Bernhard Heisig, one of East Germany’s best-known and most contentious artists, died today at his home in Strodehne an der Havel, near Berlin, according to his dealer, Galerie Berlin. He was 86.
Heisig was a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II and later joined East Germany’s ruling communist party, which awarded him official commissions. Both were decisions he was forced to defend in the latter part of his life. His art nonetheless gained recognition in West Germany long before reunification.
Influenced by Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and Otto Dix, Heisig broke with the accepted Socialist Realism genre by focusing on pain, suffering and destruction. Known for painting over his pictures repeatedly, he addressed the nightmares of war and fascism, themes that found favor in East Germany.
“His artistic achievement lies in his lifelong struggle to come to terms with the traumas of a biography that passed from war and dictatorship to another dictatorship and the Cold War,” wrote the curators of a solo exhibition of his work at Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau in 2005.
Heisig was born in 1925 in Wroclaw, then called Breslau. He was injured several times in World War II and the trauma of the three-month Siege of Breslau resurfaced in many paintings. Heisig was forced to stay in the city’s fortress in a pointless bid to defend it against Soviet troops until the end of the war.
After the war, he studied in Leipzig and began teaching at the College of Graphic Art and Book Art from 1954. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Leipzig in 1987. His first solo exhibition in West Germany was held in Bremen and Frankfurt in 1980. He portrayed Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 1986.
In 1989, as the opposition movement against the communist regime gained momentum, Heisig left Erich Honecker’s SED party and returned prizes he had been awarded in protest against “abuse of power and corruption” by the regime.
Bitter arguments erupted in 1998 and 1999, after Heisig was invited to contribute an artwork to the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, as it relocated from Bonn to the former Reichstag in Berlin. Some lawmakers questioned whether the art of a “collaborator” with the criminal East German regime should be featured in the new building. Despite the recriminations, his painting “Zeit und Leben” (Time and Life) has hung in the cafeteria there since 1999.
His exhibition “Bernhard Heisig -- die Wut der Bilder” (“The Anger of Images”) was shown in Dusseldorf, Leipzig, Berlin and Wroclaw in 2005 and 2006. That exhibition also exposed Heisig’s compromises by featuring his portraits of Lenin and commissions from the ruling SED.
Heisig lived in Strodehne with his wife, Gudrun Bruene, also a painter. His two sons from his first marriage, Johannes and Walter, are both painters.
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