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The Shuttered Society: The GDR through another lens

Looking inwards from the other side of the wall, this collection of photographs has had crowds pouring through the Berlinisches Gallery's doors for weeks. Here's our review.

Image for The Shuttered Society: The GDR through another lens
Photo by Jens Rötzsch

With its eye-catching poster girls clad in electric blue leotards, The Shuttered Society has been the talk of the town. Crowds have poured through the doors of the Berlinische Galerie to catch a glimpse of Germany’s socialist half pre-1989. Giving flesh and blood to the citizens and artists of the German Democratic Republic, the show is expansive, wrapping visitors in a patchwork quilt of images often taken in secrecy. The photographs almost speak of normality: we were just like you. We made art, we captured life and we were poetic. Really?

Richard Peter and Karl Heinz Mai feature with images of Dresden after the bombing – including gasp-inducing photographs of crushed subjects. Trümmerfrau (literally ‘rubble’ women) also appear here: these strong characters, who stepped in to rebuild war-torn cities in the absence of men, stare directly into Heinz Mai’s lens with an immovable gaze.

Evelyn Richter and Sibylle Bergemann capture elegance in portraits that exude a classical beauty, a reminder that poetry can be found even in adverse environments. In complete contradiction, Erasmus Schröter paints painfully awkward colour images: a monkey in cage and a cement-faced woman wearing a red jacket juxtaposed with flowers. Christian Borshert’s series of family portraits taken in a 1942 Dresden hint at the classlessness of a society in preparation of the official GDR era.

Further along and quite progressive for its time, Jörg Knöfel’s Slaughterhouse Berlin 1986-88 is a walk in a labyrinth, confronting man with beast. You’re forced to spend a minimum time with the works, an idea usually confined to theatre and performance. The crudely created installation appears at the Galerie in its original form, catching you before you can turn back.

Over 30 photographers are displayed through the gallery, irrelevant of themes, gender, techniques or perspectives. It is a lot; and it is little to cover half a century. Too bad the retrospective fails to provide any meaningful context to the works. Chronological catch-all as a curatorial concept might attract the Ostalgia-thirsty masses, but it will do little to impress discerning art lovers presented with much to see but little to munch on – with the exception of a fleeting feeling of frustration. You’ll still enjoy the show from an instinctive and pictorial perspective, though, and all in all it remains a vivid visual testimony of a bygone era.

THE SHUTTERED SOCIETY Oct 5-Jan 28 | Berlinische Galerie, Alte Jakobstr. 124, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf KochStraße, Wed-Mon 10-18:00