Tradition and Renewal: Contemporary Art in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was the first exhibition of its kind to be shown in the United Kingdom. The exhibition took place at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford between 3 June and 29 July 1984.
In 1981, Willi Lange, the Cultural Attaché at the GDR Embassy in London asked whether Museum of Modern Art, Oxford Director, David Elliot, would be interested in selecting and showing an exhibition of contemporary art from the German Democratic Republic. As no exhibition of its kind had been exhibited in the UK, Elliot embarked on a trip to visit the GDR to see its artists first hand in order to gain a wider perspective of the genre.
The following year, an invitation was issued by the GDR Ministry of Culture to visit the National Art Exhibition which took place every four years in Dresden. Having accepted the invitation, Elliot visited the exhibition, which led to the basis of his selection of works for Tradition and Renewal: Contemporary Art in the German Democratic Republic.
The exhibition showcased the work of 15 artists across three generations. The older generation included Bernhard Heisig (b. Breslau, Poland, 1925), Gerhard Kettner (b. Mumsdorf, 1928), Willi Sitte (b. Kratzau, Czechoslovakia, 1921) and Werner Tübke (b. Schönebeck, 1929), all of whom taught at major art schools in Leipzig, Dresden and Halle, and were appointed members of the Academy of Art in the GDR.
The middle generation included painters Gudrun Brüne (b. Berlin, 1941), Hartwig Ebersbach (b. Zwickau, 1940), Sighard Gille (b. Eilenburg, 1941), Volker Stelzmann (b. Dresden, 1940) and the graphic artists Carlfriedrich Claus (b. Annaberg, 1930), Jürgen Schieferdecker (b. Meerane, 1937), Wolfgang Petrovsky (b. Hainsberg, 1947) and Frank Voigt (b. Dresden, 1946).
The youngest generation, then in their 20s and 30s, were represented by the paintings of Walter Libuda (b. Zechau-Leesen, 1950), Hubertus Giebe (b. Dohna, 1953) and Dagmar Stoev (b. Dresden, 1957).
This was an important exhibition, giving the audience a chance to see the artworks of a society that set out to establish an art of national tradition, an art of social responsibility, and an art that would allude to “progressive periods” of the past. Within the GDR, these artists attempted to revalidate their traditions in the aftermath of war and political upheaval. The works displayed were a careful, yet powerful observation of personal, social and political issues, of private life in East Germany, a place very much cut off from the West.
Between 1964 and 1984, these artists collectively exhibited in 29 international exhibitions on art from the GDR. These exhibitions took place in Paris, Stockholm, Budapest, Copenhagen, Moscow, Czechoslovakia, Portugal, Venice, Tokyo, Vienna, Warsaw and Syria, before eventually being introduced to the UK by the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford.
Following this exhibition, it then travelled to the Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry; the Graces Art Gallery, Sheffield; the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne; and the Barbican Centre, London.
This post was written by Ellie Nixon, with research and images taken from the Modern Art Oxford archive.