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Bernhard Heisig and the Cultural Politics of East German Art

Eisman, April A. (2007) Bernhard Heisig and the Cultural Politics of East German Art. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This dissertation focuses on the (East) German artist Bernhard Heisig (b. 1925), one of the most important German artists of the twentieth century. In English-language scholarship, however, he is virtually unknown, the result of lingering Cold War-era stereotypes that presume East Germany had no art, merely political propaganda or kitsch. This study focuses, in particular, on a crucial but little understood moment in Heisig's life and work, the decade between 1961 and 1971, a time when the style and subject matter for which he is best known today first emerged in his oeuvre. The introduction provides an overview of Heisig's reception in East, West, and unified Germany that will show how Cold War-era thinking affected--and continues to affect--his reception. The second chapter focuses on his past as a teenage soldier in the Second World War and the emergence of explicit references to this past in his art in the early 1960s. A comparison of his work to that by other artists suggests that there was more to its emergence at this point in time than simply personal reflection. It also reveals how his own experiences affected his portrayal of the subject. The third, fourth, and fifth chapters focus on a number of controversies that centered on Heisig and his work in the mid and late 1960s. It was during these years that the very definition of art in East Germany was under discussion: What is Socialist Realism? Heisig was a key figure in these debates, especially as they played out in Leipzig. A close investigation of the four main controversies in which he was involved reveals an artist deeply engaged with the society in which he lived and worked. Rather than a uniformly repressive system, the East German cultural scene was one of negotiation, sometimes heated, between artists and cultural functionaries. By engaging in these debates, Heisig helped to change what art was in East Germany and developed the commitment to figuration, tradition, and allegory for which he is praised today. In the end, this dissertation will offer a deeper understanding of both the artist and art under Socialism.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Eisman, April
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairMcCloskey, Barbarabmcc@pitt.eduBMCC
Committee MemberLinduff, Kathylinduff@pitt.eduLINDUFF
Committee MemberSavage, Kirkksa@pitt.eduKSA
Committee MemberBrockmann,
Committee MemberSmith, Terrytes2@pitt.eduTES2
Date: 19 September 2007
Date Type: Completion
Defense Date: 27 April 2007
Approval Date: 19 September 2007
Submission Date: 29 June 2007
Access Restriction: 5 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 5 years.
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > History of Art and Architecture
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR); German Democratic Republic (GDR)
Other ID:, etd-06292007-145319
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2011 19:49
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 13:45


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