The Egg of the Formalist
Watercolour, tempera on cardboard
63.5 x 89.5 cm
A building stretches across the entire sheet. It is inhabited by human-like creatures. Filigree line drawings stand next to painterly surfaces. Abstract and figurative representations merge. The richly coloured watercolour drawing is dominated by an earthy red tone. Starting from an architectural drawing in the middle of the work, Gerhard Altenbourg paints over and expands the architectural structure. The drawing, serving as the basis of this work, is an architectural elevation common before WWII, which is therefore probably not from the artist’s hand.
The “Egg of the Formalist” stands firmly installed in the centre between the two side wings of the winding building. It has no possibility of tilting to one side or the other. Altenbourg here alludes to the famous egg of Columbus, which stands for an amazingly simple solution to a seemingly insoluble problem. He transfers this to the almost impossible task of the artist under socialism to paint a picture without falling under the suspicion of formalism. Gerhard Altenbourg was one of those East German artists who met with rejection from the state. In 1950, in the second year of his studies, he was expelled from the Weimar Academy of Architecture and Fine Arts. His artistic expression did not serve the cultural-political expectations of the GDR and he did not want to adapt to a Stalinist style of realism.
This was in complete contrast to his reception in the international West, where he was a successful artist. His works were part of the Dokumenta 2 in Kassel in 1959 and were even included in the collection of the MoMa in New York in 1961. Gerhard Altenbourg’s work exemplifies the polarisation of aesthetic positions in East and West. What was punished with ignorance on one side of the Iron Curtain had a good chance of being promoted on the other.
Shortly after the fall of the Wall, ifa presented a monographic exhibition of Gerhard Altenbourg’s works, which was shown worldwide from 1992 to 2005. Currently, some of Altenbourg’s drawings are on tour with ifa in the exhibition “Travelling the World.”