Art Behind the Iron Curtain

Growing up in a Western, capitalist society, I learned that communism was essentially “bad” – a system in which individuals are not free to succeed but are instead oppressed. Despite my attempts to become more informed about communism, I retained this negative image of the USSR until I spent several months in the former soviet state of Moldova in Eastern Europe. Homeless people and stray dogs now fill the streets of Moldova, yet most people I met claimed that life was better before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when everyone was employed and there was a government safety net. I thought this nostalgia for communist times was an isolated mentality until I went on a guided tour of DDR photography yesterday at Berlinische Galerie and realized that right here in Germany, many people during that time not only willingly accepted the socialist system but valued it more than capitalism.

The title of this exhibition is “Geschlossene Gesellschaft,” which translates to “Closed Society.” Many of the photographers, especially the older generation who were producing work in the 50’s and 60’s such as the first female photographer in the DDR Ursula Arnold, lived their entire life in the DDR and most had never experienced Western society. The photographic purpose of these artists ranges from journalism and advertising to documentation, all with a positive perspective on life in the DDR. Although artistic individuality was not explicitly prohibited in the DDR, we do not see artistic or experimental photography until the 80’s when the younger generation breaks from the communist mentality.

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