Interview with Angelika Richter on her research in the German Democratic Republic

In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity in or the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism?

When the GDR was founded in 1949 equality of women was an essential part of official politics. The idea of emancipation was founded on the ideological and economic ideals of the workers’ movement. That ninety-two percent of women were members of the paid workforce at the end of the 1980s was a direct result of the fact that women had not only the right but also the duty to hold a job. It was essential to a family’s livelihood. To a certain extent they could pursue their careers despite lingering inequalities between the sexes in social relationships and power dynamics. Longtime patriarchal divisions of labor were perpetuated and women continued to occupy the primary housekeeping and childcare roles.

Many researchers mention that Gender Check has brought their attention to the less-known subjects of local histories: neglected artists or new issues, methodologies or epistemological approaches. Could you write about your “discovery” or “discoveries” during the research?

What strikes me is the absence of a post-1989 generation of female artists from the East. In addition, the exhibitions, publications, and documentation from the final twenty years of the GDR give the impression that not only the official but also the unofficial art during this time was the purview of a predominantly male domain. I also notice that a “second marginalization” (Birgit Dahlke) has taken place in unified Germany. Only very few female artists from the East have taken over leading positions or professorships at art academies, have been involved in representative shows and publications, or have had commercial success.

Especially striking was the general lack of theory and discourse in GDR art and, in particular, the veritable absence of gender studies and feminist theory. Only in 1989, that is, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, did the East German art magazine Bildende Kunst dedicate for the first time an issue to women in the arts titled “Die Frau in der Kunst” (Women in the Arts).

Since 1989 fundamental differences in political systems and cultural contexts and in the strategies of self-representation and communication have shaped the dialog of Western and Eastern female artists, curators, and theoreticians.

Efforts were made to bridge cultural and experiential gaps, for example by organizing the first conference of female art historians from the East and West held in Lehnin near Potsdam in November 1989, or by organizing shows featuring female artists from the East such as Ostara. Künstlerinnen aus dem anderen Berlin, curated by Carmen Lohde and Ute Tischler (Frauenmuseum Bonn, 1990), and Außerhalb von Mittendrin, curated by Beatrice E. Stammer and Gabriele Horn (NGBK – Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst, Berlin, 1991). Nevertheless the last twenty years have been marked by inequalities in power relations and by misunderstandings of the meaning and concepts of either Western feminism or the “silent feminism” of the GDR.

Your research suggests that in the GDR art scene of the 1960s and 1970s the under-representation of women artists paralleled a conventional representation of woman in the art itself: as the figure of the work heroine, anonymous model, or mother. It seems that the first difference between gender representation in official and unofficial art appears only during the 1980s. Could you briefly contextualize the emergence of the themes of feminism and difference during the 1980s?

While the first two generations of artists during the 1950s and 1960s tried to create “free zones” within the institutional art context, the third generation of artists at the end of the 1970s deliberately sought to produce art outside of the dominant cultural frame. However, absolute autonomy was not possible since also the so-called independent art production was always a part of the system. Despite the fact that the independent scene was aggressively watched and repressed by the state, artists began to create different approaches within the existing countercultural setting. The results were a crossover of painting, literature and writing, experimental filmmaking, dance and music, as well as performance, action and land art. Operating on the margins of legality, individual artists and artists’ groups were active within their niches in the cities of Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, Karl-Marx-Stadt, Erfurt, and in the countryside.

The hegemonic self-image of men in the GDR and in the independent art scene remained virtually untouched. In the hermetic cultural and social climate, female artists hardly desired or were in a position to call into question the dominance of men. Pursuing an artistic career successfully was often not possible without self-denial claims art historian and curator Hildtrud Ebert in her essay “Wo sind die bildenden Künstlerinnen?” in which she investigates the absence of a whole generation of women artists in East Germany. Other female artists did not see the necessity of developing a feminist consciousness under the conditions of state socialism. Many female artists were as economically independent as their husbands, participated in exhibitions, and were active members in different artists’ groups. On the downside their development and life was strongly regimented by the state and their professional biographies had no relevance beyond the borders of the GDR. And their male colleagues dictated the rules of the game.

In the 1970s and 1980s individual female artists addressed identity from the perspective of the gendered subject. Apart from temporary collaborations and involvement in women artists’ groups such as Exterra XX, based in Erfurt from the early 1980s onwards, or Dresdner Sezession 89, female artists were neither organized as a feminist movement nor did they express their concerns within an ideological program. Just a few of them were members of the independent political and international organization “Frauen für den Frieden” (Women for Peace). They articulated female strategies and themes in an almost invisible way that cannot be compared to the offensive tactics of a Western feminism.

Basic approaches to forging a new feminine aesthetic and a different image of women date back to the early 1970s. The socio-critical photos by Evelyn Richter, Helga Paris, and Gundula Schulze Eldowy, fashion photos by Sybille Bergemann, or the self-determined life and artistic practice of sculptor Erika Stürmer-Alex are examples of works and artists who were already then addressing female subjectivity. Later the paintings, super-8-films, performances, body actions, and photos by Cornelia Schleime, Christine Schlegel, Angela Hampel, Annemirl Bauer, Karla Woisnitza, Gabriele Stötzer, Verena Kyselka, Else Gabriel, and Tina Bara investigated female identity. Since there were barely any contemporary role models, numerous artists worked with mythological texts and female characters. Only a few artists expressed a radical critique of male hegemony. In her texts, Gabriele Stötzer fought against the traditional image and role of women in the films of her male colleagues; later Angela Hampel proclaimed gender equality in her speech at the VBK (Association of Artists) in 1988. Although a negligible number of female artists in GDR felt indebted to feminist art practices, the originality of their work and their strategies of resistance, subversion and deconstruction bear all the more witness to their identification as artists and women.


Angelika Richter, Research GDR

Angelika Richter is a curator, writer and art historian based in Berlin. Her curatorial activities focus on artistic work that revises the concepts of art as a political and aesthetic practice. She is currently researching the field of contemporary art production, film and media, and the cultural scene of the former GDR.

Her most recent exhibition, und jetzt. Künstlerinnen aus der DDR (Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin 2009), was dedicated to female artists of the former GDR. The exhibition aimed to rediscover idiosyncratic conceptions and artistic practices, and strategies of resistance, subversion and deconstruction. From 2003 to 2006 Angelika was artistic director of the Werkleitz Gesellschaft in Halle (Saale). She was curatorial assistant at Liverpool Biennial 2002, UK, director of the 6th Werkleitz Biennale Common property (2004) and co-curator of the 7th Werkleitz Biennale Happy Believers (2006). She has cooperated on projects with the Academy of Visual Arts, Leipzig; Kunst Haus Dresden; Brandenburgischer Kunstverein, Potsdam; Biennial of Moving Image at LUX, London; Trafó House of Contemporary Arts, Budapest; and Bunkier Sztuki, Krakow. Since 2007 she has been a visiting lecturer at the Academy of Visual Arts (HGB) in Leipzig, Germany. Among her latest publications is a research text on the relation between fine arts, the artist’s body and performance in the cultural production of female artists in the former GDR.