How to make an exhibition in which visitors can get a picture of history for themselves – that is what the Moritzburg Art Museum in Halle has been showing us for some time. Anyone who wants to know what an artist was in the 20th century, especially in his second half, should go to this retrospective. She sets an example for us: Willi Sitte. Curator Thomas Bauer-Friedrich calls his life an exemplary biography of a newcomer and the story of a generational conflict in which the member of a rebellious generation gradually becomes part of an oppressive one.
Willi Sitte, painter and draftsman, university teacher, party official and art politician, born 100 years ago in the Czech Republic, son of communist parents, Wehrmacht soldier, deserter and supporter of the partisans in Italy, came to Halle in 1947 and spent his artistic life in this city, where he died in 2013 . Along with Tübke, Heisig and Mattheuer, he belonged to the “Gang of Four” of the most influential painters in the GDR. The retrospective presents him as a great artist who, like his state, the GDR, failed because of the contradiction between art, politics and power.
Only half a Marxist
Four curators – in addition to Moritzburg director Bauer-Friedrich, the art historians Paul Kaiser, Dorit Litt and Eckhart Gillen – have put this exhibition to work in five years. Just hanging the pictures would not have allowed a new perspective on this artist’s life. The dramaturgy of the exhibition follows a biographical chronology, but repeatedly puts the sections of life under thematically: early artistic influences, catching up on modernism, commissioned works for the party, noise with its functionaries, “love pictures”, historical and propaganda pictures, self-questioning after failure and loss of power. In addition, many text panels, placed discreetly but clearly next to the pictures.
The second part of the exhibition begins with text and photo series on Sitte’s career as the president of the arts association. In the large “white cube” of the museum you have the whole custom around you again in oversize. The multi-panel pictures are given the space for their sheer size that they used to have in the meaning space of the art of the GDR. We stand small in front of the works with which Sitte addresses his accusations of war and violence in the world politically, always precisely and confidently. From the lost Lidice-Triptych (represented here in a photographic reproduction), which draws its strength from a painterly composition, to examples of Sitte’s history pictures, which often appear as superficial illustrations of the SED’s view of history. One thing is surprising: Sitte, the communist, was a historical, but not a dialectical, materialist, so only half a Marxist. The crude good-bad scheme of some of these images gives it away.
Pictures like that create another irritation Erdgeister from 1990, which show Sitte’s disappointed turning away from a working class to which he had recently paid homage as the victorious subject of history. He reacts to the desire to consume and the hope of D-Mark in the time of the fall of the Wall with withdrawal of love and expresses this in images of contempt. Just as he had previously punished the “misconduct” of young artists as a cultural functionary with the power of paternal authority. The dialectical view of Bert Brecht, who after the workers’ uprising on June 17, 1953, did not scold the “people” but rather admonished the party leadership, is not available to a custom.
The organizers of the exhibition describe Sitte’s departure, but they do not see the explosiveness of the moment. The artist and functionary is seen as someone who served the wrong ideology – and not as someone who wrongly served the socialist idea.
There is one area in Sitte’s work that was not ostensibly political and yet was received very controversially. These are his representations of voluminous, dynamic bodies. The saying “Better to draw from life than to paint from custom” was probably not coined by those who saw their physical worlds represented in this way. It could have come from Kurt Masur, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Kapellmeister who did the commissioned work Rock singer did not like to see on the wall in his noble temple. The naked, pot-bellied rock musician with electric guitar and putti dick was one of many upsets. For a Kurt Masur as well as for the rock stars who even back then preferred to be portrayed as muscle guys with big cocks.
These body images are “realistic” because they strip people of all covers and masks, including those that are available to self-promoters today via Photoshop and filters. Real bodies have never been so hidden as they are today and seldom so exposed as in custom.
Anyone who wants to see it can see everything when walking through the well-attended exhibition. Because it shows more than it says.
Sittes world Moritzburg Art Museum, Halle, until January 9, 2022