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The legacy of GDR artist Willi Sitte

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

For the 100th anniversary of Willi Sitte’s birth, Zeit’s Burkhard Müller considers the legacy which the artist, one of East Germany's four most influential Staatskünstler (state artists), holds in Germany today.

Sitte in 1987. Photo: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons, Bild 183-1987-1003-024 / Settnik, Bernd / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Like many other artists active in the GDR, Sitte’s style of painting, an abstract version of socialist realism, was largely untouched by Western modernism due to his remoteness from such influences.

Catalogues and art journals from the West had to be smuggled across the wall, while only the highly privileged Staatskünstler would gain occasional permission to visit and exhibit abroad.

Although indeed privileged, as reflected in his role as President of the GDR’s ‘Verband Bildender Künstler’ (association of visual artists), Sitte remained criticised by state authorities for what they considered to be the decadent, bourgeois abstractions in his paintings.

Yet when the Wall came down, he was treated as a pariah in the West for committing his art to the cause of a barbaric regime.

Still today, Müller observes, his artworks can reach a mere four-figure sum on the market, compared to the lofty figures of the younger, global super-star Neo Rauch, who certainly benefitted from the mystique surrounding his early education and career in the GDR, despite Rauch’s attempts to distance himself from it.

Müller invites us to leave aside our preconceived ideas of ‘good’ art and look at Sitte’s works anew in this fascinating profile.


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