Saturday, September 5, 2009

Barbed wire and cuckoo clocks

In November 2009 it will be twenty years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain that separated West and East Germany for forty years. Germany is gearing up for various commemorative events to remember the victims of the Communist regime in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), commonly known as East Germany.

One of the most ambitious projects is an exhibition called Art of the Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures (Kunst und Kalter Krieg / Deutsche Positionen 1945 - 1989). Curated by Stephanie Barron, Senior Curator of Modern Art, LACMA and Dr. Eckhart Gillen, Kulturprojekte Berlin GmbH, the touring show started at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and next opens on 5 October in Berlin at the Deutsches Historisches Musuem.

For most of the Cold War and the twenty years since its end it has been customary to see the ultimate failure of East Germany as an indictment of its political and economic systems. It was also widely assumed that this failure could be directly transferred to the culture of East Germany. Surely the work of artists living under a Communist dictatorship would be inferior to that of their colleagues who enjoyed the artistic freedoms that existed in liberal democracies. For most of the last two decades since the West got unfettered access to the art of East Germany that certainly seemed to be the assumption. The Art of Two Germanys exhibition now goes some way to reassessing such crude assumptions. The interplay between political systems and artists is rarely straight forward. Orson Welles in the film The Third Man (see last blog) put it nicely if a little cynically:

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

p.s. Those lines are not the work of Graham Greene, who wrote the story of the Third Man. Orson Welles added them while shooting the film.

© Brian Long 2009


  1. hehehe that is a great quote!
    i will certainly have to get a copy of this film as i am very passionate and obsessed with WWII and Post war history and politics
    thanks brian - John Adams

  2. You will enjoy it, John. I think you can get it in the Uni library.



  3. A great article indeed and a very detailed, realistic and superb analysis, of these books, very nice write up, Thanks.