Dhe gallery owner Karl Schwind has exhibited them all in his Frankfurt gallery, yes was friends with them: Werner Tübke, Wolfgang Mattheuer, Bernhard Heisig, Willi Sitte and Fritz Cremer. Schwind has been fighting for the recognition of a whole generation of artists ever since. Now, thirty years after the fall of the Wall, two major shows celebrate the forgotten artists of the former GDR. “Point of No Return” in Leipzig and “Utopia and Downfall” in the Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf. For the first time since reunification, art from the GDR has moved into a West German museum. We visited Karl Schwind in his Frankfurt gallery to find out what the sudden boom of GDR art in German museums means.
WORLD: Why is East German art coming back now?
KARL SCHWIND: To mark the anniversary of the reunification, the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf is showing the first large overview exhibition from the former GDR, in the heart of Germany, where actually the painter greats Georg Baselitz and Gerhard Richter dominate. Since Frank-Walter Steinmeier the show “Behind the mask. Artists in the GDR “opened in the Museum Barberini in 2017, the perception changed.
WORLD: How did you come to East German art? Or better: how did the art come to you – on the other side of the wall?
SCHWIND: I founded my gallery right after graduation, exactly thirty years ago. I wanted to show figurative art. In the West, there were few artists who worked objectively, so I directed my gaze eastward. From the Staatliche Kunsthandel I got a permanent residence visa for the GDR. After getting my first idea of what and who I would exhibit, I was visited by members of the State Art Trade and found my gallery too small. They offered me a postcard exhibition. As a result, I organized my exhibitions without the State Art Trade. I went to the GDR, met with Gero Künzel, Ulf Puder and Neo Rauch, all students of Bernhard Heisig, and exhibited them in Frankfurt.
WORLD: How were the exhibitions received?
SCHWIND: One was curious about what happened in the East. Word got around that I represented young artists from the former GDR. Since I had no money, I bought a Trabi with roof rack and brought the pictures from Leipzig to Frankfurt. People were waiting in front of my gallery on Saturdays to get their latest work.
WORLD: So you have specialized in the Leipzig School because of its success? Or was it passion?
SCHWIND: It was my passion, my affinity for figuration and critical realism. Werner Tübke and Wolfgang Mattheuer are for me still the most important artists of the last century. For the first time, I saw pictures of them in 1977 at the Documenta in Kassel with pictures by Gerhard Richter and the “honey pump at work” by Joseph Beuys. At that time I did not know yet that I would run a gallery once. But the pictures did not go out of my mind.
WORLD: How has the art market reacted in the West?
SCHWIND: Contemporary figuration could not be seen at art fairs at that time. When I competed at the Art Cologne in 1992, I was berated by visitors as a Stasi employee and Communist. Colleagues cut me. The mood in the Rhineland tipped after a few years of reunification. In 2006, my gallery was excluded from Art Cologne and is no longer allowed. Reason: The artists Wolfgang Mattheuer, Werner Tübke are provincial and therefore not worthy of an exhibition at an international fair.
WORLD: East German art has always been accused of GDR propaganda. What do you make of it?
SCHWIND: The art that emerged in the former GDR is very complex. Until the 1960s, there was the doctrine of Socialist Realism, which is actually an idealism. The already successful abroad artists Bernhard Heisig, Willi Sitte, Werner Tübke and Wolfgang Mattheuer had nothing to do with this state art. They developed very different visual languages and styles that did not conform to the ideas of the system. Take the “step of the century” by Wolfgang Mattheuer, a sculpture that stands today in the courtyard of the Barberini Museum and which puts fascism and Stalinism on the same level. That was a big challenge for the state, which he found difficult to deal with.
WORLD: The period between 1989 and today is often described as the repression of East German art. What went wrong?
SCHWIND: Not only cultural policy, the biggest problem today is that the people are perceived in the East by the citizens in the West as German second class. A kind of indigenous people from simple circumstances, for West German symbolic foreigners. I think it goes back to the time before reunification. Back then, they sent a pound of coffee, a pair of jeans and some bananas to the East, and was the rich uncle from the West. This sense of superiority has been maintained.
WORLD: How should it be written, the art history of divided Germany? As one or two stories?
SCHWIND: There is only one German art history. We are a country that was divided, but always belonged together. We have to give people the chance to form their own image. But that only works if people get the chance to see the pictures of the artists, who were almost invisible in the last thirty years, because they were suspended and put away. Everyone should be able to form their own opinion.
WORLD: While the Leipzig show focuses on the time of change, Düsseldorf is attempting to create a larger picture of a “tense art era”. Is the story in East and West told differently today?
SCHWIND: Of course, the people in the East have a different view of the pictures. Simply because they are very familiar to you. The last major art exhibition in Dresden before the fall of the Wall had a million visitors – art has given people answers to their longings and questions. An all-German discovery in Dusseldorf could be the paintings of Elisabeth Voigt, which one has not seen before, not even in the East.
WORLD: Especially the strong works of Cornelia Schleime, Angela Hampel, Petra Flemming and Doris Ziegler attract attention in the exhibitions. Has the social equality of the Eastern woman also been reflected in the market?
SCHWIND: At the beginning of my gallery work I exhibited a lot of painters. In Dusseldorf, people have deliberately focused on parity, which leads to an artist like Elisabeth Voigt being exhibited who nobody had on screen. That's an excellent idea. Women are often more sensitive, finer and more delicate in their work than their male counterparts.
WORLD: The fact that the art of the Leipzig School is not only good, but art-historically relevant, was first brought to the attention of a gathering of collectors from the USA. That was around 2000. Have German collectors caught up now?
SCHWIND: You mean the so-called young Leipzig School, student of Arno Rink, like Neo Rauch and Michael Triegel. For most artists, the art market remains predominantly national, Werner Tübke has painted only 390 pictures in his life. That does not serve an international market. Nevertheless, artists from the former GDR are perceived internationally, Mattheuer, Sitte and Tübke were shown in group exhibitions in Los Angeles and New York. Tübke had a show in the Dutch city of Zwolle. This was one of his first big exhibitions after the turnaround – with 80,000 visitors. But in the old federal states, no museum dares to exhibit Werner Tübke. He is treated like a leper.
WORLD: This is reminiscent of the East German picture dispute, which seething times weaker since the fall of the Berlin Wall. How do you position yourself to the hanging politics in the museums?
SCHWIND: Immediately after the reunification, the entire nomenclature of the GDR was replaced. In Leipzig, the mayor, the museum director and all administrative posts were replaced by officials from Hannover. Employees from the East were pushed back. Since the West Germans could not do anything with the art from the GDR, everything was once hung out. The resulting gaps were mostly filled with second-rate art from the West. Only when the local people resisted, wrote letters and asked why their pictures, which meant so much to them, disappeared in the cellar, did people start to think differently.
WORLD: Is not the dilemma of the debate to end the discussion and to historicize the “GDR art” once and for all?
SCHWIND: I do not believe that. At the moment, it looks like people are getting curious. I can see that also abroad. In addition, many artists have died and their pictures now have to speak for themselves. New generations will devote themselves to them without bias. Art history will write itself.
WORLD: What do you think the heterogeneous art history beyond Socialist Realism should look like?
SCHWIND: Forget Socialist Realism. The painters who worked in this direction have rightly disappeared from our perception, the names are no longer known. We talk about great German artists, who followed very different styles and created their own manuscripts. We have to rate them independently. They were not a group, the GDR has adorned themselves with them. Wolfgang Mattheuer, Werner Tübke, Bernhard Heisig respected each other, but did not like each other, even during their lifetime they were suspicious that they always had to appear as a package abroad.
WORLD: In your opinion, what would be a success after the exhibitions in Leipzig and Düsseldorf?
SCHWIND:It would be a success if we no longer talk about GDR art, but pay attention to the individual works.
Heisig (t) Bernhard (1925-2011) (t) Mattheuer (t) Wolfgang (1927-2004) (t) Tübke (t) Werner (1929-2004) (t) Norbert Wagenbrett (t) Doris Ziegler (t) Karl Schwind (t) Wilhelm Lachnit (t) Elisabeth Voigt (t) Dusseldorf (t) Wolfgang Mattheuer (t) GDR (t) Bernhard Heisig (t) Fritz Cremer (t) Werner Tübke (t) Leipzig (t) Design (t) Lutz Friedel (t) Socialist Realism (t) Frankfurt (t) Gerhard Richter (t) Willi Sitte (t) Kunstpalast (t) Neo Rauch (t) Museum Barberini