The Art and Kitsch of Dictatorship

By Ann Brocklehurst
Originally published 28 May 1994, International Herald Tribune

The East German art collection is stored in an old bank vault in the basement of an office building in Eastern Berlin, but the 14,000 objects that it comprises are not kept there for security reasons. In fact, the art historians who look after them say most are neither particularly valuable nor interesting. The vault is simply a handy location with the right climatic conditions to store them until it is decided what to do with them.

The collection, which art historians have come to describe as the art of “parties and mass organizations,” includes oil paintings, drawings, sculptured busts and souvenir-style kitsch. Before the fall of communism it was an omnipresent background to everyday life, used to decorate factories, schools, union halls and holiday homes. With the end of the German Democratic Republic, the paintings of cheery workers and heroic Red Army officers were shipped quickly out of sight.

Officially, the collection and others like it are still owned by the Lander (states) of Eastern Germany but they are now under the trusteeship of the Treuhandanstalt privatization agency, which has sought the advice of art historians at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

“I couldn’t answer the question whether to save this art or sell it, so we decided to hold a symposium,” says Monika Flacke, the museum department head in charge of the collection. The symposium, held late last year and made up of academics from both East and West, ended with a recommendation that the objects be kept for 10 more years and that a research chair to study the “Art of 20th-Century Dictatorships” be set up at the German Historical Museum.

“There’s a high identification with or anti-identification with these objects,” says Flacke, a West German, who believes such a project would provide Germans from East and West a better understanding of each other. She is also convinced that the work must be placed in its historical context, which is why she supports studying in it relation to other European dictatorships of the 20th century. “The GDR was not an island. You can’t understand it without a grasp of Stalinism” and Nazism.

Flacke says she is not concerned with the aesthetic value of the art but rather with its historical value and what it reveals about society. “The work can have historical value without having aesthetic value,” she explained. “This point of view is not popular with most of the Eastern art historians. Maybe they believe more in their art than I do.

“People want me to say this is art and this is not art, but for research it doesn’t matter. When you start, you need all of it: good, bad and middling. Good art will end up in a museum.”

If the various governments involved agree to fund a research chair, it will be set up for 10 years with one permanent administrator in charge of supervising fellowships granted for one- or two-year periods. The recipients would explore specific themes, set up exhibitions and publish books or catalogues. Flacke sees plenty of fodder for academic dissertations, possibly including the role of religious imagery, the use of landscape to encourage national identification and a comparison of the role of women in the art of the GDR and of the Hitler era.

GERMANY’S collection of Nazi art, which is under the control of the Munich finance department, remains in storage but various pieces are shown from time to time in special exhibitions.

The German Historical Museum is already arranging an exhibit of art commissioned in the 42 years of East Germany’s existence, which will be shown in 1995. It will feature one example from each year along with the documents and contracts used to commission the works, and newspaper and other critical reviews. One of the paintings on display will be Werner Tübke’s “Farmers’ War” panorama, which, unlike the thousands of GDR works now languishing in storage, has become something of a tourist attraction in its regular setting of Bad Frankenhausen in Thuringia.

Tubke and Willi Sitte are two of the the better-known artists of the GDR and among the few for whom there is actually a market in their work. Flacke says it is extremely difficult to evaluate the financial worth of GDR art and the few pieces that have been sold did not fetch the prices expected.