Join the GDR Objectified on a field trip to Frankfurt / Oder, a city one-hour east of Berlin on the German-Polish border. The East German era has left considerable traces in the city and we’ll seek some of them out here.

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For those of you interested in East German football, you may wish to lend an ear to this interview which Alan McDougall, author of The People’s Game: Football, State and Society in East Germany, gave to the always interesting Radio GDR podcast. Alan was kind enough to sit through a number of questions put to him by myself and Radio GDR’s Shane Whaley and the result is an interview which I think does justice to a book of remarkable breadth and insight.

 

In May 2019, The GDR Objectified ventured to Berlin’s Friedrichshain district to seek out the building housing Neues Deutschland (New Germany), a left-wing daily newspaper founded as the official organ of the GDR’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). Join us as we seek out remnants of the East German past on site and explore the paper’s history.

“Auf dem Wege”, Uwe Pfeifer (1987).

I am by no means an expert in fine art, however, I have found that East German art has provided me with some very useful perspectives on GDR life and society. One of my favourite artists is Uwe Pfeifer, a painter from Halle, whose work captures an ambivalence towards the state socialist system in a palpable way. Technically speaking, the impact of his schooling under two masters of German art, Wolfgang Mattheuer and Werner Tübke, is clear, however, Pfeifer clearly treads his own path.

Above a work entitled Auf dem Wege (On The Way) which features a number of references to German cultural life, but, unable to decipher them all myself, I wrote the artist in search of assistance. To my delight he responded to my mail with the following note:

“This picture was commissioned by the Kulturbund der DDR (GDR Cultural Association) in 1987 to mark the organization’s 40th anniversary.

From left, the figures are as follow:

Sitting in front of the GDR-era garbage can is Pan, a god from Greek mythology and next to him is a child (son of the artist) playing “Indians”.

Emerging from the depths first is the symbolic figure of a German Man of Sorrows (Deutscher Schmerzensmann) followed by Bert Brecht, an unnamed figure and then Johannes R. Becher (poet and GDR Minister of Culture from 1954-58, ed.).

From left, the figures at ground level are: some have seen author Christa Wolf in this first person (U. Pfeifer: “I can accept this interpretation.”), then comes Hans Eisler, next to him Caspar David Friedrich (German Romantic painter, ed.) in front of whom is a child in a Pierrot costume (perhaps symbolic of a fool, ed.) in behind whom is an observer in coat and hat meant to represent the Stasi, the red female nude is a figure symbolizing life and next to her is a symbolic worker. That covers the people.

The wind wheel at the bottom can be understood to represent, among other things, stagnation and movement . . . “

Auf dem Wege was not the first time Pfeifer used this motif of a group in motion in his work. Another piece from the same year, Die Gefährten (The Companions), which was commissioned for the Pedagogical College in the artist’s hometown of Halle, also features a group of prominent figures from different eras striding a path together. While both works take socialist society and culture as their starting points, each seems to incorporate reference to the shadows which hung over everyday life in the GDR.

An earlier work of Pfeifer’s, Feierabend (After Work) from 1977 (seen below), shares the same central image with the two aforementioned paintings, but was the target of much more criticism. Set in an underground walkway (likely inspired by a similar one found under Halle’s Ernst Thälmann Square which has since been removed), this painting features a largely faceless crowd shuffling their way home. The only figure to face the viewer has turned back to glance over his shoulder, a vaguely threatening look on his face, his hand balled into a fist. In the foreground, a garbage can holds a newspaper. This last detail provoked the charge from a high level cultural apparatchik that Pfeifer was criticizing East German media; I’ve also seen interpretations that emphasize the anonymity of the crowd and the monotony of the setting as critiques of the GDR’s “normed” culture, but I find that the artist’s choice of colours and the distinctive dress which he has given these passersby work against such a reading. Again, it’s this ambivalence that I find so engaging. Hopefully you will too.

“Feierabend”, Uwe Pfeifer (1977).

“Mechanization” (Photo: author).

Many visitors travelling by subway to Berlin’s Stasi Museum in the Normanenstrasse may not know it, but their immersion into the ambiance of late-stage “real existing socialism” actually begins when they exit their train at the Magdalenenstrasse station. For it is here, that passengers are met by a series of 20 large scale paintings done in a neo-expressionist style: angular, often grim and only occasionally punctuated by a blast of bright colour. They aren’t “easy” images these 3 metre by 4 metre paintings on Meissen porcelain tile. They challenge and unsettle.

Those with a keen eye will find a tile at one end of the platform which identifies the works as being from the year 1986 and gives their title as “History in Twenty Images”. The artists are named (Harmut Hornung and Wolfgang Frankenstein) as is the commissioning institution (Berlin Magistrate’s Office).

While marginally enlightened by the information plaque, one is left asking oneself: how, pray tell, did art of this type – so distant from the bright futures, heroic poses and “positive” themes typically favoured by GDR authorities – find its way into the public realm anywhere in the East German capital, much less onto the walls of the subway station directly adjacent to the Stasi headquarters?!

Let’s take a couple of minutes to answer this question . . .

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M Ford - Berlin Brandenburg Gate

Chaotic scene at Brandenburg Gate, viewed from eastern side in June 1990 (photo: Mary Ford).

Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, tours of the East Bloc, which only months earlier had very limited mass appeal, were suddenly in great demand as visitors from the western world descended to explore the treasures of a culturally rich part of the world which had previously been out of reach. Two of these were Mary and Ann Ford, nurses from Ontario, Canada and avid travelers during their vacations. The photos in this post are taken from trip they took to Central Europe in June of 1990 and I enjoy them for how they present a Berlin (mainly) that is both familiar and distant. Read More

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