Surveying the evolution of artists’ posters in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) during the decades preceding reunification in 1989, Künstlerplakate ranges from early examples of the late 1960s to the rich and varied highpoint of the late 1980s. Produced and circulated primarily in East Germany’s three principal art centers: Dresden, Leipzig, and Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz), posters served both as advertisements for cultural events and works of art in their own right. Most were printed by or in the presence of the artist, in small editions of less than 100 copies—thus bypassing strict GDR censorship boards.
Communist officials discouraged easel painting—with its associations of bourgeois conspicuous consumption—but promoted printmaking and graphic design—with their emphasis on reproducibility and visual communication. Resisting pressure to conform to the dictates of socialist realism, GDR posters skirted the edges of ideological orthodoxy. During the late 1960s and 1970s, when access to Western art magazines was tightly restricted, East German artists drew inspiration from historical avant-gardes. Posters produced from the late 1970s through the 1980s—up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989—reflect the gradual easing of censorship policies and artists’ increasing knowledge of, and interest in, experimental art.
While the GDR sponsored “official” artists and paid them a monthly stipend, those lacking state-funded commissions sought other means of support as well as venues to show their work. Before the late 1970s—when the state-run network of galleries, the Staatlichen Kunsthandel der DDR, was founded—print fairs and markets, along with galleries operated by unofficial artists’ groups, served as alternative exhibition spaces. Drawn from the extensive collections of the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz—the majority from a recent gift by Margit and Gert Becker—Künstlerplakate is the first American museum show of these remarkable and vibrant works. Demonstrating that the GDR’s art scene was far more diverse than previously assumed, the exhibition reveals how posters served as potent vehicles for individual expression and experimentation.
Künstlerplakate: Artists’ Posters from East Germany, 1967–1990 was organized by a complex of museums in Chemnitz, a major city in Saxony. Founded in 1866, the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz now has in its collections over 170,000 works of art distributed among four institutions: the Museum am Theaterplatz, Museum Gunzenhauser, Schlossbergmuseum, and Henry van de Velde Museum.
Chemnitz’s Painting Collection begins with a rich trove of Romantic works by Caspar David Friedrich, Carl Gustav Carus, and Johann Christian Dahl. German Impressionism is represented in paintings by Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, and Max Slevogt, and German modernist art in a significant cache of works by Die Brücke artist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. The Sculpture Collection ranges from the late 18th century to the present day, with examples by Honoré Daumier, Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, George Minne, Aristide Maillol, Georg Kolbe, and Wilhelm Lehmbruck, as well as Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz, Max Bill, César, Günther Uecker, and Tony Cragg.
Focusing on the 19th and 20th centuries, the Print Collection contains works by Friedrich, Carus, and Ernst Ferdinand Oehme, as well as rich holdings by Daumier, Liebermann, Corinth, Slevogt, Edvard Munch, Max Klinger, Käthe Kollwitz, Ernst Barlach, and Max Beckmann. The Decorative Arts Collection ranges from 4th-century Coptic fabrics to European textiles, posters, and wallpaper—with a particular focus on art by the Belgian artist Henry van de Velde. Numerous works by him are on view in the Henry van de Velde Museum, which is located in a villa of 1902–3 that he conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk, in response to his first German architectural commission.
Museum am Theaterplatz—opened in 1909, in a building designed by Richard Möbius—presents ten exhibitions each year. Past shows have highlighted works by Cranach, Munch, Klinger, Schmidt-Rotluff, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Richard Serra, Ilya Kabakov, Sol Lewitt, and Bob Dylan, among others. The museum incorporates the estate of artist Carlfriedrich Claus, including his archives. Its library comprises more than 70,000 art-related books.
Emerging in 1990 from a difficult period under the East German regime (when Chemnitz was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt), the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz has in the past two decades welcomed a rich panoply of gifts. Since 1995, the museum—with the support of various foundations—has acquired a large number of paintings, sculptures, and prints in an attempt to compensate for the loss of some 1,000 artworks during the Nazi era. Under the guidance of executive director Ingrid Mössinger, the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz continues to flourish.