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Utopia and Demise: Art in the GDR

Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf


Marking 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, this exhibition features more than 130 paintings that speak to the diversity of artistic practices that existed in the German Democratic Republic. Among the 13 artists represented are official GDR artists, those who worked in secret and others involved in counter-movements. Find out more from the Kunstpalast website.

Preview the exhibition below | View Apollo’s Art Diary here

Der rote Stier (1944-1961), Elisabeth Voigt.

Der rote Stier (The Red Bull) (1944–61), Elisabeth Voigt. Photo: bpk/Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig/Michael Ehritt; © Estate of Elisabeth Voigt

Elisabeth Voigt was a Leipzig-born painter and printmaker who trained under Käthe Kollwitz and Karl Hofer. Her disposition for vivid colours, well delineated forms and energetic compositions is evident in this depiction of a farmer taming a red bull, which takes its cues from the expressionist style of Der Blaue Reiter. It can be read both a glorifying scene of rural life, in line with the socialist realism espoused by the GDR, and a symbolic image – the artist taming and harnessing nature, for example.

Ecce homo I (Der sterbende Krieger) (1949), Gerhard Altenbourg.

Ecce homo I (Der sterbende Krieger) (1949), Gerhard Altenbourg. Lindenau-Museum Altenburg. Photo: PUNCTUM/Bertram Kober; © Gerhard Altenbourg/VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2019

In an obsessively sketched style typical of Gerhard Altenbourg, proliferating threads amass into dense webs that resemble organic tissue, taking the form of a skeletal man. His expression suggests a harrowed torment – perhaps a reflection of Altenbourg’s own guilt and trauma stemming from his experiences as a soldier in the Second World War – that is pointedly contrasted with the work’s backdrop: a series of miniature tanks and soldiers drawn by the artist when he was a child.
Schwarz und Weiss auf Blau (1957), Hermann Glöckner.

Schwarz und Weiss auf Blau (1957), Hermann Glöckner, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Herbert Boswank; © Hermann Glöckner/VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2019

Overlapping slabs of black and white are arranged in a curling serpentine form against a background of faded blue. Through the paint we can make out faint newspaper headlines. Although the GDR was hostile to non-figurative art, Hermann Glöckner was committed to carving out a career as a constructivist painter and sculptor – eventually in 1969, at the age of 80, he succeeded in staging his first major solo show at the Kupferstich-Kabinett in Dresden.

Nach der Schicht im Salzbergwerk (1982), Willi Sitte.

Nach der Schicht im Salzbergwerk (1982), Willi Sitte, Ludwig Forum for International Art. Photo: akg-images

In this monumental portrait of salt miners carrying out their daily routines, we watch the anonymous workers as they finish their shifts, wash their bodies and change their clothes. An avowed socialist realist painter, Willi Sitte was president of the East German Association of Visual Arts from 1974–88, but his status as an artist was at times overshadowed by his political activism.

o.T. (1986), Cornelia Schleime.

o.T. (1986), Cornelia Schleime. Photo: Eric Tschernow; © Cornelia Schleime

Born in East Berlin in 1953, Cornelia Schleime studied at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts but joined underground movements and studied the work of modern artists independently at the Saxon State Library, inspiring her experimental style of collage-making with applied sand or coffee grounds (see the brown figure in this painting of 1986). In 1981 an exhibition ban was imposed on Schleime’s work in the GDR and in 1984, although she was granted permission to leave for West Germany, the majority of her artwork disappeared in the move. 

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