In the mid-1970s the East German (GDR) government commissioned sixteen established artists to produce paintings for the gallery in the Palast der Republik. Wolfgang Mattheuer, one of the most well-known and independent painters in East Germany, was among the participants in this prestigious project. However, he contributed a picture that could be interpreted as a critique of undesirable social and political developments.
Set under a surreally broad sky, the background to the painting Good Day presents a landscape which at first glance appears idyllic; suffused with light, it extends to the horizon. However, on closer inspection the scene proves to be a sprawling industrial town characterized by deep open faced mines, factory complexes crowned with chimneys, and broad streets. It is engulfing the countryside and destroying its natural contours. In the shaded foreground a family of three poses on a barren piece of land. An opulently flowering garden on the other side of a closely spaced picket fence remains inaccessible to them.
Good Day is one of Wolfgang Mattheuer’s (1927–2004) main works, bearing witness to the ambivalent relationship between art and politics in a dictatorship. As a commissioned work, it served the political leaders’ desire for prestige and international standing. However, the style and composition of the painting’s symbolically charged and ambiguous pictorial motifs means that it can be interpreted as a critique of the political situation and, in particular, the contrast between ideological claims and the reality of life in East Germany.
However, reducing the work to a critique of the political system and of developments in East Germany at that time would fall short: Mattheuer’s depiction of ruthlessly expansive industrialization presented a universal cautionary image for similar undesirable developments in many settings, thus pointing to the ubiquitous problem of ever-greater environmental destruction by human beings. In this respect, Good Day has lost none of its contemporary relevance. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in autumn 1989, which heralded a political Wende or turning point, Mattheuer described this aspect of his painting as follows:
“I see … more painfully than some others, the brutality with which our industries are chewing up the countryside … More ruthlessly than back in the nineteenth century … even worse, because in our era it has become clear where the limits lie, not only to our resilience but to that of nature.”
Moreover, the painting exemplifies an important tradition in the history of the site, which for centuries was lavishly furnished with important works of art, providing a magnificent backdrop for cultural events. Irrespective of the political constellation, art always served the purpose of political self-portrayal. According to the official notion of what the palace gallery would be like, the paintings were intended to express "the growing international importance of the GDR in the world and the idea of socialism as a unifier of peoples, with special reference to the friendship with the Soviet Union”, while also showing “the potential for poetic expression and the rich variety of painterly ideas”.
This leads to the question of what conditions will determine the art to be presented in the Humboldt Forum in future, and what purpose the Kunst am Bau scheme, whereby works are commissioned by a public institution, should fulfil in the twenty-first century. Who or what do these works of art represent and what do they tell us about contemporary political and social relations?
The painting Good Day now belongs to the Federal Republic of Germany and has been held in storage by the Deutsches Historisches Museum since 1995. All sixteen paintings from the Palast der Republik were last shown together in 2017/18 in an exhibition at Museum Barberini in Potsdam. In the Humboldt Forum the work will be shown as one of around forty “Traces”, which will highlight varied aspects of the site’s history at surprising locations throughout the building.
From the collection of the Stiftung Deutsches Historisches Musuem and on loan from the Federal Republic of Germany. In future the work will be on display on the second floor of the Humboldt Forum in an exhibition about the history of the site.
International experts, eye witnesses and representatives from the Humboldt Forum will be adressing questions in various conversations. They will weave exciting stories and histories from different cultures and epochs, current research results and personal experiences to create surprising and sometimes astounding narratives.
Commission – Art – Freedom
March 21, 2019, 7.30pm
ESMT, Auditorium Maximum
The first 15 of these Humboldt Forum Highlights will be presented between October 2018 and May 2019 in two formats: in an exhibition as well as during conversations that will be held at various locations in Berlin.