The East Side Gallery

Establishment of the East Side Gallery

In the early summer of 1990, I received a phone call from Christine Maclean, the woman responsible for organising a group of artists to paint on the previously inaccessible East side of the Berlin Wall. Between Muehlen Strasse and the River Spree, it divided the areas of Friedrichshain in East Berlin and Kreutzberg in the West. I thought that it was a privilege to be invited to take part in something that was such a profound symbol, and to have the opportunity to express my feelings about unification through my painting. This site became known as the East Side Gallery, a 1.3km stretch of the Berlin Wall covered with 105 paintings which is said to be the world’s largest open-air gallery.

The project involved international artists: some professionals, hobby artists, Berliners, together with artists from East and West European countries. Some of these artists were already well known graffiti artists who had made their marks on the West side of the Wall. Like the artists themselves, the paintings reflected a very wide variety of personal, social and political responses.

How the well-known painting of the Trabi (Trabant) car came about is especially interesting. During the first day as I was preparing the surface of my painting, a young East German girl, Birgit Kinder jauntily drove her little Trabi car up onto the pavement in front me, asserting that she wanted to make a painting too. I sent her along to the organisers for permission and afterwards offered her one of the segments allocated to me. Copying the image directly from her car log-book, Birgit quickly depicted the Trabi bursting through the wall from West to East then added the slogan Test the Best!. For East Germans, it evokes nostalgia going back to the time when people had to wait approximately eleven years after passing their driving test to own a beloved little ‘car of the people’. Along with the Brezhnev Honecker Kiss by the Russian artist Dmitri Vladimirovich Vrubel, Test the Best became one of the most iconic images of the East Side Gallery.

After finishing my painting, Joint Venture, and with one segment of my allocated space still free, I suggested to a Scottish artist friend who was painting nearby that we could perhaps have a joint venture and make a painting on this segment together. I chose the subject of hands stretching upwards as I remembered from the peaceful demonstrations of recent times in East Berlin and Leipzig.. Some years later I was approached by Potsdam University and we gave permission for a group of conservation students supervised by their professor to renovate the painting entitled Hands.

Development of the East Side Gallery

Few of the artists expected our paintings to last more than a few months, but there was such interest that in 1991 it was designated a listed memorial by the city of Berlin. The East Side Gallery gained a particular dynamic that waxed and waned in response to circumstances. Various plans for the area resulted in controversy about the existence of this longest remaining stretch of the Wall: it appeared regularly in the press and became a political bone of contention.

In commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, the Honorary Consul in Glasgow organised an exhibition of my work. However, in Berlin I was amazed at how little interest there was in the anniversary. It seems at that time that memories were still too palpable as the two parts of the city continued to struggle to reintegrate.

While sections of the East Side Gallery were renovated through private sponsorship, tellingly over the years the remainder became run down. Left to the elements it became corroded from the effects of pollution and ’Wall Peckers‘.

Further and personally, there has been a never-ending dialogue over the last twenty years between me and the anonymous, usually young, people who have written their ‘I was here’ messages on my Wall painting. In one sense, this shows that the Wall retains links to contemporary history and culture. I overpainted the graffiti several times. As time passed other groups and often another generation added their part to what has become an on-going dialogue for me.

Renovation of the East Side Gallery

In 2009 for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, the Berlin Senate funded the structural renovation of the East Side Gallery at a cost of almost €3 million. The project was undertaken by STERN a society renowned in the state of Berlin for cautious urban renewal of protected memorials. Most of the artists were brought back from all over the world to renovate their paintings. It was an amazing reunion after twenty years. Although some artists disagreed with the renovation and opted not to participate, I was pleased to be part of the project and to rejuvenate Joint Venture. This time the artists were fenced off from possible public intrusion, although we were constantly photographed through the barriers. Assistants supported the work and the whole professional set up was in direct contrast to the make-do-and-mend situation in 1990 when we painted the East Side Gallery the first time.

Due to the extent of erosion, some of the segments of the Wall needed structural repair while the majority of the paintings required whole or part resurfacing. However, Herr Helmut Schermeyer the architect in charge of the project suggested that because the painting Hands had previously been singled out for renovation by a group of supervised conservation students, it could once again be treated and conserved. A professional company of conservators was brought in to do the job. The team spent three weeks, initially examining, then painstakingly renovating the surface, centimetre by centimetre, while the whole process was documented. It was a revelation once again to see the original colours. This unique treatment during the East Side Gallery restorations means that Hands is in effect the only painting still with its original surface. The result gives a depth to the surface of the painting that witnesses the authenticity of time passing, sandwiched as it is between the other smoothly repainted murals.

Particularly interesting for me during this time was the reaction of most former East Germans who it seemed really ‘didn’t want to know’ during the 10th anniversary in 1999. The attitude towards the East Side Gallery at that time, its ambiguous presence tainted by its history, was in direct contrast to the interest during the 20th anniversary. At the time, I had a notable conversation with Franzisca Bruehns, one of the conservationists of the mural Hands. She said that as a young girl in East Berlin she could see the Wall, a dominating part of her life, from her bedroom window. She told me that now her mother was very proud of the fact that she, Franzisca, was involved in the restoration of the longest remaining part of the Wall. Perhaps the brightly repainted murals symbolically functioned like a plaster over a wound, in some ways mitigating the residual power and memory of the Wall’s original function.

Once again, the world’s press focussed on the Wall. While the artists were working, regular film teams conducted interviews and leading politicians with entourage in tow, used the occasion to trail along the stretch of paintings, pausing for a few words and photos with the artists.

The restored stretch of the Wall was one of Berlin's major events for the 20 years after celebrations. The Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, conducted the unveiling of the renovated East Side Gallery and the official opening was a grand affair. It continues to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. In a competition sponsored by the Deutsche Bank in 2010 involving some 22,000 places of interest in Germany, it was awarded a special prize.

The symbolism of the East Side Gallery

Although its practical function now belongs to the past, the East Side Gallery stands as witness to a particular historical time in Germany. It is said that the Wall remained for years in the heads of the majority of the former GDR citizens. I find this generally true of people of my generation but, naturally, it applies less to young people. It may be tempting, but I do not believe it is possible or healthy for a nation simply to scratch out parts of the past that do not fit any more. The Wall at the East Side Gallery may sometimes be an uncomfortable reminder but it cannot be ignored. The Wall does not just belong to the history of Germany. It should be kept and sustained not only for those who died or were imprisoned in trying to cross the divide into the West, but also for its symbolic importance, as the catalyst for the subsequent dramatic political changes in world order that have taken place since 1989.

A quote by Barbara Sichtermann*:

When the crisis and convulsions of an entire age come together in one place, then that city becomes the meeting point of the many-layered realities of an epoch. Berlin is that city* anyone who spends some time there would realise, however, that this beaten, divided, rebuilt and reunited city has an extraordinary story to tell precisely because of the torment it has suffered* the wounds are still visible.

(*Catalogue, Margaret Hunter Changing Places, quote included by Alexander Moffat in the introduction.)

The East Side Gallery has accompanied my life now for over 20 years – and has manifested itself in a piece of work I undertook in 2009.

In the writing above I have described how the East Side Gallery was established and developed. Elsewhere on this website, I write about the origins of the Berlin Wall and my painting ‘Joint Venture’ on the East Side Gallery which has subsequently been recreated as a large scale gallery painting entitled ‘Re-Statement’.

A summary of Margaret’s career is also available in Debrett’s People of Today:
> click here