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Against the grain

November 4, 2009

As an artist in East Germany, Hans-Hendrik Grimmling painted himself out of "socialist realism" in the GDR. He and five other artists were pioneers in organizing an uncensored exhibition: the First Leipzig Fall Salon.

Hans-Hendrik Grimmling, drawing, historical photo
Grimmling tried to free himself from convention at a young ageImage: mdv

Hans-Hendrik Grimmling was practically born with a paintbrush in his hand. By 14, he and a friend had already set up their own studio in Grimmling's hometown Zwenkau, near Leipzig.

The two boys did not just have art on their minds, though. Although they painted, copied works by artists including Franz Marc, and even sold a couple of pieces, the studio served more as a sanctuary of freedom. They used the space to drink and throw parties, and would rent the room to young couples in exchange for a glass of beer. Everyone else kept their distance.

"It felt great," recalled Grimmling. "At such a young age, we had already carved a niche and tried to free ourselves from convention."

The soldier with the painting kit

Hans-Hendrik Grimmling, seen here in his studio in Berlin
Grimmling, seen here in his studio, is now an art professor in BerlinImage: Picture-Alliance / Tagesspiegel

After finishing school, Hans-Hendrik Grimmling joined the National People's Army (NVA), as all young men in East Germany were required to do. He later described the experience as the most terrible time of his life, full of humiliation and hidden tears.

During his service, Grimmling's painting kit was one of the only personal items he was allowed to keep. He retreated to his room each night to paint and avoid the problems he faced in the military. "There, I painted just for myself as an escape and to feel a kind of tenderness. Painting saved me from the reality I faced and helped me survive," he said.

Upon completing his military service, Grimmling was accepted to East Germany's most renowned university for artists, in Leipzig. He and his classmates gained a reputation for being wild - but also unbelievably productive.

"Completely strange imagination"

Grimmling finished his basic studies with Werner Tuebke, one of the most famous GDR painters, and was accepted along with five other students for the advanced class called "Free Art." It was led by Wolfgang Mattheuer, another important figure in the Leipzig art scene. Mattheuer's class provided Grimmling with an important forum where he could enjoy artistic freedom.

However, Grimmling was prevented from graduating just before the end of his studies. The faculty cited his "completely strange imagination" and the influence of "imperialistic decadence" in his work as reasons for his failure. There was nothing of the proletariat to be found in his paintings, they criticized.

Faced with expulsion, Grimmling accepted an assignment to paint two miners in a piece called "Working Heroes." He explained that he had not yet developed a radically alternative perspective and still wanted the official recognition that a diploma confers.

"Working Heroes" led Grimmling to graduate with the grade of "very good" and he was offered a position at the Association of Visual Artists. The job provided for his basic needs and offered opportunities to take part in state-sponsored art projects and deals.

"Umerziehung der Voegel" (Movement of the Birds), by Hans-Hendrik Grimmling, 1978
"Umerziehung der Voegel" (Reeducation of the Birds), by Hans-Hendrik Grimmling, 1978

Catching the censors' attention

Alongside his official role, however, Grimmling was developing his own vision. He painted birds without wings or with contorted bodies turning in on themselves, while experimenting and testing boundaries with fellow artists.

His work began to draw attention from the East German censors. In particular, a line from a poem he and artist and friend Olaf Wegewitz posted above a gallery door raised concern. The line ran "The word ruins the way," and the censors wondered whether Grimmling meant to implicate the ruling SED party.

Government officials cancelled the gallery's planned exhibition one day before its opening date and ordered that it be taken down. The episode frustrated Wegewitz and Grimmling, who recalled, "We were humiliated, but, at the same time, we felt a sort of pleasure in being able to define ourselves differently and not belong to 'them.'"

Beyond the state's imagination

"Ich in Leipzig" (Me in Leipzig), by Hans-Hendrik Grimmling, 1978
"Ich in Leipzig" (Me in Leipzig), by Hans-Hendrik Grimmling, 1978

Another of Grimmling's exhibits was forbidden a year later, but the artist did not give up. He sought new ways to exhibit his work, and finally he had a stroke of genius.

Together with five other artists, Grimmling organized the "First Leipzig Fall Salon." The 1984 event became the first uncensored exhibition to take place in East Germany.

Due to their membership in the Association of Visual Artists, Grimmling and fellow painter Guenther Huniat were able to rent a space for the exhibit from a government agency in Leipzig. The state officials couldn't imagine that the artists were not planning to show official works from the Association, but their own independent creations.

Eventually, the Stasi - the East German secret police - caught wind of the group's plans and documented the work of Grimmling and his peers as hostile and negative. Security officials wondered, however, whether banning the exhibition would draw too much attention to the artists.

In light of these concerns, the exhibit was allowed to take place but with an important proviso: No more than six visitors could see the exhibition daily. Nevertheless, the show was a hit and attracted more than 10,000 visitors in the course of four weeks.

A threat to communism

"Mauerbild" (Picture of the Wall), by Hans-Hendrik Grimmling, 1983
"Mauerbild" (Picture of the Wall), by Hans-Hendrik Grimmling, 1983

Despite the exhibition's success, it proved to be a defeat for Grimmling. It became clear to him that the state would never permit a second installment of the Fall Salon. This conclusion led him to a significant decision: He filed an official request to be allowed to travel out of East Germany.

The Stasi file on Grimmling reveals that he was viewed as a lost cause who could not be won back for the good of society. As such, Grimmling's request to leave the country was processed and approved in an unusually quick manner.

In 1986, the artist traveled into West Berlin, together with his wife and young daughter. They lived with friends while Grimmling created a makeshift studio and began to paint with limited materials on packing paper from a hardware store. He was also able to sell a few paintings left over from his time in Leipzig.

Moving forward in Berlin

Gradually, Grimmling established himself more and more in West Berlin. He had begun offering painting courses by 1988. In 2001, he became a lecturer and later a professor at the Technical University for Art in Berlin.

He said of his work there, "Now and again, I try to explain to my students that it makes sense and can even bring a kind of joy to get mixed up in things that you think might be manipulated. And even after the fall of the Wall, there's still plenty of manipulation."

Author: Nadine Wojcik (gw)

Editor: Kate Bowen