Two weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me an article1 covering the current exhibition in the Schloss Biesdorf about the works of Jürgen Wittdorf (1932 - 2018), which intrigued me: homoerotic art in the GDR? So we decided to visit the exhibition and for me it was really interesting. It is an retrospective of Jürgen Wittdorfs works and to my suprise i recognized some illustrations. One room later i found out why: he made the book illustrations in the childrens book “Tiere im Zirkus” by Wladimir Durow2. I still have that book but i knew nothing about the illustrator.

Jürgen Wittdorf became known in the early 1960s primarily for his book illustrations and large-format woodcuts and linocuts. Especially the cycles “Für die Jugend” (1962) and “Jugend und Sport” (1964) have an interesting realism although i am wondering which pictures are more an ideal and which ones are “real”. Usually for socialist realism3 the world had to be presented not as ‘as is’ but more like what was dreamed of from the future. With that in mind, one graphic stood out for me: the “Freundschaftsfoto” from 19644. A group of diverse athletic half-naked young men taking pictures. Under them three black men. Was this a real scene that happened or was that the dream5? Either way, i like the modern depiction. Apparently not a dream though were the other graphics from “Für die Jugend” which shows teenagers in casual scenes, like the group with bicycles or the kissing couple. This triggered official criticism that the depiction of the youth is ‘westernized’, but young people really felt represented and praised his work and Wittdorf received the FDJ art prize in 1963.

Wittdorfs ‘inner outing’ though was with the cycle “Jugend und Sport”. The woodcut “Unter der Dusche” shows this where seven athletic naked young men, arguing in different poses under the shower. Almost like a reference to classical greek art.

Although in 1968 homosexuality was no longer punished, it was still a social taboo and it seems to me that he channeled that into his art. Dozens of sketched nudes after that time, although he had a good life in the GDR as member of the SED and the Association of Visual Artists6 (he was probably not a big supporter of the party and liked more the humanistic ideal). After the fall of the Wall, his career ended and had to sell his work (he was dependent on social assistance until his death in 2018). It was a bit funny to me that you could see in the later pictures (with all the leather) that Wittdorf discovered West Berlin’s gay scene.7

In the exhibition, alongside Wittdorfs works, are also works from contemporary artists like Norbert Bisky, Veneta Androva, Harry Hachtmeister and Betinna Semmer. Semmers work8 has an interesting concept where profile photos of men from a dating website was used together with the first messages received from them. Translated into sketchings resulted in some interesting pictures where the men looks almost fragile to me. I am wondering how this would work if translated into polaroids instead of sketchings. Would that be like Robert Mapplethorpes work9 or Tom Biachi10?

All in all, the exhibition was really interesting for me and i got some inspiration for some portrait photography. It is good that Wittdorf gets more attention now.

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  5. On one hand you have the exotic sight but on the other hand it has a real political background: the GDR hosted anti-racist and anti-colonial activists (such as Angela Davis) and invited african students with scholarships to prepare them for technical and scientific careers. The idea was to help their home countries once they returned. The title “Freundschaftsfoto” may also refer to the “Brigaden der Freundschaft”, an internationalist wing of the FDJ that later became active in Angola and Mozambique. But not everything was real solidarity. See and ↩︎

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