When Margaret Hunter painted her work onto part of the Berlin Wall as it was being pulled down all over the city, she had no idea it would become a monument visited by people across the world.
Now 30 years later, Scottish-born artist Hunter is one of seven ‘Zeitzeugen’ (witnesses of the time) whose memories of Germany’s reunification are being broadcast across the city to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her interview is being beamed as part of 3D video projections onto the Brandenburg Gate and the East Side Gallery this week.
Hunter, now 71, can remember vividly when the Wall came down – although she wasn’t in the country at the time, much to the horror of her German husband Joachim Gross.
“It was shocking, surprising and amazing,” she tells The Local from her studio in west Berlin's Charlottenburg neighbourhood over tea and biscuits.
“The night the wall fell, I was in Scotland because my daughter was getting married,” she says: “I was painting in my studio and Joachim came downstairs and said: ‘You won’t believe it Margaret, but the wall’s come down! Look what they did when my back was turned!’’ He was raging because Berlin was his city, it was absolutely his city.”
They watched the news and “incredible” footage showing people clambouring atop the wall that had divided the city for 28 years.
“It was unbelievable. It was incredible, we could hardly believe it,” says Hunter. “We were stunned. It had been building up for a long time, but no-one could have imagined that it would happen in that way.”
“I immediately made a painting,” Hunter says. 'Berlin 9.11.89', shows hands reaching up with dramatic colours and was inspired by the Wall fall and the Monday demonstrations that led to the break down of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
“It’s about being part of what’s going on,” says Hunter “I wanted to show the drama of that moment.”
Berlin 9.11.89, which Margaret Hunter painted on the night the Berlin Wall opened. Photo courtesy of Margaret Hunter
That painting was sold quickly afterwards and, unfortunately, Hunter has no idea where it is today.
'I was crying too'
When the couple returned to Berlin, which was slowly starting to undergo the process of becoming one city instead of two, they felt the electric atmosphere.
They headed to the Brandenburg Gate, a crossing that had divided East and West.
“That was a really significant thing,” says Hunter. “My husband and I, and a friend went down. There with masses of people. Everybody just congregated there. We were all singing, shaking hands and hugging strangers, bottles of Sekt were popping all over the place.
“I was joining in and crying – I was crying too. It was so emotional. It was such a moment.”
Hunter says there was still disbelief that the Wall was coming down and some people had reservations about crossing the border in case the controls were put back into place.
“The unbelievable had happened with the wall falling so some people were a bit suspicious of what would happen,” she says.
'I've got nothing to lose'
Hunter’s path to Berlin is remarkable. As a divorced mother-of-two living in a village in Ayrshire, west of Scotland, she had always been fond of art but had never studied it. She was encouraged to apply to schools by a teacher at a class she attended.
Although Hunter thought she was too “ancient” to go to art school compared to younger students (Hunter was in her early 30s at the time) she thought “why not, I’ve got nothing to lose”.
She was accepted at Glasgow School of Art and commuted from her village, Fairlie, in what she describes as a “hard time but a very good time”.
As the degree was coming to an end, Hunter felt she needed another year of study – and when she saw an exhibition of German artist Georg Baselitz’ work in Amsterdam she was convinced she had to study with him.
After working hard to secure a spot to work under him at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin and frantically cobbling together enough funding, Hunter arrived in 1985. By this point her two children Alana, now 49, and Thomas, now 50, were in their teens.
From that point Hunter split her time between Berlin and Scotland, with her children visiting Germany often.
“I jumped in at the deep end but to be honest I didn’t have much choice,” she says. “Our situation – I was newly divorced, we had nothing. And living from a grant at the art school; I had to take it as far as I could.”
'I thought the East Side Gallery would be pulled down'
The divided city has always been a strong influence in Hunter's work. Finding her feet in the city, she soaked up lots of new experiences and was interested in visiting East Berlin and East Germany.
In 1990, Hunter was one of a group of artists asked to paint on a section of the Berlin Wall in Friedrichshain, which became known as the East Side Gallery.
A total of 118 artists from 21 countries painted murals on the Wall along a length of 1.3 kilometres. Before the collapse of the GDR, a deadly border regime had existed – and at least 10 people were killed in the border area of the East Side Gallery.
So the artistic takeover of the Wall that had caused so much misery was a symbol, representing the path to a unified city and the future of Berlin, but one still dealing with the past, tensions and changing identities.
Hunter's work ‘Joint Venture’ shows two heads or masks on their side, showing the idea of two Germanys as “strange bedfellows”. Hunter says the reunification of Germany was billed as a joint venture but a lot of people also struggled with their new lives or roles.
The painting shows individuals pushing and pulling, and having to move themselves, much like the reality of what happened.
Margaret Hunter's Joint Venture painting at the East Side Gallery Photo courtesy of Margaret Hunter
In another segment of the Wall allocated to her, Hunter created 'Hands', which featured hands reaching up, like the ones in the painting she made on the night of the Wall fall.
Hunter also gave a section of her segment to another artist Birgit Kinder who really wanted to paint a GDR Trabant car breaking through the Berlin Wall, which has become one of the most famous murals of the gallery.
“She came along and parked her little Trabi up beside me and said I want to paint here,” says Hunter. “I said I’d give her one of my segments.”
The East Side Gallery has gone through renovations and upgrades since 1990.
Hunter recalls how the artists used ladders and cheap paint in the beginning of the project, perhaps not quite realizing the significance it would hold. Over the years more money has gone into preserving the Wall, the largest open-air gallery in the world featuring 105 murals.
“I thought (the East Side Gallery) was going to get pulled down because they were pulling the wall down round about it,” she says. “I never imagined it was going to stay. At some points in time it was really dilapidated.”
Margaret Hunter working on the Wall in 1990. Photo courtesy of Margaret Hunter
She has loved the ongoing dialogue with visitors from all over the world who come to the East Side Gallery and take photos.
“It’s become like a monument,” Hunter says. “A lot of people have been saying it would be good for it to be a World Heritage Site.”
The 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall fall is a time of mixed emotions for many.
This year the focus has also been on remembering the ‘Peaceful Revolution’ that led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain, something which Hunter says is a “positive and healing” way of describing it.
Hunter says she felt an understanding with people from East Germany because of her experience of coming to Berlin from a village in Scotland “with huge eyes”.
“And I think for them it was similar,” she says. “So I think that’s why I felt an empathy for the east. So many people tumbled over desperate to come for the good life and then the good life didn’t always happen, then it’s a disappointment.”
'It's the last symbol of the Iron Curtain'
Hunter’s life has been shaped by Berlin and the events in the ever-evolving city. She met her husband Gross, who died in 2002, in a student flat share shortly after arriving the city. It's where she still lives today although it's been renovated to accommodate her studio.
Family, including her children and grandchildren, Emma, Stephen and Makayla – who is a young talented painter and drawer herself – spend time in Berlin with Hunter, who now lives with her partner Roger Webb.
Margaret Hunter at her studio in Berlin. Photo: Kulturprojekte/Lena Giovanazzi
Hunter still listens intently to her friends from the former West and GDR and is a passionate storyteller herself, recounting her experiences of exiting East Germany in order to visit her husband's family near Kassel in Hesse. “You’d be driving back through East Germany and you’d see the bright lights and think 'yes, we’re almost back in the glitz',” she says.
She is honoured to be one of the seven Zeitzeugen whose stories are appearing across the city to mark the anniversary, and featuring in a book published by Kulturprojekte Berlin, the official organizers of the celebrations.
Other witnesses include civil rights leaders, those who formed resistance movements, immigrants and church representatives.
Hunter says she's aware there are so many “poignant and difficult stories to tell” but believes she was chosen because she was neutral: “the Scottish person who could see both sides”.
A spokeswoman from Kulturprojekte told The Local: “We interviewed Margaret Hunter for our open air exhibition project, as she was involved as an artist in the creation of the East Side Gallery, and as a contemporary witness, she was able to greatly enrich the exhibitions with her story.
“The artistic appropriation of the Berlin Wall marks the big change of Berlin and Germany into the new period after 1989/90, which can be impressively conveyed by the memories and assessments of contemporary witnesses such as Margaret Hunter.”
And knowing her art will live on in the East Side Gallery is another remarkable achievement of Hunter's life and her dialogue with Berlin.
“Now that the East Side Gallery has established its place, it won’t go anymore. It's permanent and I feel really really happy about that. I think it’s very important, it’s a real symbol. It’s the last symbol of the Iron Curtain.
“And for me – my painting is on it. I feel really happy about that part of it.”
To see Margaret Hunter's work and read more of her experiences visit margaret-hunter.com