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“Point of No Return” in Leipzig is the first exhibition to look into the way East German artists expressed their vision of the state and their hopes for change ahead of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The years preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall inspired many East German artists, who translated the period of sociopolitical upheaval into their works. With “Point of No Return,” the Museum of Fine Arts Leipzig (MdbK) presents the first overarching exhibition looking into how they perceived the Peaceful Revolution in East Germany. Shown here is an untitled work by Cornelia Schleime.
The exhibition highlights the growing sense of insecurity experienced by the population during that period. Pain can be felt in many of the works. “Perhaps we needed 30 years to take a step back to better understand those artists and their works,” says co-curator Alfred Weidinger to explain the timing of the exhibition. Trak Wendisch’s “Zungenabschneider” (Tongue Cutter) is from 1988.
Doris Ziegler created this painting in reaction to the lack of orientation she observed in those around her. Entitled “Grosse Passage” (Grand Passage), Ziegler didn’t portray the social changes of the time as an opportunity but rather used shades of gray to represent the lack of perspective that many felt. People are shown feeling at a loss and insecure about the future, hiding behind masks.
Others like Norbert Wagenbrett created works depicting the friendship between East Germany and the Soviet Union. Wagenbrett was commissioned by the Society for German–Soviet Friendship to produce the series “Seven Images on Soviet history,” with this particular one titled “Aufbruch” (Eve of a New Era). The commissioned paintings were created without state influence.
Born and raised in Dresden, Lutz Fleischer was a permanent fixture on the city’s underground scene, which was particularly active in the 1970s. In this 1981 painting titled “Trunkenes Paar” (Drunk Couple), he aimed to depict the realities of living under the GDR dictatorship: There were no noteworthy moments to any given day, with each day just ending at the local pub.
Author: Torsten Landsberg (ss)
The years preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall inspired many East German artists, who translated the period of sociopolitical upheaval into their works. With “Point of No Return,” the Museum of Fine Arts Leipzig (MdbK) presents the first overarching exhibition looking into how they perceived the Peaceful Revolution in East Germany. Shown here is an untitled work by Cornelia Schleime.
The exhibition highlights the growing sense of insecurity experienced by the population during that period. Pain can be felt in many of the works. “Perhaps we needed 30 years to take a step back to better understand those artists and their works,” says co-curator Alfred Weidinger to explain the timing of the exhibition. Trak Wendisch’s “Zungenabschneider” (Tongue Cutter) is from 1988.
Doris Ziegler created this painting in reaction to the lack of orientation she observed in those around her. Entitled “Grosse Passage” (Grand Passage), Ziegler didn’t portray the social changes of the time as an opportunity but rather used shades of gray to represent the lack of perspective that many felt. People are shown feeling at a loss and insecure about the future, hiding behind masks.
Others like Norbert Wagenbrett created works depicting the friendship between East Germany and the Soviet Union. Wagenbrett was commissioned by the Society for German–Soviet Friendship to produce the series “Seven Images on Soviet history,” with this particular one titled “Aufbruch” (Eve of a New Era). The commissioned paintings were created without state influence.
Born and raised in Dresden, Lutz Fleischer was a permanent fixture on the city’s underground scene, which was particularly active in the 1970s. In this 1981 painting titled “Trunkenes Paar” (Drunk Couple), he aimed to depict the realities of living under the GDR dictatorship: There were no noteworthy moments to any given day, with each day just ending at the local pub.
Author: Torsten Landsberg (ss)
DW: Many of the works in the exhibition “Point of No Return” are privately owned and are now shown publicly for the first time. How did you find the paintings and sculptures and make your selection?
Christoph Tannert: Paul Kaiser [Director of the Dresden Institute for Cultural Studies and exhibition co-curator] and I made the selection based on our previous knowledge. We have been following the art scene in East Germany for a long time. I was born in 1955 and was visiting many artists in their studios in the 1970s and 1980s, so I know their work first-hand. Already after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was surprised that many of those works were never made public. The bulk of that production could not be retraced, but our research led us to find a large number of works that were exactly related to our exhibition’s topic: the situation in the 1980s in East Germany, the hopes for change, the state’s collapse, the Peaceful Revolution and the transitory era.
Read more: Why East German movie posters were more art than advertising
Everything cleanly cut in half: the 2002 installation “Berlin Room” by Via Lewandowsky
How do you explain the fact that there was so little interest in these works after the fall of the Berlin Wall and that it took three decades to get them together for an exhibition?
The artists needed some time to find their bearings in the new situation. Many of them took on another job to earn money; others were traveling or doing research. Additionally, there were a great number of art historians from West Germany who took on the top positions in former East Germany. That made it impossible for East Germans to make their own life stories public. This situation still applies to this day, except the call to change things is a lot stronger than at the time.
Some artists were in demand, while others remained unnoticed. Why?
There were 6,000 members of the East German association of visual artists, which also had a surveillance function. Among those 6,000, there were about 2,000 artists. The number of them who remained prominent after the fall of the Berlin Wall is very small. Yet all of them kept on working. Those who had left East Germany before the state’s collapse had better chances of developing a new stage in their careers than those who had stayed in the GDR. Younger artists who completed their art studies after 1989 could start their career in the new united Germany — among them, Neo Rauch, Eberhard Havekost, Frank Nitsche and Thomas Scheibitz.
What was the importance of the arts in the peaceful revolution?
After dissident singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann was expatriated from East Germany [in 1976], artists kept on spreading their hopes for change through their paintings, sculptures, films and songs. They had anticipated change and insisted on the possibility that things would change. It was a long process, which is why we are also showing paintings from the 1970s and 1980s. 
In her “Passagen” cycle from 1988, the Leipzig painter Doris Ziegler painted several works about the impossibility to move around freely; she also depicted the collapsing state as a dull, grey bell jar holding individuals captive. She had anticipated the demonstrations that would lead to the peaceful revolution, driven by human chains and candle circles.
Christoph Tannert (r) along with exhibition co-curator Paul Kaiser (l) and museum director Alfred Weidinger, in front of a painting by Doris Ziegler
Not all artists were opposed to the GDR, however; some of them were also conformists. How is this addressed in the exhibition?
We are showing around 300 works from more than 100 artists from different generations. They all transmit the artists’ very subjective perspective on the situation in East Germany and the social changes, offering a retrospective on the GDR era. Most of the works selected rather represent opposition views, but there are also state conformists in the show, such as Willi Sitte and Wolfgang Mattheuer. Sitte resented the working class for embracing capitalism with their eyes closed. So it’s a kaleidoscope of different life experiences.
Christoph Tannert is the director of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin and one of the three curators of the exhibition “Point of No Return,” which can be seen until November 3, 2019 at the Museum of Fine Arts Leipzig.
Neo Rauch, 55, is regarded as one of the most important contemporary German painters. His large-format works and graphics have a surreal feel, a trademark of the Leipzig-born artist’s style.
Rauch’s paintings conquered the art market in the 1990s. Gerd Harry Lybke (pictured here with Rauch), the Leipzig art dealer who signed Rauch and other artists after reunification, was an important mediator for the new movement. Lybke has a colorful history: his gallery was under observation by the East German secret Police: the much feared Stasi.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leipzig became a center for contemporary art once again. Neo Rauch was actually the movement’s only native East German, while Tim Eitel, Rosa Loy and David Schnell (pictured) were West German. The name stuck, however, and New Leipzig School works became immensely popular.
Tim Eitel’s figurative paintings hang in many private collections around the world. His connection with the New Leipzig School helped him to fame. Often based on newspaper clippings or photographs, his works comment on our society.
Arno Rink,75, studied at the Leipzig Academy for Visual Arts, and he also taught at the academy in the early 1970s. His early works are influenced by Picasso, Dix and Beckmann, and many echo mythical themes. Rink is the link between East Germany’s Leipzig School and today’s New Leipzig School.
In terms of a specific genre, the Leipzig School didn’t really exist. The name evolved when several painters from Leipzig – Bernhard Heisig (pictured), Wolfgang Mattheuer and Werner Tübke – were invited to the documenta 6 exhibition in 1977. These artists had increasingly moved away from State-sanctioned art and socialist realism from the 1960s.
The trio was labeled the “artistic miracle” of the East. Werner Tübke – regarded as a Traditionalist and a critical realist – was famous in East Germany for numerous large scale wall paintings. His works disappeared after reunification.
Wolfgang Mattheuer used strong images from ancient mythology in his works, that often focused on the fears and desires harbored by his fellow East Germans. Like the other Leipzig painters, Mattheuer wouldn’t be silenced by East German authorities. The artists also didn’t want to belong to a “School,” and refused the label Leipzig School.
Author: Sabine Oelze / db
 
The Churches of East Germany began a peace movement in 1980 that would slowly gain momentum until the nation imploded in the fall of 1989. Their opposition to militarization galvanized others to follow their lead. (06.11.2014)  
In the show “Point of No Return,” the Museum of Fine Arts Leipzig looks into how the years leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall were depicted in the arts. (24.07.2019)  
Everything used to be thoroughly planned in East Germany – including everyday objects. Many of them have become icons of design, as shows an exhibition held at the Kulturbrauerei in Berlin until March 19, 2017. (12.04.2016)  
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