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HARTWIG EBERSBACH

ABSTRACT AVANT-GARDE PAINTING IN GDR

A CASE STUDY

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By Paul-Henri Campbell

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The Montréal Review, June 2016

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Hartwig Ebersbach (Photo: Marcel Schawe)

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Although German Reunification commemorated its 25th anniversary last year, the German art scene continues to be weirdly bipolar. By zooming in on individual careers of artists, however, one may come to appreciate the web of complicated relations that shaped East and West German painting during the Cold War and afterwards. Hartwig Ebersbach is a painter of the former GDR, though his success was reared in the West – or somewhere in between. Whenever his story is told, one senses the strange insistence on keeping within the parameters once set by the Iron Curtain. Outdated demarcations remain in place within the hearts and minds of a particular generation, even though critical reviews of those past days might allow them today to see the interdependence of two systems and the mysterious productivity borne by ideological divide more clearly.

During the 40 year existence of the German Democratic Republic, Hartwig Ebersbach (born 1943) was the incumbent of the only professorship for experimental or abstract painting ever to be instituted by the Politburo and its cultural engineers. While figurative painting discovered new themes and augmented traditional interpretations of Realism in many capitals of the former Warsaw Pact, abstract painting was mistrusted – possibly also because academies in the so-called West, for example the Kunsthochschule Düsseldorf, embraced alternative approaches more liberally.

Ebersbach's professorship in Leipzig only lasted for three semesters and then was shut down by the authorities. The painter's unapologetic lust for disobedience was, however, not necessarily what got him sacked. Keeping art production in file and the Communist brand in style, particularly through Socialist Realism, was perhaps something that functionaries desired more during the 1970s GDR than banishing a rebel here or there.

But certain encounters ensured that Ebersbach's name did not simply end up in the black books listing the unfortunate artists who had been ostracized, stunted, or impeded in their careers by zealous functionaries populating the stuffy back offices in cultural policy departments during the days of Real Socialism.

Keeping Genius Afloat

In 1975, Ebersbach's fortune took a different unforeseen route, when the art collector Peter Ludwig travelled from his native Rhineland to East Germany and bought over 100 of his paintings. Peter Ludwig, the son of a wealthy industrialist, invested his fortune to build the largest private collection of contemporary art in Germany, with museums in Cologne, Aachen, and Oberhausen, but also in St. Petersburg, Basel, Beijing, and Havana. Ludwig was also everything that Ebersbach wasn’t. The art collector Peter Ludwig had thrived in West Germany's capitalist system; he was urbane, well-traveled, and moneyed. Nevertheless, the two men resonated well and Ludwig made Ebersbach famous around the world, obtaining travel visas that would bring the artist beyond the Iron Curtain to, for example, the Art Basel, exhibitions in Japan, residencies in New York, and, of course, Ludwig's home town of Cologne.

Another patron who kept Ebersbach in a prominent position within the ideologically drenched climate of Socialist art was his teacher and dean of Leipzig's prestigious Academy, the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, Bernhard Heisig (1925-2011). Heisig not only ensured that Ebersbach could continue giving elementary courses on painting after he had been stripped of his professorship, but also contained the carnage that remained after some of Ebersbach's more destructive displays of performance art.

For by realizing violent force, by tapping into fierce and unrestrained emotion, Ebersbach mobilized the unbridled Dionysian energy that created the relief-like splashes and sputters of paint on his canvasses. In an environment in which every conversation was recorded and every expression was accordingly guarded, lest it may reveal the soul's discontent with a repressive system, in an environment that settled with inconspicuous craftsmanship in its art instead of individual genius, risk, statement, and originality, Ebersbach made the disinhibited correspondence between the artist and his material the hallmark of his style.

Encountering Clowns and Prophets

When I visited Ebersbach at his atelier on the outskirts of Leipzig in 2014, the conditions that governed his formative years as an artist had long translated into chapters in textbooks of national historiography. The person I encountered, however, was not a weary veteran of ideological disputes, as were fashionable in the second half of the 20th century, but an artist who each day seemed to be revealing more and more of the primal tension that sent him out to cultivate the emotional and technical repertoire of skills that would birth the expression of self he wished so deeply to bring to light without compromise for nearly 75 years.

Understanding Ebersbach's sinuous creative path is not merely achieved by considering such conditions of artistic productions as they were dominant while he created his most celebrated artworks, or by measuring out the jagged formations commonly seen on canvases bearing his signature, but by sounding out the bamboozling weirdness of this man's private mythology and the cosmos of his earliest days.

So I find myself at Ebersbach's handsome residence on an early spring day in 2014. »Let me show you my Sistine Chapel«, says the artist. We enter a room that contains no painting paraphernalia, but was a large sunlit room with wall to wall, baseboard to ceiling shelving. The shelves are densely populated by thousands of Kasperle puppets. In our previous email correspondence, I made clear that I was interested in learning about his artwork, and Ebersbach begins by showing me his extensive collection of the German variants of Punch and Judy puppets.

Ebersbach owns thousands permutations of the central character in the traditional Kasperltheater, a figure that became a symbol for innocence and daemonic powers in German Romantic literature. It is the curious fulcrum of the painter's personal mythology. »One of the Three Magi was named Caspar«, Ebersbach says, peering at me with his wacky gaze. »The six millionth person born on earth, a Yugoslav, was baptized Gaspar. Were you aware of that?« At age 75, he is in no rush to speak about his life and work; instead, the man whose art is collected from New York to Dubai to Tokyo is keen on enlightening my ignorance concerning the Kasperltheater.

Two hours pass. His wife serves coffee in the adjacent dining room. »In high school«, Ebersbach says, munching on formidable fork-loads of nut cake, »I was a class Kasperl. Later I became a social Kasperl, a player«. After the bombardment of his industrial birth town Zwickau in 1944, his parents moved the family to his grandparent's farm, some thirty miles away in the rural hinterland. The rhythm of farm life structured his postwar upbringing. Ebersbach points at a pencil drawing of a young calf on the wall. »That's the first thing of significance I ever drew. I was sixteen and my Russian teacher at the time, Tatjana Lietz, called me into her office after lessons. She placed a bottle of fruit schnapps onto her desk and offered me a cigarette, then she said: ›a little schnapps for you, a little schnapps for me. You must become a painter, my dear‹. And that's how it was decided«.

Looking at this scene critically, it is of course no surprise that the Marxist ideology had favored students from laborer and farming communities over candidates from the remains of the old bourgeois, as the new artists of the fatherland were to create artworks in which future Socialist generations would see their toil exulted. This is a consistent trait in many artist biographies, such as those of Mikhail Trufanov, Volker Stelzmann, Petra Flemming, or Ulrich Hachulla.

The Making of a Socialist Artist-Laborer

After graduating from high school, Ebersbach moved to Leipzig and was placed in the class conducted by Bernhard Heisig. Unlike East Berlin, however, the artistic climate in Leipzig during the 1960s and 1970s was a bevy of mutineers. In Leipzig's university district, The Academy of Visual Arts, the music conservatory as well as the music and performing arts Konservatorium Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and the literary cadre factory Johannes R. Becher Institut for creative writing are located only a stone's throw away from each other. Artists from every art form trained within two blocks of each other. Even though the aesthetic attitude encouraged by GDR officials insisted on traditional demarcations among the artistic disciplines, regular fraternization among art students took place, and left notable traces on the artistic procedures developed by the aspiring artists.

»I like to stir up my paint using both of my arms. It reminds me of the entrails of animals«, Ebersbach says after a pause, during which he swallowed another formidable chunk of his wife's cake. »Then I raise myself up and just hurl as much of it as I can against the canvas. Or I'll wallow around on a canvass spread out on the floor. I used to get aroused when large groups of people watched me doing this«. He searches for the napkin that slipped under the table during his remarks.

There is a curious bunch of poems that Ebersbach composed perhaps shortly after one of his early public performances left a studio totally wrecked: »The artist originated from the shaman […] / ambivalent, abstract / as dancer, as musician, as painter / in his own image / there is the countenance of gods«. One might like to imagine this young Hartwig Ebersbach as a Jim Morrison of the proletarian intelligentsia, an oil color drenched pariah. It is during that stage in his development in which he created paintings such as »Harlequin« (1962) or »Burning Man I« (1966). These are also the years in which Bernhard Heisig prevented several restraining orders and disciplinary proceedings from putting a full stop to his Meisterschüler's commencing career. Heisig also saw to it that Ebersbach was well trained in applying techniques used by the Old Masters, as much of his Academy work shows. But Ebersbach demanded of painting that it be more than imitation of phenomena; he desired to make the canvas a witness to the indefinite, vague, and numinous forces of the unconscious.

And there is indeed an inescapable gravity in his restless monologue, even as we sat there in 2014 savoring his wife's hazelnut cake. »I didn’t want my work to aid the missionary work for the Class Struggle«. As his studies entered their final semesters, it became increasingly evident that he would break away from the figurative approaches to painting taught in Leipzig.

Ebersbach was in search of a modus operandi that would help him visualize the emotional plunge that the soul takes when it seeks its own expression. He wanted the effects that Greek tragedy as well as Greek comedy had upon its audience in the domain of the canvas, and the solution he came up with was to look at what was on the canvas ultimately as the visible traces of his physical deportment, movement, and melody, be this harmonious or a bewildering cacophony.

Some of his paintings contain elements resembling blurred calligraphies. And indeed, he may begin by smearing the letter »K« or the word »Kasper« diagonally across the canvas, only to superimpose rougher structures or spread the paint into increasing variations of round and spiraling lines – as playful perhaps as the medieval scribes who transformed an initial letter into sprawling ivy or organic ornaments or miniaturized architectural scenes. »I engaged so freely with it that it looks like it were abstract. But it is never intended to be abstract. It is never informal«. As though the human alphabetic sign was to be augmented in its form by the curious powers of the unconscious, of dream, and of ecstasy.

Augmenting the ›Acceptable‹ Means of Expression

For cultural technocrats who were forever reliant upon being able to unambiguously state what a painting meant for political reasons or otherwise, the chutzpah of Ebersbach abstractness became a dangerous force to be reckoned with, especially when paired with an artist's excessive personality that was never too overworked to give you a verbal excerpt of his personal, unashamedly opinionated mythology. So upon viewing the voluminous dossier of files that the Stasi had compiled on their new adjunct lecturer in 1966, one is quite amused with so many decades in-between. Consider, for instance, the following comment a bamboozled comrade noted in his protocol with respect Ebersbach's work on display at the 7th Bezirksausstellung (District Exhibition) in Leipzig in 1966:

»The essential features that make up the Socialist life's ideal are in the case of Ebersbach totally insufficient. His ›Self-Portrait with Friends‹ reflects emotional relationships that are entirely meaningless for human beings, emotions that in no way are fit to help them realize their true position in life. Exactly the opposite is the case. They are adapted as to discredit Socialist life in the awareness of the beholder. Here an artist has chosen to depict feelings and psychic states to which one couldn’t adjudge any positive meaning (none) for society at large. Thus, this painting transgresses the boundaries of accepted display of individuality towards extreme individualism, showing nothing but the self-depiction of an isolated personality. The painting claims a personal ideological attitude towards life that ultimately originates in the erroneous notion of the absolute primacy of the self over social reality. It disturbingly exults in sequestering the self from the material conditions governing life.«

The German prose of this commentator exhibits unmistakable traces of agitation. But it was Ebersbach's lust for scandal that brought him a host of entries such as this one into the legers of German state Communism. Ebersbach, being the father of five, however, rarely celebrated the little arrows he launched against authority. He frequently lived in fear, often having rations shortened or travel allowances cancelled on short notice, cars parked in front of his house with staff members of the secret police smoking cigarettes all afternoon outside his property. It was, of course, the increasing reliance of the GDR government during the 1980s on revenues gleaned from purchases made by Western art dealers, such as Peter Ludwig, that kept the watch dogs at bay, but the risks that Ebersbach took were real and they were irrevocable once taken.

As Ebersbach shows me some of his paintings that he kept for himself, he points out his most recent creation, a group of six canvased segments, each roughly 20 square inches. Taken together, they roughly show the outlines of a fully matured cow. And then there are thick, brush stroked lines partitioning the creature into portions, as commonly seen on schemas at butcheries. »This is my last painting«, says Hartwig Ebersbach after a pause. And it indeed seems, as though from that first timid pencil drawing of a young calf to this matured cow ready to enter the digestive process of human taste, Ebersbach's desire self-expression has come full circle.

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Paul-Henri Campbell was born in 1982 in Boston, MA. Raised bilingually German-English, he studied Classic Greek and Catholic Theology at the National University of Ireland and the Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main, Germany. A poet and translator, his recent collection of poetry is entitled "space race" (Munich 2015). He also wrote extensively on various painters in the New Leipzig School and edited a seminal study on the Greek-German painter Aris Kalaizis whose assistant he had been for several years. You can reach Paul at paulhenri.campbell@gmail.com.

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