The GDR government used public art to assert its politics and version of history and create a distinct GDR identity through visual culture. However, in East Germany, public art was more than propaganda. Artists expressed their unique styles. The art’s placement on public buildings, apartment complexes, and in the middle of highly-trafficked plazas and popular parks ensured that people saw and engaged with it. GDR-era public art is part of local history. In addition, most of its artists were part of and witnesses to significant European historical events like World War II, the formation of the GDR, the East German Uprising, the construction of the Berlin Wall and its collapse along with the GDR. Furthermore, East German public art provides evidence of a failed state relegated to history but present in collective memory. Finally, since Germany reunified and absorbed the GDR, GDR history and art history are part of Germany’s history and art history.
Scholars like John Berndt Olsen and Anna Saunders wrote in their respective books, Tailoring Truth and Memorializing the GDR, about how the GDR government used monuments to shape their versions of history for political purposes. They appropriated elements of the Holocaust to emphasize triumph over fascism and lionized Communists heroes like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. In an example of Holocaust appropriation and celebrating Communist figures, they made a hero out of Ernst Thalmann. All of these men died before the formation of the GDR. However, this last point is likely why their monuments and murals have survived into the 21st century. In contrast, the only public art of Erich Honecker or Leonid Brezhnev in the former GDR is a mural criticizing the oppression their partnership caused. Recently, Honecker also appears on the “Arschlochpfad,” but the statue is on private property, although open to the public.
When I arrived in former East Germany in 2000, I noticed the GDR’s distinct architecture and public art style. It became apparent when we drove from Rostock to Lübeck. These cities are only an hour apart, but the visual landscape changed when I left Mecklenburg and entered Schleswig-Holstein. I suspect everyone from the West who moved to the former GDR, especially within the first decade after reunification, notices these aesthetic differences. They form the basis of Picturing Socialism by J.R. Jenkins. In addition, it explains why many public historians focusing on GDR culture and public art are from Western Europe and the United States. The abundance of colorful murals and mosaics on buildings and the scale and diversity of public art help distinguish GDR buildings and cities from those in West Germany.
I wanted to tell stories of the artists who made public art in the former GDR. People see the monuments, fountains, and mosaics but often do not think of the people behind them. Until I started this project, I never realized that the same two artists, Reinhard Dietrich and Jo Jastram, created most public art in Rostock. GDR public artists were often more complex than agents of the state. I discovered that nearly all of the artists who were of age to serve in World War II did. The Nazis conscripted German-born artists in the latter years of the war. Elizabeth Shaw and Lev Kerbel aided the Allies’ combat efforts. René Graetz and Josep Renau were imprisoned and exiled. Although these artists had varying levels of commitment to GDR and Soviet ideals, their experiences during World War II likely made the idea of a new utopian Germany appealing.
In choosing the collection items, I wanted to represent each state formerly in the GDR. However, they are not all represented equally. Rostock has many examples because it was once my home. I remembered what the mosaics, sculptures, murals, and fountains looked like and where they were located, even if I did not know their titles or the artists’ names. Berlin has more public art because there were more possibilities for state commissions in the capital. In addition, I wanted to show that public art is more than monuments. The collections represent the breadth of public art in the GDR, except for stained glass, which I will add later. I want to fill in more of the map before I add more art from Berlin.
Many pieces of public art from the GDR have been destroyed along with their buildings. Others, like Of Human Responsibility by Ronald Paris, are disappearing through benign neglect. Public opinion regarding the GDR’s cultural heritage is changing now that the nation’s collapse was three decades ago. For example, many extant public artworks have been designated cultural monuments in the 21st century. In addition, architect and photographer Martin Maleschka, from Eisenhüttenstadt, has spent over a decade documenting the GDR’s Kunst am Bau (art on buildings) through his Baubezogene Kunst project. Finally, the Wüstenrot Foundation, located in former West Germany, has funded the restoration of public art from the GDR, including two mosaics by Josep Renau. These efforts show that East German public art has broader appeal as part of Germany’s history, art history, and visual culture.
I will evaluate my work based on increased site traffic, private comments from users in my target audiences, engagement with other public historians, and the receipt of stories and photos as user contributions. Ultimately, this will be a successful project if I can provide a comprehensive view of public art in former East Germany that appeals to German and American audiences.