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Culture

Socialist Art Comes Full Circle

More than 40 years ago, Walter Womacka stuck a glowing socialist world around the facade of the Haus des Lehrers on Alexanderplatz in east Berlin. Today the socialist relic is being lovingly restored to its former glory.

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All work and no play - Womacka's mural at the Haus des Lehrers

Berlin might be known as a modern, hip and pulsating metropolis. But visit the Alexanderplatz in the east and you'll wonder if the wall really did come down in 1989.

Time seems to have stood still at this windswept square. Dreary prefabricated buildings and a general dilapidated air evoke images of Berlin's socialist past.

But nothing captures the spirit of socialism more than the towering coloured mosaic on the eastern side of the square.

Wrapped around the Haus des Lehrers (House of the teacher), the former East German education ministry, thousands of ceramic slabs show people at work - doctors, construction workers, teachers, painters, architects - ordinary people living ordinary lives and being productive beings in society.

The outlines are bold, simple and geometric. No fancy fluff, just good old down-to-earth Socialist-Realistic art.

This is our life

Small wonder that the artist, 76-year-old Walter Womacka called his 125-metre-long and 7-metre-high frieze, "Our life". The frieze is meant to depict the development of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) - idealistically.

Walter Womacka doesn't see anything wrong with that. In an interview with the Berliner Zeitung he said, "There is so much of anonymity in today's art. I always wanted to take a stand".

But like most of the surrounding buildings, Womacka's mural of the socialist ideal too has fallen into disrepair: the child in the arms of his mother looks faded, an apple tree in the background is worn out, a woman's breast is almost completely missing as several of the ceramic blocks have dropped off over the years.

The mural will soon disappear behind a huge scaffolding as both the Haus des Lehrers and the neighbouring domed Congress centre - registered national landmarks protected by a special act, will be restored.

Womacka's mosaic made of thousands of brightly coloured glass pieces will be carefully picked out, repaired by a team of restoration experts and replaced by October 2003. The project will cost some 500,000 euro.

Till then capitalism will reign here instead of socialism: the firm Wall will rent out the empty space where the mural once stood. A sprinter will advertise here for sports shoes.

Socialist art: ups and downs

Walter Womacka Wenn Kommunisten träumen...

When Communists Dream, a Womacka work from 1975

Womacka designed the mural in 1962/63.

Commissioned by the Cultural Ministry of the GDR to create "something relevant that shows our life", he was thereafter flooded with orders to create murals for the glass windows of the city council hall, the paintings in the former Foreign Ministry, the international friendship fountain in the middle of the Alexanderplatz and the gigantic copper frieze on the Haus des Reisens.

After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, several buildings in the eastern part of the city were simply pulled down or razed, along with it much of Womacka's handiwork.

After all many people didn't want to be reminded of the city's socialist past in the form of propaganda art.

Pictures and images of the flag waving proletariat, soldiers reaching out to help working women with headscarves, contented farmers, engineers and sportsmen have been wiped out from squares and streets since.

Back in fashion

But today, more than a decade after the end of socialism, it's suddenly become trendy to throw parties in a nostalgically socialist atmosphere.

Several of Berlin's eastern former communist districts such as Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg are "happening" places that attract young creative talent.

Even Womacka's massive window mosaic in the city council hall with the cheerful tractor drivers still exists. Several foreign tourists crowd to see and photograph it.

Though the artist finds this development "scurrilous", at least his art remains intact, he told the Berliner Zeitung.

Womacka will also assist the experts in restoring his Socialist mural at the Haus des Lehrers.

"It feels a bit strange to have to do with the frieze again after so long. It's a bit like slipping into the early days of the GDR," he told the newspaper.