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Capitalising on a Moral Mural: the Berlin Wall Through Artists Bodo Sperling and Dmitri Vrubel

The Berlin wall: a monument to the cold war, the scar of a divided country, and a 155km long canvas. Erected as a formal marker of the east/west separation, the Berlin Wall is now an iconic reminder of the tensions that existed in post-war Europe but also a valuable stretch of art. Many of the works featured on the wall remain anonymous, existing as contributions to a larger message, but a handful of the pieces have been cherry-picked as being particularly poignant and transcendent. This article addresses two of the artists of these selected works, Bodo Sperling and Dmitri Vrubel, examining their contributions to the wall and using their work and decisions following the renovations of the wall in the mid 2000s as a way to discuss the commodification of a moral mural.  

Originally appearing on August 13th 1961 in the form of a make-shift barbed wire coil, the Berlin wall has become an icon of conflicting ideologies and the fight for freedom. It underwent various transformations, becoming progressively more substantial and permanent. It’s final state – the Grenzmauer 75 – lasted from 1975 until its demolition in 1989. It cemented – literally – the wall’s status as oppressor, through an increase in height and extensive use of concrete. This loaded construction, heavy both in material and meaning, inspired strong reactions, fulfilling it’s purpose practically and ideologically: to divide. The wall’s status as an aggravator and its physical properties as a long stretch of blank canvas – 14ft high cement slabs – made it an ideal location for artists to express themselves, which they did en mass. The legacy of these artists lives on in a revival of their works and the spirit in which they were painted.

Today, only small portions of the wall remain in-situ. The longest stretch can be found in Kreuzberg, between Warschauer Straße and Ostbahnhof. This section has been officially converted into an outdoor art gallery: Eastside Gallery. Protected by the government under national heritage, Eastside Gallery spans 1,316 km and is made up of 105 murals. The gallery came into being following the fall of the wall in 1990, with  the concept of collecting images evocative of the wall’s formal presence, to permanently convey the strife that the German population underwent and as a warning to other countries facing, or currently promoting, division. Eastside Gallery is the baby of a collaboration between two German artists groups: the BBK and the VBK. One of the founding members of these groups, Bodo Sperling, is a contributing artist.

Born in Frankfurt am Main in 1952, Bodo Sperling is a painter and inventor. His piece on the Berlin wall was distinctive because of its attention to detail, bold line, and compositional use of space. The work portrayed a deconstructed European flag as a city-scape (not dissimilar to that surrounding the Berlin wall) spanning into the horizon. The unifying property of an otherwise segmented work is the circle of stars from the EU flag in the foreground. His statement is clear: unity trumps division. Something between a cubist work and a digital image, Sperling’s contribution to the wall was an example of his general practice as an artist which involved his interest in scientific models and computer imaging. It also reflected his role as active contributor to the independent artists’ movement in Germany’s capital, a role which he had to take up twice in relation to the Berlin wall: once as one of the four founders of the Eastside Gallery, and again almost 20 years later.

The reader may have noticed that, when discussing Sperling’s work, the past-tense is being used. This is because the mural no longer exists. It was white-washed from the wall in 2009 by the Berlin government. The city of Berlin undertook a project to renovate the now famous Eastside Gallery in the mid 2000s to increase the flow of tourism. This included a call to artists to re-paint their works in a more durable medium. Sperling, never shy to lead a group to justice, took it upon himself to fulfil the role of head of resistance against this initiative. He and those who followed him had one main issue with the actions of the Berlin government: they were capitalising from a project founded in good faith by the people of a newly reconciled city. What’s more, the city of Berlin was offering an embarrassingly low compensation for the artists (a mere €3,000 euros each of a €2.2 million budget). Although some chose to collaborate with the government, Sterling and his followers had their works wiped forever. This action sheds light on the power of capitalism and arguably undermines the principles that Sperling and his collaborators worked under: the importance of peace, freedom and creativity. However, there is a tricky conundrum in this particular case in that, by resisting the government, Sperling and his fellow artists have removed their mark from the history they strove to tell. An artist who did not follow Sperling’s path and whose work is now perhaps the most famous image on the wall, is Russian painter, Dmitri Vrubel.

Dmitri Vrubel (b. 1960) plastered the Eastside Gallery with an iconic image re-appropriated countless times to represent an unholy alliance of world powers. Titled “My God, Help me to Survive this Deadly Love”, Vrubel’s work comes from a 1979 photograph by French photographer, Régis Bossu. The mural, bearing an acute likeness to the original image, depicts Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker in a bro-mantic embrace during the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the GDR (German Democratic Republic). It is now famously being used as a basis for images in its wake, most recently to show a similarly toxic alliance between Trump and Putin. Through collaborating with the Berlin city council, Vrubel has allowed his mural and its impact to live on and continue creating political waves. The image on the wall, which, in our contemporary age considered very Insta-friendly, is far more widely circulated than the original photograph and its impact as a work in and of itself is unquestionable.

This contrast between these two artists of the Berlin wall brings forth the question of fundamental morals vs. exploitative collaboration. In the context of a protest to honour a protest, what is the best move; to collaborate in order to ensure the survival of your message or to resist so as to drive home your ideology and fight for your beliefs? This writer’s opinion is that both have their value, and in this case the simultaneous existence of the two reactions allows for reflection upon them both. But what is certain is that no matter how morally valuable an object, the capitalist era will manage to find a monetary value for it.

Image: Wikicommons. Berlin Wall graffiti shows “False Liberty” drawing. 1986 photograph by Nancy Wong