Indebted to Max Beckmann, Lovis Corinth, and Otto Dix, as well as the drawings of Adolf Menzel, Bernhard Heisig (1925-2011) was one of East Germany’s most important artists. Indeed, one might call him the Joseph Beuys of East Germany. The similarities between the two men are as striking as their art is different.
Both had fought for the Nazis as young men—Heisig was sixteen when he became a soldier; Beuys, twenty. Both became leading artists in their respective Germanys, employing the dominant artistic genres from their side of the Wall—performance and installation art in the West (Beuys), painting in the East (Heisig) —to create works that often attempted to come to terms with their military past (whereas Beuys took on a shaman-like role and tried to heal these wounds, Heisig examined the mechanisms that lead to war and the traumas that result). Both believed that art should engage its public. Both were engaged teachers who had a massive impact on future generations of artists. And, both are much better known within Germany than they are outside of it.
My new book, Bernhard Heisig and the Fight for Modern Art in East Germany, is the first book in English to focus on Bernhard Heisig, and the East German art world more generally. It shows the vibrant and contested “field of friction” that was East Germany, a country in which artists were intellectuals and their work was expected to engage the public. Whereas early on, that mandate meant the dumbing down of artwork into easy-to-understand realist works, debates in the 1960s—of which Heisig was a key figure and that form the core of the book—ultimately led to a change, to a focus on educating the audience to understand art. The result was a shift from Socialist Realism to Socialist Modernism.
By the 1980s, East German artists like Heisig were regularly showing work in the West, including at major venues like documenta and the Venice Biennale. But the Berlin Wall fell just as their work was beginning to cross the Atlantic, thus the stereotypes about art in East Germany were left largely unchallenged in the United States.
While the book focuses on Heisig and the battles over art that he fought in the 1960s, it also engages with the reception (and lack thereof) of his work and East German art more generally in the West. After unification, East German art fell victim to an inner-German struggle to define the identity of the new Germany. Much of it disappeared from major museums, even in eastern Germany, where western German curators took over and put the Socialist collections into storage. Each time an attempt was made to show East German art in a major exhibition or venue—such as at the National Gallery in Berlin in 1994—there were public attacks in the press. Heisig was at the centre of one such attack after he was invited to create a work for the Reichstag building in Berlin in 1998; journalists and conservative politicians ripped him apart in the press for his Nazi and Communist pasts. In such a politicized context, it is perhaps not surprising that East German art and artists like Heisig remain largely unknown beyond Germany. But that is slowly beginning to change – just in time for the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 9, 2019).
This guest post is written by April A. Eisman, Associate Professor of Art History at Iowa State University