“The Shuttered Society”: Art Photography in the GDR 1949-1989

The European Month of Photography’s theme this year is “The View of the Other”; technically a definition wide enough to include almost any photograph, except maybe self-portraits. The Berlinische Gallerie’s contribution is Geschlossene Gesellschaft/The Shuttered Society: Art Photography in the GDR 1949-1989. Despite its subtitle, the exhibition’s introductory text warns not to take everything you see as “art” – in fact it stipulated, that artists working before the 1980s were working in a documentary mode, and only later artists developed an awareness to the art aspects of their production.

Separating the artistic from the documentary is a strange distinction to be made in a museum, and it is not helpful to the show. Most of the images’ charm is in their combination of the two modes: a peeping glance at a different time, with its outdated clothing and ideology. Christian Borchert’s taxonomy of East German families, standing in their kitchens or living rooms wearing sweater vests and bug-eyed glasses, adds up to much more than documentation. It becomes a real view of the other, separated only by time; technically people in the photos could also be the viewers. Some of Erasmus Schröter’s images look like your mother’s 80’s over-colorful family pictures; others are beautiful, garish, thoughtful. Any attempt to separate recording the DDR from the artistic production within it falls apart in their sight.

Another question the exhibition raises is whether art production can be segregated by politics. Despite the restrictions on communication with the West, many of the images relate to leading Western photographic modes of the 70s and 80s. Formal, architectural compositions are represented in Ulrich Wüst’s empty street scenes, and gritty street photography by Matthias Leupold (among others). Even conceptualist photography, documenting a performative action is represented in Kurt Buchwald’s Ein Tag in Ostberlin. On the other hand, a group of 1970s photographers were trying to revive German avant-garde formalism from before WW2. The room devoted to their work is the only place in the exhibition that really feels segregated from its contemporary moment. In this way, the people trying hardest to make art were irrelevant; but those who were recording their environment, with a thoughtful gaze, turned out to be making a lasting message, which can also be called making art.


Additional Information

“The Shuttered Society, Art Photography in the GDR 1949-1989” – GROUP SHOW
Exhibition: Oct. 5, 2012 – Jan. 28, 2013
Alte Jakobstraße 124-128 (click here for map)

Blog entry by Adela Yawitz in Berlin; Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012.

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