For the first time, Potsdam’s Museum Barberini has dedicated an exhibition to GDR-era art that places the artists themselves in the foreground
It is a dreary panorama that the viewer encounters: an empty easel in the middle of a grey studio. The view sweeps outwards, the city drowns in fog, and a man in a hat on a dove of freedom looks in through the window. Friend or foe, nobody in the GDR can say exactly. Therefore, it’s up to everyone to decide for him or herself whether the painting by Wolfgang Mattheuer depicts an obvious spy or perhaps even the envoy of a distant, but certainly happy, future. Das graue Fenster (The Grey Window, 1969) thus reveals both the dilemmas and the opportunities of Socialist Realism.
The artist himself is nowhere in sight, but is of course never absent. He is giving intimate insight into his creative workspace, where he transforms his observations of the outside world into his own creative reality. You won’t get closer to Mattheuer. And the programmatic studio painting is just one form of self-representation that the exhibition Behind the Mask: Artists in the GDR at Potsdam’s Museum Barberini makes its focus. Around 120 works by more than 80 artists examine how artists in the GDR came to terms with their image of themselves in the years between 1949 and 1989 – in the electric field between role modeling and state regulation, between prescribed tasks and creative individuality.
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Friedrich von Schiller once wrote: “For art is the daughter of freedom, and it requires its prescriptions and rules to be furnished by the necessity of spirits and not by that of matter.” Without a doubt, art always presupposes the freedom of the artist, and conversely, art without freedom is quickly denied its status. This is probably one of the reasons why artistic work from the GDR is rarely represented in museums. Excluded – perhaps overlooked or even laughed at – because what can an artist tell us when the state is looking over their shoulder? As a state-imposed art doctrine, Socialist Realism was obligatory for artists in the GDR. Art had the task of bringing people closer to the cultural, social, and ethical standards of socialism. Working class, community, solidarity of the people, partisanship, and comprehensibility became the buzzwords of politicized mass art. Artists walked a line between public support and oppression; those who resisted risked being banned from exhibition, or worse.
And yet, the self-image of artists went far beyond the required conformism. “Art that considers only the successful and desirable to be worthy of art cannot be called realistic, and certainly not socialist-realistic. It would be pure whitewashing,” Wolfgang Mattheuer once said. Because repression unfurls creativity and the role of the artist becomes a challenge, the symbolic gains in importance. Artists worked with unforeseen ideological qualities and finally installed a double floor in their works that withstood the committees’ gaze. Only a trained eye was able to correctly decipher any hidden criticism of the system within this complex space for interpretation.
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It was especially in the countless forms of self-portraiture, where artists apparently only had to stand their ground in front of themselves, that this trick was pushed to the extreme. Because it takes a personal approach, however, the ongoing exhibition in Potsdam frees GDR-era art from its purely political dimension. The viewer encounters rope dancers, puppeteers, hikers, and saints. As different as the subjects and styles may be, all of the works are united by an unbroken hope for an open window and a sunny view. In the end, it’s the artists who had the last laugh.
Behind the Mask: Artists in the GDR is on show at Museum Barberini in Potsdam until February 4, 2018. In addition, the Palast der Republik gallery will be presented on the upper floor of the building until May 21, 2018. Further information on both exhibitions can be found on the museum’s website.
Translation: Melissa Frost
Fashion, art, and pop culture are her cosmos; the written word, the material she uses to bring it all together. After studying in Leipzig, Lola Fröbe moved to Berlin in 2014. She works as a PR consultant and freelance journalist for publications such as L'Officiel, i-D, and Material Magazine.