“History in Twenty Pictures”: Berlin’s Magdalenenstr. U-Bahn

“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 . . .

The works were part of efforts by Berlin authorities to brighten up eleven centrally-located subway stations in advance of the city’s 750th anniversary in 1987. As was befitting of a state in which little was left to chance, the theme of the artworks to grace each station were determined in advance. For Magdalenenstrasse, a station located on the march route of the annual Liebknecht-Luxemburg Demonstration, the theme was to be “The history of the Workers’ Movement”. In an interview with the Berliner Zeitung earlier this year (“Magdalenenstraße Das Geheimnis der Gemälde im U-Bahnhof der Stasi-Zentrale”, by Andreas Förster, April 4, 2019), artist Hartmut Hornung recalls, “No one wanted to take that on, it was such a ‘loaded’ subject.” But being a young artist, the 100,000 M honorarium was tempting, so Hornung approached his former art professor, Wolfgang Frankenstein, to see whether he might be open to collaboration on the project.

He was and the two, who shared an appreciation for more abstract, emotionally-engaging forms of artistic expression, developed a plan for the subway project. “Our approach to this theme was to address it without whitewashing it. We wanted to avoid the heroic, bold and lightweight view that the SED had of the Workers’ Movement and instead depict the misery, suffering, violence and terror that had gone together with the Communist Revolution.”

It wasn’t a recipe for success, but though Hornung may not have realized it at the time, the decision to approach his older professor, was the right one: “In retrospect,” Hornung offers, “Wolfgang Frankenstein’s involvement was key, because without him, these paintings would never have been created.”

Indeed, as collaborators went, Frankenstein offered exceptional political cover for a number of reasons. First, he had suffered considerable persecution during the Nazi period due to being the son of a Jewish father. Second, after settling in the West after World War II, he had chosen to emigrate to the GDR after publicly protesting West German remilitarization in 1951 had caused him to be largely shut out of the West German art scene. Finally, Frankenstein had an international profile as the Honorary Chair of UNESCO’s Association d’Art Plastique. That he’d been around the GDR art block more than a few times didn’t hurt either.

When it came time to present their vision to the award jury, Hornung remembers that Frankenstein knew just what to do. “He said, ‘Look, we’ll just do a couple of sketches which they won’t be able to make heads or tails of and they we’ll just tell them what they want to hear.” To the younger artist’s surprise it worked, but further hurdles remained. “We ended up in a real fight. When the art functionaries responsible for the project understood what it was we had in mind, they even offered us the full 100,000 Marks to step back from the commission, but we refused.”

“Hegel put right.”: an allusion to what Communists saw as the Right’s misunderstanding of the influential German thinker’s philosophy (Photo: author)

So what to make of this story? What does it tell us about the late-stage GDR? That such work could maneuver its way through “the system” to completion and public display seems to challenge commonly held assumption of how state socialism worked. Was this a symptom of the system’s decline? Or an indication that the tools of repression were no longer reliably effective? Or are we to understand this as a product of the loosening of controls, perhaps an example of some apparatchiks’ grassroots Glasnost?

  1. Jay said:

    Really interesting post! I was there recently, and was actually wondering if the art was recent or not. Also, as a longtime follower of this blog, thank you for all the great topics you write about in general- they’re full of details that make the GDR’s history so much more interesting!

    • Thanks so much for the kind words and for taking the time to read! It is great to hear that you find the posts interesting and provides motivation to keep on keeping on.

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