Photography from the German Democratic Republic or East Germany has received limited exposure in the art world, not least because of the strict restrictions imposed by the former authoritarian state.
A new collection of images, first shown at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in 2019 in the south of France by curator Sonia Voss, shines light on works that came out of the GDR in the last decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“The decade before the fall of the wall is very interesting for the arts in Germany, because there was a new generation that did not witness the founding of the GDR,” Voss said in a telephone interview.
“These were young people who were very detached from political ideas, but somehow just as tired and furious at the constraints they lived with, which made them more likely to break the rules or push the boundaries than previous generations.”
Ute Mahler, Berlin, Winfried Glaceder, Robert and Philip, 1982, from the series “Living Together”.
In the series “Restless Bodies” Voss explores how the body was at the center of the work of these artists. Photographing one’s own body, Voss explained, was an act of affirmation and resistance in a society that discouraged the individual and was suspicious of the arts. And by photographing others, the artists were able to provide lasting documents from East German realities.
Such was the case with Ute Mahler, one of the artists featured in the exhibition, whose “Living Together” includes family portraits made in Leipzig. In the notes of the exhibition, she explains: “I wanted to peek behind the facade of the official rhetoric of optimism. I looked for what is real in people’s personal lives. w
Similarly, Christian Eisler’s photos of the punk community in Leipzig offer a glimpse into the private world.
Christiane Eisler, Mita and Jana, Berlin punk girls in Leipzig, 1983 Credit: Christiane Eisler / transit / www.transit.de / Christiane Eisler / transit
“She followed them everywhere for a long time. It was a community that was very much repressed by the Stasi. These are very melancholy portraits because of the tension between rage and despair that was everywhere in the GDR,” Voss said.
Sybil Bergeman, Heike, Berlin, 1988 (Allerleirauh).
Fashion photographer Sybil Bergeman was commissioned by popular magazines, but also shot underground fashion scenes.
“She created a group of young designers who made clothes they could find to develop a style you can’t see in stores. They did a lot of illegal shows that were extremely successful. Sybil documented a lot of them,” Voss explained. .
Manfred Paul, Verena – Geburt 3, [Verena — Birth 3], 1977
While Manfred Paul is best known for a series of photos of courtyards in Berlin, the series focuses on the portraits he took of his wife when she gave birth to their first son. With their intimacy, they offer a radical contrast to the social discourse observed elsewhere.
York der Knoefel from the Schlachthaus series [Slaughterhouse], 1986-1988.
Self-taught photographer York der Knoefel spent two years documenting the Berlin slaughterhouse. “He saw it as a metaphor for the human condition and a sacrifice for society,” Voss said.
“To go with the portraits, he created an installation made of zinc plates that formed a maze. He is a typical example of how a young man who has not received a standard education really pushes the boundaries of photography.”
Rudolf Schaefer, Der ewige Schlaf – visages de morts [The Eternal Sleep — Faces of the dead], 1981
The impressive portraits made by the artist Rudolf Schaefer are from the morgue at the Charité Hospital in East Berlin.
I put this series in the same section of the exhibition, as well as other portraits, because for me it was like a search for the supreme essence of the individual. When you are a corpse, you are no longer a social thing, are you? to the essence of his being, “Voss said.
Mountain image: Gundula Schulze Eldowy, Berlin, 1987, from the series “Berlin on a Dog’s Night”.