The Arts

An East German Retrospective

Work Break
"Work Break" by East German artist Willi Sitte, 1959, on exhibit in Berlin (Copyright VG Bild-Kunst, 2003. Photo: MdbK, Gerstenberger).

Was it possible to create real art under the totalitarian regime of the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.)? The curators of a first major retrospective, which opened yesterday in Berlin, answer yes. To support their position, they have selected 400 works by 145 artists to exhibit in the luminous rooms of the New National Gallery, one of Mies van der Rohe’s most beautiful buildings.

The cultural supplements of Germany’s newspapers, always fond of high-flown debates, will have their work cut out for them this summer. Others say that real art there was impossible, that it was irremediably contaminated by the propagandistic powers of socialism.

“The Nazis cut my hand with a knife. After the war, they cut it off with a hatchet.” That quote is from Herbert Behrens-Hangeler, an art professor who was prohibited in the 1950s from exhibiting his abstract paintings. He was not allowed to show them to his students, either. It was an era in which the dictate came from Moscow: Art should be realistic depictions of the working class, and was not to be devoted to mere formal inquiry. Behrens-Hangeler chose self-exile—he kept painting, but only within his own four walls.

Displaying two of his works now in the New National Gallery is an act of belated justice, according to Roland März and Eugen Blume, the curators. What was true for Behrens-Hangeler was also undoubtedly the case for many of the other artists whose work will be exhibited until Oct. 26. They had to seek refuge in painting intimate portraits, only apparently innocuous. Others, even in the 1970s, were trying to emulate, in an almost subversive way, Paul Cézanne. And one, named Robert Rehfeldt, decided to limit himself to sending hand-painted postcards to his friends. “Art is what you create in spite of everything,” he wrote on one.

But here also are works by those who cooperated with the regime and its demand for tidy, uncritical, and ideologically correct art—those who participated in seminars in East Berlin’s former Palace of the Republic and who fully accepted that the artist’s task was to give homage to the proletariat.

This does not mean that some of them, such as two members of the so-called Leipzig School, Wolfgang Mattheuer and Werner Tübke, did not have formidable talent, as one can see from their works on view in the exhibit. Sometimes, buried under layers of symbolism, one can even detect veiled criticism of the regime.

The curators insisted yesterday that everything in the exhibit is real art. A naive visitor, in fact, will not notice any great differences between these works and what was being done at the same time in the West, although one might detect a slight lag in what became fashionable on one side or the other of the Iron Curtain. This impression, however, is possible only because the show excluded many purely propagandistic works, those of well-fed workers hefting hammers in their smithies. “We wanted to show art, and not historical documents,” said curator Blume. This is why, emphasized Blume and März, the show is not called “The Art of the G.D.R.,” but “Art in the G.D.R.” instead—a small, yet important semantic distinction. The works most favored under socialism have been collected in a second catalog, also being published now, which lists the works acquired over the years by the National Gallery of East Berlin.

But is such segregation possible? Isn’t there the risk of idealizing this art by choosing only what was marginal back then? This issue has already ignited bitter debates over previous shows, and on this occasion the first attack, appearing even before the show opened, came from Der Spiegel.

Germany is beginning to come to terms with its socialist past. It may or may not be true that this exhibition has  set off less fury than it would have a while back, but almost 14 years have passed since reunification, and perhaps it is easier now to make peace with what happened in East Germany.

“Until quite recently, what people were interested in most was political analysis of what happened, the investigations of who collaborated with the secret police, and this obscured, in a way, what the art was really about,” explained Blume. The show—which will surely attract many East Germans anxious to remember their art—is just one example of the ease with which the country is now beginning to view its recent history.