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Culture

East German Art Retrospective Sparks Debate

The biggest-ever retrospective of East German art, which conspicuously avoids the Socialist Realism favored by the Communist regime, opened in Berlin this week amid a wave of nostalgia and controversy.

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Art in the GDR - painting by Wolfgang Smy and the sculpture "You must be Armed" by Hans Scheib.

More than a decade after the fall of the Berlin wall and raging controversy about what East German art works should go on show, a major exhibition unveiled in Berlin this week takes a fresh look back on 40 years of art in the GDR (German Democratic Republic).

Titled "Art in the GDR", the show at Berlin’s grand Mies von der Rohe-designed New National Gallery brings together 400 paintings, sculptures and photographs from 135 artists.

The show coincides with a surge in kitschy nostalgia for the East most particularly in Berlin where "Ostalgie," a twist on the German word for nostalgia ( Nostalgie) is all the rage. The success of films such as "Goodbye Lenin" and a penchant for tacky East German paraphernalia and architecture which have taken on cult and hip status testify to Germany’s new-found love-affair with the former East’s retro-socialist appeal.

Exhibition bound to stir controversy

Director of the National Gallery Peter-Klaus Schuster emphasized on Thursday during a press conference the exhibition was about "art in the GDR" and not the regime-favoring "art of the GDR". Schuster admitted the show was bound to stir controversy. "There will be a fierce discussion here, but that is what we intended," he said.

Ever since reunification in 1990, Germany has seen a intense debate on what East German art should be included in an exhibition as several artists were co-opted by the Communist regime to portray a Communist utopia, thus recruiting art to their cause, while dissident artists were forced underground or into exile.

Earlier attempts to put up exhibitions on East German art failed miserably and only served to strengthen the impression among West Germans that most artists in the East were merely collaborating with the regime and obediently following their dictates. The most notable debacle was a retrospective in the city of Weimar in 1999, which drew comparisons between East German art and Nazi totalitarian aesthetics and had to be closed down following angry protests.

"Art is art"

The curators of the present retrospective, though aware of the explosive nature of the topic, say it’s high time for such an exhibition now that post-unification tensions have eased.

"I have a very good feeling about it," curator Eugen Blume told Deutsche Welle. "It’s not that so-called art that distanced itself from the regime or opposition art is the only thing that one sees or that we’ve blocked out regime-promoting art. Instead we’ve taken the whole spectrum into account under the motto: art is art," he said.

Schwerter zu Pflugscharen

Schwerter zu Pflugscharen An das Denkmal vor dem UNO-Gebäude in New York erinnernde Eisengußplastik der DDR-Friedensbewegung.

Indeed the visitor is first confronted by Werner Tübkes’ imposing work "Christmas night 1524" and a sculpture by Fritz Cremer. Both artists were favored by the Communist authorities and Tübke even had his own museum in the GDR.

The rest of the works are largely displayed by genre, one room focusing on expressionistic artists in Dresden and Leipzig who sought to turn their backs on the Socialist Realism of the time, another on artist communities such as the Dresden group "Blue Wonder", and still others dealing with impressionism, pop art and realism.

Director Peter-Klaus Schuster said he was impressed by the variety of art and genres thriving in the GDR. "This wealth of tone and painting culture is surprising. How one paints. And at the same time a glimpse into art from the East, that also became so successful in the West."

The curators make it clear that they’ve included rarely seen works from collections across Germany and beyond as well as photographs they say give a true picture of life under a Communist regime.

"We’re showing what wasn’t in vogue in East Germany, what was criminally neglected," curator Roland März told news agency AP.

Show has fair share of critics

The show however steers clear of the Socialist Realism of the Communist era such as busts of Lenin and large paintings and portraits of hardworking, heroic workers that usually adorned public buildings in the GDR, a point which has been criticized by many.

One prominent example of it is artist Max Lingners’ work on Communist utopia that is today displayed in the Finance Ministry in Berlin. However März said there was no room for "platitudes" of Socialist Realism in the show.

The exhibition has also come under fire most prominently from East German artists, some of whom are represented in the show.

DDR Kunst Willi Sitte

"Elternbild II" by Willi Sitte

39-year-old painter Moritz Götze told a German daily that the show ignored small-town East Germany and that art in the GDR should be presented so that the conditions surrounding its roots would also be made understood.

Leipzig-based artist Wolfgang Mattheur was more trenchant. "After 13 years, one should finally stop treating the GDR as a special case," he said.

The exhibition "Art in the GDR" runs through October 26, 2003

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