Institute Schedule

About the Institute
Institute Format

Weekly Overview

The Institute will open with a reception, attended by faculty from the Five Colleges, and a screening of Dusk: 1950s East Berlin Bohemia. This film is being subtitled and released by the DEFA Film Library especially for this occasion, with the support of the Goethe-Institut Boston and the DEFA-Stiftung in Berlin.

The first two weeks then introduce and intertwine treatments of the visual arts, music, and film, while focusing on cultural issues shaping the socialist world from the end of WWII into the 1960s. Two keynote lectures assist in setting the framework of this discussion, and the second week ends with a talk on race and music in the GDR. The third week, focusing on the late 1960s and 1970s, takes a closer look at three areas where GDR artists made groundbreaking contributions. The fourth week, covering the late 1970s through the end of the GDR in 1990, examines increasingly important alternative arts scenes that paralleled mainstream arts as the East German state weakened.

The Institute thus prioritizes interdisciplinary exchange and cross-fertilization, while offering participants a structured sense of the issues that arose between 1945 and 1990. Lectures, film screenings, and pedagogy workshops will help draw disciplinary strands together and offer participants new teaching materials and techniques.

  • Week I

In the first week, we will pick up the multiple strands that are interwoven throughout the Institute. After getting to know each other, participants and faculty will discuss the Institute’s goals and people’s ideas for curriculum and research projects. April Eisman (Iowa State) will give the keynote lecture on the visual arts, entitled “Five Myths about East German Art,” and a pedagogy workshop will introduce ways to analyze and use film in teaching. Thematically, we will explore the challenges facing the arts in the GDR from the end of WWII through the mid-late 1950s. As exiled artists and political figures made their way back from around the globe, the desire for culture was great and the political situation was still fluid. The immediate postwar period gave birth to incisive artworks and films that grappled with what had taken place—including paintings, such as Wilhelm Lachnit’s The Death of Dresden and Hans Grundig’s To the Victims of Fascism, and films such as Marriage in the Shadows.[1] By the late 1940s, however, a Stalinist political orthodoxy was being established, and with it the artistic tenets of Socialist Realism. Aspects of now-reviled Formalism were debated and condemned in the pages of arts and film journals, and composers like Paul Dessau and Hanns Eisler argued about suitable compositional techniques for new music, as well as the acceptability of other musical genres, especially jazz. Though Stalin’s death in 1953 led to liberalization in the USSR and East Bloc, things were slow to liberalize in the GDR. In the visual arts, however, the mid-1950s were a time of artistic experimentation, with artists like Harald Metzkes (Berlin) and Willi Sitte (Halle) creating works inspired by Pablo Picasso and the Mexican muralists, and Dresden artists forming the alternative Informel Artists movement (pp. 25); in the wake of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, however, a new freeze set in, and Soviet-style Socialist Realism became dominant.

  • Week II

The second week brings music to the fore through a second keynote lecture, given by Elaine Kelly (Edinburgh), on “Music, Modernity, and Socialist Ideology: Sounding Utopia in the GDR.” It also features two pedagogical workshops, focusing on teaching film music and using artworks to reach visual learners. In the early 1950s, as the GDR attempted to assert itself as legitimate and “the better Germany,” commemorations of key figures in the German cultural canon—such as J.S. Bach and Beethoven—became a central means to lay claim to Germany’s cultural heritage, while distancing Nazi culture and atrocities. A robust tradition of political songs also linked the GDR to Germany’s socialist past, international movements, and antifascist struggles like the Spanish Civil War. In 1959, GDR leadership renewed its commitment to politically-engaged socialist art, inaugurating a hallmark program called the Bitterfeld Way to provide artists and intellectuals direct contact with the working class and workers with direct experience of the creative arts. At the same time as these officially sanctioned policies were being implemented, however, artists were picking up on international trends. In the late 1950s, filmmakers began to draw on the stylistic elements of Italian neorealism, exhibiting parallels to work that, in the 1960s, would become the cinematic “new waves” of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France. The perceived need to compete with the popular and youth-oriented culture of the West—in particular the U.S.—led to a growth in homegrown pop culture vehicles. While GDR composers experimented with modernist techniques, such as 12-tone, “authentic” jazz forms, such as Dixieland and blues, were gradually becoming more acceptable, although modern jazz, especially bebop, was still repressed.[2] The concomitant confrontation with racism in the post-Nazi socialist state is treated in a talk on “GDR Music and Race,” by Johanna Yunker (UMass).

  • Week Three

Working around a break for the Fourth of July holiday, the third week continues to move forward chronologically, exploring the tumultuous period from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s, and features in-depth looks (a talk, films and workshop) at three domains in which East Germany made unique cultural contributions: Joy Calico (Vanderbilt) will speak on “Opera on Film, DEFA Style;” Sean Allan (St Andrews) will talk about Künstlerfilme (artist films); and April Eisman (Iowa State) will speak on “Women Artists in the GDR.” As elsewhere in the Institute, participants will have a chance to meet individually with the presenters.

The signature political event at the start of the 1960s—the building of the Wall to cut off (most) contact with the west—was heralded in the GDR as the prerequisite enabling authorities to relax constraints and artists to express themselves more freely. This thaw paralleled developments elsewhere in the East Bloc and the USSR. In these years, the GDR established its reputation in the “opera film” genre. Young directors worked real life into their films with a “new wave” sensibility.[3] The prominent sculptor Fritz Cremer—whose monument at Buchenwald had resonated throughout the communist and non-aligned world—organized a controversial exhibition of young artists in Berlin, while the painters of the nascent Leipzig School experimented with expressionist brushwork, simultaneous narrative compositions, and pessimistic subject matter.

While Prague’s Spring flourished until Soviet tanks rolled in summer 1968, however, the GDR curtailed its relaxed approach to the arts earlier. Already in 1964, musicologist Gunter Meyer was condemned for arguing that given compositional techniques did not inherently carry ideology,[4] and his harsh treatment put a damper on the use of modernist techniques. Nevertheless, younger composers—such as Georg Katzer, Friedrich Goldmann, and Tilo Medek—continued to explore them throughout the 1960s.[5] Visual artists and filmmakers started encountering restrictions in late 1965, after the 11th Plenum of the SED’s Central Committee.[6] Leipzig’s Seventh Regional Art Exhibition of 1965, which had garnered high praise when it opened, ended with official reprobation as the Plenum’s conservative cultural policies were enacted. In film circles, the fallout was referred to as the Kahlschlag (clear-cutting), as twelve of the more forward-looking feature films made in 1965-66 were banned.[7]

The next significant thaw occurred when Erich Honecker came to power in 1971; the representative of a younger generation of leaders, he announced a new era of “breadth and variety” in culture. The Leipzig School of modern painting now rose to prominence and, by the late 1970s, began representing East Germany at major exhibitions in the West. Modernist composers also had much more freedom in this period, as official concern was now directed at popular music and its “Western” influences. The relaxation of strictures was short-lived at the DEFA Film Studio, however, where a series of (gently) provocative films ended in censorship as early as 1973; this, like the Kahlschlag before it, fueled artistic introspection expressed in the form of films about artists.

  • Week Four

The fourth week looks at the final period of the GDR’s existence, from 1976—and the controversial expatriation of the dissident singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann that was a turning point for many East German artists—until the fall of the Wall and German unification in 1989 and ’90, respectively. While several prominent performers left for West Germany after the Biermann affair, among composers and older visual artists—like Bernhard Heisig—it simply generated a final disillusionment with the GDR. In the 1980s, as warm winds blew in from the USSR, a markedly more relaxed cultural atmosphere blended with this disillusionment, encouraging experimentation, and a new generation of artists came to the fore. In the visual arts, these were artists such as Hubertus Giebe, Angela Hampel, Johannes Heisig, and Neo Rauch, whose Neoexpressionist paintings focused less on historical and world political issues than on their personal interests. By the mid-to-late 1980s, performance art and installation art also began to be included in official exhibitions. As popular music turned to punk and glam rock, and visual artists experimented with Super-8 film, the GDR saw the start of several artists who would become well known after the fall of the Wall.

Public Film and Lecture Series

[1] Musical compositions dealing with the recent past first started emerging later—for example, the Jüdische Chronik (1961), a cantata composed by a group of five GDR and FRG composers led by Paul Dessau, Die Blumen von Hiroshima (1967), an opera by Jean Kurt Forest, and Paul Dessau’s opera Einstein (1971). One of the best-known pieces in this respect, Arnold Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw, was first performed in the GDR in 1957.
[2] For more on the GDR reception of jazz, see Uta G. Poiger, Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 150-162.
[3] See, for example, Frank Vogel’s love story set during the building of the Wall and division of Berlin—And Your Love Too (Und deine Liebe auch, 1962)—and Jürgen Böttcher’s depiction of a group of young men and women at the beach—Barefoot without a Hat (Barfuß ohne Hut, 1964).
[4] He also argued that there were other ways to imbue a piece with the correct socialist message—such as through text, as in Paul Dessau’s 12-tone oratorio Appell der Arbeiterklasse (1961). See also Laura Silverberg, “Between Dissonance and Dissidence: Socialist Modernism in the German Democratic Republic,” The Journal of Musicology 26, vol. 1 (2009): 44-84.
[5] Modernist tendencies were often overlooked in practice—for example, if a work had an extra-musical narrative (like a film plot) or identified with German cultural heritage (for example, by including references to Bach).
[6] The SED—the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or Socialist Unity Party of Germany—was East Germany’s governing party.
[7] New research occasioned by the fiftieth anniversary of these events has begun to yield a fuller appreciation of their impact on GDR cinema.

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