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Make Art - The KunstHalle invites all Berlin artists to take part in a 24-hour exhibition
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Maha Maamoun - Against the touristic eye
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Carlfriedrich Claus - Speaking Utopia's Language
The "Artist of the Year," Imran Qureshi, in an interview


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Carlfriedrich Claus
Speaking Utopia’s Language

The 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.

Spidery 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.

For 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.

But 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.

In 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)
But 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.

Claus 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.

He 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.

Arguably, 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

1.Carlfriedrich Claus, from ‘Notes between the experimental work-toward it’, translated by Aris-Misson and reproduced in Chicago Review, vol. 26, No. 3 (1974): 7.
2. See Frank B. Tipton, A Modern History of Germany since 1815 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 524.
3. 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).
4. Matthias 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, 1998), 32-33.
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.
7.  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.

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