'Breakthrough': East German Artists, 20 Years On

Brandenburg Gate, 1989 i i

Brandenburg Gate by Harald Hauswald, 1989: It's been 20 years since Germany's unification in October 1990. A new exhibition called Breakthrough! features the work of East German artists who challenged the status quo. Breakthrough Art Organization hide caption

itoggle caption Breakthrough Art Organization
Brandenburg Gate, 1989

Brandenburg Gate by Harald Hauswald, 1989: It's been 20 years since Germany's unification in October 1990. A new exhibition called Breakthrough! features the work of East German artists who challenged the status quo.

Breakthrough Art Organization

The 2007 Oscar-winning film, The Lives of Others showed how meticulously the East German secret police monitored dissident artists. Wiretapping, ransacking apartments and pitting friends, lovers and family against one another were all common tactics of the regime's Ministry for State Security, or Stasi.

Brandenburg Gate by Reinhard Stangl i i

Brandenburg Gate by Reinhard Stangl, 2006 Breakthrough Art Organization hide caption

itoggle caption Breakthrough Art Organization
Brandenburg Gate by Reinhard Stangl

Brandenburg Gate by Reinhard Stangl, 2006

Breakthrough Art Organization

But it was all real for artist Reinhard Stangl. Standing now in a Washington, D.C. gallery, he recalls his arrest at age 14 for dressing "inappropriately" — wearing "old clothes" at a socialist rally. The police accused Stangl and his friends of mocking the working class — not their intention at all — and they ended up spending an hour in jail that day.

On Oct. 3, 1990, East and West Germany were united, and East Germany ceased to exist. Now, an exhibition featuring the work of East German artists who challenged the status quo is touring throughout the U.S. It's called Breakthough! 20 Years After German Unification.

Photographer Harald Hauswald was under constant observation for smuggling his photos of everyday East German life to the West. More than 20 spies reported on him, according to his now declassified Stasi file.

"My apartment was completely searched from top to bottom two times," he explains with the help of a translator. "And on any public occasion when I was out on the streets, I was followed by a lot of Stasi."

Hauswald has three photographs in the exhibition — his pictures are black and white, documentary-style and bleakly funny.

Springsteen Concert i i

Springsteen Concert by Harald Hauswald, 1988. Breakthrough Art Organization hide caption

itoggle caption Breakthrough Art Organization
Springsteen Concert

Springsteen Concert by Harald Hauswald, 1988.

Breakthrough Art Organization

One shows fans at a Bruce Springsteen concert held behind the Berlin Wall in July 1988. It attracted more than a 100,000 excited, young East German fans. Hauswald's photo shows the enthusiastic audience singing "Born In the USA." But up in front stand two stiff, sulky teenagers in uniform.

"And that's why these two in front look so miserable," Hauswald chuckles. "They belong to the youth movement for the former East Germany."

The artists included in Breakthrough! knew people who killed themselves under the stress of political scrutiny. Others were imprisoned for years. Still, Hauswald wryly observes that even for dissident artists, there was one advantage to Communist life.

"It was quite inexpensive to live in East Germany," he notes. "You didn't have much to spend and there wasn't much to buy.  Your rent wasn't that high, and I was therefore able to study for a long time and be free as a student."

Painter Inge H. Schmidt experienced joy and trauma when, as a young woman, she received official permission to study art in the West in 1985. East German authorities gave her fewer than six hours to pack everything she owned and say goodbye to her family — she thought — forever.

After the Wall tumbled down, Schmidt's work reflected the problems faced by East Germans after unification, says Jeffrey Alan Thinnes, founder of the Breakthrough Art Organization, which is responsible for the exhibition and the tour. At the D.C. gallery, he gestures to one of her paintings, titled "Warm Welcome," from 1989.

Warm Welcome, 1989 i i

Warm Welcome by Inge Schmidt, 1989. Breakthrough Art Organization hide caption

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Warm Welcome, 1989

Warm Welcome by Inge Schmidt, 1989.

Breakthrough Art Organization

"There's a lot of gold and yellows," he says, noting that the West seemed like a gleaming paradise to East Germans. But there's darkness in the painting, too.

"You see a naked gentleman falling down backwards, out of balance, still in midair, not knowing where he's going to land," Thinnes says — an allusion to the plight of East Germans ill-equipped for a new society.

Painter Reinhard Stangl says for him, unification was like entering a time machine: "We came from the past and we [were] in a new century," he says.

Today, Stangl's paintings show Berlin landmarks through a liquid scrim. Rain, or perhaps, tears. Part of an aesthetic geography of oppression, opposition and transformation.

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