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Formalism, Naturalism, and the Elusive Socialist Realist Picture at the GDR’s Dritte deutsche Kunstausstellung, 1953

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2023

Matthew Philpotts
University of Manchester
Sabine Rolle
University of Edinburgh
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WILLY COLBERG's PAINTING Streikposten in Hamburg [Fig. 1] was one of a number of artworks by West Germans to be included in the Dritte deutsche Kunstausstellung in 1953, a major national event dedicated to showcasing emerging socialist realist art in the German Democratic Republic. In the following discussion, I will examine how the persistence of a naturalistic style, communicated in part by West German artworks like Colberg’s, helped to shape East Germans’ perceptions of their own progress towards socialist realism. As the case of the Dritte deutsche Kunstausstellung demonstrates, exhibitions are active, public narratives through which organizers are able to relate specific and intentional meanings to a broad public. In 1953, Western artists like Colberg were crucial to the dual goals of the Dritte deutsche Kunstausstellung: to demonstrate the growth of a lively, socialist realist art on German soil, and to assert a gesamtdeutsche or greater-German socialist culture in spite of the recent division of the German state. But rather than simply reinforcing the idea of a shared East- and West- German socialism, the introduction of West German artworks into the Dritte deutsche Kunstausstellung complicated the reception of new socialist realist art in Dresden. The success of the exhibition was overshadowed by associations with earlier naturalistic style that were thrown into high relief both by Western paintings like Colberg's and by prominent East German contributions. In East and West German examples, lingering remnants of National Socialist style destabilized the programmatic approach of the exhibition, forcing its participants to reconsider the status of art in German socialism.

The Dritte Deutsche Kunstausstellung and Developing German Socialist Realism

The deutsche Kunstausstellungen were held in Dresden in approximately four-year intervals, the first in 1946, the tenth and last in 1987. The first exhibition, organized and hosted by the Soviet occupation authority, featured artists who had been targeted by the National Socialists and was an effort to demonstrate that in spite of Nazism, modern art had survived in Germany. From the second exhibition in 1949, the Dresden shows were mammoth surveys of contemporary art designed to showcase advances made in the creation of a German socialist realism on the Soviet model. Many of the German artists, writers, and political leaders who were responsible for shaping arts policy in the first decade of the GDR had been introduced to socialist realism while in exile in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s. Returning to Germany after the war, those Germans encouraged artists in the Soviet-occupied zone to learn from Soviet socialist realism. Andrei Zhdanov's 1934 call for a literature that would depict the revolutionary development of reality, be attuned to the times, and shape and re-educate the worker in the spirit of socialism was applied to all artistic endeavor. But socialism was still nascent in the GDR. Thus the real task of the artist was to imagine the future, and rather than speculate on how that future might look, Soviet and East German cultural officials overwhelmingly chose to delineate the goals and requirements of socialist realist practice by describing what it was not. “Formalism,” designating any art which apparently gave precedence to form over content, became the decadent opposite of socialist art in the GDR just as it was in the Soviet Union.

Edinburgh German Yearbook 3
Contested Legacies: Constructions of Cultural Heritage in the GDR
, pp. 90 - 105
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2009

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