Photo. Visitors at the opening of the exhibition, 'Drawings by Refugee Children,' August 29, 1953
&copy Landesarchiv Berlin - Willy Kiel

The Artistic Perspective

Flight, emigration and the inner-German border were the subjects of songs, paintings, drawings, films and books.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Cold War tensions shaped the preponderance of artistic works. Artists, both in East and West, portrayed the other German state as a negative opposite.

In this context, from the East German perspective refugees appeared as weak in character, not sufficiently mature for socialist society. In West Germany, on the other hand, refugees seemed to be personalities strong enough to withstand the conformist pressures of East Germany.

Later, many of those who left East Germany – either of their own choice or as a result of state pressure – offered different explanations. Personal challenges and conflicts bound up with their escape or legal departure from the East emerged. In these works, the break in the artist’s own biography became a subject of interest, as feelings of inner conflict, disappointment and failure find expression.

Taboo Subjects

Much like the population at large, the lives of East German artists were dominated by the paternalistic control of the state.

Art existed to serve political-ideological objectives, in other words, to subordinate itself to these objectives. At the same time, phases of suffocating control were punctuated by periods of “thaw”. Initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev during the 1980s, Soviet-era glasnost offered East Germans more scope for development. Artists, too, enjoyed more opportunities to explore a wider range of forms and themes. And yet, throughout East Germany’s history anyone openly critical of the social system took a huge risk.

Artists who dealt critically with flight and legal departure, border incidents and the shoot-to-kill order faced obstructions. Some faced criminal charges and were imprisoned. Many artistic works could only be published in the West.


To protect themselves and their works from state intervention, East German artists employed ambiguous myths in their efforts to avoid censorship. The audience understood the intended meaning. East Germans had learned to “read between the lines” – just like state cultural functionaries and Stasi officers. The Icarus theme was one of the most popular themes in East German art, and was broadly circulated between 1978 and 1982.

In East Germany, the legend of Icarus stood for derring-do and innovation, for hopes and yearnings, the desire to experience freedom and to escape constriction. By the same token, the myth of Icarus foreshadowed the collapse of technical and social utopias, offering artists a way to criticise the state.

An Exodus of Artists

Unlike the 1950s, during the 1980s many East German artists abandoned hope in reforming the East German system. In that decade, more than three hundred and fifty left East Germany for good. The exodus of artists had begun as early as the 1970s.

After performing at a concert in the West German city of Cologne in 1976, the East German artist Wolf Biermann was denied permission to return to East Germany, prompting open protests from many East German artists and intellectuals. This protest led to further state intrusions, spying and arrests, which in turn encouraged still more artists to attempt to leave East Germany.


©ENM - Photos: A. Tauber