Exclusive Exhibition

Masters of 20th Century East German Art

curator: Amir A. Abdi

This exclusive exhibition unveils a collection of previously unseen artworks crafted between 1960-1973 by eminent figures in Dresden’s academic art establishment, located in the captivating Eastern part of Germany. The showcased artworks, part of a private collection, were generously gifted by the artists themselves, with some pieces adorned with personal dedication texts, adding a personal touch to the exhibition. The exhibition serves as a form of cultural documentation, preserving the artistic heritage of East Germany. It allows for the recognition of the diverse talents and contributions of artists who worked within the context of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Delving into the historical context, the exhibition serves as a time-traveling exploration into the art scene of a bygone era, namely East Germany, officially known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR). This state, existing from 1949 to 1990, played a unique role in shaping artistic expression. Some claim that the significance of art in East Germany was integral to the development of the “all-around socialist personality.”

April A. Eisman, in his East German Art and Cultural Politics article, notes that artists were tasked with creating art that resonated with the people, fostering a reciprocal interest between the public and the artistic realm. However, the form that this art took underwent continuous debate throughout the GDR’s forty-year history, particularly in its formative decades.

According To Eisman, the interplay between modernist styles and socialist realism, influenced by the Soviet Union, resulted in a dynamic cultural policy marked by periods of constraint and liberation, dictated by the prevailing views of politicians or artists.

Eisman continues: “Although many communist artists had embraced modernism during the Weimar Republic and were persecuted by the Nazis for both their political and aesthetic beliefs, the East German leadership often had difficulty accepting modernist styles in these early years, in part because of the Soviet Union’s emphasis on a conservative style of socialist realism.

Seeing similarities between the Soviets’ artistic style—one marked by optimism, monumentalism and a straightforward realism—and that of the Nazis, many East German artists, on the other hand, challenged its suitability for the GDR. The result was a cultural policy marked by freezes and thaws depending on whose views—politicians’ or artists’—had the upper hand.”

Yet this exhibition reveals that artists in the early years expected from themselves the responsibility to give voice to their beliefs and perspectives.

Despite the constraints mentioned by Eisman, some artists in East Germany sought to convey subtle critiques or alternative perspectives within the boundaries of socialist realism. The relationship between artists and the state was complex, and the art produced during this time reflects a multifaceted interplay between artistic expression, political ideology, and individual creativity.

Several of the artworks presented also depict the city of Dresden as it stood in the sixties, showcasing the aftermath of the extensive destruction it endured during the war. These pieces provide a visual narrative of the reconstruction activities that unfolded across the city. Through the lens of the artist, viewers are offered a glimpse into the resilience and rebuilding efforts that characterized Dresden in the post-war era.

The inclusion of these artworks becomes a testament to the transformative spirit of the city and its inhabitants, capturing both the scars of wartime devastation and the determination to rebuild and revitalize.

Some of the artworks exhibited stimulate ongoing debates about the role of art in shaping and reflecting societal values. Discussions surrounding East German art contribute to a broader conversation about how artists navigate political climates and express their individual and collective identities. One of the more outspoken artists from that period is undoubtedly Lea Grundig.

“I wanted to present people in such a way that you would receive and recognise their misery and suffering, and instantly feel your own rage because of it.”

— Lea Grundig
autobiography (1958)

Central Image Hesse 6.1.1969 Prof. Lea Grundig, in 1951.

Lea Grundig ( 1906 – 1977)

The exhibition features Lea Grundig, a pioneering German painter and graphic artist, as a prominent figure. Grundig’s life journey, marked by defiance against the Nazis and active participation in resistance to the regime, showcases her unwavering commitment to artistic expression. Imprisoned during the Nazi era, she later sought refuge in Palestine, returning to Germany post-World War II and contributing as a professor at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts.

She joined the communist party early on, and in 1928 she left the Jewish community and, in further defiance of her father’s will, married Hans Grundig. In January 1933 the NSDAP (Nazi Party) took power and quickly set about creating a one party state. Membership of any party other than the Nazi party – and particularly of the Communist Party – became illegal. Grundig nevertheless remained an active participant in resistance to the regime, and thus in 1935 a ban was imposed on exhibits of her work[6] and in May 1936 she was finally, albeit this time briefly, arrested.[1] In March 1939 she was found guilty of “Preparing to commit High Treason” (»Vorbereitung zum Hochverrat«)

as a result of her Communist activities and/or her Jewish provenance, and was sentenced to four months imprisonment. She served her sentence[8] in a prison in Dresden. However, on her release she was granted an emigration permit, and thus in 1940 she reached a refugee camp in Slovakia from where she moved as an exile to Palestine. Here she survived in a British internment camp at Atlit till 1942.[1]

On release she remained, till the end of 1948, in Palestine, living successively in Haifa and Tel Aviv.

At the end of 2nd world war, she traveled back to Germany, and worked as a professor at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts.
(source: Wikipedia)

Lea Grundig’s profound contributions to art extend to her poignant illustrations depicting the Holocaust, offering a stark and emotional portrayal of one of the darkest chapters in human history. As a German painter and graphic artist, Grundig’s commitment to social justice and her unwavering stance against oppression found expression in her powerful artworks. Grundig’s illustrations capturing the Holocaust are marked by a raw and unflinching honesty, providing viewers with a visceral connection to the unimaginable suffering and atrocities of that time. Through her masterful use of line, form, and shading, she skillfully conveyed the human anguish and despair experienced by those affected by the Holocaust.

In her work, Grundig did not shy away from portraying the harrowing scenes and the dehumanizing conditions faced by victims. Her illustrations serve as a visual testimony to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable adversity. The emotional depth in Grundig’s Holocaust-themed art reflects her commitment to bearing witness to historical truths and ensuring that the collective memory of these atrocities endures.

Lea Grundig’s illustrations go beyond mere artistic representation; they stand as a form of historical documentation, capturing the pain, suffering, and resilience of those who endured the Holocaust. Her work contributes to the broader discourse on remembrance and serves as a reminder of the importance of acknowledging and learning from the darkest moments of our shared history. Through her art, Grundig invites viewers to confront the past and contemplate the profound impact of human actions, emphasizing the role of art as a medium for reflection, empathy, and remembrance.

The inclusion of the inscription “BRD” in two of Lea Grundig’s artworks within the exhibition signifies her deliberate stance regarding the political and economic system of the divided homeland. This act of incorporating “BRD” into her art serves as a powerful expression of Grundig’s engagement with the sociopolitical context of her time. The term “BRD” specifically refers to the Bundesrepublik Deutschland or the Federal Republic of Germany, highlighting the political division between East and West Germany during the Cold War era.

Through this inscription, Grundig not only showcases her technical prowess as an artist but also engages in a form of visual commentary on the ideological and economic disparities between the two German states. It becomes a nuanced statement reflecting the artist’s perspective on the division of her homeland and the contrasting systems that emerged as a result.

The use of “BRD” as an element in her artwork underscores the capacity of art to transcend mere aesthetics, serving as a medium for social and political commentary. Lea Grundig’s intentional inclusion of this symbol prompts viewers to consider the complexities of the divided Germany and the artist’s position within that historical and ideological landscape. Her art, with its layered meanings and subtle nuances, becomes a valuable lens through which to explore the intricate interplay of art, politics, and identity during a crucial period in German history.

The artwork by Lea Grundig portrays the misery and suffering of people under the leadership of blinded clergy and generals. Grundig’s depiction likely conveys a sense of oppression, highlighting the struggles faced by the general populace under the leadership of authoritative and, in her portrayal, misguided figures. The image becomes a visual narrative that prompts reflection on the consequences of such leadership on the human experience, emphasizing the artist’s commitment to addressing societal issues through her work.

“I don’t think anyone can break free from his chain of tradition, from his environment, from his form – all this will concern him.”

— Gerhard Kettner
Gerhard Kettner

Another featured artist is Gerhard Kettner, a German lithographer and graphic artist, who, along with other luminaries like Gerhard Bondzin and Günter Horlbeck, played influential roles in the artistic landscape of East Germany. Their contributions, captured in this exhibition, reflect the complexities of artistic expression in a socio-political context. Gerhard Kettner,(1928 -1993 ) was a professor and rector of the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. Gerhard Bondzin (1930 – 2014) Served as professor at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. Günter Horlbeck ( 1927- 2016) was appointed professor of graphics and in 1967 professor and head of the painting and graphics specialist class at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts.

Through the lens of these artists, the exhibition offers a nuanced exploration of the artistic struggles, triumphs, and expressions that defined East German art in the 20th century.

Gerhard Bondzin with Lea Grundig 1970

Central Image Franke 30.4.70 Berlin: VI. Congress of the Board of Visual Artists of the GDR elected a new Central Board. The delegates of the congress elected the new Central Board and the Presidium of the association on April 30, 1970, concluding the three-day deliberation. The new president chosen was the Dresden painter Prof. Gerhard Bondzin (on the right). Prof. Lea Grundig, after many years of successful service in this position, was bid farewell and elected Honorary President (on the left).).

Noteworthy in the exhibition are the works by Gerhard Bondzin, particularly those created during a visit to Vietnam. One of these pieces depicts Vietnamese women dancing beside a machine gun, offering a poignant commentary on the juxtaposition of beauty and conflict. This powerful imagery serves as a symbolic reflection on the complex socio-political landscape of Vietnam during that period, capturing the tension and resilience of its people.

Bondzin’s artistic exploration of Vietnam adds another layer to the narrative of the exhibition, highlighting the intersection of art and global events. His work becomes a testament to the role artists played in interpreting and responding to the pressing issues of their time. As we delve into Bondzin’s creations, we witness not only the technical mastery of a skilled artist but also the depth of his engagement with the world around him.

The exhibition thus becomes a multi-faceted journey, not only through East German art but also through the interconnectedness of artistic expression and the historical events that shaped it. It prompts reflection on the universal language of art, capable of transcending borders and speaking to the shared human experience.

Additionally, the exhibition features artworks by an unknown artist that portray intermingling portraits of individuals of different colors and races. These pieces serve as a poignant reminder, emphasizing the universal concept that all humans are interconnected as brothers and sisters. Through the blending of diverse faces and backgrounds, the unknown artist communicates a powerful message of unity, diversity, and the shared humanity that transcends cultural and racial boundaries.

These artworks contribute to the exhibition’s broader narrative by addressing themes of inclusivity and harmony, inviting viewers to reflect on the common threads that bind people together. The portrayal of diverse faces within a singular artistic composition underscores the notion that, despite our differences, we are fundamentally connected as part of the human family.The inclusion of artworks depicting unity among people of different races and backgrounds emphasizes a universal theme of shared humanity. This message resonates with contemporary discussions on diversity, inclusion, and the interconnectedness of global communities.

The reunification of East and West Germany in 1990 brought about complex discussions regarding the cultural legacy of the GDR. These debates have encompassed various aspects, including visual arts, literature, film, and music. Discussions about East Germany’s artistic heritage often involve a tension between nostalgia for aspects of GDR culture and a critical examination of the political and social realities of that time. The balance between acknowledging achievements and addressing shortcomings remains a topic of debate. The preservation or removal of socialist realist statues in public spaces has been a subject of debate. Some argue for their preservation as historical artifacts, while others view them as symbols of a repressive regime.

Despite this, there has been an ongoing effort to recognize and reevaluate the artistic contributions of East German artists. Some argue that the GDR’s cultural heritage should be acknowledged independently of the political system it was associated with, emphasizing the talent and creativity of individual artists. Museums and cultural institutions in Germany have organized exhibitions and retrospectives dedicated to East German art. These events aim to shed light on the diverse artistic expressions that emerged during the GDR era and encourage a nuanced understanding of the period.

Artists from East Germany often engaged with political and social themes in their work. Today, there is a debate about the relevance of political art and activism in contemporary society, drawing connections between the historical context of the GDR and present-day concerns.

In summary, regardless of one’s evaluation of that period in Germany, the exhibition remains significant, as the artworks offer valuable historical insight into the artistic expressions and cultural climate of East Germany during a specific period. They serve as visual documents that can enrich our understanding of the past. This exhibition is significant for its role in preserving, presenting, and reevaluating the artistic heritage of East Germany. It invites viewers to engage with historical narratives, fosters dialogue about the role of art in society, and contributes to a deeper understanding of the cultural complexities of the GDR era.

The Collection

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