Art of the East German Uprising

As Stalin grew ever more paranoid and unpredictable in the final months of his life, the ailing dictator demanded that Walter Ulbricht’s Communist government in the German Democratic Republic consolidate its control over the country by intensifying the process of Sovietization. In the summer of 1952, land confiscations, tax hikes, and a public pay freeze with a 10% increase in labour quotas were introduced, against the backdrop of a crumbling economy and a surge in political arrests.

Max Lingner, ‘Building of the Republic’ (‘Aufbau der Republik’), 1950–53. Photo: OTFW, Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0. Click to view full image.

Sovietization also extended into the arts. On 3 January 1953, a 60-foot mosaic mural in classic Socialist Realist style was unveiled on the exterior wall of the House of Ministries in East Berlin, the seat of the GDR government. In an ironic twist, the mural replaced a Nazi-era frieze celebrating the eastward march of Wehrmacht soldiers. Having failed in their mission, the troops were replaced with depictions of the Communist working class, complete with Young Pioneers and the German People’s Police. Constructed from hundreds of Meissen porcelain tiles, the mural remains a popular tourist attraction to this day.

The artist behind this monumental work was Max Lingner, a painter and illustrator who in 1950 was a co-founder of the East Berlin Academy of Arts. Lingner was selected for the project in November 1950, after being one of six artists invited to compete for the commission. However, having spent the previous two decades living in France – where he had been a member of the Résistance – Lingner found himself under suspicion for possible bourgeois tendencies. The artist was compelled to revise his design on several occasions, in response to criticism from the authorities that his figures looked too “French” and that he had not accurately represented a tractor!

By the time it was completed, the vision of joyous East German workers sharply contrasted with the reality of life in the increasingly isolated state. A steady stream of East Germans had emigrated since the GDR was founded three years earlier, with an annual departure of around 180,000 citizens. The widespread alarm at increased Sovietization dramatically increased those numbers, and in the first half of 1953 alone, more than 226,000 East Germans fled to the West. Many of those who remained hoped that life would improve following Stalin’s death in March; and indeed, the new leaders in the Kremlin recommended that Ulbricht should curtail his plans, to stem the exodus. But by then, the people had had enough.

Workers protest in front of Max Lingner’s mural at the House of Ministries, Berlin, 17 June 1953.

On 16 June 1953, construction workers in East Berlin launched strike action, which quickly spread across the country. Calls for lower work quotas grew into protests demanding the resignation of the government. The next day, ten of thousands marched on the House of Ministries. There, in front of Lingner’s painting of a march under the banner of “Sozialismus”, real-life East German workers held up banners proclaiming “We want free elections!” and “We want to be free, not slaves.”

socialism-leipziger-strasse-muralUlbricht turned to the Kremlin for help and on 17 June, Soviet tanks and some 20,000 soldiers marched into East Berlin, opening fire on the crowd. The death toll is disputed, with estimates ranging from 55 known victims to over 600, including those executed in the aftermath. In addition, hundreds were injured and thousands were arrested, followed by lengthy sentences in penal camps. Taking back control of the country, the Communist party blamed the rebellion on the West and suggested that it had been covertly orchestrated by the CIA.

Meanwhile, in West Germany, the event was seen very differently.  From 1954 until reunification, 17 June was commemorated in the Federal Republic of Germany as the “Day of German Unity”. A week after the uprising, some 125,000 West Germans attended a funeral for the eight victims who had died in West Berlin hospitals, and on the 2nd anniversary of the massacre a monument was unveiled in their cemetery in the Wedding district of Berlin. Carved by sculptor Karl Wenke, the statue shows a man encased in stone, desperately trying to break free.

In contrast, it would take until 2000 for a formal memorial to be installed in what was East Germany. Berlin artist Wolfgang Rüppel’s powerful photographic reproduction under laminated glass, sunk into the square in front of what is now the Federal Ministry of Finance, is at first hidden from view. But from the right vantage point, the seemingly random etched dots converge to once again reveal the faces of the demonstrators. Set directly in front of Lingner’s mural, the two artworks provide a jarring juxtaposition, offsetting the promise of Communism with its harsh reality.

Japanese Painters Protesting the Cold War

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in August 1945 not only signalled the end of World War II, but also announced the start of the nuclear age which would be a defining aspect of the Cold War. The widespread revulsion in Japan at America’s actions would sit uncomfortably with the country’s reliance on the West for protection against the rise of communism in China, Korea, Vietnam and other neighbouring countries. After Japan agreed to enter into a security treaty with the United States in April 1952, the Allied Powers finally halted their occupation of the country, although under the terms of the agreement Japan was compelled to host a huge network of US military bases from which America waged the Cold War in Asia.

An engaging microsite published by the MIT Visualizing Cultures project tells a little-known story of four “reportage” painters working in Japan during the 1950s. Nakamura Hiroshi, Ikeda Tatsuo, Yamashita Kikuji, and Ishii Shigeo were all linked to the Japan Art Alliance, a post-war art group that advocated the creation of politically-themed realist paintings. In their works, the artists protested again Japan’s acquiescence to US domination and provided a vivid record of the difficulties faced by the Japanese people as their country entered into the Cold War.

Nakamura Hiroshi‘s paintings of the 1950s and early 1960s largely focus on the gathering protest movement against the US military presence in post-war Japan. Although he aspired to adhere to the Soviet-led art method of Socialist Realism, Nakamura’s works have a strong surrealist quality, while others have the appearance of contemporary street art.

The Allied occupation of Japan was indirectly responsible for Ikeda Tatsuo becoming an artist. As a teenager, Ikeda was forced to train as a kamikaze pilot, and although the end of the World War II saved him from having to undergo a suicide mission, as a result of this training there were restrictions on his employment in occupied Japan. Ikeda subsequently used his art to highlight how the livelihoods of other Japanese had been damaged by the US military presence. His social realist paintings show the influence of Cubism, although Ikeda also produced more conventional images when as an impoverished artist he supported himself by painting portraits of American servicemen stationed in Japan.

Yamashita Kikuji‘s post-war paintings often recalled his painful memories of being a soldier in the Japanese Imperial army, fighting in China. In the early 1950s, Yamashita briefly worked for the Japanese Communist Party to record instances of class warfare in Japan, but his surrealist paintings, which took inspiration from Salvador Dali and Hieronymus Bosch, made his work unpopular as a form of “communist” art. In works such as The Tale of New Japan, Yamashita strongly criticised America’s military presence and the corruption of the Japanese who profited from their country’s occupation. His paintings are often populated by dogs and other animals, as visual metaphors for the bestial behaviour of humans, including that of Yamashita himself: the artist never forgave himself for his participation in the torture and murder of a Chinese prisoner of war.

The last of the four artists featured on the Visualizing Cultures microsite is Ishii Shigeo. Although the artist tragically only lived to 28, when he finally succumbed to his lifelong battle with asthma, he left a large body of work. Most significant are the 15 paintings that Ishii produced between 1955 and 1957, under the collective title of Violence. These allegorical works document the psychological impact of Japan’s post-war struggles. Filled with small human figures falling and floating in sinister settings, these unsettling works depict the Japanese people as victims of the US-Japan security treaty, which the artist described as a “perfect crime”.

For a more in-depth account of these artists, I highly recommend exploring the microsite Protest Art in 1950s Japan by Linda Hoaglund, which was produced as a complement to Hoaglund’s 2010 documentary film ANPO: Art X War:

Images: Nakamura Hiroshi, Gunned Down, 1957; Ikeda Tatsuo, The Haul from the series Uchinada, 1953; Yamashita Kikuji, The Tale of New Japan, 1954; Ishii Shigeo, The Room from the series Violence, 1955–57.

Featured Artist: Stefan Constantinescu

The Romanian Revolution from 16 to 27 December 1989 swept Nicolae Ceaușescu from power and brought an end to 42 years of communist rule. While 25 years have now passed since that tumultuous fortnight a number of Romanian artists continue to explore their country’s struggles in the aftermath of revolution. Once such artist is Ştefan Constantinescu.

Born in Bucharest in 1968, Constantinescu experienced first hand the daily grind of life during Ceaușescu’s regime. He trained as a painter but has since worked predominantly in film. Much of Constantinescu’s work is autobiographical, such as his darkly ironic pop-up book The Golden Age for Children. The book interweaves text and photos from the artist’s biography with historical details of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Romania under Ceaușescu.

In one of his video projects – The Last Analog Revolution, a Memory Box – Constantinescu also led other artists in combining their personal experiences with episodes from Cold War history. The project brought together works by artists from Eastern and Western Europe to explore how technological developments in the twentieth century was both a catalyst for revolution and a means of uniting the divided continent.

Between 2009 and 2010 Constantinescu used his training as a painter to create a series of 22 paintings entitled An Infinite Blue. The artist appropriated the Soviet artistic style of Socialist Realism, which was also mandatory in communist Romania, and sourced content from propaganda images produced in the 1960s. In these canvases Constantinescu sought to convey the nostalgia felt by many Romanians for the pre-revolutionary era which they retrospectively regard as a time of economic stability and superior quality of life.

You can read more about how Romanian artists including Ştefan Constantinescu and Adrian Ghenie have confronted their country’s difficult past and present in the article Remnants: Socialist Realism in Contemporary Romanian Painting.

Images by Ştefan Constantinescu, courtesy the artist. Top – The Golden Age for Children, pop-up book, 2008. Bottom – Biology Laboratory, oil on canvas, 2009–10.

Youth Mao Zedong Statue

On 1 October 1949 Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Over the next half a century the country witnessed the trauma of the Great Leap Forward and social upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, and gradually progressed to become a superpower.

Although now a technologically-advantaged nation with a booming economy, the visual culture of Mao’s China continues to loom large in the Cold War era statuary and paintings that populate the country. Yet despite these residual artworks, in December 2009 many were surprised by the unveiling of the Youth Mao Zedong Statue on Orange Isle outside the city Changsha.

Standing 32 metres tall and constructed from 8,000 giant granite bricks, the monumental bust depicts Mao in 1925, when at age 32 he composed a poem about Changsha. The flattering portrait shows Mao with a long mane of windswept hair and in a heroic pose typical of socialist realism, looking with confident determination towards the country’s communist future.

The sculpture took 2 years to construct and cost about 35 million US dollars, funded by the local government. Professor Xie Liwen, a member of the creative team from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, recalled his ambition to create a work recognised for its uniqueness and artistry. Favourable comments have compared the statue to the Sphinx of Ancient Egypt, although others have questioned the suitability of its construction in the modern China.

Youth Mao Zedong Statue, Orange Isle, Changsha, Hunan, China, 2007–09.

Indonesia’s Banned Communist Art

In the early hours of 1 October 1965 a group of Indonesian army officers calling themselves the 30 September Movement assassinated six army generals. Unrest quickly spread across Jakarta as several thousand members of the Indonesian National Armed Forces attempted to stage a coup d’état against President Sukarno. Due to poor planning by the rebels and the superior military strategy of Major General Suharto, the future president, by the end of the day the coup attempt had collapsed.

The reasons for the assassinations are still disputed, from claims it was an internal army affair led by junior officers resentful of the generals’ corruption, to conspiracy theories about CIA and MI6 collusion. However, official blame immediately fell on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). In the months that following, a violent anti-communist purge by the army resulted in the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of suspected communists.

These events also brought an end to Lembaga Kebudajaan Rakjat (LEKRA), a communist art movement that was banned in the aftermath of the coup attempt. The group was founded in August 1950 by artists and writers keen to follow the Soviet doctrine of socialist realism, and associated artists specialised in paintings highlighting the struggles of the Indonesian people. As the purge gained pace, members of LEKRA were killed or imprisoned for the controversial subject matter of their art. One such artist was Hendra Gunawan, who was released only in 1978.

Image: Hendra Gunawan, War and Peace, 1950. Oil on canvas, 94 x 140 cm. National Gallery, Singapore.

Igor Palmin: Photographing the Unofficial Soviet Art World

Flickr recently became a gateway into the art world of Soviet Russia thanks to photographer Igor Palmin, who uploaded his vast back catalogue onto the site.

During the 1950s Palmin worked as a film cameraman and his training in cinematography is conspicuous in these absorbing photographs. Mostly taken in black-and-white, the strong sense of narrative and romance is heightened further with nostalgia for a lost world.

Palmin decided to become a photographer full-time after befriending some of the leading unofficial artists of his generation, including Ernst Neizvestny, Vladimir Nemukhin and Oskar Rabin. He went on to document the development of the Nonconformist art scene in Moscow during the 1960s and ’70s, as painters and sculptors confronted the authorities and attempted to escape the dogma of Socialist Realism. Palmin’s photographs reveal intimate portraits of these artists and provide value records of lost works and forgotten exhibitions.

Images: Top – Painter Vladimir Nemukhin in his studio, 1980; Bottom – Sculptor Ernst Neizvestny in his studio, 1974. Photographs by Igor Palmin

Golden Statue for Laos’ Secret War

After years of French colonial rule, Laos was finally granted autonomy on 19 July 1949 before achieving independence in 1953. Yet its celebrations would be short-lived. Barely a fortnight afterwards a bitter civil war broke out which would divide the country for over two decades.

As the conflict rapidly became a high-stakes Cold War proxy war, the revolutionary communist group, Pathet Lao, and the Royal Lao Government both received extensive support from the rival superpowers. Yet as the Vietnam War become increasingly unpopular in the United States, the CIA’s activities in Laos became known as the ‘Secret War’.

After Communism emerged victorious in 1975, a memorial was erected in the city of Vieng Xai, a Pathet Lao stronghold during the war. The patriotic group statue blends various sculptural traditions and iconographies to riveting effect.

Vieng Xai Statue

Its bright gold finish mirrors much of the Buddhist statuary of Indochina, yet the message of peace is here subverted. The group contains the traditional Communist pairing of a female peasant and male worker, complete with the obligatory hammer and sickle. Yet here they are joined by a third figure of a soldier. While the peasant woman holds the popular Socialist Realist symbol of sheaves of corn, a shotgun is strapped to her back. The central figure brandishes a machine gun, while the grenades on the soldier’s belt increase the sense of menace.
Vieng Xai Statue 2

The soldier also stands with his foot propped on a bomb marked ‘USA’. This is a reminder of nine long years of US aerial bombardment, the heaviest bombing campaign in history, which scarred the country. Earlier this year the United States assigned $12 million towards the clearing of unexploded bombs in Laos, a not-so-secret legacy of the country’s sad history.

Image: Victory statue in Vieng Xay District, Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Top – Photo © 2013 David Coleman ( Bottom – Courtesy Globloggersblog