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How art anticipated change in East Germany

Torsten Landsberg eg
July 24, 2019

"Point of No Return" in Leipzig is the first exhibition to look into the way East German artists expressed their vision of the state and their hopes for change ahead of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ausstellung "Point of no Return"
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Willnow

DW: Many of the works in the exhibition "Point of No Return" are privately owned and are now shown publicly for the first time. How did you find the paintings and sculptures and make your selection?

Christoph Tannert: Paul Kaiser [Director of the Dresden Institute for Cultural Studies and exhibition co-curator] and I made the selection based on our previous knowledge. We have been following the art scene in East Germany for a long time. I was born in 1955 and was visiting many artists in their studios in the 1970s and 1980s, so I know their work first-hand. Already after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was surprised that many of those works were never made public. The bulk of that production could not be retraced, but our research led us to find a large number of works that were exactly related to our exhibition's topic: the situation in the 1980s in East Germany, the hopes for change, the state's collapse, the Peaceful Revolution and the transitory era.

Read more: Why East German movie posters were more art than advertising

Ausstellung "Point of no Return"
Everything cleanly cut in half: the 2002 installation "Berlin Room" by Via Lewandowsky Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Willnow

How do you explain the fact that there was so little interest in these works after the fall of the Berlin Wall and that it took three decades to get them together for an exhibition?

The artists needed some time to find their bearings in the new situation. Many of them took on another job to earn money; others were traveling or doing research. Additionally, there were a great number of art historians from West Germany who took on the top positions in former East Germany. That made it impossible for East Germans to make their own life stories public. This situation still applies to this day, except the call to change things is a lot stronger than at the time.

Some artists were in demand, while others remained unnoticed. Why?

There were 6,000 members of the East German association of visual artists, which also had a surveillance function. Among those 6,000, there were about 2,000 artists. The number of them who remained prominent after the fall of the Berlin Wall is very small. Yet all of them kept on working. Those who had left East Germany before the state's collapse had better chances of developing a new stage in their careers than those who had stayed in the GDR. Younger artists who completed their art studies after 1989 could start their career in the new united Germany — among them, Neo Rauch, Eberhard Havekost, Frank Nitsche and Thomas Scheibitz.

What was the importance of the arts in the peaceful revolution?

After dissident singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann was expatriated from East Germany [in 1976], artists kept on spreading their hopes for change through their paintings, sculptures, films and songs. They had anticipated change and insisted on the possibility that things would change. It was a long process, which is why we are also showing paintings from the 1970s and 1980s. 

In her "Passagen" cycle from 1988, the Leipzig painter Doris Ziegler painted several works about the impossibility to move around freely; she also depicted the collapsing state as a dull, grey bell jar holding individuals captive. She had anticipated the demonstrations that would lead to the peaceful revolution, driven by human chains and candle circles.

Ausstellung "Point of no Return"
Christoph Tannert (r) along with exhibition co-curator Paul Kaiser (l) and museum director Alfred Weidinger, in front of a painting by Doris ZieglerImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Willnow

Not all artists were opposed to the GDR, however; some of them were also conformists. How is this addressed in the exhibition?

We are showing around 300 works from more than 100 artists from different generations. They all transmit the artists' very subjective perspective on the situation in East Germany and the social changes, offering a retrospective on the GDR era. Most of the works selected rather represent opposition views, but there are also state conformists in the show, such as Willi Sitte and Wolfgang Mattheuer. Sitte resented the working class for embracing capitalism with their eyes closed. So it's a kaleidoscope of different life experiences.

Christoph Tannert is the director of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin and one of the three curators of the exhibition "Point of No Return," which can be seen until November 3, 2019 at the Museum of Fine Arts Leipzig.