GDR 2 - Mythology and pictoral protest

Wolfgang Matheuer: Sisyphus' flight, 1972, Oil on canvas, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
found on: htt://

As already described in the former post on the art politics of the GDR, the possibilities of artists were quite limited. The so-called Verbund der Bildenden Künste der DDR determined the guidelines for artworks, their functional character, closely linked to the politics of the communist system: Representational, relating to the socialist man, the workers etc. There wa s a great interest in making references to former German art movements (before 1933), in order to emphasise the importance of German art and its (grand) history. The main benchmarks were Expressionism (like the East German Brücke artists), Max Beckmann, Friedrich Maximilian Klinger or Albrecht Dürer. In the first years Pablo Picasso served as a key figure for a modern and antifascist art (e.g. for Willi Sitte, Kurt Bunge Rolf Kuhrt etc.). At the beginning of the 1950s a dispute on formalism (Formalismusstreit) broke out. The outcome was rejection of "Western decadent art". Social Realism became the standard. To voice public critisism was more than difficult. However, it was not impossible. One of the few possibilities to work within the claims of the GDR and at the same time criticise the state was the use of mythological themes. These could be understood in both directions. There is no clear, definite interpretation. 
In the first decades the use of mythological subjects were mostly bland, maybe playful. In the 1950s and 60s there were dozens of sculptures and paintings showing Paris and three naked women (Hera, Athena and Aphrodite). He was supposed to pick the most beautiful. These were no images which could possible contain a deeper meaning. They were mere illustration, entertaining and harmless. Sometimes the topic got translated into a contemporary form (Paris as a young man with leather jacket and motorbike or the three godesses shown as young GDR girls. These paintings were supposed to educate the youth, show them how they should behave and display the decision they will have to take. 
But there also other, more political topics.


In the early years Icarus became a symbol for progressiveness and technical dominance of Communism. Especially after Gagarins space flight artists frequently used this topic. Nobody doubted that Icarus was an ideal motif for the progressiv new state. Nobody seemed to think of the whole story: Icarus came too close to the sun, which melted the wax of his wings, hence he fell. According to the story, would it not logical to doubt the "progressiveness" of the GDR? Nobody dared to think so. This ambiguity of classical mythologies made them an ideal tool for artists. This series


This series perfectly illustrates the development of the subject. The first image shows a sculpture by Werner Richter erected in Berlin (ca. 1968). It is 10,5 meters high and shows Icarus and his father flying higher and higher. The second image shows a linocut by Roland Berger from 1980. Icarus, willing to fly, is bound to a chair. In the 1980s more and more artworks showed a falling or fallen Icarus, a subject which did not appear until then. The last image is cut by Wolfgang Matheuer (image found on: Its name is: Icarus rises.
Matheuer made this piece in 1989, the year of the Peaceful Revolution in the GDR (a time of massive, but peaceful protests and demonstrations against the political system). 
Another painter, Bernhard Heisig used the symbol as well. His painting "Icarus" (painted in 1975, image by Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin) shows Icarus in a series of flying motifs and illustrates the eternal human wish to fly. In the backround we can see an eagle (wish to fly), then a hot-air balloon, followed by an airplane (with a head which reminds of Gagarin). The end of this development is Icarus. This painting might appear as a glorification of the (Communist) technical progressiveness. Yet Heisig is aware of the whole story and includes motifs of falling people and a religious symbol: The tower of Babel, a symbol for the human hubris and a future decline.
Only three years later, the positive aspects of Heisigs painting disappear."Dying Icarus" lacks a (technical) development, but rather shows a dying, screaming and falling figure, again with the tower of Babel in the background.                                             


Matheuer constantly made use of mythological motifs. One of them is Sisyphus (s. image above). Sisyphus became a perfect symbol for the people in the GDR and ideally displays their hopeless, absurd situation. Matheur frequently used Sisyphus as a metaphor but never in the same way. Sometimes Sisyphus appears as a worker carving his stone (symbolically: his own destiny) in another painting he is accompanied by dozens of other people that euphorically let the stone roll down the hill (celebrating their own senseless situation). But the best known, and maybe the most cryptical, is "Sisyphus' flight" (image above). 
The scene is situated on top of a hill. In the alley one can see a typical East German industrial city. Sisyphus tries to flee (maybe a symbol for a possible flight to West Germany? The man with the sheep mask could be an explanation for this, it is a comrade that pretends to see nothing and therefore wears the mask as a symbol for his innocence). But of course it is impossible to flee the situation. It is a punishment by the Gods and Sisyphus will have to roll the stone back to the top of the hill.

The use of mythological themes in the art of the GDR is diverse and can be traced from the beginning of the state till its end. In any case it can be noted that the variety of these topics increased tremendously since the 1970s (especially after the proclamation of a new, liberal art policy in 1971 and again after Biermann's deprivation of citizenship in 1976. The first provoced numerous critical artworks, using mythological figures as encoded metaphores, while the latter led to a more subjective and gloomy attitude, which mainly expressed itself in the use of baleful stories). However the numbers of paintings with references to mythologies exploded. 

Some of the figures were: the two-headed Janus (a symbol for the two German states), Pandora (as a symbol for the approaching disaster), Marsyas (a symbol for the pain and surpression), Prometheus, Medea etc.


One of the most important figures (especially for female artists) was Cassandra. Christa Wolf retold the myth (1984) from the point of view of Cassandra and emphasised the "unheard" warnings, which can be understood as the unheard voice of female artists, a critique against the oppression and censorship in the GDR and as prediction of a prospective downfall of the GDR.

These two images show artworks by Heidrun Hegewald. The title of the left one is: Cassandra sees a snake egg (1983) and the right one's title is: Cassandra, the swallowed scream (1983).
The first one shows a woman (Cassandra) with a little baby on her arm. In the background one can see a strange-looking, male figure with a (military-looking) helmet on its head and an egg on his arm. It is a symbol for the growing number of Neo-Nazis in that time and the danger it represents for the children. Cassandra tries to warn everybody, but no one can hear her. Everybody is starring at something (we can not see what it is), something brightly shining, which blinds the people (maybe the propaganda?). However, there is hope: the little origami bird the child holds in its hand. Hegewald believes that the youth might be wise enough to avoid the dangers.
In the other picture there is no hope at all, but mere dispair. This is typical for many artworks in the 1980s. While in the 1960s and 70s many critical artworks were produced (containing many direct denounciations), the trend changed during since 1980. The hopelessness and dispair displayed in these works is striking.

But in all those time the ancient myths served as metaphors to express opinions, feelings or to adress criticism. They can be interpreted in different directions, can appear critical and approving at the same time, can be translated into modern times and still seem to be too far away from the current state and they do not infringe the demands for naturalistic and representational art.