Kunst am bau in der ddr: what art achieved

Late recognition: A symposium in Berlin dealt with art in buildings in the GDR. Eastern modernism is receiving new attention.

Josep Renau’s wall mosaic on man, nature and technology in Erfurt after restoration Photo: Martin Schutt/dpa

The symposium was significantly overbooked. The organizers, the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, for Construction and Home Affairs and the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning, had not expected this. After all, the theme of the conference on January 24 at the Akademie der Kunste in Berlin was "Art in Construction in the GDR." Not exactly a big deal, one would think. One can be mistaken.

Whether one has to speak of a hype like the moderator of the conference, the architectural historian Arnold Bartetzky from the Leibniz Institute for History and Culture of Eastern Europe in Leipzig, remains to be seen. It is true, at any rate, that so-called Eastern Modernism is currently receiving new attention – as is art in architecture.

As the panel with the Rostock architect Michael Brauer, the Leipzig artist Sighard Gille, the Marburg art historian Sigrid Hofer and the art editor of Die Welt, Swantje Karich, noted at the end of the day, ideological views of Eastern Modernism have lost ground in the period since the fall of the Wall and reunification.

As a result, the artistic-formal achievements of architecture and art in construction in the GDR now come into view, and the question arises to what extent we want to preserve these achievements, whether from the point of view of the preservation of historical monuments, or because of the (now politically unencumbered) enjoyment of the quality of the GDR legacies that advises us to care for and preserve them.

Peter Guth, Walls of Promise. On the history of architecture-related art in the GDR. Leipzig 1998.

This is exemplified by citizens’ initiatives in prefabricated building districts, which campaigned to save wall mosaics, for example. The GDR has failed, but art still has potential, according to the Berlin ex-cultural senator and architecture historian Thomas Flierl in his lecture on the socialist model of society.

Astonishing, the first conference on the subject

But first there is a need for a scientific survey of both the ideological program in its development and then, above all, its material manifestations. Again and again at the conference, for example by Paul Kaiser of the Dresden Institute for Cultural Studies, it was noted with surprise that it was the first ever on the subject. And it also became clear that a concentration on art in the GDR only opens up a narrow corridor for careers, since it plays only a marginal role in the museum system and the art market.

The latter, however, is only really accessible to a few artists. For this reason, opportunities for art production beyond the art market are becoming increasingly relevant for art school graduates. This changes art production itself, which – unimpressed by the idea of purposelessness – becomes organizational – for example in the organization of congresses – and actionist.

Women artists were especially in demand for the design of residential districts, schools and daycare centers.

As an intervention in the urban space and the public sphere, Kunst am Bau experiences a significant upgrading. Not to mention that with the building boom, their budgets are becoming more and more attractive. The artistic intelligence of art in construction after 1990 then became clear in the lecture by the initiator of the symposium, Ute Chibidziura of the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning.

The most important art form for depicting the happy everyday life of working people and peasants, for celebrating peace and international understanding as well as evoking technical progress was the mural, which in the work of Max Lingner or Josep Renau already in the 1950s seemed like a variety of the coming Pop Art. Renau’s late mural "Man’s Relationship to Nature and Technology" (1984), restored only in October 2019 with the help of the Wustenrot Foundation, was reinstalled at Moskauer Platz in Erfurt.

It is striking that the less ideological burdens were imposed on the mural genre over time, the more it withdrew from the public sphere and migrated from the exterior wall to the interior. In keeping with its prominent role, the mural was designed primarily by artists. Women artists were especially in demand for the design of the residential districts, schools and daycare centers. Since hardly any estates of women artists in particular have been preserved, many works cannot be attributed.

But even about the few women who, like Leonie Wirth, created large fountains (in Dresden) or Ortrud Lerch (behind the Staatsratsgebaude in Berlin), hardly anything is known. Just one of the many findings that demand research and publicity. The interest is overwhelming.

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