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East German art not to be dismissed, professor asserts

May 20, 2009

When World War II ended, and Germany emerged as a divided country, the art world diverged there, too.

Artists in West Germany were free to follow their dreams, and they joined the march toward modernism.

East German artists, however, were under the thumb of the Communist dictators, and they were only allowed to create “socialist” paintings that were second-rate and full of propaganda.

But is this a true picture of art in Cold War Germany?

Not so, says Claudia Mesch, associate professor of art history in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, whose book, “Modern Art at the Berlin Wall: Demarcating Culture in the Cold War Germanys,” has just been published by I.B. Tauris, London.

Mesch argues that the art produced in East Germany, including painting, video and performance art, revises and alters our exclusively Western-based definition of modern art. “It’s condescending and dismissive to say that the Soviet Bloc was never modern, and that we cannot learning anything from their art,” she said.

“It’s fashionable in art history to prioritize art – most important is the art created and sold in New York – for example Pop Art and Conceptual Art – and only after that there is the art of ‘others.’

“I’m trying to argue that our picture of post-war art has to include art created in the Soviet Bloc – but not as an aberration. The West’s version of 20th century modern art should not be accepted as a universal.”

Mesch said that her book “suggests that a look back at the style of ‘Socialist Realism’ – which once symbolized the other side of the East-West divide and even an antidote to high modernism and the avant-garde – is in order.”

At the height of the Cold War, Mesch said, Western artists and critics rejected Socialist Realism as “pure propaganda and as emblematic of totalitarian Communist regimes.”

And, she added, the West still sees Socialist Realism a style that is “the most primitive and the most barbaric cultural practice of the postwar world. ….”

The decision about where to place Socialist Realism as an art practice is still contested within the discipline of art history,” Mesch writes. “Is it an ‘other modernism’, postmodernism, or somewhere in between?”

The Socialist Unity Party, which governed East Germany, had announced in 1953 that “The party supports a realist art production, as ever we are convinced that Socialist Realism is a worthy goal.”

Socialist artists were to draw their subject matter, Mesch said, from “everyday life, which was understood to take place primarily at factory and agricultural sites.”

Acceptable genres were portraits of the heroic worker, paintings of the brigade with many people working together, and pictures of groups in discussion.

“Within these genres the worker as well as the working collective were to be rendered with little ambiguity or nuance, and not as individual personalities but as general and schematic socialist types,” Mesch said.

But East German artists, faced with endless portraits of people at work, began to challenge the notion that modern art was “degenerate” (as the Nazis had claimed by the 1930s), and slowly pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable.

They rediscovered other modernist styles and traditions once aligned with socialism that East Germany had suppressed, like Realism (of the variety practiced by the French painter Gustave Courbet), German Expressionism, or the cubist forms of Picasso’s art. Even if East German art was largely figurative and did not pursue abstraction, it began to develop its own path as modern art.

Mesch points out that this emphasis on the figure parallels Western developments in modernism, and that it should be remembered that both Surrealism and Picasso’s art remained figurative, too.

“It was not until the late 1970s that other mediums and practices of the avant-garde – constructivism, collage, performance and even photography– were more widely embraced as art in East German exhibitions and art publications,” Mesch said.

In many ways, the East German state “actually was a shell,” Mesch said. Officially sanctioned and progressive East German art critics such as Klaus Weidner and Ullrich Kuhirt wrote statements saying that Socialist Realism was not “a collection of strict rules,” and East German painters began to take up the required “explicitly anti-fascist message” and the image of the worker in more innovative ways.

“The central committee in these cases now appeared to tolerate modernist experimentation as long as the artist explicitly addressed the subject matter of anti-fascism. In the end the state simply lost control of contemporary art.”

During these years, contrary to popular thought, East and West German artists were aware of what was going on both sides of the wall, through various means including television, Mesch said. “East and West German art museums and art criticism constructed a myth of total and irreconcilable East/West division. But the idea that East and West German artists had no influence on each other is erroneous.”

After the Berlin Wall came down, there was a rush to be Western – to “readjust old national identities to coincide with Western (mis)conceptions of the East or which was now simply assumed to be ‘West,’” Mesch said.

In that tumultuous time, those Cold-War works of Soviet Realism – and the works that followed them in the East, ever pushing toward modernism – were tucked away in museum storage or in cellars in the former East Germany.

They should not be summarily dismissed, according to Mesch. “They should be taken out of storage, be exhibited and studied. There is much we can learn from them about modern art.”