Paintings for the proletariat

Paintings for the proletariat
Photo: Penny Bradfield
With the world’s financial markets currently giving capitalism a bad name, David Wroe dons his Che Guevara t-shirt and heads to a new Berlin exhibition showing forgotten East German art.

It is perhaps the final humiliation for communism that so many of its iconic 20th century images have been recycled as retro-chic consumer goods.

These days, French teenagers sport Che Guevara t-shirts, German fashion designers fetishize the leftist terrorist outfit RAF, and American tourists buy fake Soviet fur hats bearing the hammer and sickle as they search for remnants of the Berlin Wall.

Entrepreneurs riding this wave of commercial left-wing enthusiasm include Guido Sand and Daniel Helbig, who last year opened a communist-themed hotel in Berlin. Now the two former East German circus performers have just unveiled their latest project for the proletariat, the Volkseigentum art gallery featuring works by leading East German artists not seen in Berlin since reunification.

The collection, which opened this Saturday in the German capital, includes a Berlin cityscape by Gottfried Richter that Raisa Gorbachev gave to East Germany’s Erich Honecker during a state visit, and paintings by Walter Womacka. Said to have been Honecker’s favourite painter, Womacka created the well known frieze on the Haus des Lehrers at Alexanderplatz.

Click here for a photo gallery of the exhibition.

Sand, a bouncy little man who spent 20 years as a trampolinist, explained that he and Helbig were moved to open the gallery by their hotel guests’ hunger for experiencing the flavour of the communist East. They approached the Beeskow Archive in Brandenburg and chose 166 paintings and 30 sculptures using gut feeling based on their own memories of life in East Germany, rather than with the expert eyes of art historians.

“These are my memories of the GDR and I want to bring my memories so people can look and see that it wasn’t all bad and all shit, that we had not only ugly things but some beauty too,” Sand explained.

How much beauty there is in the paintings will be debated, but personal approach taken by Sand and Helbig brings one indubitable strength: the collection is rich in intimate detail. That the paintings show the East’s penchant for nudity and mullet hairstyles is as illuminating as the more predictable themes of socialist industrial progress and rural utopia.

Indeed, Sand’s favourite work – he doesn’t even know the name of the artist – goes beyond the typical German Ostalgie, which is a play on words for eastern nostalgia. The triptych shows a naked couple preparing for a party, then attending the party still mostly naked and, finally, the man alone on the street, clothed and looking hapless. The painting reminded him of his parents, Sand said.

To make up for their haphazard approach, they have hired art historian Dr. Simone Tippach-Schneider to act as curator of the exhibit. But Sand and Helbig evidently had good judgement, for there are some important and valuable pieces in the collection, she said. Most noteworthy is “The Worker” by Walter Womacka – a mesmerizing propaganda piece showing a radiant young man turning over in his mind the glorious mathematic possibilities of Marx’s theories, while before him sits a bright green apple representing paradise.

The sheer lack of subtlety in much of the work is breathtaking. The exceptions are the handful of subversive paintings from the latter days of East Germany, which naturally needed to be so subtle that their meanings could be defended as innocent. One such example is “Waiting” by Heino Koschitzki, a genuinely moving painting in which a row of people wait at a tram stop, staring over the leafless trees as a new dawn threatens to break.

“You could never say these things directly, so they said them through these metaphors,” Tippach-Schneider explained.

Perhaps the pièce de résistance is a portrait of Honecker shaking hands with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev which, if not quite as striking as the famous photograph in which the two leaders greeted by kissing one another on the lips, is a grand work nonetheless.

More information

Volkseigentum, Museum for GDR Art, is open 10 am to 10 pm daily.

Spandauer Straße 2

10178 Berlin

Tel.: 030/2576 8660

Entry is €8, or €6 for reduced concession. Children six and under are free.