German Democratic Republic. – The development of art in the GDR must be seen in immediate relation to the directives and strategies of the state cultural policy. At the time of its foundation, the GDR saw itself imposing the Soviet artistic model from the outside. The artists after 1948 would have had to break all relations with the art of the 20th century and start again, from a stylistic point of view, from authors such as eg. A. Menzel (1815-1905).
After the initial debates on the ” autonomous ” or ” popular ” nature of art in 1948 (Hofer-Nerlinger discussion), the doctrine of socialist realism was rigorously affirmed as opposed to the ” formalism ” of decadent bourgeois art -western. Since then the artists found themselves in the critical situation of having to choose between aligning with this definition of art, striving to innovate within it, or radical opposition, and consequently being excluded from the artistic life of the country. The continuous debates that arose around the official definition of socialist realism in the face of the subsequent development of artistic activity led in the following decades to a less rigid formulation and to the expand both aesthetic and thematic possibilities. Thus, first impressionism was rehabilitated, then expressionism; later abstract art was admitted, with some limitations, and finally, in 1988, the overcoming of traditional genres and techniques in painting and sculpture was officially recognized. Above all, painting was required to express the ” character of the time ” in a representative way, and the interest of cultural politics was mainly addressed to it.
Naturalism, to which the conception of realism was initially limited, was seen as an obstacle in the late 1950s. Some young people, who in the seventies will become state artists, are criticized for using some elements of the decomposition of volumes (Rufende Frauen, “Women who cry” by W. Sitte, 1957, shows influences of Picasso), considered an attack to the ” humanistic ” character of the image of man, which was to be placed at the center of socialist art. A further influence is constituted by the reference to expressionism (B. Heisig, n. 1925, and others).
In the early seventies, with the slogan Weite und Vielfalt (“breadth and multiplicity”), the socialist artistic policy moves away from the restrictive orientation of W. Ulbricht. Dominating the scene is a new generation of official painters, whose painting represents a stylistically expanded concept of realism: W. Sitte (b. 1921); B. Heisig (b. 1925); W. Mattheuer (b. 1927); W. Tübke (b. 1929). Influences of surrealism and photorealism also find space here. If the obligation to ” proletarian optimism ” in the representation of socialist society is loosened with the growth of dissident tendencies, the stance against abstractionism, officially branded as ” reactionary modernism ”, remains unchanged. Picasso, still rejected in the 1950s, is considered in the 1970s ” tutor of figurativism ”. Artists such as Germany Altenbourg (b.1926) and R. Winkler (b.1939) remain as before excluded from the official art market.
The first signs of the establishment of an alternative artistic sphere, on the margins of the official one, occur towards the end of the Sixties, in Dresden, with a group of artists headed by Winkler (who settled in 1980 in the Federal Republic of Germany, known to the international public under the pseudonym of AR Penck). Since then, Dresden remains the most important center of new trends, in particular of the so-called Neo-Expressionism. From the group of artists headed by Winkler, other groups are born which, in opposition to the organization of official exhibitions, work and organize exhibitions on their own initiative. The number of small galleries that support these young artists is growing, excluded from the official art market, but who always remain exposed to repression.
In the 1970s, the main currents were concentrated in four cities. Leipzig and Halle become the centers of a form of Neue Sachlichkeit, Dresden and East Berlin of a more markedly pictorial-expressive orientation. At the same time, the image of GDR art is also represented abroad essentially by the ” masters ” of the generation of the 1920s. The proletarian vitalism of W. Sitte, despite some hints of formal experimentalism, offers the desired positive image of society. W. Mattheuer transposes images of everyday ” socialist ” reality, of an almost photographic realism, into obscure metaphors of social contradictions, such as that between industrial development and the destruction and impoverishment of the environment. B. Heisig (b. 1925) and W. Tübke (b. 1929), elaborating historical themes, use the virtuosic assessment of history for the purpose of legitimation and self-recognition. The monumental cycle of W. Frühbürgerlichen Revolution in Deutschland(“Germany’s First Bourgeois Revolution”), made between 1977 and 1987, can be considered the most important work on state commission of the last decade. These are the artists who are presented on the occasion of the GDR’s first participation in documenta 6 in Kassel in 1977.
Although already broken in practice, and in several ways (critically and metaphorically), the ideological imperative imposed on art by the state still remains operative, as a moralistic instance to exercise a social influence and to express the dominant socialist “ spirit ” . The art remains centered on the human figure and is characterized by the thematic dominance of the content. The form must be subordinated to the communication of the message. Formal experimentalism is accepted only slowly, and only to the extent that it does not hinder the understanding of the general public.
According to Microedu, the 8th exhibition of the GDR, staged in Dresden in 1977, presents a variety of addresses never seen before, in which even abstract art is marginally represented. The definition of the artistic heritage, through an eclectic exploitation of the entire history of art, is also enriched with elements previously excluded from the traditional orientation of socialist art. The Jugendstil is recovered and reworkedand M. Beckmann, the fifteenth century, the ancient Flemings, symbolism and historicism. The themes of criticism of society and the environment as well as erotic motifs are increasing, while the rhetorical formulas of proletarian heroism have by now little relevance. This is accompanied by the attempt to give a new historical-artistic formulation to socialist realism that allows these trends to be integrated without changing the fundamental theoretical conception of art, with which state cultural policy is legitimized.