Painting Through the Berlin Wall

berlin-wall-1_1

“We enjoyed painting a line through that one!”

The German journalist and author, Frank Willmann, recalled with glee the moment in 1986, when he and four friends daubed white paint across Keith Haring’s iconic Berlin Wall mural. This iconoclastic act was part of an art-activist stunt that stretched 3 miles along the infamous structure. Since the wall was suddenly erected on 13 August 1961, to separate the German Democratic Republic from the neighbouring Federal Republic of Germany, it had been a hated symbol of the Cold War divide between East and West. But by the mid-1980s, the western face of the wall had become a tourist destination, with visitors attracted by the growing number of artworks that adorned it following Thierry Noir’s first wall painting in April 1984.

Born in the East German city of Weimar in 1963, Willmann along with his friends – Frank Schuster, Wolfram Hasch, and brothers Jürgen and Thomas Onisseit – had grown up never knowing a world without the Berlin Wall. By their late teens, the group had begun to rebel against the government of Erich Honecker and the notorious Stasi. Between 1983 and 1985, the authorities agreed to let all five of the young troublemakers emigrate to the West, and they reconvened in Berlin.

Their experience of living on both sides of the wall made the five friends keenly aware of the devastating effect it had on the lives of so many German citizens. They were therefore infuriated to see the wall dismissed by many in the western world as “little more than a big canvas. They just didn’t care what was going on behind it.” The willingness of the West German authorities to pander to the wishes of a famous American artist was particularly irksome, and the five friends decided to retaliate when Haring’s paint was barely dry.

berlin wall 2.jpg

On 3 November 1986, armed with paint rollers and buckets, and wearing masks to conceal their faces, Willmann, Schuster, Hasch, and the Onisseit brothers embarked on their daring feat. They continued to paint an uneven white line for several hours, until eagle-eyed East German border guards surprised them by appearing through a secret door and dragged Hasch back to the GDR, where he spent 3 months in prison before returning to West Berlin.

As The Guardian newspaper reports, the men today give a number of reasons why they chose to paint on the wall, ranging from a desire to feel empowered and proclaim their move to West Germany, to a protest against the complacency of those fortunate enough to be living on the western side. In a surprising development, only in 2010 when Willmann began researching for a book about the project, did it come to light that Jürgen Onisseit – the friend who had first suggested the white line action – had once been a Stasi informant. In a bitter irony, this revelation has created a more unassailable division between the friends and brothers than any concrete wall.

What & Where: The Guard Who Jumped the Berlin Wall

What: Florian and Michael Brauer and Edward Anders, Mauerspringer (Walljumper), 2009
Where: Brunnenstraße, Berlin, Germany

In June 2009, a few months prior to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new sculpture appeared on the streets of the German capital. Mauerspringer (Walljumper) by Florian and Michael Brauer and Edward Anders depicts a life-sized East German border guard named Conrad Schumann, in the midst of his daring escape to West Berlin on 15 August 1961.

Schumann was just 19 years old when he became the first GDR soldier to officially defect to the West. His escape came on the third day of construction of the wall he had been sent to guard, at this point little more than a low barbed-wire fence. As his colleagues were distracted trying to keep back a throng of bystanders, Schumann made his break for freedom.

Captured on camera by West German photographer Peter Leibing, the image of Schumann with head bowed and arms spread mid-air above the barbed wire was dubbed the “Leap of Freedom.” It was published around the world and rapidly became an iconic symbol of the Cold War. Even now the poster depicting Schumann’s jump remains one of the best-selling items at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.

Conrad Schumann’s spur-of-the-moment decision to leave East Germany showed remarkable foresight. Following the construction of the Berlin Wall a “death strip” patrolled by armed guards divided the city. Between 1961 and 1989 only 5,000 Berliners successfully crossed from East to West, with over half of them soldiers and policemen.

Watch a short film by Bianca Döring including footage of Schumann’s desertion:

Images: Top – Florian and Michael Brauer and Edward Anders, Mauerspringer, 2009; Bottom – Peter Leibing, Leap of Freedom, 1961.

Featured Artist: Thierry Noir

Thierry NoirOn 9 November 2014 the world looked back to the momentous day, 25 years earlier, when the Wall came down.

French street artist Thierry Noir is credited as the first person to paint on the Berlin Wall, in April 1984. Noir had moved to the west side of the city two years earlier and was living in a squat that overlooked the infamous crossing. Saddened by the sight, one day he spontaneously decided to begin his illegal artwork in an act of defiance. Instead of intending to make the wall beautiful or joyful, Noir painted to highlight its strangeness, to “transform it, make it ridiculous, and help destroy it.”

Noir had to paint quickly to avoid arrest by East German guards, developing a ‘Fast Form’ style by simplifying the figures into a continuous line formed of one or two bright colours. Over the next five years Noir painted on the wall daily, with his colourful cartoon animals and human faces eventually covering an entire kilometre of its surface.

Many artists followed Thierry Noir’s lead in painting on the Berlin Wall, from Keith Haring’s stick men to Dmitri Vrubel’s cheeky picture of Brezhnev and Honecker in a clinch. Yet despite these years of work, Noir was relieved to see the wall destroyed: “It was not an art project, it was a deadly border. One hundred and thirty six people were killed because of the wall – everyone was just happy that it went away.”

Thierry Noir continues to live in the German capital and to produce work in his signature style, which since the end of the Cold War has became an iconic symbol of freedom. Noir’s Berlin Wall paintings remain on the portions of the wall held in the East Side Gallery and in New York City, and in 2009 the artist was invited to contribute to the restoration of what is now a historic monument by repainting several sections of his work.

Images: Top – Thierry Noir painting on the Berlin Wall, 1989; Bottom – View from Thierry Noir’s bathroom, Berlin, 1989.

What & Where: The East German Surveillance Station in Los Angeles

What: Christoph Zwiener, ADN Pfoertnerhaus (ADN Guard House)
Where: 9300 Culver Boulevard, Culver City, LA – until 2 November 2014

To mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, Los Angeles is the temporary home of a GDR surveillance booth. German artist Christof Zwiener has reimagined the 1970s guardhouse as an art installation, with the 2 by 1 metre space hosting a series of exhibitions.

The project began in June 2013 when Zwiener saved the ADN Pförtnerhaus from demolition. The last East German monitoring station remaining in a public space, it was originally located in the Berlin parking lot of state-run news agency ADN, from where the authorities had a good vantage point to spy on reporters. The booth has since hosted exhibitions across Germany and is now moving between the LA and OC counties before reaching its final destination, in the sculpture garden of the Wende Museum in Culver City.

ADN Pförtnerhaus began its Californian tour near a permanent installation of remnants of the Berlin Wall on LA’s Wilshire Boulevard. There it featured an exhibition by Berlin artist Sonya Schoenberger of 2,000 keys from abandoned East German police barracks. It is now situated on Culver Boulevard until 2 November 2014 and is filled with a sculpture of a giant flip-flop by LA artist Friedrich Kunath.

You can find out more about the project and see photos of previous exhibitions at the ADN Pförtnerhaus website.

Images: Top – Sculpture by Friedrich Kunath, on display in the ADN Pförtnerhaus, Culver Boulevard, 2014; Bottom – Sonya Schoenberger with her exhibition Key Delivery in the ADN Pförtnerhaus, Wilshire Boulevard, 2014.

Featured Artist: Keith Haring

Keith Haring2A recent exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris highlighted the significance of Keith Haring as ‘a subversive, militant Pop icon’. The American artist used his apparently infantile and comic images of stick men and barking dogs to engage with challenging political themes as he campaigned tirelessly for social justice and the freedom of the individual.

Imbued with the street culture of 1980s’ New York, Haring’s paintings often expressed the dominant concerns of the Cold War, such as the threat of nuclear war, the preponderance of mass media and the dangers of rampant capitalism. The artist-activist was also an outspoken critic of racism, homophobia, drug use and ecocide. Towards the end of the 1980s Haring’s output became increasingly fixated on the theme of AIDS, before he sadly succumbed to the disease in 1990 at only 31 years of age.

From his subway sketches to his mural on the Berlin Wall, Haring frequently used the public space to deliver his messages. His energetic and humorous style and commitment to the democratisation of art continue to inspire new generations of politically-active street artists.

Haring - Subway
Images: © Keith Haring Foundation

The Deadly Love of the GDR

The German Democratic Republic (GDR), known as East Germany, was founded on 7 October 1949. It was at the 30th anniversary celebrations of the communist state that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was famously snapped locking lips with GDR premier Erich Honecker, and the photo promptly appeared on newspaper front pages around the world.

In 1990 the iconic image was reimagined as a graffiti painting on the Berlin Wall, in the final months before it was dismantled. The painter, Russian artist Dmitri Vrubel, left viewers in no doubt of its satirical meaning with the accompanying slogan: My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love. The dissatisfaction of many with the GDR leadership’s apparent passion for the Kremlin overriding their concern for the German people was finally alleviated with the dissolution of the GDR and German reunification on 3 October 1990.

Berlin, East Side Gallery

Image: Dmitri Vrubel, My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love, 1990

Haring Paints the Berlin Wall

130816 Keith Haring

On 13 August 1961 construction started on the Berlin Wall, tearing apart the German capital. For the next 28 years, the Wall would be a symbol of Soviet oppression and a literal representation of the ‘Iron Curtain’ between East and West.

With the rise of the graffiti art movement in the 1980s, the West Berlin side of the Wall became a Mecca for street artists. Keith Haring, the New York artist credited with bridging the gap between the street and the gallery, was invited by the Director of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum to paint on the Wall during a visit to Europe in 1986. On 23 October Haring began work on his 350-foot mural, intended to symbolise the solidarity of the divided peoples of Berlin.

In Haring’s words: ‘I decided on a subject, which is a continuous interlocking chain of human figures, who are connected at their hands and their feet – the chain obviously representing the unity of people as against the idea of the wall. I paint this in the colors of the German flag – black, red and yellow.’

Read more about Haring’s Berlin Wall Mural in the Tate’s Gallery of Lost Art.

Image: Photo by Tseng Kwong Chi, 1986. Copyright Muna Tseng Dance Projects Inc. Courtesy Keith Haring Foundation