BY Kito Nedo in Reviews | 03 FEB 13
Featured in
Issue 8

Abschied von Ikarus

Neues Museum Weimar

BY Kito Nedo in Reviews | 03 FEB 13

Kurt Dornis, Zweite Schicht (detail), 1986, mixed paints on chipboard

Abschied von Ikarus (Farewell to Icarus) promised to take a new look at the art of the German Democratic Republic through 280 works, most of them paintings. This show was only the latest promise in an established pattern of stimulus and response. The debate about the value of East German art is like the popular ‘Trabi Safari’ tours of Berlin, steadily doing the rounds over the last two decades. As early as 1990, in an interview for art magazine, Georg Baselitz sweepingly dismissed East German colleagues like Bernhard Heisig and Wolfgang Mattheuer as ‘assholes’, and, ‘performers who filled out a programme defined by the East German system’. In 1999, the East-West conflict escalated in the so-called ‘Weimarer Bilderstreit’ (Weimar Iconoclasm), when GDR art was symbolically consigned to the dustbin of history in the exhibition Aufstieg und Fall der Moderne (The Rise and Fall of Modernism). In this show, held in a multipurpose hall belonging to the Nazi-era Gauforum Weimar complex, the paintings were hung in several horizontal rows against dark plastic sheeting. The 2009 exhibition 60 Jahre, 60 Werke (Sixty Years, Sixty Works, 2009) at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau raised hackles by demonstratively and totally excluding East German works from its narrative of post-war German art.

Eberhard Heiland, Die Aura der Schmelzer, 1988, oil on hardboard

Things have come a long way since then. Ignorance is no longer a viable option with regard to East German art. The more time passes, the more distant the demise of the GDR and its everyday reality becomes, the stronger the urge to remember. Art becomes interesting again as a medium for transmitting history. But the passage of time also takes off some of the ideological edge of the work, as art becomes just one aspect of a bygone culture. In this sense, Abschied von Ikarus got everything right: the chronologically hung show took the art of the GDR seriously, linked it with its historical context and created a window onto a broader research project entitled Bildatlas: Kunst in der DDR (Picture Atlas: Art in the GDR) which to date includes 20,000 paintings from 165 collections, publicly accessible via an online database. The wealth of material in this exhibition essentially confirmed what was already known: the ruling Communist Party quickly set the course of East German cultural policy by stage-managing a ‘dispute over formalism’ in the early 1950s in the guise of a call for ‘Socialist Realism’. The aesthetic impasse of what might be termed ‘agit-kitsch’ was illustrated by canvases presented in a kind of salon hanging, including Georg Kretzschmar’s Die Volkslehrerin (The Teacher, 1953) commissioned by the Party for the third Exhibition of German Art in Dresden: a group of schoolchildren, some in what appear to be youth brigade uniforms, receive a geography lesson; the window behind them overlooks a city designed in the Stalinist wedding cake style. The ‘Bitterfeld Path’ – the name under which the Party propagated the development of a ‘socialist national culture’ in the early 1960s – was also a failure, defeated both by reality and by the cunning of artists: Werner Tübke, a painter feted by the regime, rendered a team of construction workers in a mannerist style with untypically elongated hands in his Gruppenbild (Zimmerbrigade Schirmer) (Group portrait, Schirmer’s Carpentry Brigade, 1971–72). During the boom years of the liberal 1970s, many artists came to terms with the prevailing conditions and produced large, optimistic, technological cybernetic pictures as a backdrop to the dream of a ‘socialist modernity’ (see the murals by the Spanish Communist Josep Renau Berenguer who resettled in the GDR in 1958 after living in exile in Mexico). As we know, history chose a different path: the quiet melancholy of paintings like Kurt Dornis’s Zweite Schicht (Second Shift, 1986) bespeaks the agony of the 1980s. One especially interesting feature in the exhibition were the vitrines documenting the amount of energy needed in the 1950s to run an international commercial gallery like Galerie Henning in Halle in the face of constant harassment: a Picasso exhibition, for example, was simply not welcomed by the regime at the time.

Above all, this exhibition, with its considered, academic presentation, demonstrated that the controversy over East German art is coming to an end. No one now doubts that significant art was made in the GDR. Lone figures like Carlfriedrich Claus, Gerhard Altenbourg and Hermann Glöckner are given major solo shows. Since Abschied von Ikarus aimed to present a complete history, works by artists loyal to the state and by those estranged from it became odd neighbours. All of a sudden, for example, one found oneself in front of an infamous ‘meat paintings’ by the once-powerful art official and Central Committee member Willi Sitte (Liebespaar im Badezimmer, Lovers in the Bathroom, 1970–1). While testifying to a methodical thoroughness, the inclusion of this work suggested a certain ruthlessness towards viewers: perhaps the selection was a little too all-inclusive, even for a show of this kind.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as contributing editor for frieze and as freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.