Speaking Utopia’s Language
exhibition “Saxony – Works from the Deutsche Bank Collection” is
currently on view at the Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig. Among the
highlights are the enigmatic works on paper by Carlfriedrich Claus.
Sarah E. James, a lecturer at University College London, discusses the
“Sprachblätter,” or language-based images, of the mythic maverick of GDR art, whom the young generation is now discovering.
texts splutter like chains of fireworks exploding across the page.
Lines criss-cross like roadmaps or tracings of the ectoskeletal forms
of non-humans. This is the curious and enchanting world of Carlfriedrich Claus’s Sprachblätter
– thousands of often double-sided sheets of experimental artwork
created by Claus from the 1950s to the 1980s. For Claus, word and
image, psyche and society, subjective and objective worlds only existed
in dialectical tension with one another. Certain forms emerge as
consistent motifs within Claus’s imaginative landscapes.
example, eyes proliferate – sometimes with haloes of lashes, other
times appearing in profile, in ever-closer pairs, pupils finally
touching. In this busy universe of enigmatic ciphers senses are merged,
seeing becomes gestural, linguistic, even vocal, and lines of sight are
transformed into words shimmering in yellow and pink inks. Perhaps
Claus returned to the eye in his mission to interrupt and “break
through the glance of habit which shuts the eye, which looks at signs
exclusively as ‘signals for speech’”, so as to illuminate what he has
termed “a mirror-room, a mirror-hollow, a mirror-labyrinth in the eye’s
light”.(1) Claus turns networks of thoughts into a mysterious
code. Symbols and cross-hatching work across their paper grounds, like
swarming insects, or aerial cartographies of dreamed cities.
how do we situate Claus’s world? Is it emblematic of an underground and
isolated East German unofficial art, pushed into invisibility by the
State? Perhaps it is representative of the German Democratic Republic’s
inconsistent and confused assimilation of modernist and formalist
practice in the postwar period? Or is Claus’s practice part of an
international neo-avant-garde marked by dynamic collaboration and
exchanges which problematise all those accounts that place East German
art, particularly of the 1950s and ’60s, as isolated and lacking in
both experimentation and autonomy? Arguably Claus’s work is all three.
the GDR of the 1950s, the socialist realism of the Soviet Union
provided the central model for the officially endorsed aesthetics of
the state. (2) Modernism, formalism and abstraction were not only
violently rejected by the state, but the Central Committee of the SED
(Socialist Unity Party of Germany) condemned them as alien and hostile
to the people. In 1952, the so-called ‘formalism debate’, reached its
apogee at the Third Party Conference. Abstract art was forbidden,
formalism was identified as American cultural barbarism, and modernist
aesthetics were cast as cosmopolitan and imperialist.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, under Walter Ulbricht’s
leadership, the party continued to exert its vision of socialist
realism aggressively, albeit unsystematically and often illogically, by
monitoring artistic production through the Kulturbund (the central
cultural regulatory and commissioning body), the Verband Bildende
Künstler (the artists’ union), and the official state museums and
galleries.(3) In a climate of repressive bureaucracy, often the
only place for the dissenting formalist to flee was inwards, towards
the private sphere, or underground. (4) Piotr Piotrowsky
has argued that “In East Germany, the traces of abstract painting and
particularly of the informel, which at that time was the icon of
modernity – evidence of freedom of expression and an awareness of
current rends in art – were virtually nowhere to be found.” (5)
Claus’s imaginative world of visual exploration, photography, poetry,
and sound art confounds such an analysis, and makes clear that even at
the height of such anti-modernist sentiments, the art of the GDR was
not exclusively beholden to the dogmas of Soviet socialist realism, nor
was it predominantly a crude and provincial variant of the latter, as
it is too often represented. In fact, immediately after the war, and
throughout the period of East Germany’s existence, a wide array of
modernist or formalist approaches were tolerated and displayed in the
GDR’s public realm.
The inconsistency of the SED’s approach to
the avant-garde and formalism more generally was made clear in their
haphazard approach to the Bauhaus.
For example, although condemned in the postwar period, by 1976, the
Bauhaus had been rehabilitated by the SED, and in 1987 it was fully
re-established; its building in Dessau restored and reopened as the
‘Centre for Culture and Scholarship.’ Indeed, the legacy of German
modernism – from Expressionism and New Objectivity to Dada, and the
international influences of Surrealism and Constructivism – could not
simply be erased. The spectres of these avant-garde movements surfaced
in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, even in the work of officially endorsed
artists such as Willi Sitte, Werner Tübke and Bernard Heisig and, increasingly, in the art of less officially-endorsed figures such as Claus, Gerhard Altenbourg and Hermann Glöckner.
However, none were as experimental artistically, whilst simultaneously
being as consistent in their commitment to Marxism and the
possibilities of utopian thinking as Claus. More than any other, the
example of Claus complicates the popular understanding of the
unofficial artist as a dissenting enemy of Marxist Leninism.
is not simply an ‘unofficial’ or dissident artist, but is it possible
to speak of his work as emblematic of what we might term an East German
neo-avant-garde? If he used paper to articulate his own brand of
utopian and dialectical thinking, which embraced revolutionary
thinking, Hebrew and oriental mysticism and cybernetic theory, Claus
also used paper to extend a complex network of collaborations and
exchanges. This paper-network confounds the popular conception of Claus
as an isolated figure, and offers the possibility of reconceptualising
his practice as part of the international neo-avant-garde.
corresponded with a wide range of philosophers and artists from Bloch
to Raoul Hausmann, and also sent his concrete poetry and textual
drawings around the world. For example, in 1974 his Sprachblätter
appeared in the Chicago Review with a short translated text by
Claus.(6) While in 1986 his work was shown in New York in a major
exhibition of concrete poetry alongside the Fluxus artists Emmett Williams
and Robert Filliou.(7) In this light, we can see his work as a
return to the avant-garde’s utopian project, to its exploration of new
forms of political agency, and to the forms embraced in the prewar
period – the fragment of montage, or the performance, later reworked in
happenings and concrete poetry.
In 1986, in one of his many collaborations Claus worked with his long-term friend, the German painter, graphic artist and poet Klaus Sobolweski.
Born in 1962 and 32 years Claus’s junior, Sobolweski had been drawn to
the enchanting practice of Claus, and the two formed a dialogue which
engaged in their mutual fascination with mysticism, magic and utopian
thought. The outcome of their collaboration was a portfolio of textual
prints entitled Codes. In Sobolweski’s works – clearly heavily
influenced by Claus’s – texts also become images, but finger prints
punctuate blank spaces, next to silhouettes or what look like diagrams
of circuit boards. Claus was not only inspirational to Sobolweski, but
to many other in the younger generation which made up the new
underground art world of what was then Karl Marx Stadt (Chemnitz), such
as Thomas Raft and Dagmar Ranft-Schinke. The latter paid homage to him in the formation of the Clara Mosch galerie and group in 1977.
they were aware, in a way that subsequent art historians have failed to
grasp, that central to Claus’s radical and elusive Sprachblätter was a
commitment to the utopian possibilities of forging new relationships
between people. To enter the world of Carlfriedrich Claus means opening
one’s eyes to a space where communism could be reconceived as concrete
poetry, to a space which explodes any concrete or restrictive
understandings of East German artistic practice as simply
neo-avant-garde, underground, official, or otherwise.
Saxony — Works from the Deutsche Bank Collection
February 7 to April 21, 2013
Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig
Claus, from ‘Notes between the experimental work-toward it’, translated
by Aris-Misson and reproduced in Chicago Review, vol. 26, No. 3 (1974):
2. See Frank B. Tipton, A Modern History of Germany since 1815
(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 524.
For a reading of the various state cultural organizations and their
influence, see Manfred Jäger, Kultur und Politik in der DDR 1945-1990
(Cologne: Verlag Wissenschaft und Politik, 1994).
Flügge, “The Changing Arts Situation”, in Cultures in Conflict: The
Visual Arts in Eastern Germany since 1990, ed., Marion Deshmukh
(Washington DC: American Institute for Contemporary German Studies,
5. Piotr Piotrowsky, ‘Mapping the Legacy of the
Political Change of 1956 in East European Art,’ Third Text, vol. 20,
issue 2 (March 2006): 214.
6. See Claus, from ‘Notes between’, Chicago Review, vol. 26, No. 3 (1974): 7-11.
Concrete Poetry: The Early Years, Franklin Museum, New York, 1986. See
Making Artist Books Today, edited by Wulf D. von Lucius and Gunnar A.
Kaldewey (Stuttgart: Lucius & Lucius Verlag, 1998), 90.