Abstraction as the
“language of liberty”

Tendencies in art around 1950

Fred Thieler, Tales for W. Turner, 1962
Fred Thieler, Tales for W. Turner, 1962
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

By 1950 art was embroiled in the Cold War. Under Soviet pressure, Socialist Realism prevailed in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the other countries of the Eastern bloc. In Western Europe and the United States, meanwhile, abstraction was celebrated as the “language of liberty”, not least in the Federal Republic of Germany, and most of all in West Berlin.

Fritz Brill, Farbe im Walzstuhl - Hostmann & Steinberg, 1951
Fritz Brill, Farbe im Walzstuhl - Hostmann & Steinberg, 1951
© Erbengemeinschaft Fritz Brill

As an “island city” surrounded by the GDR, West Berlin played a key part in the emergence of non-representational movements. This art was not intended to depict anything, nor to tell a story, nor to follow any rules at all about what things should look like. The focus was on colours, shapes and processes. Painters Hann Trier and Fred Thieler were major exponents of this art, which took its cue from Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism. Thieler in particular experimented with a wide range of techniques, for example by gluing paper into a collage, then partially tearing it apart again as décollage. Or by dripping or tipping paint onto the canvas rather than applying it with a brush, like the US artist Jackson Pollock was doing in his Drip Paintings. In the East, making a theme of the creative act itself was rejected as “bourgeois formalism”.

Many photographers also took up the quest for abstract structures and forms, for example in landscapes or the natural environment. There were references to the Modernist photography of the 1920s in the form of extreme close-ups, experiments with light and shadow, cross-fades and montage. The motif is sometimes hard to identify, not least due to stylistic devices like these. The principal aim was not to reproduce an object, but to convey a creative view of the world. While the West German Heinz Hajek-Halke was held in high esteem for his non-figurative photography, abstract imagery by the East Berliner Fritz Kühn did not reflect the official tenets of photography in the GDR.

Represented Artists (Selection)

Fred
Thieler

1916 - 1999

Hann
Trier

1915 - 1999

Fritz
Kühn

1910 - 1967

Heinz
Hajek-Halke

1898 - 1983

Further topics

Architektur Entwurf

New beginnings
and newbuild

Architecture after 1945 in East and West Berlin

Installation by Wolf Vostell from 1958-59

Return of the figure

Art in the 1960s and 1970s

Black and white photograph of a woman taken by the photographers Gabriele and Helmut Nothhelfer

Radically subjective

Berlin’s auteur photography from 1970

Helmut Middendorf, Big City Natives, 1979

Art in the shadow
of the Wall

Painting and photography in East and West 1970 – 1989

All topics

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