Frances Deepwell interviews East German artist

F.D. What art education have you had?

G.T. After I had taken my Abitur (18-plus examination)–without art, at school I’d only had the usual art lessons–I wanted to do an architecture course. But I was talked out of it. There was hardly any chance of getting a place on a course and so on, and it would all be pointless. So, in sheer protest I applied to study art directly. This was really what I wanted to do all along, but it had been completely out of the question because there’d been no one before me, for at least the last ten generations, neither in the family nor at school. So, I applied, was accepted, and from then on the way has been fairly smooth. I studied for the usual five years, then remained in Dresden as a graduate and received the three years’ support for young artists that is available. Since then I’ve been doing freelance work–and it’s probably relevant to say that I’m currently doing restoration work, which is also freelance, and is the same, I mean it doesn’t actually belong to my profession, but from a purely legal point of view it is exactly the same–except I can’t always paint.

F.D. Do you think you received a good education at the art school?

G.T. Yes, I found it a good training. Perhaps it’s important to say that I studied under Professor Kettner, who’s well known as a good teacher, and he is one, too. I found it good that it was so long, but for other students, older ones with more experience of themselves and their art, it is too long. It’s a school system and there are certain assignments to be completed. The teacher comes in and says: Today we’ re going to do life drawing. If you don’t do what he stipulates then there’s an argument. It all depends on your professor. And many people drop out. I did what I was told, because I was used to that. Inexperienced. It was only in the fifth year that I realised that I wanted something different to what he expected of me. Then there were arguments, but I’m glad that it didn’t happen until the final year … But Kettner has actually had the greatest successes–maybe that sounds a bit arrogant–but many people who have become famous were once his pupils. Many of them have also left here, and gone on to get a good reputation in the West, too. Officially, of course, Kettner must denounce this, but he is in fact very pleased. Pleased that we’ve all become someone, made it. I’m convinced that this is something we owe him.

F.D. Did you have the opportunity to try out many different techniques on the course?

G.T. Yes, but there wasn’t much training in the practical skills, such as printing techniques. I could have painted–under Kettner I studied graphics, drawing and graphics mainly.

F.D. But photography, for example?

G.T. No, that’s not at Dresden, as a department; you can do that at Leipzig. I gained a lot from the course, coming straight from school, at 18, from a remote village. Kettner was very sensitive in conveying drawing techniques. It was due to various factors that I had so little training in printing techniques, connected with a restructuring of the course and a lack of teaching staff at that time. Things have now got better there, though.

F.D. You are a member of the Artists’ Union, how did you join?

G.T. It happens fairly automatically if you study art. You’re first nominated as a candidate for three years, and then almost automatically you become a member. If you haven’t studied, then you can make an application as someone who is artistically active. You are discussed by a commission, which decides whether to let you in or not. Then you have three years’ time to prove yourself, before the commission meets again to look at your work, what you’ve done. This second sitting also counts for students, but there are very few who don’t get in once they’ve been given candidature. However, there are many women and men who are doing art at home, and have little hope of getting into the Artists’ Union…. The main reasons are economic ones, because in the statutes of the Union it states that the Union must support its members and arrange commissions for them–and if there are too many artists in it, it can’t provide for them all. Or sometimes they get custom portrait orders from galleries, like Paint My Photos. There isn’t that much money for culture … and the moment things start to head downwards in the economy, the funds available decline. The first cuts, of course, come to culture–it’s not so ‘important’. At the moment chances of getting into the Union are very slim–and I think it will get worse.

F.D. What function does the Artists’ Union have?

G.T. Well, I see the task of the Union as supporting artists, in a concrete sense, getting them commissions. They’ve got connections with the cultural trusts in industry, in fact in all institutions, and they can arrange commissions–or buy pictures themselves and then sell them on. But it all depends on whether you want to let yourself be ‘arranged’. I let myself in for it for three years–but not any more!

F.D. How can you sell your paintings if you don’t go through the Union?

G.T. Well, then there are only private commissions like custom portrait painting . Or ones from institutions, but they usually check with the Union–there are exceptions, but in the main they ask whether or not the Union has any objections. Everything is very centralised, and there is actually only one place that distributes money for art, so everything must of course be checked first … so that they don’t buy the wrong thing.

F.D. Does the State lay down a clear line for artists?

G.T. Yes it does, but it’s up to each individual artist whether they adhere to it or not, whether they want to or not. I mean, ‘orientated’ art, encouraged by the State for example, is always linked with money. Money got through commissions, and if you’re praised at an exhibition, or are represented fairly frequently, then you naturally become more famous, and gain a certain popularity. Entry into the Union is your permission to work, as a member of the Artists’ Union you are allowed to work freelance. And, of course, if you’ve come straight out of the art school, or are an autodidact, then nobody knows you–so at first you do toe the line to some extent. Once you’ve reached a certain popularity it becomes easier for you to work more individually, once you are known…. But it’s difficult to find the point where you are aware that your work is, clean is the wrong word to use, that your work is for someone else or whether it’s the work you always intended to do. As I said, it’s often linked with money. Once you are popular, you can live from your art, as long as people continue to like it.

F.D. Who would you say you were painting for?

G.T. This is what I’m always asking myself. I maintain that I’m painting for myself. The reason, well, I think it’s very important, for me most of all. When you say something it builds bridges, after all. Someone comes and looks at what you have expressed, they can think something totally different, but there could also be a conversation, or a mental exchange. But I don’t think of this when I’m actually doing something. I paint to get rid of my inner self–it’s a sort of coming to terms with my inner life.

F.D. You mostly paint women’s figures.

G.T. Yes, because that’s what I am.

F.D. But it’s not always you, is it?

G.T. It is really, even if it doesn’t look like me in the pictures. That’s not important. The women figures are always me, for the very reason that it comes from within me. Of course, I do sometimes paint with a model, which I enjoy, but the reception of whoever is sitting there also plays a role. The drawings, and also the oil paintings, come from deep within me to the surface. They are my ideas, with or without a model. It is therefore always me.

F.D. What techniques do you use?

G.T. Although etching is one of the few skills I’ve got in the way of printing, I do very little, because of the space and materials you need. There is a printing workshop I can go to, but there are always so many people around –it’s not a satisfactory place to work. I have to be alone. So, I do lots of drawings, and any types of printing I can do at home first and then get printed, or do it myself. Silkscreen, and recently I’ve been doing some offset.

F.D. Have you had many individual exhibitions, or taken part in a lot of shows?

G.T. I think so. For the most part they’ve been offered to me, someone has come and asked if I want to take part or not. F.D. Who comes and asks?

G.T. The galleries mainly. The public galleries are run by one or two people who write and invite you, if they like your work.  Last week,  Paint My Photos contacted many great portrait artists to arrange their custom painting order to them. The galleries are not there to make money. This means that within the framework of what is demanded of them, as regards ideology, they can be fairly free in selecting whom they want. It doesn’t have to be a good business deal. This is important, because it means they can show people who’ve never exhibited before, they don’t need the assurance that the works will sell.

F.D. Can you put yourself forward for an exhibition?

G.T. You can, but it takes a long time. You have to wait. The only time I’ve done that was for the exhibition ‘Innen-Aussen’ (Galerie Mitte, Dresden, 5 March-5 April 1987) where I went along with three other women and we said we wanted to hold an exhibition. It took us about six or seven months. It all depends on which gallery you go to.

F.D. Was this exhibition all women artists on purpose?

G.T. It wasn’t without purpose. There are various reasons. One is that there was an exhibition at the same time with similar themes, done by men.

F.D. But not purposely all men?

G.T. Well, I’m not so sure that it didn’t have a purpose. Maybe it’s normal, shall we say, but they came together for a reason, they thought they could exhibit well together. Anyway, this exhibition provoked us a bit–both positively and negatively.. Since we were planning to exhibit together, anyway, but had been unsure of whether we could actually do it, we really did go ahead and do it, at the same time. It’s very difficult to appear as a group of women. You are immediately judged differently. It’s not usual here, especially since we didn’t hang paintings in this case. It is gradually developing, but it’s not usual at all to exhibit anything other than pictures. And we did provoke people. We were showing ‘women’s art’ and it was a ‘women’s exhibition’. On the poster, for instance, the exhibition had the title ‘Frauen’ (Women), whereas we hadn’t given it that title. We had called the exhibition ‘Innen-Aussen’ (inside-outside). This, of course gave it a different meaning. It was a great deal of fun to do, and I’d do it again any day. We are planning to, in November, if all goes to plan.

F.D. Would you call your art women’s art, or art by women?

G.T. That’s a difficult problem. I wouldn’t divide art into women’s and men’s art, because I see art as something very individual, whoever does it. It’s logical that women do different art to men, because they play a completely different role in society, and therefore they feel differently to men, they are somehow different to men, therefore their art is also different. There’s just the danger that when you say women’s art it becomes labelled as one block of art, and then there’s the other block of art. I’m not convinced that these arts can’t cross over, or that within these blocks the people are very individual. If there is this delimitation, then there must also be a completely official block of men’s art–and nobody has ever mentioned that. So, when there’s an extra art, then it’s the women, women’s art. And then men’s art is the normal art, so to speak.

F.D. But don’t you think that art is viewed in this way?

G.T. Of course, but that doesn’t mean that I have to see it like that. This is art. That is women’s art. So, I try to resist it. As a matter of course art is taken to mean art by men. There are so few examples of women written about in the history. I won’t say I agree with women suddenly falling into the category of women’s art and men into art in general.

F.D. Are there still far fewer women represented in exhibitions here?

G.T. Yes, and we’re struggling hard to get that changed. Women are not taken seriously in general, both in society and in art. There are a couple of token examples held up time and time again in the schools (Kathe Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker) but very few indeed, compared to the number who have done things and were good. We’ve got equality here, legally, but what you hear is that there aren’t so many women artists anyway, so there’s no need for a women’s exhibition. There are in fact very few women in the Artists’ Union, and of those the number who have achieved a certain level of popularity is even less.

F.D. Is the Union, or the State doing anything to counteract this?

G.T. I don’t think there are many people in our society who want to change the traditional roles. The Union is really an organisation under State control, and so I don’t think it would want to encourage us any more. This means we have to do it ourselves. Women within the Union are making people aware of the fact that there are so few of them, so few women allowed to exhibit. How many women want to exhibit is another question again. We are trying to increase the numbers, and also try to get more commissions granted to women. Because women are generally less well known and there is still a great deal of scepticism towards them, and of course, they are fewer, they do not get commissioned so easily. There’s a bit of fear, too. A corporation might not want to have such a thing hanging in the boss’s room.

F.D. Do you define yourself as belonging to any particular trend in art?

G.T. In form I don’t belong to any trend as such, but as far as the content of my work is concerned I do see myself connected to trends, if you can describe them as trends. It’s more the direction of art as a realisation of oneself, which for me, of course, is something totally different than for a man. Men’s individuality is acknowledged right from the start, and the art that I do is naturally characterised by such problems. I clearly separate myself from general trends, and thereby push myself into a pigeonhole–which can be called art done by women, I’m consciously not saying women’s art.

F.D. Do you feel comfortable in this pigeonhole?

G.T. Oh yes, for the first time I feel really comfortable. I see art as a form of realisation of the self, from inside to the outside, whereby the inside is, of course, affected by the outside. I only do what I am working out within myself.

F.D. Do you meet as women artists at all?

G.T. Yes, we do. We came together because we felt that women in the Artists’ Union weren’t really being able to develop themselves as artists, for various reasons. Maybe we shared similar interests. The meeting has worked, and we have kept together. The first meeting, in March 1987 I think, at the ‘Innen-Aussen’ exhibition, was a very uncertain attempt. People didn’t dare speak, and it was impossible to tell whether there was interest in a further meeting, or not. Only after midnight did it become clear how all of us wanted to come together another time–we didn’t really know why, but the wish was simply there.

F.D. And have women artists in other towns tried to set up something similar?

G.T. I don’t know, we have had guests from all over the country, not many but a few. One woman I know of has probably been trying to start something in Berlin, but Berlin has got a completely different set of people to Dresden. People know each other here … but Berlin is a much more anonymous town, so it’s harder to get this sort of thing off the ground.

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F.D. Are all the women who come to the group in the Artists’ Union?

G.T. Yes, they are. There’s nothing preventing a woman who’s not in the Union, but who is artistically active, from coming to the group, of course not. It’s just that we have to find her first, find out if she exists and if so, where.

F.D. Are there many of you going to the group?

G.T. In relation to the number of women in the Union, I think we are a lot. We’ve had up to 20 people, and that really is a lot. Many people are prevented from coming because they are afraid that there might be problems at home once it gets out that you’re going. Or in the Union. It is still seen as something negative, it’s far from being a matter of course like it is in the West. People are afraid of losing face if they take part. There are also very personal reasons, for instance you might be laughed at: What do you want with the femmy club?

F.D. How many women artists are there in Dresden, officially?

G.T. I don’t know the precise number any more, but of men and women artists there are 800 in and around Dresden, which is a great deal. Partly because of the art school here … Dresden attracts people, the art scene here is somehow more varied than elsewhere, at least that’s my impression. There’s the proper friction between artists, the competition, too, which you only get in towns where there are art academies. So, in Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin. There is hardly anywhere else where artists come together in such numbers.

F.D. ‘Bildende Kunst’, the Artists’ Union’s art theory magazine is one art journal, do you have access to any others? Maybe from the West?

G.T. Well, the only access is in the library, which gets ‘Art’, the West German foreign language art journal–but I don’t have the time to sit there with a dictionary. We do get a few West German magazines, in fact German language magazines of all sorts, but only in the library. There you can find out some things, particularly what is written about yourself. Usually, however, when I’ve had an exhibition in the West they send me the articles about it which appeared locally. That keeps me well informed about the way the exhibition was received.

F.D. Do you notice a difference there?

G.T. Nobody has ever sent me an article here.

F.D. Since when have there been official exhibitions in the West?

A woman looks at a painting on the so called East Side Gallery featuring the famous kiss between then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (L) and East German leader Erich Honecker by Russian artist Dmitry Vrubel in Berlin on October 20, 2009. This particular stretch of the wall was taken over by artists who decorated the yet untouchable east side with artwork and political statements, after the wall was taken down in 1989-1990. The wall is currently undergoing renovation work ahead of the 20th anniversary of the wall's fall, November 9, 2009. AFP PHOTO JOHN MACDOUGALL (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
G.T. Twenty years ago there were exhibitions in the West, but these were mostly only of the really famous artists of our country. Then the West began to pick out a few of us who they thought would sell well, because we happened to fit in with the latest wave. The paintings hadn’t been painted like that on purpose, they just happened to fit in well. These people who were exhibited became popular here, too. It’s maybe the last ten years that more people have had the chance to exhibit in the West through the official channels. So we’ve adopted the principles of the art market over here, with the fashions changing according to what sells. The trends are the same, but just later. I must say, though, that art within our country is fairly specific to our country. I don’t see this as a bad thing. We were cut off, people have very few contacts with countries in the West, either personally or artistically, and this has allowed an ‘island art’ to develop, a quite specifically GDR (East German) art.

F.D. How is this in relation to other Eastern European art?

G.T. Well, there has always been some exchange with other countries, like Czechoslovakia, but other countries have been able to travel more widely. There are many great Estern European artists have adopted modernism, but because they had no such art specifically developed to suit their own circumstances, in my opinion, it has become a bit of a hotch potch. Western influences are mixed with the representation of their onn circumstances. I can see this in Bulgaria, for instance, where Bulgarian folklore is suddenly injected with American painting trends–and it says absolutely nothing to me. East German art, and Polish art, which I’ve always liked, are perhaps the best there are amongst the socialist countries. Polish art springs from a different tradition, where the people have not been so stifled and limited. What I don’t think is good about our development, well since we’ve been the GDR, does of course have some advantages.

Because of the stifling and limitations we had to develop ourselves. We didn’t have to try and exist in the West as well, so a proper art scene formed inside the country.

F.D. Do you notice a change in artists who have become famous here, and then also in the West?

G.T. On a personal level, I know some who have made full use of the advantages to be had, there are those who don’t change greatly, which I find very encouraging, but then there are a few who fall head first into the trap of megalomania. If you’re not careful it’s all too easy to let yourself be sold. I’m totally opposed to this. I did it myself for a couple of years, you sell yourself. The demands you make of your art are not as great as the fact that you gain fame and fortune through your art. If you become known in the West, and sell well at one exhibition, then the West gets interested. They’ll come back for more, just so long as you can ride on the wave. Then you have to do more and more, quicker and quicker, because you’re not managing to produce as much as you can sell. You’re deep in it before you realise, and then it’s a little too late. There can be problems, on both sides, if you suddenly say: No, not with me; I’m pulling out. Problems because lots of other people are earning from you, for instance the art dealers.

F.D. If you sell something in the West, it has to go through the official channels, how does this work out for the artist?

G.T. The work is sold in hard currency, and the artist then gets our currency, with a very small percentage in hard currency. The GDR earns very well out of it–and I’ve got nothing against that in principle. We orientate ourselves to what the West is doing, and if we want to get any kind of international recognition, then we have to go along with this principle of selling.

F.D. Apart from the official galleries, what other opportunities are there to exhibit for you?

G.T. Only privately. You can paper your room with art and then invite people along-but it’s a dangerous thing to do. Of course, there are many such galleries, they’ve shot up like mushrooms in the past few wars, in Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, everywhere. After a couple of years they are examined and then shut down forcefully. By that time, though, there’s usually another to take its place. Actually, there are a few fairly permanent ones now which are still more or less illegal. The trouble with private galleries is that most of the exhibitions are not very good. It depends on the person behind it. If that person is good, with a bit of judgement, then the gallery is good, but many people join an underground movement as a fashion. They just want to do something ‘anti’, they don’t particularly want to exhibit art … so a lot of it is rubbish.

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F.D. Can you see there being a women’s gallery of this sort, where only women exhibit?

G.T. Oh, I’d love to see it. I think it probably will come to that sometime, sooner or later, but now is not yet the time. There need to be many more strong women who can bring it into being. It would be much more noticeable than any other gallery. More people from outside would want to take a look at it. It’s even more dangerous to do something illegal that would attract that scale of attention. It could also be a complete failure. The illegal galleries are being tolerated much more, maybe as a way to release tension, and to take away the anger from people who could otherwise cause trouble, who are frustrated at not having any opportunities. They can also be kept better under control, by simply sending someone along to take a look every so often … I don’t yet know how it will develop now. That remains to be seen.