As I sat with friends in a Berlin café, the conversation settled light-heartedly on 'Ostalgie', the retro-socialist appeal of the former East Germany, which has won over the city, lifted the film Goodbye Lenin! (2002) to success and inspired producer Peter Massine to move ahead with a DDR theme park in a former East Berlin industrial district.
But the mood can change once the subject of art comes up. This retrospective of art from the DDR is vast: 400 works by 145 artists - most of them unknown to an international audience. Ironically, before 1989 we might have seen some of their work in the guise of propaganda, but here the curators excluded government commissions and the well-known official socialist styles. The show was a personal selection of works chosen as a grand experiment to see if this 'independent' art could stand on its own. With a few exceptions, it could not.
Strolling through the exhibition was like picking your way though a time machine run aground in the years between Pablo Picasso's Tragedy (1903), Lyonel Feininger's Street of Barns (1914), Karl Hofer's People Sleeping (1919), Ernst Barlach's Der Rächer (The Avenger, 1922) and Otto Dix's Anita Berber (1925) - all unchallenged influences. Although compassion for life under the thumb of tyranny must be a consideration, I still walked away wondering if any society could admire this work. In room after room there is a sense of something idle, inoperative, vegetating. Yet how could it be otherwise? 'Kunst in den DDR' is an unambiguous specimen of what autocracy can best produce, a bell jar of arrested development.
A few artists provided spikes of resilience. In a black and white photograph from Gundula Schulze el Dowy's series 'Zeit an Zeit' (Time on Time, 1985-91) a deranged man steps before an oncoming parade of faceless East German soldiers to conduct the band's stringent marching music passionately with his gnarled fingers, his oblivion blessed rather than merciless. As though it were an earlier version of the same theme, Gerhard Altenbourg's Ecce Homo (Der sterbende Krieger) (Ecco Homo, The Dying Soldier, 1949) pictures a tortured and blackened man rising over a child's drawing of battle scenes, an absurd and irrational landscape where 'naive' and 'raw' become antonyms rather than synonyms. Matthias Leupold's mocking photographs of the plentiful, progressive images of modern life churned out by East Germany's propaganda machine are knowing, and served up cold.
Far and away the most captivating artists here, however, are the 'collaborators,' the avowed communists who were coddled by the East German regime as long as they concentrated on the routine Marxist themes of class struggle and anti-imperialism. With government commissions omitted from this exhibition by curatorial decree, the pictures left to represent the collaborators at the Nationalgalerie can feel markedly different in tone from everything else. Whether this work is particularly able or not, it comes over as unfailingly smug. Of course, poise is cultivated for different reasons - I am thinking especially of Willi Sitte and Werner Tübke, artists who did not struggle, did not resist and did not join A. R. Penck and Gerhard Richter in escape. Indeed, Sitte, active as a communist since the 1930s, moved to the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany following the war. And if he is among the least gifted of the artists here - in Raub der Sabinerinnen (Rape of the Sabine Women, 1953) Sitte hauled off as much as he could carry from Picasso - he was without doubt the most politically powerful and thus intriguing. Having held a chair at the Hochschule für Industrielle Formgestaltung (College for Creation of Industrial Form), he was elected President of the Union of Artists and Craftsmen. Sitte subsequently not only established the artistic principles of the party, but also worked with the Stasi secret police to single out artists who strayed. His presidency ended in 1988.
Werner Tübke was also well cared for by the East German regime - a museum was even dedicated to his work. Establishing himself within the party, he made pictures with titles such as Weissen Terrors in Ungarn (White Terror in Hungary, 1957) and Feierabend armenischer Kolchosebauern (End of the Working Day for Armenian Collective Farmers, 1967), neither of which appears in the exhibition. But Tübke is capable of significantly more than rehearsing East Germany's national interests. In the wide-angled Studie: Arbeiterklasse and Intelligenz (Study: The Working Class and Intelligence, 1973) he abstains from the bombast of Socialist Realism to cast a spell of classical refinement in the style of Caravaggio and Titian. His deft touch ennobles the central figure, a dignified worker who greets us with pensive eyes from beneath a cocked hat. Tübke renders him as a confident, decent, self-sacrificing protagonist who has undertaken the laudable task of building a better world. And even though this worker is sharply etched as a modern communist hero, there is more medieval legend here than socialist rhetoric.
Tübke's range is broader still, as Sizilianischer Grossgrundbesitzer mit Marionetten (Sicilian Property Tycoon with Puppets, 1972) makes clear. His subject, 'the dandy', must have been received as a decadent oppressor of the puppet-proletariat in the eyes of Tübke's East German audience. Liberated from that milieu, the picture expresses an uncanny iconography in which the 'dandy' - as effete as they come - passes idyllic time perched in his eerie estate. It is a remarkable representation of aristocracy, whatever your politics.
Germany has gained the perspective necessary to look back critically, as well as with the blithe sentiment of 'Ostalgie', but either way both eyes must be wide open. How could the curators not see that? Isn't it just as important to know that Sitte, as well as being a minor talent, happened to work for the Stasi, or that Tübke, another collaborator, could take on the chore of picturing collective farmers and still remain a masterful painter?