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Dr. Eckhart J. Gillen​

Rage and doubt: remembrance images for the future

Bernhard Heisig on the hundredth anniversary of his birth

Many observers of the art scene in the two Germanies prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 still know of Bernhard Heisig in his role as a leading representative of painting in East Germany, as for example at the 1977 documenta 6 exhibition in Kassel, and as Rector of the celebrated Leipzig “Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst” (College of Graphic Arts and Book Design). From the 1960s to late in the 1980s he had a very significant influence on this college, rightly considered the birthplace of the Leipzig School, which after German reunification became the internationally known New Leipzig School. Its most famous representative was his protégé Neo Rauch.

More than three decades after the fall of the Wall, our view of Bernard Heisig has moved on. He now stands for a post-war German art which has successfully surmounted the ideological confrontations of the cold war. In spite of the contrast between their characters and artistic methods, it was Joseph Beuys (b. 1921), Bernhard Heisig (b. 1925) and Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) who in the 1960s overcame the supposed futility of visualizing the breakdown of civilization perpetrated by Germans, which at the time seemed incomprehensible, and sought for a way to speak about past horror.

Beuys set his sparse materials and minimalist pieces against the larger-than-life monuments of the Nazi period. In the mid-1960s Richter’s “Familienbilder“ (“Family Pictures”), paintings based on photographs, brought to light the entanglements of members of his Dresden family with the Nazi period as both perpetrators and victims. Heisig, however, eschewed the doctrine of socialist realism in favour of the freedom to further the expressionism and verism of such prewar painters as Lovis Corinth, Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and Otto Dix. In paintings like “Schwierigkeiten beim Suchen nach Wahrheit“ (“Difficulties in the Search for Truth”) (1973) and “Beharrlichkeit des Vergessens“ (“The Persistence of Forgetting”) (1977) a central theme was his dual role as perpetrator and victim in a life history which passed from war and dictatorship to a further dictatorship and the cold war.


What connected the three very different artists was doubting both the truthfulness of images and the possibility of fixing the past in image form. This scepticism was the expression of a critical consciousness which insistently called itself into question. In the 1960s, it led to Heisig and Richter in particular going beyond both the pathos of abstraction as authentic evidence of artistic freedom and faith in a form of historical art which makes sense of and comes to terms with the past. As a result we find a heterogenous body of work, which in Heisig’s case is marked by constant overpainting and corrections. This practice is perhaps rooted in desperate rage against the impossibility of capturing visual memories.

Like Richter, Heisig was interested not in theories, ideologies and concepts, but rather in what can be grasped by the senses, the visible, the real and concrete. In this he was inspired by his first teacher, the reality fanatic Adolph Menzel, whose meticulous attention to detail and acute observation fascinated him. Richter and Heisig grasped what was at hand: the photos from a family album which constituted an emigrant’s last connection with his Dresden family, or a young soldier’s war memories triggered by concrete objects, photographs and films. In spite of having much in common with these West German artists, Heisig occupies a unique place in post-war German art. It is surely no coincidence that in the 1990s, after the fall of the Wall, the German “Bilderstreit” (“image dispute”) flared up particularly in relation to him. Since then things have settled down and now, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of his birth in 2025, the time is ripe for a calm consideration of his life’s work. Twenty years have passed since the last major exhibition in 2005-6, which travelled between Leipzig, where he worked so many years, Düsseldorf, the Berlin National Gallery and the Schlesische National Museum in Breslau (now Wroclaw), the city of his birth.

The war’s end, so crucial for him, Germany and the world, will at the time of the anniversary lie 80 years in the past, and yet will still lend great contemporary relevance to his work, marked as it is by life-determining rage about the racist delusion of genocide which brought endless suffering to his country, the continent and the world.

Breslau, where Heisig was born in 1925, was always at the centre of his artistic work of remembrance. In the second world war he was stationed there, defending it to the bitter end in its status as ”Festung Breslau” (“fortress Breslau”). In the 1960s and 70s he succeeded in his “Festung Breslau” paintings in condensing the eerie atmosphere and situational absurdity of the times into topographically precise symbols. In the process of painting he fetched them back from memory. Heisig made this concrete place, still topographically identifiable today, into the stage of a surreal mise-en-scène. The war is here not the thunder of artillery, nor close man-toman combat, but the agony of muscles, of pain, which in picture form can only be indicated rather than imparted. In this spirit Heisig’s paintings are more like impressions of pain and negatives of horror than representations. Through his images Heisig wants to give expression to a bygone war experience of violence and pain. Looking back, we recognize that his paintings pick up the “wound” as a tragic leitmotif of German art in the 20th century.

“Like almost no other artist of his generation, Heisig took into account and gave expression to the phenomenon that images of remembrance and the memory of images are in a state of flux and have transformative potential. In this way, they take on as it were a protean character.”  (Armin Zweite)

The demands he made on himself as an artist and on his work were absolute and uncompromising: “ When I don’t succeed in condensing the thrust of the painting in such a way that it [...] strikes me like a blow, the painting is no good.” ¹

Along with 50 paintings and 60 lithographs, the exhibition will in particular show hitherto unknown sketches from his estate, from all phases of his oeuvre. In addition photographs and films which inspired his artistic work will be presented.

Included in the show will be

“Traum des Soldaten“ (“The Soldier’s Dream”)

”Festung Breslau“ (“Fortress Breslau”)

“Begegnung mit Bildern“ (“Encounter with Images”)

“Christus fährt mit uns“ (“Christ Goes With Us”)

Christus verweigert den Gehorsam (Christ refuses obedience)

“Preußen“ (“Prussia”)

“Zwei deutsche Maler - für Felix Nussbaum und Max Liebermann“ (“Two German Painters - for Felix Nussbaum and Max Liebermann”)

“Weltbilder und Panoramen der Erinnerung“ (“Worldviews and Panoramas of Memory”)


The show will further include his celebrated

“Atelierbilder“ (“Workshop Images”)

“Mutterbildnisse“ (“Maternal Portraits”)

“Selbstbildnisse“ (“Self-portraits”)

“Porträts“ (“Portraits”)

Graphic cycles and illustrations, among them

“Der faschistische Alptraum“ (“The Fascist Nightmare”)

Ludwig Renn’s “Krieg“, (“War”)

Anna Segher’s “ Das siebte Kreuz“ (”The Seventh Cross”)

Heinrich Böll’s “Der Zug war pünktlich“ (“The Train Was On Time”)

Theodor Fontane’s “Schach von Wuthenow”

5th June 2020, Berlin

¹ Bernhard Heisig, Der faschistische Alptraum. Lithographien und Texte (The fascist nightmare, lithographs and texts), Leipzig 1989, p. 114.

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