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June 10, 2011

Bernhard Heisig, who died Friday aged 86, was state artist for the East German regime, but also an outcast of the ruling socialist party. In a reunified Germany, his works lay at the heart of debate over the role of art.

Bernhard Heisig
Heisig leaves behind a rich legacyImage: dapd

Back in the 1990s, Germany set about debating the deeper role and meaning of art, what it should embody and how it should achieve this. At the heart of this debate was the work of Bernhard Heisig, who passed away Friday aged 86. Culture Minister Bernd Neumann praised Heisig as among the most important painters and graphic artists within the contemporary movement.

The artist's painting, titled 'Time and Life', was controversially chosen to be hung in the old German parliament building. The piece shows scenes from German history, in both abstract and representational forms. But the choice of this painting was less about the content of the image, so much as the portfolio of the artist.

East Germany state artist

For years, Heisig was one of the most revered artists in East Germany, indeed he was widely considered among the flagship painters in the regime. He painted Lenin and other leaders of the socialist world, depicting scenes from a leftist historical perspective, commissioned and appreciated by the likes of senior GDR members such as Erich Honecker and other East Germany bigwigs.

Heisig's 'Unterm Hakenkreuz'
Heisig's 'Under the Swastika' is among his most well-known worksImage: Staatliche Mueen zu Berlin

But in many ways, Bernhard Heisig was also considered an outcast of the regime, an obscure teacher and painter who was not true to the party's principals. He was a man who returned national awards honoring him and who eventually withdrew from the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED).

Heisig, who two years after the end of World War II resettled in the east and joined the SED, was simultaneously state artist and state critic.

Divisive figure

Could such an honor - as having your work displayed in the parliament building was considered - be bestowed upon such an artist? The longtime head of the Leipziger Kunsthochschule did not approve of this honor. After German reunification, Heisig's works were at the heart of debate over how to handle the former state artists - and the critics turned against Heisig.

Though gradually, the other side of the coin began to gain the upper hand, due largely to the fact that Heisig's supporters were arguing from a strong position: His status in the art word was undisputed, and as head of the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts he was considered an authority and among the founding fathers of the so-called "Leipzig School" of art.

Art by Heisig
Critics have reevaluated the works of HeisigImage: dpa

His protegees included influential German artist Neo Rauch, who would later become his assistant. Even before the rethink of Heisig's works, he was chosen to paint the portrait of former chancellor Helmut Schmidt for the Chancellery Gallery in the former capital, Bonn.

Victim of his time

"Heisig made no secret of the fact that he was both perpetrator and victim of the times in which he lived. His artistic achievements lay in the livelong engagement with the trauma of a biography which sprung from war and dictatorship, and then further dictatorship and the Cold War," wrote the curators of the Bernhard Heisig exhibition which was on show back in 2005 in Berlin, Leipzig and Dusseldorf.

The curators refer not only to Heisig's years in East Germany, but also quite explicitly to his voluntary participation in the war between 1942 and 1945 for the Nazis. Heisig fought on both the eastern and western fronts as a soldier and was wounded on several occasions. These experiences would later become a major theme in his art.

Indeed, war and the role of the individual in it became an important aspect of his paintings. Heisig's images were always abstract, but also representational at the same time, the expressionism in his brushwork the mark of a great temperament and dedication. This alone stood him within the tradition of German artists like Oskar Kokoschka and Max Beckmann.

Author: Jochen Kürten /dfm
Editor: Nicole Goebel