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Berlin

The GDR Objectified visits Marzahn, a socialist-era housing project on the eastern edge of Berlin, to seek out GDR-era public art scattered throughout the estate.

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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.

“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

To mark the 57th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, here are some memories of Gundula Wilhelm, a retired pastor’s wife from Alberta, Canada. Gundula and her family moved to East Berlin in 1952 so that her father, a Lutheran pastor, could serve the zum Vaterhaus parish on Treptow’s Baumschulenweg, just a short stroll to the border dividing the two halves of the city.

Wall - Berlin Aug 13 cover

Berlin August 13, a publication of Federal Republic of Germany’s Ministry for All-German Affairs, here in a revised and expanded version in April 1965 (author’s collection)

“It was wonderful growing up in the Berlin of that time. When we arrived in the city, the border was still open of course, so you could go over on the S-Bahn [commuter train, ed] any time you wished,” remembers Gundula.  “You might be unlucky and get searched, but that never happened to me. We had close relatives over there though, so we were over often. In fact, we were in the West visiting a cousin on August 12, 1961, but came back to the ‘lovely’ East that evening. We woke up the next morning to the sound of tanks passing by our house on their way to the border just up the road. And from that point on, you couldn’t go across, simple as that.” (Interview with author, May 27, 2018)

While we are familiar with these sad stories of the immediate consequences of the Wall’s construction, it was the account of the years that followed shared by Gundula and her husband Friedmut which I found most fascinating as they help bring to life the atmosphere that the couple and their circle of young friends experienced in the aftermath of the Wall.

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1960 - Homeric JWK II

My father, John Kleiner, at a masquerade ball on board the Homeric, the ship which transported him to Europe in the fall of 1959.

Today would’ve marked the 82nd birthday of my father, Dr. John Kleiner, a professor of at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Canada, and the man whom I have to thank for my interest in German history. To mark this date, I thought that I’d share some photos and notes from a trip he took to Berlin in the winter of 1960. I think that these provide an interesting perspective on the divided city before the Wall and I hope that after reading this post that you’ll agree with this assessment.

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One could argue that no one defined the face of “Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic” more than visual artist Walter Womacka (1925 – 2010). A favourite of GDR leader Walter Ulbricht during the mid- to late-1960s during which East Berlin received much of its socialist makeover, Womacka was a key protagonist in the GDR’s “Kunst am Bau” (literally “art on building”) movement. This  sought to ideologically mark East German cityscapes through large-scale, agit-prop artworks and Womacka’s creations graced a number of prominent buildings in the East German capital.

Eastern side of Walter Womacka’s 1964 mosaic “Our Life” on Berlin’s House of Teachers building (photo: M. Bomke).

Interestingly, more 28 years after the fall of the Wall, many of Womacka’s works remain intact and have even found a place in the iconography of present day Berlin. Given the ideologically charged debates around the legacy of much GDR-commissioned public art in the years following German unification in 1990, this was by no means a certainty. I think the reason for this lies in the way Womacka combined the aesthetic language of socialist realism with elements of folk art, an approach which allows many viewers to overlook the overtly propagandistic of much of his public art. Read More

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