'Breakthrough': East German Artists, 20 Years On It's been 20 years since Germany's unification in October 1990, and a new exhibition features the work of East German artists who challenged the status quo. Some of those dissident artists talked with NPR's Neda Ulaby about working under the close eye of East Germany's secret police.
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'Breakthrough': East German Artists, 20 Years On

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'Breakthrough': East German Artists, 20 Years On

'Breakthrough': East German Artists, 20 Years On

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Twenty years ago today, this song played in its official capacity for the last time. It's the national anthem of the German Democratic Republic, perhaps better known as East Germany. On October 3rd, 1990, East and West Germany were united. East Germany ceased to exist.

Now, as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, an exhibition featuring the work of East German artists who challenged the status quo is touring the United States.

NEDA ULABY: You might have seen the Oscar-winning film, "The Lives of Others," from 2007. It showed how obsessively the East German secret police, the Stasi, monitored dissident artists.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Lives of Others")

(Soundbite of knocking on door)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ULABY: That was real for artist Reinhard Stangl. Standing now in a polo shirt in a Washington, D.C. gallery, he remembers being arrested at age 14 for dressing inappropriately - in ragged old clothes - at a socialist rally.

Mr. REINHARD STANGL (Artist): We make a joke with old clothes, old hats and so on. And the police keep us and we was in the jail for a moment.

ULABY: Police kept Stangl and his friends in jail for only about an hour. They were accused of mocking the working class - not their intention at all.

Photographer Harald Hauswald was constantly under observation for smuggling to the West his photos of everyday East German life. His now declassified Stasi file shows more than 20 people spied on him.

Mr. HARALD HAUSWALD (Photographer): (Through translator) My apartment was completely searched from top to bottom two times. And on any public occasion, when I was out on the streets, I was followed by a lot of Stasi.

ULABY: Hauswald has three photographs in the exhibition, which is titled "Breakthrough: 20 Years after German Unification." His pictures are black and white, documentary style and bleakly funny.

Mr. HAUSWALD: (Foreign language spoken)

ULABY: A Bruce Springsteen concert held behind the wall back in 1988 attracted more than 100,000 excited young East German fans.

Mr. HAUSWALD: (Foreign language spoken)

ULABY: Hauswald's photos shows them singing "Born in the U.S.A.," their faces ecstatic. But sulking in front stand two stiff teenagers in uniform.

Mr. HAUSWALD: (Through translator) And that's why these two in front look so miserable. They belong to the youth movement for the former East Germany.

ULABY: Hauswald says life as an artist under communism had one small advantage.

Mr. HAUSWALD: (Through translator) It was quite inexpensive to live in East Germany. You didn't have too much to spend. 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.

ULABY: In a short documentary that accompanies the exhibition, painter Inge Schmidt remembers the joy and the trauma she felt when she got word she could leave. Schmidt received permission to study art in the West. The East German authorities gave her fewer than six hours to pack up everything she owned and say goodbye to her family - she thought forever.

Ms. INGE SCHMIDT (Painter): (Through translator) I always admired artists in the GDR who chose not to study but survived anyway. They had to have an unbelievably strong character and be absolutely obsessed with their work in order to survive.

ULABY: The artists in this exhibition knew people who killed themselves under the stress of Stasi's scrutiny. Others were imprisoned for years.

Post-unification life presented other problems, brought to canvas by Inge Schmidt.

Mr. JEFFREY THINNES: There's a lot of gold and yellows in this painting.

ULABY: That's Jeffrey Thinnes. He organized the current exhibition and he's standing now in front of one of Schmidt's paintings that shows the West as a gleaming, golden paradise. But there's darkness there, too.

Mr. THINNES: You see the gentleman, a naked gentleman, sort of falling down backwards, out of balance, uncomfortable, still in midair, not knowing where he's going to land.

ULABY: A visual allusion to East Germans ill-equipped for a new society. Painter Reinhard Stangl says for him unification was almost like a time machine.

Mr. STANGL: We came from the past and we was in a new century.

ULABY: Stangl's paintings today show Berlin landmarks through a liquid scrim -rain or perhaps tears. Part of an aesthetic geography of oppression, opposition and transformation.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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