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Self-Portraiture aund Self-Understanding in the painting of the GDR from 1945 to the '80s

The large number of self-portraits that emerged in the GDR conflicts conspicuously with the social role of the artist anchored in the cultural policies of the GDR, in which the artist was supposed to perceive himself as a cultural worker whose creative working process was conferred the same value as any other working process. In real socialism, the state-ordained function of art was primarily to portray the merits of the socialist model of society.

An abundance of self-portraits, however, testifies to a considerable amount of self-preoccupation, and can be interpreted as an act of self-assertion that hardly accords with the predestined role of the artist in socialism. The thesis establishes that although a large majority of the artists living in the GDR conformed to everyday socialist life and social structures, many self-portraits express a self-perception of the artists that is actually far removed from the socialist idea. Instead of conforming to the ideal image of the socialist artist, numerous self-portraits prefer to draw on traditional artist mythology, and testify to the deep-felt contradiction between the individual person and the role imposed on the artist from outside.

The study is based mostly on painted and drawn self-portraits from the public collections of the former GDR, unpublished documents from archives such as the GDR Society of Fine Artists (VBK), GDR publications and conversations with selected GDR artists. The work focuses on the iconography of the self-portraiture that emerged in the GDR and, in particular, analyses powerful and highly metaphoric paintings. The main preoccupation is with the genre "self-portraiture" and the theoretical and social basis of artistic creativity in the GDR, in particular the methods of socialist realism and the phases of GDR cultural policies, the critical artistic reaction to the genre, the treatment of self-portraiture as a genre in collections, exhibitions, and the study of art in the GDR.

The work analyses self-portraiture in the GDR in three different aspects: firstly in terms of adapting traditional types of self-portraiture, secondly with regard to artistic topoi and pseudonyms typical of the GDR, and thirdly as a counter-position to the predestined ideal role of the artist in socialism. The dissertation demonstrates that myth forming in art history practice hinders the analysis of self-portraiture, and that self-portraiture by no means necessarily represents the inner standpoint of the artist since it is also used to distance oneself from the individual personality. It becomes clear that the cultural policy of the GDR and its various phases strongly influenced the production of self-portraits in that the initially large variety of very personal self-portraits at the beginning of the 1950s increasingly had to give way to a form of depiction propagated by socialism.

It was only in the 1970s and '80s that a variety of alternatives arose to the postulated ideal image of socialist artists, which, after initial rejection by GDR art critics, were interpreted as the self-confident and critical maturing of art and artists in socialism, and then treated as such in exhibitions. One method, for example, is the use of representative figures such as jesters or mythological creatures to avoid and guard against explicitness. Struggle is a central motif of self-portraiture in GDR painting. Originally emanating from the ideal, socialist artist's attitude towards class struggle, it developed, however, into a militant stance towards the state. The myth of the inspired, lonely artist hardly accords with the ideal image of the socialist artist. Nevertheless, metaphors of this traditional artist myth frequently occur in self-portraits, not that this contradiction would ever have been publicly discussed in the 1960s.

Critics accepted the numerous self-confident and vain poses in self-portraits as long as the artist portraying himself as such did not adopt any political counter position. A large variety of self-portraits pursued suffering as an emotive theme. The subliminal rebellion that was often expressed in them can also be found in the works of those who cannot be included among the suppressed artists.

The German version of the thesis is available as PDF-download from the here