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Thirty years after the fall oft he Berlin Wall, a museum in the western German city Düsseldorf presents East German art. The idea is to overcome old prejudices.

Wolfgang Mattheuer was one of East Germany’s most famous artists. His New Objectivity paintings were charged with symbolism, and also shown outside the GDR, including at the West German international art show Documenta, as well as at the Venice Biennale. Mattheuer’s figures, landscapes and scenes drawn from classical mythology are open to interpretation. What is his Sisyphus fleeing from?
Carlfriedrich Claus (1930-1998) came from a family of book and art dealers. Perhaps that’s why, at an early age, he became interested in language and writing. From the 1950s onwards, he experimented with “sound processes” on tape and designed complex writing and sign scapes on handwritten “language sheets” like the above letter to Prof. Will Grohmann.
Gerhard Altenbourg, whose real name was Gerhard Ströch (1926-1989), created surreal, poetic works that sold well. Forced to abandon his art studies in Weimar because of the alleged “amorality of his choice of motif,” he worked as a freelancer and called himself Altenbourg after his hometown Altenburg in Thuringia. His “Ecce Homo” is up to his neck in water.
For decades this artist was only known to few art lovers — until a solo exhibition at the Dresden Kupferstichkabinett in 1969 made Hermann Glöckner (1889-1987) famous even beyond East Germany. The Nazis hadn’t enjoyed his abstract style of painting, and East German leaders, too, criticized his informal artworks that did not come close to Socialist Realism.
Cornelia Schleime (born 1953) is one of the youngest artists on show in Düsseldorf. After completing an apprenticeship as a hairdresser and studying to become a make-up artist, she studied graphics and painting in Dresden. She graduated but was banned from exhibiting — GDR culture bureaucrats disliked her concept of art, which included not only photographs but performances, films and punk music.
A stick figure balances across a narrow, burning bridge — East German leaders saw A.R. Penck’s (1939-2017) painting as critical of life in the GDR and slammed the artist with an exhibition ban. Previously, Penck, whose real name was Ralf Winkler, had already been denied the right to study art. In 1980, the GDR expelled the undesirable artist. His second career began in the West.
Willi Sitte (1921-2013) was a painter and an influential official. In 1963, he became politically active in the Socialist Unity Party (SED). His early works may have been inspired by Picasso, but from then on, the “Socialist human being” was at the center of his expressive paintings. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sitte faced accusations that he had worked for the GDR’s Stasi secret police.
Werner Tübke (1929-2004) was also regarded as an artist close to the East German regime. After his participation in the 1977 Documenta show in the West German city of Kassel — along with fellow GDR artists Willi Sitte, Wolfgang Mattheuer and Bernhard Heisig — he became one of the East German artists most frequently exhibited in the West.
Wolfgang Mattheuer was one of East Germany’s most famous artists. His New Objectivity paintings were charged with symbolism, and also shown outside the GDR, including at the West German international art show Documenta, as well as at the Venice Biennale. Mattheuer’s figures, landscapes and scenes drawn from classical mythology are open to interpretation. What is his Sisyphus fleeing from?
Carlfriedrich Claus (1930-1998) came from a family of book and art dealers. Perhaps that’s why, at an early age, he became interested in language and writing. From the 1950s onwards, he experimented with “sound processes” on tape and designed complex writing and sign scapes on handwritten “language sheets” like the above letter to Prof. Will Grohmann.
Gerhard Altenbourg, whose real name was Gerhard Ströch (1926-1989), created surreal, poetic works that sold well. Forced to abandon his art studies in Weimar because of the alleged “amorality of his choice of motif,” he worked as a freelancer and called himself Altenbourg after his hometown Altenburg in Thuringia. His “Ecce Homo” is up to his neck in water.
For decades this artist was only known to few art lovers — until a solo exhibition at the Dresden Kupferstichkabinett in 1969 made Hermann Glöckner (1889-1987) famous even beyond East Germany. The Nazis hadn’t enjoyed his abstract style of painting, and East German leaders, too, criticized his informal artworks that did not come close to Socialist Realism.
Cornelia Schleime (born 1953) is one of the youngest artists on show in Düsseldorf. After completing an apprenticeship as a hairdresser and studying to become a make-up artist, she studied graphics and painting in Dresden. She graduated but was banned from exhibiting — GDR culture bureaucrats disliked her concept of art, which included not only photographs but performances, films and punk music.
A stick figure balances across a narrow, burning bridge — East German leaders saw A.R. Penck’s (1939-2017) painting as critical of life in the GDR and slammed the artist with an exhibition ban. Previously, Penck, whose real name was Ralf Winkler, had already been denied the right to study art. In 1980, the GDR expelled the undesirable artist. His second career began in the West.
Willi Sitte (1921-2013) was a painter and an influential official. In 1963, he became politically active in the Socialist Unity Party (SED). His early works may have been inspired by Picasso, but from then on, the “Socialist human being” was at the center of his expressive paintings. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sitte faced accusations that he had worked for the GDR’s Stasi secret police.
Werner Tübke (1929-2004) was also regarded as an artist close to the East German regime. After his participation in the 1977 Documenta show in the West German city of Kassel — along with fellow GDR artists Willi Sitte, Wolfgang Mattheuer and Bernhard Heisig — he became one of the East German artists most frequently exhibited in the West.
For decades, many in former East Germany felt closer to Russia than their western compatriots. But opposition to Russia’s war on Ukraine now outweighs historical grievances about the West.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises fears of a new Cold War. DW’s Susanne Spröer describes what it was like to grow up with East German border controls and peace demonstrations.
Alfons Zitterbacke, Kosmonaut, Intershop or Sandmann: Discover terms referring to nearly forgotten or quirky aspects of everyday life in former East Germany.
In the GDR, art was meant to serve the state. Pressure on creative artists grew after the Berlin Wall was built, but pop art still managed to thrive.
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