The beauty of monstrosity: Berlin Wall as work of art
By Pablo Sanguinetti Aug 9, 2011, 2:06 GMT
Berlin - The soldiers who began constructing the Berlin Wall half a century ago could hardly imagine that, as well as an instrument of suffering, containment and division, they were erecting the largest canvas in the history of art.
By the time it fell in 1989, the ultimate symbol of the Cold War had also become an aesthetic cult object.
While the Wall disappeared, the artistic style it had inspired lived on, impressing itself on streets and facades of modern Berlin and turning the city into a mecca for street art, drawing renowned figures such as British street artist Banksy.
In the early days, it was far from evident that art could miraculously transform such an object of terror. Thierry Noir, a pioneer of the Wall art and responsible for some of its best-known images, remembers how it began.
'At the start, nobody understood what we were doing. We were asked who was paying us - people thought we had been sent by the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) or the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) to improve the appearance of the Wall,' Noir said.
'Nobody believed that we were crazy enough to pay for it ourselves,' the artist told German Press Agency dpa.
Noir came to West Berlin from his native France in 1982.
'At the time, there were few paintings on the Wall. Mostly, they were small images, racist or anti-US slogans, personal or funny messages... In some areas there was nothing, just kilometres of blank wall.'
In fact, the wall that sprung up on August 13, 1961 was not really suited for being painted. It was only the 3.6-metre-high L-shaped barriers, erected along the length of the Wall from 1975, that provided a suitable surface for artists.
Noir began in 1984, drawing his characteristic rounded heads in bright blocks of colour (his art work is immortalized on the cover of rock band U2's album Achtung Baby). He was joined by artists such as his friend and countryman Christophe Bouchet, Jean-Yves Dousset and Kiddy Citny. In 1986, US artist Keith Haring added his iconic stick figures.
The 'wall of shame' thus stopped being a 'taboo, something that Germans never wanted to see or visited once a year,' Noir said. Instead, it became a 120-kilometre artistic and touristic attraction.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the city decided that the untouched east-facing surface should also be fed with the imagination and craving for liberty that had decorated the western side of the wall.
This gave birth to the East Side Gallery, a 1.3-kilometre stretch of wall upon which 118 artists, from 21 countries, applied their designs.
Images include an East German Trabi car crossing the Wall, a painting of the 1979 kiss between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German president Erich Honecker, and Thierry Noir's painted faces - pictures that soon became symbols of the reunified city.
However, the full impact of the Wall paintings on modern-day Berlin goes far beyond this installation.
'The Wall fell, but this style of painting lived on,' said Noir. 'The people who painted the Wall created a style, without much detail and drawn at great speed. This form of art remains present across the city.'
Today, Berlin is one of the great capitals of street art, popularized across the world by artists such as Banksy - whose politically charged images also appear on the wall separating the West Bank from Israel.
Across Berlin, walls, bridges, doorways and building facades collect layers of graffiti and spray-painted designs, turning the city into a huge open-air gallery.
Noir admires this evolution, but has not forgotten how it began. 'The Wall was not an artistic object, it was a bloody horror, a monster.'
The idea of making this 'monster' prettier did not appeal to all. In 1986, five activists drew a white line along the length of the Wall, to draw attention to its dimensions and to remind citizens of the terror it represented.
Similarly, in 1964 German artist Joseph Beuys controversially proposed to the authorities that they raise the Wall by five centimetres - to improve its proportions.
Beuys explained to unimpressed citizens in East and West Germany that, by casting an artistic eye on the Wall, it was possible to detract from its terror.
'Defuse the Wall immediately. Through internal laughter. Destroy the Wall. You are no longer fixated by the physical wall. It draws attention to the mental wall, and this is the one that must be surmounted,' the artist said.
'The Wall itself is utterly unimportant. Don't talk so much about the Wall. Engender a better morality for humanity, and all walls disappear,' Beuys concluded.