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Issue 207

Feminism Contra Politics, 30 Years After the Berlin Wall

Remembering a meeting of two worlds in November 1989

BY Susanne von Falkenhausen in Opinion | 26 OCT 19

On 9 November 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell, I was in Berlin, working on a book about Italian monumental painting. Together with other feminist art historians from West Germany and Austria, I had been in contact with our socialist counterparts: feminist art historians in the East. We had rarely met them, save for the occasional conference in the West that a few were permitted to attend.

These East German colleagues had been organizing the first conference on feminism in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). It took place on 29 November, at a kind of hostel in a small town near Berlin. We slept in bunk beds, toilet and shower on the landing, with a kind of intimacy that most of us from the wealthy West remembered only from childhood. There we were, feeling slightly awkward, sharing rooms with professors and others we hardly knew, changing into nightgowns, stirring and waking up together.

The wall had just come down, but East Germany still existed. At this point in time, many intellectuals, from both East and West, hoped not for a unification under the roof of capitalism but for the GDR to become a democratic and socialist country – a model for change in the rest of Germany. This would entail giving power to the East German voices of dissent, who were organizing themselves in roundtables, working on a constitution. Now this utopia could be realized – or so we thought at the time. This was not to be but, on 29 November, the shock of historical change was still very much alive. So was the feeling of chaos, of a power vacuum – an absence of legislation, administration and infrastructure – all of which seemed to open up a space for change.

Cornelia Schleime, Stasi-Serie (3/15), 1993. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Michael Schultz, Berlin

Not for nothing was what happened in the GDR in the weeks before November 1989 regarded as a peaceful revolution. It gave people a sense of being the agent of historical change, not its passive recipient. Being an East German feminist at that precise, urgent moment implied a double motivation: a political one and a feminist one. But, what to prioritize: a new republic or the fight for feminism? And how did these relate? Then there was our (East and West) common denominator: art history. Where did that come in? To confront these questions was intimately linked to how, unconsciously or consciously, we saw our – in today’s terms – individual identities.

It is unimaginable today but, 30 years ago, identity was not a category of theoretical or political discussion. Our categories – and this was something we had in common – were economic and social equality, society, justice and the construction of gender, albeit with different priorities and meanings. And in contrast to identity-centred debates today, in these three days we quickly managed to speak to one another across a huge political and cultural divide without bombarding each other with exclusionary accusations.

In this totally unpredictable historical situation, we wondered: should we discuss our participation in the general upheaval or should we listen to our art-historical talks, as planned, as scholars? Should we act up as feminists or as political subjects in a general sense? Here, we found ourselves split along East and West lines. Those of us from the West felt in no position to tell our Eastern colleagues what to do. They decided to hold a vote. The art-historical talks won: 14 GDR and five Western art historians spoke. They had voted for their feminist art-historian identities. But what should come first: feminism or art history?

A medieval-studies specialist from the GDR said: ‘We are art historians. And when we start a revolution, we do it with our science.’ We discussed the function of female allegories in the imagery of national memorials, the representation of women in GDR print media and the social role of women in pre-avant-garde Russian art around 1900, among other subjects. This last topic was pre-avant-garde per necessity: the period was off limits for research in the GDR, and its archives in the USSR were inaccessible – a leftover of Stalinist cultural politics. I remember the lucidity and balance of two East German colleagues who spoke on an in-progress feminist critique of Marxist art history, and also their critique of Western feminist art history.

Cornelia Schleime, Stasi-Serie (8/15), 1993. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Michael Schultz, Berlin

A minority of the East German participants discussed political action, which ended in a common statement that was, alas, not documented in the publication I still have from this conference: an offset-printed copy of the typed protocols, bearing a discreet proviso that the original publication had not been possible. The organizers had planned an offcial book from the Verband Bildender Künstler der DDR (VBK, Federation of Visual Artists in the GDR), which controlled all art exhibitions and sales (private galleries were not allowed, which also meant that no private art market existed). Like the GDR, the VBK was on its way out and with it went the funds for the book.

We then discussed if they could count on their male companions when it came to fights for jobs and power. Raised with solidarity as a socialist virtue, they mostly trusted that this would be the case. When we voiced our scepticism – male solidarity with women? – they insisted. Sorry to say, our suspicions proved to be well-grounded. Many of our Eastern colleagues were soon out of work, and no cross-gender solidarity was to be seen.

In the following years, art institutions and universities experienced a strenuous time of often chaotic and piecemeal structural change, full of compromises and resistance against being ‘taken over’ by the Federal Republic of Germany. The process was called unification, and it was so difficult that the fighting spirit of these weeks after the peaceful revolution soon became a distant memory.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 207 with the headline ‘Ich Bin Ein(e) …’.

Main image: Cornelia Schleime, Stasi-Serie (2/15), 1993. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Michael Schultz, Berlin

Susanne von Falkenhausen is an art historian and professor emerita of modern and contemporary art history, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. Publications include Kugelbau­visionen (2008) and Praktiken des Sehens im Felde der Macht (2011).