POTSDAM, Germany (Reuters) - A display of artworks created during 40 years of East German history could help Germans from east and west bridge the divide that still separates them 27 years after unification.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Saturday opened an exhibition at the Barberini Museum in Potsdam near Berlin that seeks to illuminate how artists saw and represented themselves in a state that kept tight controls on all creative pursuits.
“Behind the Mask: Artists in the GDR” includes 100 paintings, sculptures, photographs and other artworks created by more than 80 artists from the state’s creation in 1949 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Germany’s Sept. 24 national election highlighted the difference in mood and politics between east and west. It swept the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party into parliament for the first time in what experts largely describe as a protest vote against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to allow in over a million mostly Muslim migrants.
The election was seen as a wake-up call about lingering divisions between the former Communist east and the capitalist west since support for the AfD was particularly strong in eastern states like Saxony, where it bested Merkel’s conservatives to become the biggest party.
Steinmeier last month said the election had exposed “large and small cracks” in society and called on democratic lawmakers to join forces against any return to nationalism.
On Saturday, he said he hoped the wide-ranging exhibit would enable a deeper understanding of how East German artists dealt with the challenges of creative expression in a country where art was often “censored, restricted or instrumentalized.”
“This exhibition ... will open our eyes anew,” Steinmeier said in the text of a speech at the exhibit’s official opening. “That is why it is a very important milestone on the path toward one another that we embarked on a quarter century ago - and that is taking longer than we all imagined back then.”
The display offers insights “into how people lived, thought and work, and how the world was seen, and what was so important and valuable that it was artistically rendered,” he said.
Ortrud Westheider, director of the museum, said the concept of “mask” was useful for organizing the show because it showed how artists were at once forced into a certain role, but also makes clear that they were aware of that fact.
Curator Michael Philipp said the exhibit aimed to show “the leeway that artists had, and the leeway that they fought for, chose and used” despite governmental constraints.
Many of the paintings and sculptures used irony to respond to the conditions under which they lived and worked, he said.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Reuters TV; Editing by Stephen Powell