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East German propaganda art gathers dust

The Local · 29 Feb 2012, 12:03

Published: 29 Feb 2012 12:03 GMT+01:00

From busts of Karl Marx to paintings glorifying the "Heroes of Socialist Labour", this communist art in a rundown building formerly used to store animal feed arouses little interest in today's Germany.

One enormous picture among the many catches the eye -- it shows Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last leader, posing with long-term leader Erich

Honecker on East Germany's 40th anniversary.

Several weeks after the meeting, the Berlin Wall would fall and communism be swept away in eastern and central Europe.

"Very poor quality," comments Kristina Geisler of the Beeskow art archives in charge of the collection, amid the 1,500 paintings and myriad propaganda objects crammed, floor to ceiling, over three floors.

Dismissive of socialist kitsch, the art historian chooses to focus instead on the East German artists who managed to find a creative space somewhere between artistic freedom and the constraints of dictatorship.

"We also have here works of great artistic quality," said Ilona Weser, who heads the archive.

To illustrate her point, she opens one of the drawers holding 13,000 graphic paintings by Bernhard Heisig, a major artist from the communist era renowned both in the former East and West Germany.

Works by many other figures of socialist realism are also stored in Beeskow, a quiet town southwest of the German capital. Some are covered in bubble wrap while others just lie on the linoleum floor.

Nearly 2,000 drawings, 1,300 photos, 4,000 medals and 300 busts lie in the space filled with the din of a dilapidated air-conditioning system.

Artworks such as "Celebration of Miners", "Industrial Landscape" and "Album on the History of the Soviet Army" once adorned the walls of Houses of Culture and offices of the National People's Army or the ruling Socialist Unity Party.

When these vestiges of the party's 1949-1989 grip on power vanished with the fall of the Wall, East Germany's last culture minister managed to save some of the artworks shortly before national reunification in 1990.

Anchored in a political ideology now consigned to the history books of Europe, they were stored in Beeskow and quickly forgotten.

"Art played a particular role in" East Germany, said Geisler. "It was not just about decorating the walls. The art reflected the evolution of society and is today a historical source."

Jürgen Danyel, deputy director of the ZZF institute of historical research of Potsdam, has been trying for three years to draw up an inventory of the East German artworks with the help of other cultural bodies.

"Art acts like a seismograph and makes visible the erosion of communist power in the 1980s, for example," he said.

However, nobody seems especially interested in this heritage. At the end of last year, the European Union turned down a request for funding to renovate and modify the warehouse.

Thus, at the end of her workday, Geisler takes one of the big keys she carries and closes up the building, leaving a large gold-framed painting of Lenin, a gift to the GDR from Czechoslovakia, to gather dust in the stairwell.


The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

13:25 February 29, 2012 by twisted
Easy solution - burn it.
13:36 February 29, 2012 by boopsie
Nah, sell it to clueless punters who want to own a piece of "history" (hah!) and give the proceeds to the red cross.
13:57 February 29, 2012 by strahlungsamt
While I'm sure a lot of this art is pretty terrible, I'd like to see it exhibited somewhere. It's not like the West produced such objects of beauty. Hell, I remember how any Pferdemist in West Berlin was automatically neo-something or other while anything produced in the DDR was automatically propaganda. Socialist Realism is probably one of the most underrated art forms of all time. Probably because it required the artist to have actual talent and be able to paint something.

I bet if the exhibited the worst of this stuff in Tacheles or Prenzlauer Berg, it would look like Rembrandt next to that awful hipster kitch.
15:32 February 29, 2012 by catjones
All Art is propaganda.
16:16 February 29, 2012 by Tanskalainen
Burn it or send it to Putin.
16:35 February 29, 2012 by Wise Up!
Keep it together with the Third Reich art.....better yet , hold an "Entartete Kunst' exhibit! LOL!!!
18:59 February 29, 2012 by Englishted
To all those calling for it to be burnt because you don't agree with it's message ,remember there is a saying about burning books (google if you don't know it.).

And it is history for good or bad ,would you pull down the great wall of China because the builder was a dictator who allowed thousands to die in forced labour to build it ?,

Also remember the Taliban blowing up the U.N. site of the Buddhas,sometimes it is better to think before you write.
22:02 February 29, 2012 by Navigator_B
This is all part of German culture whether people like it or not, just like the Berlin Wall. Germans rushed to demolish the wall because of what it was used for, but they also destroyed a huge tourist attraction and a reminder of their unique history.
02:13 March 1, 2012 by Tanskalainen
Englished@ You are wrong. I could care less about its "message". It is an unsellable waste of canvas and paint. If you could sell it somewhere please do so.
08:33 March 1, 2012 by Englishted

So I can assume you have seen them all have you?

Also if you see some of the rubbish at the Turner prize then these are class.

To destroy something just because YOU don't like it is crass in the extreme.
11:06 March 1, 2012 by derExDeutsche
Keep it? Where is all the Nazi Art then?
18:08 March 2, 2012 by ShadowWing15
Not everything from a troubled time is propaganda. Art was and always has been a form of expressing yourself and to all of those who say we should burn it, what is /your/ sense of art? What do you believe is real art? Is it only the things you like to see? Propaganda is something used to sway peoples opinions to support one side against another, is that really was this art does to people now. Am I going to see it and suddenly become a communist? Do not let this wonderful and remarkable warehouse full of history die with the place it came from. Sure the past has had it's ups and downs but we don't forget it because we simply want to. We learn from it and prevent things like that in the future. Do you know why we have so many holocaust museums in the world? So we can learn from them! Prevent any futures that are like that. This art may be a controversial subject but it is something that we must keep.
21:26 March 2, 2012 by MikeJarosz
Preserve it in some dusty warehouse. We do not have the eyes our grandchildren will have. No matter how difficult it is for us to understand, a century from now people will see this as the art of the time, and may even like it. Bach went out of fashion and was forgotten. Mendelssohn only rediscovered him decades later.

I have the collection of Chinese Propaganda Posters published by Taschen. They are so bad, they're good!

I grew up in 50's America. We eventually discarded all our household furnishings as junk. Today, they have been rechristened "Midcentury Modern", and I can't afford to buy them back. The people buying it are an age that never lived with it.

Grandchildren have better vision than their großeltern!!!
23:02 March 2, 2012 by soros
The Nazi art was confiscated by the American army and is in storage in the USA. It ought to be exhibited along with the East German stuff as it all would provide some insights into totalitarian culture. A grand exhibit outside Germany might be best, though, given the sensitivities involved. Let's have it in Switzerland.
18:03 March 3, 2012 by McNair Kaserne
23:02 March 2, 2012 by soros

"The Nazi art was confiscated by the American army and is in storage in the USA."

Really? Where is it?
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