Bernhard Heisig and the Fight for Modern Art in East Germany
Camden House 2018
In her book, Bernhard Heisig and the Fight for Modern Art in East Germany (Camden House, 2018), April Eisman examines one of East Germany's most successful artists as a point of entry into the vibrant art world of the "other" Germany. In the 1980s, Bernhard Heisig (1925-2011) was praised on both sides of the Berlin Wall for his neo-expressionist style and his commitment to German history and art. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt chose him to paint his official portrait, major museums collected his work, and in 1989 he had a major solo exhibition in West Germany. After unification, Heisig was a focal point in the Bilderstreit, a virulent debate over what role East German art should play in the new Germany. Challenging current understandings of Heisig and East German art, this book focuses on Heisig's little-known fight for modern art in East Germany. Examining major debates of the 1960s, it shows the key role he played in expanding the country's art from the limits of Soviet-style socialist realism to a socialist modernism that later gained recognition in the West. Such an investigation allows us to see that socialist realism in East Germany was more than a simple propagandistic style, it was a position that entailed exciting, but also potentially perilous new prospects for artists as they navigated the debates surrounding their responsibilities to the Socialist society and its people. The book which results captures the complexity of this era and stands to profoundly affect art historical understandings of this controversial period in artmaking.
Allison Leigh is Assistant Professor of Art History and the SLEMCO/LEQSF Regents Endowed Professor in Art & Architecture at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her research explores European and Russian art of the eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries.