist and Narrative Projects

A single channel projection shows a tightrope walker crossing a rope installed over a dangerous chasm between two mountaintops in a stunning rocky landscape. On his balancing pole he transports works on paper and paintings from one side to the other, where they are stored in a cage-like structure reminiscent of museum storage rooms. For a few moments these works are somewhat free, staged against the beauty of the Caucasian mountains, not standing still and constantly changing their position, always in danger of dropping into the abyss. The works are shown up close and reveal a panorama or 20th century styles, many in a Socialist Realist manner. The video Tightrope (2015) is made by Taus Makhacheva, a young Dagestani artist reflecting in this way on the dangerous and hard work of moving from one side to the other, from one system to the other, always in search of an equilibrium between past and present. The work grants memory a space without nostalgia and stresses the complex position of dealing with it in the present, while at the same time emphasizing that this uncertain search and process will never be over as definitions continue to change.


When I was in 5th grade, the first year of high school, my art teacher was looking for a punishment for me, as I had not stopped talking to my neighbor and was supposedly disturbing the rest of the class. She assigned me to find the answer to the question of what art is: I was to write it down and bring it to class the next week. I consulted our household encyclopedia, was convinced that the question was very complicated, and copied the entry word for word. The following week I handed her the sheet of paper and watched her eyes get smaller and smaller as she studied this—in my eyes untouchable—encyclopedic definition. Then she started to laugh, and I asked her what was wrong, if I indeed had failed the task. She laughed some more, and even called one of her colleagues in, so they could have a good laugh at it together. I again asked what was wrong. She asked where I had copied it from and I told her the encyclopedia. She looked at me and said “You’re from the East, right?” “Yes,” I said. She nodded, and that was the end of the conversation. I had looked up the definition of art in our family encyclopedia, which we had brought with us when we moved. It was published in Leipzig in the 1980s. Now, so many years later, this episode comes back to me, as I’m still searching for the answer.

[1] The Verband Bildender Künstler der DDR (VBK), the Guild of Artists of the GDR, was founded in 1950 as a professional organization for visual artists in the GDR. To be accepted as a member, one had to have earned a degree in art or show proof of equivalent achievements. After a long phase of candidature, a jury decided acceptance into the guild, which was a requirement to apply for public commissions and to exhibit publically in state institutions. 

[2] The AfD (Alternative for Germany) was founded in the wake of the Dresden-based protest movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident). For its first candidature for the German parliament elections in 2017, it was voted for in large numbers by East Germans, who have found new self-confidence through supporting a new political party that voices their frustrations about the current state of affairs. With 12,6% of the vote, the party was able to enter the German parliament and now forms the strongest opposition. The party is monitored by the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution due to their problematic comments in parliament, their official requests, and their communication on social media channels, which all show signs of strong right-wing convictions, especially their biological-racist or ethnic-cultural definition of “the German people.” Certain radical wings of the party are mainly comprised of former neo-nationalists. A major strategy of the party consists in casting its supporters as martyrs fighting for Germans who feel confused and left behind in this increasingly multicultural society. Whenever the party is criticized or is investigated by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, this fundamental strategy of staging victimhood comes to the fore, claiming even more media attention. This turns the conversation toward questions of guilt and blame, and in particular towards the “limits of the sayable,” a heavily loaded concept (regarding the German historical responsibility for the Holocaust), and takes attention away from many urgent topics of our time. See also the following footnote.

[3] In his 2017 Reunification Day article in the German weekly Die Zeit (number 40/2017), Berliner Festspiele director Thomas Oberender, himself one of the few East Germans in a position of significant nationwide cultural leadership, described the shortcomings of German reunification and its continuing effects on the East German mindset. The economic side of these shortcomings is especially visible, leaving a lot of East Germans with ongoing traumas of unemployment, uncertain professional prospects, and often multiply interrupted work histories, which today plays out in significantly lower pensions for East Germans, and no inheritances for a younger generation. This fuels feelings of betrayal and injustice. In the 1990s, the former GDR was used to fuel the German economy through a fast, effective, and neoliberal dismantling of East German infrastructure, and quick privatization of its state-owned production sites and real estate by the West German state-run Treuhand (privatization agency), which left hundreds of thousands jobless. Lack of private capital and a comprehensive understanding of capitalist business mechanisms at this pivotal moment of the “East-German clearance sale,” has meant that even today, there is little East German-owned real estate and few larger businesses. The unfamiliarity with the workings of a capitalist system and the resulting “missed chances” to reorient and profit from the reunification play out today in deep frustration and anger towards West-German capital in the East, and a pervasive East-German fear of further economic downfall. The continuous trend of younger generations leaving the East to seek opportunities in the West has also left many smaller cities ghost towns. Sociologically and psychologically, this has taken a major toll on East Germans, for whom everything changed in 1990, while for West Germans, nothing changed.

[4] Certainly there have been (East-)German artists who looked into the specific case of the GDR after the fall of the wall, and the late 1990s and early 2000s saw also works by international artists about post-reunification topics (Phil Collins’ Marxism Today or Sophie Calle’s Detachment, just to give two examples). German artists Sven Johne, Mario Pfeifer, Elske Rosenfeld, and Henrike Naumann are maybe the most prominent ones today who continue to examine these issues. But compared to the wealth of German literature that grapples with post-reunification topics, there are still relatively few artworks that deal with the subject.

[5] The usage of the phrase “colonization from the West” in talking about displaying or rather not displaying art from the GDR seems particularly problematic. For the past thirty years, and perhaps more rigorously since documenta 11 in 2002, progressive theoretical discourse in the arts has been fully embracing the ongoing project of a decolonization of theory, education, institutions, and the art world in general. The rise of a global art history that considers multiple parallel and equal art movements is becoming central in art history. Walter Mignolo described an “epistemic disobedience” as the basis of ongoing work on the transformation of knowledge and the widening of the Western (and male dominated) understanding of history (and visual culture). If the terminology of ‘colonization’ is now applied to the situation of GDR art as symbol for the shortcomings of the reunification, as Kaiser’s article suggests, and then followed by an insistence on a classic and official GDR art canon, it becomes clear that the actual project of decolonizing culture pursued by global art history is indeed not even considered in this line of argumentation, but rather emptied of all meaning. Male-dominated art (painting and sculpture) has allegedly become the victim of art from the West. The project of active investment in decolonialization is completely deprived of agency and urgency by being ignored. Instead, the notion of victimhood implied by the word ‘colonialization’ is once again employed, and the revolutionary potential of marginal, underground, and feminist art practices (including those of the GDR), which are indeed presented in special exhibitions, and which were—from the very moment of their making—part of the project of decolonialization in the vein of the “epistemic disobedience” Mignolo describes, are brushed aside.    

[6] Paul Kaiser, “Die Wende an den Wänden,” Sächsische Zeitung, 18.9.2017,  24.

[7] Many different exhibitions of the past 20 years have attempted to reflect on the breadth of art creation in the GDR between official and unofficial scenes, challenging the notion that art in the GDR was uniform, even though the cultural policy the artists were subjected to was. Some of these have been horizontal overview or summary exhibitions, which attempt a review of the various practices in the GDR. These include the exhibitions Deutschlandbilder ­­­­­­­­­ – Kunst aus einem geteilten Land. Ausstellung der 47. Berliner Festwochen at  Martin-Gropius-Bau 1997/1998; the successful Kunst in der DDR. Eine Retrospektive der Nationalgalerie in Berlin 2003; Kunst und Kalter Krieg. Deutsche Positionen 1945–1989 / Art of Two Germanys / Cold War Cultures, which introduced this art to the US at LACMA in 2009, and consequently at Germanisches Nationalmuseum and Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin in 2009/2010; Abschied von Ikarus,an attempt to trace the sociocultural history of the GDR through its artmaking in 2012/2013; or the latest survey Hinter der Maske. Künstler in der DDR at the private Museum Barberini in Potsdam in 2018. Then there are overview exhibitions with specific topics in the artmaking of East Germany, such as Gegenstimmen. Kunst in der DDR 1976-1989 at  Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin in 2016, which looked at art after the expatriation of singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann as a central turning point in the mindset of many GDR artists and citizens; or the similarly themed Ende vom Lied at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in 2017. There are also numerous solo presentations of either well-known artists, or exhibitions uncovering previously neglected positions and their invisible histories. Finally, there are coherent institutional collection presentations, either ongoing, like Wege der Moderne. Kunst in der SBZ/DDR 1945 bis 1990 at Halle’s Kunstmuseum Moritzburg, which opened in 2017, or temporary, like Hinter dem Horizont… at the Staatliches Museum Schwerin in 2018, or the recent Focus Albertinum: Ostdeutsche Malerei und Skulptur 1949–1990. Then there are attempts to widen the field, to experiment with these collections and their continuation, and to connect them to global art histories or other art historical narratives in new ways, like the show For Ruth, the Sky in Los Angeles. Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt and David Horvitz at the Albertinum in 2018. All of the exhibitions mentioned are merely examples, and there are many more that deserve in-depth discussions.

[8] See multiple publications on the topic: Vowinckel, Annette, Marcus M. Payk, and Thomas Lindenberger, eds. Cold War Cultures: Perspectives on Eastern and Western European Societies (Berlin:Berghahn Books, 2012); Appy, Christian G., ed. Cold War constructions: The political culture of United States imperialism, 1945–1966. Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2000; Rubin, Andrew. Archives of Authority: Empire, Culture, and the Cold War. Princeton University Press, 2012; or the upcoming catalogue for the 2018 HKW exhibition in Berlin Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War.

[9] I use the term ‘art from the GDR’ or ‘art made in the GDR’ to encompass all art made in the GDR between 1949 and1990. This is to avoid loaded expressions like ‘GDR art,’, which might designate art created under the party guidelines for art at that moment in time, and could be falsely understood as devaluing.

[10] This strong and very outspoken right-wing presence in parliament is new for German post-WW2 history, insofar as much of West-German cultural self-understanding after the student movement of the 1960s stems from identification as a ‘Täternation’—the nation of the perpetrator—and the ensuing extensive cultural and educational politics of coming to terms with the past, as well as a ‘march through the institutions’ that resulted in the installation of a strong leftist-green oriented cultural elite. The GDR, on the other hand, was founded on the myth of being the victim of Nazism, as the post-WW2 political leadership was mainly composed of communists persecuted during the Third Reich, who eventually were able to establish the “better Germany.” Consequently, cultural and educational politics in the GDR were never speaking from the position of the perpetrator, but from the position of the communist victim who had now overcome this past. This doesn’t suggest that East Germans have no sense of the scope of Nazi crimes (indeed, the first memorial on the site of a former concentration camp was build in the GDR), but as the identification as perpetrators was always externalized from GDR history and received a rather marginal space in memory culture (also due to the victory discourse of socialism), it is not as central a point of identification for them as it is for many West Germans of the same generation, who finished their education before 1990. See: Wolfrum, Edgar. “Geschichte der Erinnerungskultur in der DDR und BRD.” Geschichte und Erinnerung, Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (2008).

[11] The documentation of this event and all talks and programming that followed can be watched online at

[12] In the large number of letters, phone calls, and public reactions, it was surprisingly shocking to repeatedly hear that voting for the AfD party was used as a direct tool to revenge the perceived humiliation executed by the institution via a withholding of paintings tied to the visual culture of the GDR. The state institution—perceived as an enemy by the general audience interested in this controversy—was thus not honoring the cultural heritage of the GDR. This urge to rediscover old familiar art made in the GDR and an insistence and argumentation for its place in the canon by a non-art professional audience is tied to a feeling of inferiority, which certainly is not an unsubstantiated feeling given the rewriting of all things GDR by the ‘winning narrative’ of West Germany. With the new AfD party, many people finally feel heard and hope to articulate their frustrations about the recent past and their fears about the future.

[13] Notably, during the public events at the Albertinum, former officials of the powerful Artists’ Guild of the GDR, members of the extensive unofficial informant network of the GDR’s secret service (the “Stasi”), and artists who were persecuted and incarcerated shared the same room. For these unofficial artists, this gave rise to extremely emotional moments, especially because the whole debate, its tone and argument—mainly driven by these conservative voices—was (again) solely interested in the inclusion of a certain official art of the GDR into the museum’s canon. When the secret police archives of the GDR were opened in the 1990s and people could gain access to their files, which contained detailed descriptions of their lives and contacts, the identities of their informants were also revealed to them. This was often highly traumatizing, especially when people had to continue their lives in the same cities. The most important example might be poet Sascha Anderson, who was a public intellectual deeply embedded in the artistic alternative scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. He reported extensively on the underground scene and was also actively infiltrating it. The documentary Andersonby Annekatrin Hendel from 2014 traces his case.   

[14] The original exhibition showed 1980s underground music and art scenes through the story of 8 German bands/artist collectives. Only one of them was from the East (Ornament und Verbrechen). In order to take a deeper look at the vivid alternative scene in the East (which the Goethe exhibition had overlooked, as material from these underground histories was much harder to find), the external curator Christoph Tannert and the Albertinum curator Mathias Wagner added music and ephemera by AG Geige, Zwitschermaschine, 37,2, Pfff…, Rennbahnband, Kartoffelschälmaschine, Die letzten Recken, Die Gehirne, Die Strafe, and other artworks made in this rebellious vein (with band members often being visual artists) A. R. Penck, Lücke frequentor, Helge Leiberg, Michael Freudenberg, Klaus Hähner-Springmühl, Cornelia Schleime, Ralf Kerbach, Christine Schlegel, the Autoperforationsartisten, Matthias BAADER Holst, Moritz Götze or Tohm di Roes. Additionally, a newly-commissioned documentary traced the “Intermedia” event and interviewed its protagonists.   

[15] This was certainly also due to an easier accessibility, due to a shared language and art history until 1945.

[16] See: Hartmut Pätzke: Von “Auftragskunst” bis “Zentrum für Kunstausstellungen”. Lexikon zur Kunst und Kunstpolitik in der DDR. In: Eugen Blume, Roland März (Hrsg.): Kunst in der DDR. Eine Retrospektive der Nationalgalerie. Berlin 2003, p. 328.

[17] The expatriation of Wolf Biermann was also the beginning of Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg alternative scene, which thrived in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That the scene was extensively infilitrated and undermined by the Stasi was discovered after the peaceful revolution. More on the scene in Brady, Philip, and Ian Wallace, eds. Bohemia in East Berlin?. No. 35. Rodopi, 1995; Tannert, Christoph. Ende vom Lied (Exhibition Catalogue). Berlin: Künstlerhaus Bethanien, 2016; Blaylock, Sara. “Aufstand des Materials. Körperbilder im Prenzlauer Berg der 1980er Jahre” (A Material Revolt: Body Portraits in the Prenzlauer Berg of the 1980s) in Gegenstimmen. Kunst in der DDR 1976-1989 (Voices of Dissent. Art in the GDR), ed. Christoph Tannert (Berlin: Deutsche Gesellschaft & Künstlerhaus Bethanien, 2016), 394 – 401.

[18] These open letters gave the secret police perfect proofs for their consequentual comprehensive pressuring operations.   

[19] Indeed, West German chancellor Willy Brandt rang in a new political era (and with it a new cultural policy) when he concentrated on Eastern Europe, which coincided with heightened economic interests by Comecon states in the West.

[20] These exhibitions took place between 1946 and 1988, every 5 years in the Albertinum in Dresden, and drew great crowds— in part because factories and other state-owned organizations organized outings to the show. This is also one reason why a general audience today very much connects the Albertinum to art of that time and to what they saw at these exhibitions. The selection process for the exhibitions was steered by a professional jury, in line with official cultural policy  of the time, with party officials severely monitoring what was shown and often making changes up to the very last minute before the show opened. Some of the exhibited works were eventually acquisitioned by the museum. See also: Kaiser, Paul. “Leistungsschau und Ideenverkörperung: die zentralen Kunstausstellungen der DDR” in Blumen, Eugen and März, Roland, Kunst in der DDR. Eine Retrospektive der Nationalgalerie. Berlin 2003, p. 93-105.

[21] In the book DDR und documenta, the very complicated process of the cultural exchange between the two Germanys is traced in detail. The story is one of cultural rapprochement, scandal, and betrayal. Artists Georg Baselitz (who left the GDR as a young artist to become one of preeminent painters of West Germany) and Markus Lüpertz withdrew from their participation in this documenta as they didn’t want to show on the same level as the GDR state artists, whose artistic thinking and abilities they highly doubted as these, according to them, could simply not have developed in a repressive and monitored art system like the one in the GDR. See Schirmer, Gisela “DDR und documenta,” Berlin: 2005.

[22] The complete program, which was conceptualized by scholar Constanze Fritzsch, curator Astrid Nielsen, and Albertinum director Hilke Wagner, can be downloaded here:

[23] Here it is interesting to see that artists who have worked in artistic languages prominent in postwar Western art paradigms are the ones who most easily find entrance into the art historical corrective extensions that major institutions like MoMA or the Tate are invested in. Abstract artists Herman Glöckner and Karl-Heinz Adler, who have been acquired by these collections lately, are excellent examples of this. 

[24] Interestingly, such a mechanism can also be seen among some groups of migrants worldwide, who come from their countries of origin to other countries where they hope to build new lives for themselves and their families: ideal images are projected onto the homeland without taking into account the complexities of real living conditions in the present in these countries. In East Germany, this ideal projection onto a place that exists only in the past has happened without the change of place.

[25] Notably, in the many discussions of new museology, the inclusion of voices from the outside into the art historical master narratives of the institution is emphasized. But what if the voices demanding a partake in the museum are motivated by reestablishing a simplified notion of a specific nationalistic ‘high culture’? What can the “Constituent Museum” do? 

[26] A few of them also worked in printmaking and painting, were members of the Artists’ Guild, and received public commissions.

[27] The exhibition was not meant to give a comprehensive overview of the work of Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, but to extend her project of artistic search for form and international contact, which she notably ended in 1990 with the peaceful revolution. It invited a younger artist—removed in time and space, but close in his artistic thinking—to ask questions with poetic projects that directly relate to Dresden Romanticism or that measure the distance between two people and places, as a sort of extended version of Mail Art. After a public forum, one woman commented that the exhibition didn’t need David Horvitz’ work, as Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt’s work was strong enough by itself and certainly didn’t need an American to value it.

Kathleen Reinhardt is the curator for contemporary art at the Albertinum in Dresden. She is interested in the museum as an enabler for artistic research and production, the discursive quality of collections bound to a certain time and/or historical and ideological narrative, and the engagement of feminist thought in the rethinking of art institutions. Her recent exhibitions were Marlene Dumas. Skulls, Slavs and Tatars. Made in Dschermany, and For Ruth, the Sky in Los Angeles. Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt and David Horvitz. Currently she is co-curating three new commissions by Judy Radul, Céline Condorelli, and Kapwani Kiwanga for the museum. She received her PhD in 2016 from FU Berlin for To Speculate Darkly: Value, Ritual, Spectacle, and Place in the Art of Theaster Gates. She has contributed essays and exhibition reviews to African Arts, Contemporary&, Kaleidoscope, and The Journal of Urban History, among others. She taught at FU Berlin and TU Dresden.

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