3 December 2013
Having looked in Part 17 at some of the artists who worked in East Germany both between the end of the Second World War and the foundation of the East German state (the DDR, or Deutsche Democratische Republic) and in the following decade, Alec and his classmates moved on to consider the second and third generations of artists, starting shortly before the erection of the Berlin Wall that cut off the East from the West in 1961.
The second artistic generation of the DDR
Willi Sitte (1921-2013) had much in common with Walter Womacka, discussed in Part 17. Sitte too was born in Czechoslovakia and was a loyal Communist. He was actually four years older than his compatriot, though he came to prominence slightly later.
Sitte served in the German armed forces during the Second World War before deserting in 1944 to fight with Italian partisans. After the war, he settled in East Germany, where he later served as a member of the central committee of the ruling Communist party, the SED. That gave him a role in deciding which artists had the approval of the state in the country’s tightly controlled arts scene.
Sitte was one of the leading representatives of East Germany’s officially sanctioned Socialist Realism style, depicting everyday scenes relevant to workers, and pointing to the advantages of life in the DDR: many of his figurative paintings pay homage to the working class; holidaymakers are seen reading a newspaper, for example.
He also dealt with themes such as war, fascism, and the oppression of minorities. One work is entitled “Plunge into Hell – Vietnam”: another rather reminded Alec of ‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Delacroix.
Despite Site’s close association with the East German regime, his work was admired in the West, and he had a major exhibition at Kassel, West Germany, in 1977, while the Cold War was still being waged. According to his obituary by the Reuters news agency, Sitte’s artistic reputation survived the end of Communism and the reunification of Germany in 1990.
Harald Metzkes was born in 1929 in Saxony where his father was a doctor. He studied art as a teenager, was apprenticed to a stonemason and then from 1949 to 1953 studied at Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. From 1953 to 1955 he worked as a freelance artist, studied in Berlin until 1958 and then went on a three-month study trip to China. He eventually settled in Berlin as a freelance artist.
His figurative works seem to have been approved of by the authorities. He had his first exhibition in East Berlin in 1963 and in the same year contributed illustrations for a book, the first of 15 books which he was to illustrate over 27 years, some of them by well-known international writers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Christa Wolf and August Strindberg. He won several official awards and became known as the Picasso of Prenzlauer Berg (a Berlin suburb). In 1988 he participated in the Venice Biennale. His work continued to be exhibited in Germany after the reunification of the country.
Roger Loewer and Bärbel Bohley
The DDR’s second artistic generation, continued to be an extremely active one despite the isolation imposed by the Berlin Wall… There were too many artists for Alec to become familiar with and he can do no more here than list some names for readers to follow up if they wish Ernst Schröder, Manfred Böttcher, Peter Herrmann, A. R. Penck, Werner Tübke, Bernhard Heisig (Part 15), Wolfgang Mattheuer, Willi Wolf, Carlfriedrich Claus and Gerhard Altenbourg. Subjects ranged from Communist icons like Lenin to traditional themes of European art such as gospel stories.
However, this period cannot be left without mentioning two artists who were expelled from, or resigned from, the artists union: Roger Loewig (1930-1997) and Bärbel Bohley (1945-2010).
Loewig was born in Silesia, the son of a German officer from a traditional military family. He fled westwards before the Red Army in 1945, ending up in East Germany. He worked as an agricultural labourer until 1951, when the Communist authorities forgave him his class background and he was allowed to become a teacher of Russian. But he was also interested in art, as his father had been.
He was a self-taught artist and, perhaps because he had not been through the art schools did not have the knowledge or contacts to arrange official exhibitions. He was arrested in 1963 for holding an exhibition of his work for his friends without a license and held without trial for a year, until West Germany paid for his release. He is an example of the artists who had to operate at the underground level, as mentioned in Part 17.
After that Loewig’s relations with the authorities were erratic. When he produced lithographs of the Holocaust, he was allowed to exhibit in both the East and the West, including Warsaw, Eisenach (East Germany), Solingen (West Germany), Zurich and even Rochester, Minnesota. But his ghostly, accusing, landscapes were sometimes unacceptable to the Communists. They were promoted if they were linked to the Holocaust, a Nazi crime, not a Communist one, but unacceptable if their desolate message might be laid at the Communists’ door.
The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was the last straw for Loewig, and he was allowed to leave for the West in 1972. Depending which obituary you read, he was either expelled from or resigned from the VBK, the artists’ union.
Loewig settled in West Germany and continued to work successfully in watercolour, oil, and gouache, and was widely exhibited, including in Oslo and Nottingham, and became the first German artist to be exhibited at the former concentration camp of Auschwitz. According to his obituary in the Independent in 1997, more than anything else Roger Loewig’s work was about man’s inhumanity to man. As a German he was deeply troubled by what the Germans had done to others and to each other after 1933.
Bärbel Bohley (1945-2010) was another East German artist who got into trouble with the authorities and had to operate largely underground, though in her case this seems to have been not just because of her art (though that was probably unacceptable too) but because of her political activism.
She became a professional artist in 1974 and won a two-week trip to Moscow in 1976 as a prize for her work. But she was shocked by the social conditions there.
She was expelled from the artists union in 1983 for founding the independent organisation Women for Peace and was jailed for six weeks for treasonable supply of information to British anti-nuclear activists and the West German Green Party. But her bleak paintings would not have appealed to the authorities either. Bohley continued to get into trouble for political activism until and even after the reunification of Germany. In 1996 she went to work with disadvantaged children in Bosnia, before returning to Berlin in 2008.
The third artistic generation of the DDR
The third artistic generation of the DDR covered the 1980s, a slightly shorter period than any since the Zero Hour immediately after the Second World War. But it still produced some notable artists.
Clemens Gröszer (1951-2014 was born and studied in East Berlin, and became a master student, which seems to have been some sort of officially acknowledged position. He does not seem to have had any problems with the Communist regime. He was granted an exhibition in Moscow in 1979. After German unification he became a professor in Hamburg and enjoyed numerous exhibitions around Europe, including at the New National Galerie in Berlin in 2003. The titles of two of works that Alec managed to track down give an idea of his approach: “Crucifixion Fragment” (a triptych) and “Café Lioret,” a subject with echoes of the late 19th century.
Norbert Wagenbrett was born in Leipzig in 1954, studied there and has worked there and in Halle since 1982. His career has been politically uneventful as far as Alec has been able to discover. He won an art award in Vienna, in the West, in 1987, while still living in the eastern part of a divided Germany. He painted figurative works such as “Woman in Yellow” and “Singing Students.”
Join Alec next time when he visits the studios of Germany’s international broadcaster, goes in the snow to see one of the locations where the Berlin Wall was first breached, visits Berlin Cathedral, and tours the Christmas markets with his German host.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to sign Parliamentary petition calling on the Government to make it easier for schools to organise European trips.