Painter Wasja Götze: East Germany´s Pop Art Pioneer
It would take several more years after the end of the GDR before painter Wasja Götze finally walked under the spotlight of the art business. While the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich purchased at least one of Götze’s key paintings shortly after the ‘Peaceful Revolution’ of 1989, the municipal art museum in Halle (Saale) completely ignored the pioneering artist for a long time. It was only in 2016, after a change of directors, when an overdue exhibition became a furious discovery of the non-conformist painter, that the artist felt as though he had finally been welcomed to his hometown – he’s now just as present in the newly established collection presentation of the Kunstmuseum Moritzburg in Halle as in the major thematic exhibitions on East German art.
Wasja Götze was born in 1941 in Altmügeln, Saxony and has been living in Halle since 1962. He therefore considers himself a ‘painting hermit’. His ‘rejection’ began shortly after his studies of commercial graphic art, undertaken between 1962 and 1968 at the Hochschule für industrielle Formgestaltung in Halle, the name of the legendary ‘Giebichenstein Castle’ at the time, where he studied under Lothar Zitzmann, Friedrich Engemann and Walter Funkat. Wasja Götze was declared persona non grata in Halle in May 1969 due to an unofficial ‘yard exhibition’ organised in his house’s inner courtyard. After a cubist phase, the painter was already experimenting with stylistic tools of Pop Art, a challenge hardly anyone in the GDR took seriously. In addition to the subject of European Pop art, his pictures were also inspired by ‘bizarrely eccentric symbolic signals of enamelled metal sheets from the first half of the century’2. For the National Defence Ministry of the time, which banned the court exhibition in 1969 after a mere three days of life with the help of the incoming district prosecutor, these strange-looking art pieces were undoubtedly proof that Götze was a follower of the 1968 movement.
With this assessment, Wasja Götze’s artistic path was rigorously obstructed. After the ban, the 28-year-old was also banned from the castle. It was placed with the rector’s official seal on the university’s bulletin board – as though he were a wanted man. However, it was simply impossible to separate Wasja Götze from the castle. Mostly because he symbolised the impulsive and unbridled energies of this once free-spirited institution. During those years, he took a step into the unknown and from then on worked as a stage designer in Berlin. His acquaintance with stage designer and painter Achim Freyer, whose ‘clever serenity’ fascinated him, bore fruit later on. Freyer was the first important artist to treat young Götze with respect and encouragement.
Working at the Berlin theatres helped Wasja Götze have a contrasting experience that would have a decisive influence later in his life. In 1973, his work „Abschied von H. oder Es kann nicht immer Liebe sein“ already testified to the stimuli he experienced in Berlin. Wasja Götze said about this key work: ‘It was the time when I said to myself: now we are going to paint seriously!’
His paintings had to be ‘loud and colourful’ instead of quiet and grey. The specific adaptation of Pop art by Wasja Götze replaced the products featured in Western consumption, which he himself only perceived from a distance, through the subjects bursting from communist propaganda. The ‘new realism’ of nonconformist painters like Wasja Götze differed from the state-official model of realism more than anything else in that it included the topic of counter morals in artistic production, instead of referring to a purified pocket of aesthetic selfdetermination.
The central place of his life, however, remained Halle, the city that was abused in the 1980s, recklessly abandoned to rot away. The city was the stage of obscure exhibition bans and premature closures of his rare expositions. Even when the cultural-political wind turned in a more favourable direction for his art, exhibitions in his hometown remained a taboo – instead, his colourful works, which in the late 1970s became encoded symbols of individual distress, could be seen from time to time outside the Halle district.
In a statement for the ‘Gegenstimmen’ exhibition (2016) in Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, Wasja Götze described the essence of those GDR years as follows: ‘I did not make my way loudly and demandingly into the public like some other GDR artists, because I had come to the following realisation: in this country my art was predestined to encounter displeasure, non-acceptance, contempt and enmity. My lifestyle and my political and moral attitude were rejected in this country. If I didn’t want to leave my homeland, and wanted to stay true to myself, then I had to pay the price in this dictatorship: I had to disregard my art and deny it. I respected the facts and continued painting.’
Wasja Götze’s unique artistic and historical position in East Germany didn’t initially count much in the German art scene after 1989 – the thematisation of the wall, barbed wire, and ‘red telephone’ (‘Das rote Telefon’, 1971) was at best sufficient to allow the illustration of contemporary historical phases. Thus, one can find pictures in the premises of contemporary history museums today, in the premises of the Hauses der Geschichte in Bonn/Leipzig you can also find the painting ‘Still Life with Uninvited Guest’ 1978 by Wasja Götze, which of course belonged to the programme of the great art museums. But even after 1989, at an advanced age (Wasja Götze experienced the 1990 reunification at the age of 49), artists like Wasja Götze no longer wished to experience a positive relationship vis a vis the marketing needs of a visual artist – as the painter’s son, Moritz Götze, succeeded in doing with arduous, passionate refinement.
Thus, a painter the calibre of Wasja Goetze remained ‘invisible’ for a long time. The difficult years of repression were followed by more adventurous years under ‘Schwarz-Rot-Colt’ (1991/92) with their mad distortions during the transition of a system into its apparent opposite. Wasja Götze sought and gained inner peace by returning to his own strengths – those that would help him achieve independence through paid labour as a bicycle mechanic. The techniques acquired in the GDR represented another advantage insofar as autonomous self-organisation was concerned. Just as one used to reset the clocks after he went to the ‘Gose’ or the ‘Mohren’ in the evening for his nightcap, Wasja Götze simply continued painting in his small attic studio.
Anyone who manages to strike this difficult balance, by daring to go out into the world without an anchor of sorts, and constantly challenges himself, can only be an independent painter with principles, despite the fact his paintings have made it out into the wider world just a few years back. For Wasja Götze, painter, graphic artist and object artist, these two opposite strengths became the basis for a brilliant life work that will be discovered, with some astonishment, by how high-quality it is.