Jul262010

University Acquires Unique East German Poster Collection

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By Catherine Ferraro

Poster for the 1954 film “Drei Vom Varieté” (Three from the Cabaret) directed by Karl Neumann. Image courtesy of University Libraries Special Collections and Archives

Since its creation in 1978, Mason’s University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives (SC&A) has acquired historical materials that researchers can use to learn about the past, present and future. Rare books, manuscripts, playbills, movie screenplays, newspaper clippings and planning maps are just some of the items housed here.

One of SC&A’s most recent acquisitions is a collection of more than 7,500 posters and 3,400 photographs from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), more commonly known as East Germany.

Mason is the only university in North or South America to house such a large collection of cultural and political GDR posters. And the collection arrives at an important time in Germany’s history: The country will mark the 20th anniversary of the reunification of East and West Germany in October 2010.

The posters and photographs are divided into two groups. The first group documents East German film, theater, opera, visual art, politics, festivals, sports and recreation from the late 1950s through 1990.

The second collection includes posters relating to political persons, events and organizations from the former GDR from 1949 to 1990. The photographs primarily relate to the Berlin Wall, spanning the time from its construction through its demolition in 1989.

Searching for the Right Fit

Dresden Music Days poster

Poster announcing 1955 Dresden Music Days. This was a precursor to the annual Dresden Music Festival founded in 1978. Image courtesy of University Libraries Special Collections and Archives

Last year, through the diligent efforts of Melissa McAfee, former head of SC&A, and other SC&A staff members, an extensive and unique collection of East German posters was located and secured through a rare-books dealer from the United Kingdom who specializes in East German artifacts.

“This collection is a unique scholarly resource that provides a window into artistic, cultural and political activities in a country which, during its years under Communist rule, was not as widely studied in the United States as was West Germany,” says McAfee.

“The poster collection offers the researcher a comprehensive guide to the GDR’s visual culture during the country’s entire history.”

Through the integration of images and words, the posters reveal the oppressive conditions and hidden worlds of East German playwrights, film directors, artists and rebellious politicians. In addition, the collection is a major resource for studying the works of four major East German graphic artists: Volker Pfuller, Manfred Butzmann, Wolfgang Janisch and Hubert Riedel.

The Rise and Fall of Artistic Expression

Even before World War I, the graphic arts enjoyed a long tradition in Germany, and artwork was produced under an open cultural policy. This changed when the National Socialists assumed power in 1933 and the arts were under totalitarian control, explains Marion Deshmukh, Mason associate professor of history and art history and expert on German history.

All aspects of society continued to be under strict control when Germany was defeated in World War II and the Cold War began. In 1949, the country divided into East and West Germany; East Germany became a communist state under the rule of the Socialist Unity Party.

“Vote with your head!” poster

“Vote with your head!” poster for the United Left (Vereinigte Linke), an East German political party founded just weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The United Left disbanded shortly after reunification. Image courtesy of University Libraries Special Collections and Archives

Some of the posters from the late 1940s and early 1950s reflect Socialist Realism, the form of art encouraged at the time. Socialist Realism was intended to depict the benefits of living and working in East Germany. However, influences from the West led to the formation of several underground groups whose members wanted to express themselves in more creative ways.

Restrictions in East Germany continued to fluctuate throughout the country’s history. However, after the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, completely cutting off East Germany from West Germany, oppressive conditions became acute.

“Because the heavy censorship laws during this time period restricted any sort of spontaneity or creativity, the most effective posters in this collection are those that use simple images and text to convey a message,” says McAfee.

“This is evidence of the repressive environment under which these artists had to live through for most of their lives.”

Chaos Into Creativity

In the mid-1980s, significant changes took place in the arts scene. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s new policies led to more governmental openness and reform. The Berlin Wall fell, and East Germans were allowed to travel to the west after November 1989. Paving the way for a reunification of East and West Germany on Oct. 3, 1990, restrictions loosened and a greater variety of artistic expression was allowed to flourish.

As artists experimented with abstraction and the use of various colors and styles, posters created during this time reflect more creativity. Mirroring the changing society, many of the posters were created after the German reunification and depict important events such as the fall of the wall, the free elections of 1990 and the anniversaries of births and deaths of several noted communist figures.

children sporting event poster

Poster announcing a sporting competition for children and youth in the summer of 1987. These competitions encouraged physical activity and were a platform for scouting talent for future events. Image courtesy of University Libraries Special Collections and Archives

“This collection can be used in so many different ways by a variety of scholars and researchers who study general history, art history, military history, politics and the graphic arts,” says Deshmukh.

“Most importantly, these posters help us understand how the remnants of this fallen regime are still present today as the two parts of Germany continue to integrate with one another.”

Preserving the Past

Just as important as deciphering the unique history the posters represent is determining the best ways to preserve and catalogue the collection so that it is accessible to researchers.

With the help of a $76,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, SC&A hired two graduate students with backgrounds in German language and history, and the students, led by processing archivist and librarian Jordan Patty, developed an appropriate cataloguing process.

Currently, Patty and the students are creating digital images of select posters and developing an electronic finding aid that will enable posters in the collection to be searchable online. Since handling the posters is particularly challenging, most of them are kept in acid-free folders, while the more delicate posters are stored in durable polyester sleeves.

After the posters have been catalogued, a portion of the collection will be displayed in Fenwick Library.

“The bottom line is that this collection is helping to fulfill the university’s core mission of research and education,” says McAfee.

“By preserving and archiving this collection, Mason is providing original research tools for scholars that weren’t available to them before and that will help shed light on the rich history of this time period.”

Photos of select posters in the collection are posted on Facebook.

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