Christian Saehrendt. Kunst als Botschafter einer kunstlichen Nation: Studien zur Rolle der bildenden Kunst in der Auswartigen Kulturpolitik der DDR. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2009. 197 pp. EUR 55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-515-09227-2.
Reviewed by April A. Eisman (Department of Art and Design, Iowa State University)
Published on H-German (September, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Art as Unofficial Diplomat
Christian Saehrendt's new book presents itself as an investigation into how East Germany used the visual arts to supplement its foreign policy. It focuses, in particular, on a number of art exhibitions and exchanges that took place between the GDR and a handful of other countries during the Cold War era. Before turning to East Germany, however, Saehrendt spends three chapters looking at the foreign cultural policies of Germany more broadly--from "its beginnings" through the end of the Weimar Republic, in the Third Reich, and in the Federal Republic of Germany. Chapter 4 marks the turn to East Germany, the forty-year history of which is the focus of the remaining one hundred pages of the book. These pages are in turn divided into seven chapters of varying length that look at the founding and development of East Germany's foreign cultural policies, the role of the arts as an advertisement for East Germany abroad, and East Germany's cultural relations with West Germany, France, Great Britain, and the United States, before closing with a look at how reunified Germany represents itself through art today. Although this work touches upon a number of important issues, its brevity puts obstacles in the way of a nuanced understanding of them.
What becomes clear in Saehrendt's text is the difficulty East Germany had in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of the Hallstein Doctrine, which prevented countries from having diplomatic relations with West Germany if they had them with East Germany. As a result, a great deal of East Germany's foreign cultural policy efforts in these years were unofficial, tending to focus on specific groups--especially communists--who might be receptive to its message. In the atmosphere of the FRG's Ostpolitik of the 1970s, East German relations with other countries, especially those in the West, improved markedly, and cultural accords were signed with France, Great Britain, and West Germany. This thawing allowed for exchange of artworks and exhibitions, as well as opening of cultural centers abroad. It was in these years as well that contemporary East German art began to be shown in the West on a regular basis.
Significantly, western interest in contemporary East German art in these years coincided with a substantial shift in the officially sanctioned art of East Germany to a modern style that collectors in the West found interesting. This move was due in large part to the rise of Erich Honecker to power in 1971 and his policy of "breadth and variety," following which artists personally committed to communism were freed from any taboos in subject matter and style, though artists were still not allowed to criticize the state or the Soviet Union directly. Saehrendt does not spend much time discussing this change in artistic style, however, and his suggestion that modern works were allowed to be exhibited in these years because the Stasi had expanded its operations is unsubstantiated and therefore unconvincing. His statement in the volume's abstract that "[t]he cultural life in the GDR was also heavily disrupted by campaigns against modern art that followed the political tumult surrounding Stalin's death in 1953" (p. 177) is also one of several misleading remarks about the development of art in East Germany. In the wake of Joseph Stalin's death and the June 17 uprising, for example, the SED implemented the New Path, which marked a relaxation in cultural policy in which artists were able to experiment with modern styles. A multi-issue discussion of Pablo Picasso as a possible role model for East German artists even took place in Bildende Kunst in the mid-1950s, though the thaw ended in the wake of the Hungarian uprising in 1956.
The most valuable contribution of Saehrendt's text lies in its reminder to the reader that contemporary East German art was indeed available in the West during the final decades of the Cold War era. Beginning with "documenta 6" in 1977, a handful of East German artists, including Bernhard Heisig, Wolfgang Mattheuer, Werner Tübke, and Willi Sitte--also known as the "Leipzig School"--regularly exhibited work in major international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale. A number of touring exhibitions were devoted exclusively to East German art in West Germany, England, and the United States in the 1980s, a fact that makes the continuing absence of East German art from Anglo-American scholarship all the more surprising.
To a lesser degree, Saehrendt also looks at East Germany's relationship to the east bloc and Third World countries. Although he states that the GDR focused its cultural efforts on these areas in the 1950s and 1960s, he devotes only fifteen pages to the topic. Indeed, these are some of the most problematic pages in the book, especially his discussion of the GDR's relationship to the states in Palestine. Similarly, his statement that East Germany's gift of a Karl Marx memorial to Ethiopia was both a gift and a threat--a reminder of the Soviet Union's dominance--is made without corroborating evidence to support it.
Finally, although this book contains some interesting information, its organizational structure leaves much to be desired. It is unclear, for example, why the first third of the book focuses on topics other than East Germany. A number of minor errors in the book undermine the author's credibility, from inexplicable references to the "German Art Exhibitions" of the GDR throughout as the "Great Dresden Art Exhibitions" (the title of which recalls the Nazis' "Great German Art Exhibitions") to misspellings of major artists' names like Nam June Paik and Tilo Baumgärtel. Moreover, important secondary sources that would have helped the author build a framework for his conclusions, such as Ulrike Goeschen's Vom Sozialistischen Realismus zur Kunst im Sozialismus (2001) and Günter Feist's Kunstkombinat DDR (1990), are missing from the bibliography.
Although the topic is an interesting one, the title and dust jacket description are misleading. This is not a monograph about East Germany, but rather a book about Germany as a whole, albeit with an emphasis on the GDR. Tellingly, the twenty-three page English summary located at the back of the book focuses only on the East German portions of the text. At 159 pages in length, Kunst als Botschafter einer künstlichen Nation mostly serves to offer readers unfamiliar with the topic a starting point for further investigation.
. These included "Tradition and Renewal" (1984), which was organized by the Museum of Modern Art Oxford, and "Twelve Artists from the GDR" (1989-90), organized by the Busch-Reisinger Museum in Boston.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
April A. Eisman. Review of Saehrendt, Christian, Kunst als Botschafter einer kunstlichen Nation: Studien zur Rolle der bildenden Kunst in der Auswartigen Kulturpolitik der DDR.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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