November 17, 2018 – February 2, 2020

Artists from the GDR

Works from the Museum Barberini Collection
Between the GDR’s foundation in 1949 and German unification in 1990, the friction between government efforts to co-opt art and artists’ attempts to preserve their autonomy gave rise to a tremendous artistic diversity. Those forty years of the GDR also witnessed big changes in living conditions and political priorities, constraints and room for manoeuvre. But while the State kept trying to wield the ideological stick, artists negotiated their own personal pathways between compliance, obstinacy and downright opposition.

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Photo: Helge Mundt, © Museum Barberini
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One focus of the Museum Barberini’s collection are paintings by artists from the former GDR. With the current presentation of the collection, the museum invites visitors to rediscover important artistic approaches in the East German art scene before and after 1989/90. The display showcases works by Gudrun Brüne, Hartwig Ebersbach, Günter Firit, Albrecht Gehse, Ulrich Hachulla, Rolf Händler, Bernhard Heisig, Johannes Heisig, Ralf Kerbach, Walter Libuda, Werner Liebmann, Wolfgang Mattheuer, Harald Metzkes, Roland Nicolaus, Stefan Plenkers, Arno Rink, Willi Sitte, Erika Stürmer-Alex, and Werner Tübke.

Modern History Painting

Rather than representing a glorified, official version of GDR history, mythological, literary, and religious themes offered many artists an opportunity to explore personal or universal questions. In a culture that defined itself as atheist, religious references could be used to add a layer of ambiguity. The painter Harald Metzkes, for example, turned to themes from Christian iconography, such as the shepherd, or the tortured Christ, to depict universal human experience. After German reunification, many East German painters continued to develop this genre of modern history painting.

Landscape

Drawing on the traditional genre of landscape painting, artists found many different ways of engaging with landscapes. Domestic and urban spaces were not only drawn upon for geographic and atmospheric representations, but also allowed experimentation with form and colour. Seemingly descriptive features could also reveal references to mental states or oneiric spaces. In these landscape paintings, the separation between inner and outer states is evocatively blurred. In their urban landscapes, Hartwig Ebersbach and Wolfgang Mattheuer for example, interwove atmospheric depictions with elements of fantasy. Rather than being windows out onto the world, these paintings direct the viewer's gaze inwards to a world of symbols. These depictions of domestic settings or far-off cities are often dream places consigned to the canvas by painting.

Melancholy and Painting

With a detached take in the world, some painters styled themselves as contemplative observers—a typical stance found in art history down the centuries. In a society based on equality and uniformity, this withdrawal enabled painters to assert their individuality and legitimize their creative role. Rather than the expression of resignation or pessimism, melancholy was often a means of self-assertion for artists in the GDR. Ralf Kerbach's work Dresden Friends, for example, is a testimony to close bonds and separation. Painted in 1982, shortly after Kerbach left the GDR for West Berlin, it pays homage to his artist’s friends who had remained in Dresden. In the early 1980s, the Dresden art scene was a lively, close-knit community that staged many public events, but the scene gradually fell apart as more and more artists left the GDR. At the time when Kerbach painted this picture, the sense of distance must have been all the more drastic for Kerbach, for he had left the GDR before the others he portrayed—among them the painter and performer Cornelia Schleime, and the poet Sascha Anderson, who would later be exposed as a Stasi spy.

Ways of Painting

In the 1980s, artists often used painting as a tool for self-reflection. Longing to free themselves from the constraints of state-sanctioned art and searching for an individual style, they endowed painting with an expressive, often enigmatic dimension. Erika Stürmer-Alex's Self-Portrait, for example, is both a reflexive introspection and an expressive statement of a self-confident artistic attitude. In the 1980s, the painter organized so-called plein-airs, experimental outdoor art events with artist friends at her art community in Lietzen in Brandenburg, which was located far from the official art centers. Stürmer-Alex developed paintings that combined the figureative with the abstract in challenging, loud, existentialist self-interrogation. In Stürmer-Alex's Self-Portrait, boldly coloured surfaces collide with hard contours.