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Neues Deutschland Report on a Discussion about Realism and Formalism in the School of Applied Arts in Magdeburg (April 24, 1951)

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There was an animated discussion about a few designs for glass paintings. “What theme was given to the students for the design of this window?,” was one of the questions asked. The teacher explained that no theme had been given, since the student first had to learn to master the form and the material before he could proceed to the design of a theme. With the development of artistic skill, the student should then, at a certain level of development, arrive by himself at the design of a theme about realism.

Here we have, first, the false notion that design on the basis of content alone guarantees realism, and, second, the belief that realism will arise “by itself” from the artisanal mastery of the material and the form. But artistic design, the shaping of the characteristics, cannot begin only at a certain level of training, but must be practiced from the first day on. Realistic works of art emerge from the deep understanding of reality, from the awareness of the operative laws and forces in nature and society.

As part of a conversation about artistic book covers, the design for a portfolio of Stalin documents was discussed. The front cover was red from the bottom to the middle, while the upper half was black. The boundary between red and black was not straight, but ran along the edge of Stalin’s name, which was written in thin gold letters. This design was universally rejected.

What was the designer thinking? The red is supposed to symbolize Stalin’s attitude as he is confronted by the black, the enemy’s camp. A typical example of formalistic design. The bringing together of the global peace camp, in which the forces of all ideologies are represented under one color, would, if properly depicted, leave only a narrow black stripe. In fact, the mechanical transfer of social and political opposites into colors contains a dangerous element of vulgarization, and in the present example it misses what is supposed to be designed. The portfolio is supposed to hold documents, pictures, and other valuable materials about the leader of the world peace camp, Stalin. A speaker correctly commented that one must know and love Stalin if one wants to solve the given task artistically.

This discussion shows the urgent necessity of acquainting both teachers and students with the nature of realistic art. However, the students’ openness to and gratitude for the helpful critique by no means cover up their astonishing ignorance about basic questions in their own fields of activity or the carelessness with which their work has been executed to date. The discussion must be expanded and continued on an even broader basis. People of artistic talent exist; developing them into helpers in our struggle for peace and our rebuilding is a necessary task.

Source: “If You Pick up a Drawing Pencil, You Must become a Political Person” [“Wer zum Zeichenstift greift, muß ein politischer Mensch werden”], Neues Deutschland, no. 95, April 25, 1951; reprinted in E. Schubbe, ed., Dokumente zur Kunst-, Literatur- und Kulturpolitik der SED [Documents on the Artistic, Literary, and Cultural Politics of the SED]. Stuttgart: Seewald Verlag, 1972, pp. 193-94.

Translation: Thomas Dunlap

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