There’s a blaze of colour on Alexanderplatz. When Berlin is at its winter’s darkest, the sensation of alienation heightened by the brutality of Communist-era block housing, the frieze on the Haus des Lehrers can save my day. Berliners call it the ‘belly band’ (Bauchbinde) because that’s how it wraps this post-war modernist skyscraper.
The building itself if banal. Its steel frame, glass and aluminum siding were built by the East Germans in 1964, to replace the original 1908 Haus des Lehrers (‘Teacher’s House’, as it housed the Berlin Association of Teachers before it was bombed in WW2). Now an office block, it contains lawyers’ firms, the offices of Nokia. Tall, rectangular, symmetrical, it is a building on stilts like many others of its era.
The frieze is the exception. Walter Womacka’s ‘Unser Leben’ or ‘Our Life’ (1964), inspired by Diego Rivera, depicts the everyday in the GDR in the socialist realist style. It’s one of Europe’s largest murals, at 125m long.
Painters, scientists, workers and families do not toil in isolation here: the interconnectedness of endeavour is visible throughout. The factory workers’ job is paired with a mural painters’, the teachers’ with the job of raising children who will eventually become scientists and astronauts. Man will conquer the heavens with knowledge, the telescope pointing the way to discoveries, like the rocket taking flight, or the dove rising skyward. Together and progressive, man and woman stand with scientific knowledge and nature’s bounty at their calling, the colours as vibrant as humanity’s march forward.
Walter Womacka had all his life been the archetypal State Artist, solidifying his style as a student in Dresden during the Stalinist years, and benefitting from his loyalty with trips abroad to show his paintings. One might cynically suggest that he sold himself to the regime, but Womacka remained a convinced Communist to his death last September in Berlin. When the Wall came down, some of his important works remained on public buildings (such as his stained glass cycle in the Staatsratsgebäude), but he witnessed the indignity of seeing much of his work torn down. Meanwhile, as the Bauchbinde grew tired, loose and faded, Womacka turned to painting still life and landscapes. The restoration happened, at great expense, almost ten years ago, perhaps signalling a nostalgia for the fantasy images of a regime that so many felt had ruined them.
The sense of ruin is in the feeling of caricature, that these images are like cartoons, that they cannot be symbols of the collective experience. For almost thirty years, Womacka was Vice President of the official body regulating painters, the VBK (Verband Bildender Künstler). Artists who fell on the wrong side of this authority were harassed and arrested. As the farms were collectivised, he created idyllic scenes of rural life. And from a world where men control the information gained from astronomical diagrams, and woman the flowers and the trees, one intuits the limits of women’s liberation under communism.
Today, it’s a grey day in Berlin and it begins to rain. Drops smear the surface of the lamenting faces. The child snatches the globe and shatters it on the street below. The gears of the astrolabes grow stiff then fracture. The potion falls from the scientist’s hand and poisons the flowers. The rocket breaks from the frieze and launches into the sky above Berlin, with no clear destination, abandoning its promise of progress.
Chaotic, random, the disarray of pigments begins to leak from the frieze onto the street, paint flowing from the facade. It infuses the shoes of passer-bys. They carry it, leaving bright footprints all over the square, on the platforms of the station and in the passing trains.
No one knows where they are going now, but everything has colour.