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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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“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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My copy of the East German pressing of Depeche Mode’s Greatest Hits album which state’s Amiga label in 1987 (photo: author).

In 1988, it was clear to both East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and its official youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), that the country’s youth were being lost to the “real existing socialist project”. Searching for a means to address this, the FDJ reached for a solution which would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier and started booking major western pop stars for concerts in East Berlin in the hope that the organization might burnish its image by basking in some reflected glory. Many of the bookings made as part of this project including Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams and Joe Cocker made sense on one level as the acts’ blue-collar, working class images dovetailed somewhat with the GDR’s official ideology.

But Depeche Mode? How did the FDJ justify having the British synth-pop stars headline the organization’s birthday concert at East Berlin’s Werner Seelenbinder Hall on March 7, 1988? Read More

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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