Up to 1989, Berlin was a divided city, in which a wall separated two states – FRG and GDR, democracy and realist-socialist dictatorship, Western Powers and Eastern Bloc. Despite this division, nGbK retained an interest in cooperation with East German institutions, and exhibitions were held featuring East German artists. John Heartfield (1969) and Alice Lex-Nerlinger/Oskar Nerlinger (1975) represented two monographic exhibitions by communist artists who had moved to the East after the war because of political convictions. They saw art as a social and socially effective product and hence found their homes in East Germany – but also corresponded with the nGbK interpretation of art at the time. Hence, the exhibition Alice Lex-Nerlinger/Oskar Nerlinger (1975) aimed to “amplify accessibility to the broader public of work by renowned ground-breakers of social art.”1 But art played an ambivalent role in East Germany. The artist Barbara Puttbrese sums it up: “Art had great significance and received state funding but at the same time, it was eyed with neurotic suspicion and the authorities had a strong urge to exercise control over it. Efforts to influence it ranged from official, deliberate window-dressing which was declared as art, through careful ‘guidance’ and ‘advice’ to outright bans on public displays of certain works.”2

It was not until 1989 that there was renewed co-operation between institutes in the East and West, during the political and social upheaval at the time. Three exhibitions were dedicated to every-day life in East Germany. The main focus was on curiosity about the neighbour who had become a stranger. Using photographs of day-to-day subjects, Einblicke in das Leben der DDR was aimed at providing insights into everyday life in East Germany. The exhibition, with works by seven photographers from the GDR, was realised in co-operation with the Alternative Liste Berlin (a non-mainstream political movement) and supported by the GDR women’s magazine Für Dich. The exhibitions were conceived as bridge-builders: “Photographs invite, are encounters. They not only open up perspectives, they can also help transcend borders. Photographs tell of neighbours.”3

Reactions to the exhibitions were ambivalent. They included both enthusiastic and sceptical voices – especially with regard to state-run and ideological influence on art in East Germany: a review of Zwischenspiele. Junge Künstler und Künstlerinnen aus der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik said: “The Western observer looks at the art from the ‘other Germany’ in a manner that is equally curious and fundamentally benevolent, almost indulgent, yet also uncompromisingly distrustful.” ^4] That which was on show was a “stimulating provocation for the Western eye”5, wrote Anke Sterneborg. The exhibition was the first co-operation between a West German institution and the East German Federation of Visual Artists and was opened by the incumbent Mayor of Berlin, Walter Momper. Its goal: “To pose a challenge in the heads of those who still regard art from the GDR from an ideological perspective and thus devalue it.” 6

Two years later, two exhibitions looked at the GDR from a feminist perspective: Charme, Zement und Schwefelsäure collected pictures of women from East German magazines of the 1950s, in which the contradictions between the new ideal of the “emancipated” woman and traditional female roles were highlighted.
Außerhalb von Mittendrin pursued the aim of “familiarising a Western audience with works created outside the confines of state-supervised culture in East Germany. The Fall of the Wall introduced the additional dimension of women’s reaction to the upheaval and the clearly visible cultural and aesthetic differences in the East and West.”7 In co-operation with West German and Austrian positions, the project sought common ground and differences in the perception of “women’s art”.

In a 1992 report drawn up by the nGbK, it is stated that the merger of East and West is taking place with comparative pain, especially for Berliners from the eastern part of the city: “The liquidation of cultural and social institutions, the uncertain prospects in the event of a merger of two institutions and the closure of numerous companies have brought problems whose resolution is not foreseeable. The unequal treatment is pre-programmed in everyday life”8

By the time of the solo exhibition of works by the photographer Ulrich Wüst in 1993, the GDR was already in the process of disappearing and the focus became historic, even melancholy. The key word of the exhibition Wunderwirtschaft “Ostalgia” fitted the bill perfectly. Held in 1997, it addressed commercial culture and product design in the East Germany of the 1960s. Students of ethnology at the Humboldt University in Berlin examined everyday objects from East Germany: “The collection is not supposed to represent a ‘GDR Heimatmuseum’. The exhibition aims to transmit a kind of ‘Heimat knowledge’ which allows the visitor a melancholy-cum-amused re-encounter with a life world that only recently disappeared.” 9 How to appropriately remember the GDR? How to deal with GDR monuments? These questions were addressed by working groups at the nGbK, for example, in the exhibition Erhalten – Zerstören – Verändern, Denkmäler der DDR in Ostberlin (1990). The exhibition and eponymous publication Das Jahr 1990 freilegen (2019) held at station urbanen kulturen also focussed on remembering and the question of why 1989 is so present, while the year 1990 is a blank space. Addressing the past helps to understand the present, according to the theory: “Whoever wants to read the past has to begin with the year 1990.”10

While most East German institutions were dissolved or renamed after the collapse of communism, the competition Kunst statt Werbung survived. It was held for the first time in East Berlin in 1958 and called on artists to design posters for peace. The works submitted were exhibited on the walls of the subway station at Alexanderplatz. The competition was continued under the patronage of the nGbK working group U2 Alexanderplatz, and survives to this day under the title of Kunst im Untergrund. Ín 2018, an exhibition and poster competition were held to mark the 60th anniversary.

Anna-Lena Wenzel und Eylem Sengezer, 2015, revised 2019

  1. Olbricht, Harald: Vorwort, in: Alice Lex-Nerlinger/Oskar Nerlinger hrgs. v. NGBK Berlin, 1975, S. 2. 

  2. http://ngbk.de/alexanderplatz/1990-2005/barbara_putbrese.html, Zugang vom 16.12.2015. 

  3. Ruhnau, Heinz: o.T., in: Zwischen Elbe und Wolga, Heidelberg 1988, S. 5. 

  4. Der Tagesspiegel, 22.10.1989 (Anke Sterneborg). 

  5. Ebd. 

  6. Roloff-Momin, Ulrich: Zu dieser Ausstellung, in: Zwischenspiele, NGBK, Berlin 1989, S. 5. 

  7. Die Union, 21.6.1991 (o. A.). 

  8. NGBK: Kunstwettbewerb Übergänge – Zusammenfassung des bis bisherigen Diskussionsprozesses, Darstellung des aktuellen Stands der Überlegungen und Vorschläge für das weitere Vorgehen, Berlin 1992. Der Wettbewerb „Übergänge“, dessen Planungen kurz nach der Wende begannen, wurde dann erst 1996 von der Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung ausgeschrieben und in den Jahren 1997-1999 an ehemaligen innerstädtischen Grenzübergängen wie Checkpoint Charlie, Oberbaumbrücke, Bornholmer Straße, Chausseestraße etc. umgesetzt. 

  9. Züricher Zeitung, 19.11.1996 (Kai-Uwe Scholz). 

  10. Ausstellungstext, Das Jahr 1990 freilegen oder: Aufführung eines Buches