Sixty years after the founding of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and almost two decades after its demise, the Berlin-based visual artist and art historian Christian Saehrendt has written an interesting and excellently documented study of the place of the visual arts in the GDR's foreign cultural policy. His treatment of the subject goes far beyond merely tracing the role of the visual arts in East Germany's foreign cultural policy. He provides, in addition, a brief historical overview of the place of culture in the foreign policies of all twentieth-century German states since World War I and a clear and readable introduction to the evolution of Soviet-derived cultural policy and the development of the visual arts in the GDR. Moreover, the reader who is not able to navigate through the German text will find that a 23-page English-language summary effectively covers the central discussion of GDR cultural policy—although it excludes the three introductory background chapters on Weimar Germany, the Third Reich, and the Federal Republic.
Saehrendt begins by sketching a brief history of the use of culture as a tool in the foreign policy of German states in the twentieth century—the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). He points to the importance of competition with the GDR in the development of postwar FRG cultural policy and to the great advantage experienced by the FRG in this competition because its artists were not curtailed by the strictures of official state control of the form and content of their art.
This point about the FRG-GDR competition becomes something of an integrating theme in the remainder of this excellent little study as Saehrendt notes at various points the inherent contradiction in East Germany's foreign cultural policy. Because all of the GDR's cultural contacts occurred on the basis of official bilateral exchanges, success in displaying the work of GDR artists abroad and in generating interest in the development of the visual arts in East Germany created a major dilemma for the authorities in East Berlin. Success abroad in showing the works of East German artists necessitated exhibitions of the works of foreign artists in the GDR itself and, thus, the political threat of exposing East German society to Western influences. This concern grew in importance in the final decades of the GDR after the country's success in gaining global political recognition at the beginning of the 1970s.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the possibilities of and successes in exhibiting East German artists abroad—except in other socialist states and to small groups of the political left throughout Western Europe—were limited. Until the severe strictures of Stalinist "socialist realism" were gradually loosened and, more importantly, the GDR gained broad diplomatic standing in the 1970s, the possibilities of using the visual arts as part of an integrated program to support foreign policy initiatives were very limited. Even [End Page 141] in the 1970s and 1980s, however, the overall impact was questionable. For example, in the FRG, which was always the primary focus of the GDR's cultural policy, the political impact of refugees from the East, including artists, likely outweighed any positive impact generated by GDR-sponsored exhibitions.
Kunst als Botschaftler einer künstlicher Nation concludes with a thoughtful discussion of the role of the visual arts in the attempt after reunification to create a new national identity and the legacy of GDR painting two decades after the dissolution of the East German state. The major collections of GDR visual arts available today result from the private collections of wealthy West German and U.S. collectors established before the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as well as in the work of Neo Rausch and the New Leipzig School of painters whose work draws on variations of...