If there’s one policy from the German Democratic Republic that has left a lasting positive impression, then it would be the “Kunst im öffentlichen Raum” and the “Kunst am Bau” movement to promote Art in Public Spaces and Architecture. While not confined to East Germany alone, the Public Art movement created some fascinating pieces of East German art, from giant Mosaics to small bronze installations throughout the country, which we are always more than happy to stumble upon.
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The life of Heinz Worner
The district of Niederschöneweide in Treptow-Köppenick isn’t an area that we explore much these days, but we couldn’t resist when we found out that there was an interesting piece of public art tucked away next to a school behind an S-Bahn depot. We are suckers for overtly socialist pieces of public art, but what heightened out interest was the fact that this piece was created Heinz Worner.
While the name Heinz Worner might not ring a bell for many people, he produced a significant amount of work which gained international attention even before the establishment of the German Democratic Republic.
Heinz Worner was born on the 12th of December in 1910 in Berlin, to a working class family. After finishing school he completed an apprenticeship as stone sculptor in an alabaster factory in 1929 and was subsequently offered a permanent position.At the same time he also attended evening classes at the “Unterrichtsanstalt des Kunstgewerbemuseums Berlin” (which houses one of the most important collections of European arts and crafts from the Middle Ages to the present) alongside his fellow sculptor Felix Kupsch.
Heinz Worner’s political interest began with his uncle introducing him to anarchist ideas. He was then introduced to the communist worldview through the “Friends of Nature” movement and the “Arbeiter-Turn- und Sportverein Fichte Berlin” – a communist sports club which he supported as a youth leader. He officially joined the German Communist party after visiting Moscow on the 14th Anniversary of the October revolution in 1931.
After being briefly imprisoned in the KZ Columbia (aka Columbiahaus) for his political work, he joined the Klosterstraße Community where other artists such as Hermann Blumenthal, Ludwig Kasper, Käthe Kollwitz, Herbert Tucholski and Adolf Abel worked at.
Adolf Abel was a sculptor, draftsman and modeller, who from the 1940s on primarily designed and created – with the help of Worner – large reliefs for the Reichsautobahn and buildings of the Wehrmacht.
Heinz Worner fled germany in 1937, first to Prague and then to London in 1939. While in exile he created many notable works, and was even commissioned to create four pieces of art for the Glenarm Castle by Angela Sykes – the wife of Randal McDonnell, the 8th Earl of Antrim. During his time in England, Heinz worked alongside fellow exiles René Graetz, John Heartfield and Johann Fladung and even exhibited in the Whitechapel Art Gallery.
Life after exile
After the war, Worner decided to return to what was now the Soviet Occupation Zone in Germany, eventually settling in the district of Pankow in 1950. Over the years he worked as an editor for the “Volk und Wissen Verlag” (which was responsible for publishing all school textbooks in the GDR). After opening a new studio in 1951, he became a lecturer in sculpture for the undergraduate program at the Hochschule für bildende und angewandte Kunst in Berlin Weißensee (the same university that Walter Womacka was head of from 68-88).
With the reconstruction of Berlins Alexanderplatz in the mid 1960s, which saw the entire surrounding area remodeled with socialist architecture – Worner was commissioned to create an a series of “Kunst am Bau” pieces for the newly built (1970) Rechenzentrum – also known as the Haus der Statistik. Many of the newly constructed buildings around the Alexanderplatz had large pieces of Public Art attached to it, most notably the Haus des Reisens, Haus des Lehrers and the Pressecafe.
Worner hired the sculptor Karl Hillert and the Artist Harry Lüttger on board – and the 3 eventually created a series of (technically it’s considered one piece) titled “The history of mathematics”. After the planned demolition (which didn’t happen) of the Haus der Statistik – the piece was removed and can now be found at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. Heinz Worner died on the 7th of March 2008. Many of his works can be found in the Deutschen Historischen Museum in Berlin.
The Kremlin in Treptow-Köpenick
We’ve unwittingly encountered several of Worners pieces in Berlin, but never actively sought them out before. That is until we found a depiction of a Cosmonaut floating in space on a bronze tablet created by Heinz Worner. Apparently it was part of a pillar titled “Leben” (Life) and included another three bronze panels. It’s no surprise that we have a soft spot for socialist art, especially art depicting anything space related – so we ventured down to Treptow-Köpenick to seek out this piece of art.
Heinz Worner created this sculpture called “Leben” in 1973 for the Otto-Franke-Oberschule, where it was placed in 1974. The school was named after the communist worker and politician Otto Franke (b.1877 – d.1953) – one of the founding members of the KPD.
Worner’s piece “Leben” is a cast stone pillar atop a granite slab, with four bronze silhouettes attached to it. The front facing silhouette depicts a a radiant stylized sun shining its rays over a group of steppe riders. The top of the silhouette is decorated with a band of alternating Soviet Stars and Hammer and Sickle emblems. The bottom part bears the inscription “DURCHS GEBIRGE | DURCH DIE STEPPE | ZOG” which translates into ” Through the mountains | Through the steppe | Travelled”.
At first glance the context of this piece and the text underneath might be hard to decipher, but the Steppe Riders (most likely) actually depict cossack cavalry – a very popular piece of soviet symbolism, featuring heavily in military propaganda/monuments.
The text underneath isn’t just a neat sounding description, it’s actually the German title of the Russian Partisan Song “По долинам и по взгорьям” – also known “Through valleys and over hills” in English from the Russian Civil War and the first World War.
The Young Guard
Going around to the left side we can see yet another band of alternating Soviet Stars and Hammer and Sickle emblems (they feature on all silhouettes). The central image depicts a figure that suspiciously looks like Lenin, surrounded by group of armed young men and women. The backdrop. ofthe scene is again illuminated by rays of sunshine, almost giving the impression that this is some sort of divine scene. We have yet to decipher what the blocky structure is supposed to be behind the group. Below them is the inscription “WIR SIND | DIE JUNGE GARDE | DES PROLETARIATS” – in English “We are the young guard of the proletariat”.
Knowing the line of text immediately gives context as to what the image is depicting. The silhouette depicts the Young Guard, an anti fascist Komsomol which was founded in the German occupied city of Krasnodon in the Ukrainian SSR. The group consisted of roughly 100 young school children and workers who committed acts of sabotage and protest against the occupying Nazis. They were eventually betrayed and the majority of them executed.
The line of text – like on the previous silhouette comes from a song, this time by the german Teacher and Activist Heinrich Eildermann (b.1879 -d.1955). The text was composed in 1907 – first under the name “Lied der Jugend” (Song of the youth), and later renamed “Dem Morgenrot entgegen” (Towards the dawn).
Eildermann paired the text with the melody of the Andreas-Hofer-Lied – a popular song in Austrian Tyrol and Italian Southern Tyrol (the melody was actually composed by German, Leopold Knebelsberger in 1844). The song was so popular that it became the official Anthem of Tyrol in 1948. Speaking of favorite songs, “Dem Morgenrot entgegen” was Erich Honeckers favorite song.
Going around once more, we are greeted with a silhouette of Moscow, including the Kremlin, Red Square with St. Basil’s Basilica and six skyscrapers. As always, some glorious rays of sunshine illuminate the scene. The top of the silhouette is adorned with the customary band of Soviet Stars and Hammer and Sickles, and we can find yet another song text at the bottom: “IMMER LEBE | DIE SONNE” – in English “May There Always Be Sunshine”.
The text is the German version of the very popular Soviet Children’s Song “Пусть всегда будет солнце!” (May There Always Be Sunshine) from 1962. The song was frequently used by the Young Pioneers and other youth movements in the Soviet Union as well as in East Germany. The american musician Pete Seeger used the english version of the song as the anthem for the peace movement and as a protest song against the vietnam war.
Interestingly enough, the song was used both in East and West Germany, though rather than singing the Russian or Translated German version like their East German counterparts, the West Germans used a different translation and used it as a general peace movement song like Pete Seeger.
Going around once more, we are greeted by the fourth and last bronze silhouette, this time depicting a cosmonaut floating in space while a sputnik satellite soars above him and a lunar rover underneath him. The Sputnik is clearly identifiable as such, as is the Lunokhod 1 (the first lunar rover, as well as the first first wheeled craft on another celestial body) – but the depiction of the cosmonaut is slightly trickier.
The first soviet space walk (and the first ever) occured in 1965 during the Voskhod 2 mission and was performed by Alexei Leonov. The thing is that the space craft depicted on the silhouette and the Voskhod look very different. The next Soviet spacewalk occured in 1969 during the Soyuz 5 and Soyuz 4 mission, where two manned spacecraft docked and transferred crews for the first time.
Both Aleksei Yeliseyev and Yevgeny Khrunov performed a space walk during the mission. While the craft on the silhouette matches the Soyuz 7K-OK spacecraft used, it only depicts one Cosmonaut. I guess we’ll chalk this one up to being a creative artists depiction.
The text underneath the cosmonaut reads: “UNSER LIED | DIE LÄNDERGRENZEN | ÜBERFLIEGT” – in English “Our song soars over the borders”. The texts stems from the “Weltjugendlied” (World Youth Song) – by the popular lyricist and poet Lew Iwanowitsch Oschanin (who also reworked a portion of the text to “May there always be sunshine”).
The original Soviet version was first sung during the 1947 World Youth Festival in Prague. The lyrics of the Soviet version of the song – as well as its title were slightly adapted to to suite the East German narrative better. Known as “Jugend aller Nationen” (Youths of all nations), it became a staple song for the Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth). It’s worth mentioning that the East German Government also knew how effective songs and music were as a propaganda tool, and it was their official strategy to re-educate the german youth that had been indoctrinated with fascist and anti communist ideals.
“Leben” by Heinz Worner – Today
While the placement of the “Leben” piece itself does fit quite nicely next to the school – especially with its youth themes, one does wonder why exactly this piece was chosen – by this specific artists. Both Otto Franke and Heinz Worner knew each other, having fled to Prague and London at the same time, and Worner even created a bust of Franke during their years in exile in London.
Either way, it’s an interesting piece of public art – slightly out of the way for anybody to come across naturally that does not directly live in the area or go to that school. If you known what the text means (you do now), the whole piece makes a bit more sense. If you didn’t grown up in the GDR or aren’t inclined to to study about East German music/culture in your free time – deciphering this piece ad hoc might prove to be a bit tricky.
While these songs were immensely popular, or at least very well known at the time – they are far from it today. There’s probably a good lesson to be made here about the lasting power of music and pop culture, but i’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Like most pieces of Public Art in Berlin, this one has the usual graffiti on it – though less than I would have expected. It’s in great shape with no visible damage – and all bronze silhouettes are clearly visible. If one does choose to venture out into the area – the FEZ is not too far away, offering a wonderful (and for some nostalgic) walk through a park with a Pioneer railway and Socialist Art. Highly recommended.
“Leben” by Heinz Worner