Shreds of a Dialogue on Marxist Art History During the Cold War

Nicos Hadjinicolaou

The referenced figures can be accessed separately in “Documents: Shreds of a Dialogue on Marxist Art History During the Cold War.”

In memory of Erhard Frommhold 

A series of events that took place at the Institute of Art History at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU) in the 1960s gave rise in 1993 to a critical appraisal.1 Now, sixty years after the events in Munich, a second round takes place. 

It needs to be stressed from the outset that any present-day reflection on the events of 1964 is inevitably inflected, above all, by what happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which set off a major crisis in all political movements favorably inclined to the Russian Revolution and the Soviet regime. It is against this larger historical background that the following reflections should be read.

A New Itinerary

First, a few words are necessary about the student associations [Fachschaften] and the art history student representative [Fachschaftssprecher] to understand the efforts undertaken in 1964 to organize an East-West conference on Marxist art history. At the institutes in that period, the students were allowed to form non-political associations representing their immediate interests (e.g., teaching spaces, slide collections, problems with participation in seminars, and scholarships). The Fachschaften reported to the Allgemeiner Studenten-Ausschuss (AStA), or student government, whenever a major problem that concerned the institute or the university had to be resolved. The political organizations of the students were quite different, and, in general, politics was kept out of the institutes.

I am unable to recall how I came to be elected as the representative of the art history students. I vaguely remember that a student assembly was held in the library, and no one volunteered as a candidate. Someone then must have proposed my name, and I must have accepted.

After graduating from high school in Athens, it took me some time to find my path. I studied for two years at the medical faculties of Vienna and West Berlin, intending to become a psychiatrist before switching to the Faculty of Philosophy at the Free University in West Berlin. I continued my studies in Freiburg im Breisgau and Munich, initially choosing courses in various disciplines until I decided in Freiburg, around 1961, to become an art historian. Kurt Bauch’s classes were impressive in their descriptive force addressed to individual paintings, and I will never forget the course he taught on Venetian painting. A group of students, among them Jürgen Paul, further bolstered my interest in the discipline. 

When I learned that the editor of the Pinder-Festschrift, the “father of structural analysis,” and opponent of modern art, Hans Sedlmayr, had assembled a group of important art historians at the LMU, I decided to transfer to Munich in order to “hear” them.2 In German, to “hear” refers to the tradition of moving from one university to another to follow well-known scholars’ courses. In Freiburg, I had already “heard” the philologists Walther Rehm and Hugo Friedrich lecture on, respectively, nineteenth-century German and French literature, the archaeologist Walter-Herwig Schuchhardt on Greek classical sculpture, and the political scientist Arnold Bergstraesser on issues concerning contemporary democracy. 

Coming from a conservative Athenian family, I was indifferent to politics until I attended several meetings of the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (SDS; the collegiate branch of the Social Democratic Party) in West Berlin about protesting the rearmament of the Bundeswehr. These meetings proved to be of decisive importance. They revived echoes of my parents’ traumatic experiences during the German occupation of Greece (April 1941–October 1944), as well as my own scant recollections (I was only six years old when the German troops withdrew). I suddenly found myself surrounded by fellow German students who abhorred the idea of a militarized Germany. My mother came from a family who supported the liberal policies of Eleftherios Venizelos, whereas my father was more conservative. However, his experience of the Occupation pushed him to act in ways that were quite radical. As an entomologist, he worked for a state program at the Ministry of Hygiene to eradicate malaria in Greece. In this capacity, he was in touch with the German officer responsible for the protection of the troops from contagious diseases and malaria, who turned out to be an opponent of the Nazi regime. After becoming well acquainted and comfortable speaking openly, the two regularly listened to the BBC on my father’s radio in his laboratory at the Athens School of Hygiene. The German officer was Fritz Peus, who lived in Zehlendorf, in West Berlin. After the war, he was appointed Professor of Special Zoology at Humboldt University. Following the building of the Wall, he chose to remain in the West and was appointed Professor of Applied Zoology at the Free University. Fritz and his wife, Monika, a pianist, took care of me when I arrived in West Berlin from Vienna in February 1957 to continue my medical studies.

I also remember visits with my father towards the end of the Occupation to bring food and cigarettes to the house of his colleague and friend, Dimitris Papadopoulos (Athens School of Agriculture), who was hiding an Italian soldier in his house in Athens after Italy’s capitulation. This is the context I came from, which explains, at least in part, my initial commitment to the campaign against rearmament. It also shaped my favorable attitude towards the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where the leading political personalities were German anti-fascists who, together with returning Jewish exiles, tried to build a socialist state on German soil after the defeat of the Third Reich. 

While in West Berlin, I met Christos Joachimides, who had just arrived from Stuttgart, and we became close friends. His parents had sent him there to study chemistry, but he preferred to follow the courses of the philosopher Max Bense. We never missed the film projections organized by Ulrich and Erika Gregor and attended the cycle of poetry readings [Dichterlesungen] organized by Walter Höllerer. 

I entered my activist phase in Freiburg around 1960–1961. My initiative to distribute the newspaper konkret at the entrance of the university’s main building was followed by my participation at various student meetings and election as a member of the new AStA. I published a dismissive book review of Dieter Wellershoff’s Gottfried Benn: Phänotyp dieser Stunde (1958) in the Freiburger Studentenzeitung and attempted (unsuccessfully) with Heinrich Klotz and a few other film fans to take over the executive board of the student film club. In Munich, I joined the SDS and started to read Marx’s and Engels’s early writings, which fascinated me.

In retrospect, my visit to the GDR in April 1964 and my friendship with Willi Sitte, an important painter and active communist intellectual, were of lasting importance. During the war, Sitte fought in the ranks of the Wehrmacht in Italy before joining the Italian partisans. He was the president of the Association of Visual Artists of the GDR.

Why did I visit the GDR? My friend, the book illustrator Dietlind Blech, may have arranged the trip. In my papers, I found a rather formal letter from Willi Sitte, dated April 4, 1964, inviting Blech to participate in a round table discussion on “current trends in art” (“Tendenzen Gespräch”) in Halle from April 26 to May 2, 1964. Perhaps it was Richard Hiepe who suggested that Sitte invite me. I have no idea. All I have in my papers is the official visa granted by the GDR authorities (Fig. 1, where it is erroneously stated that I was a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany), accompanied by a letter written in Sitte’s name. 

For five days, I was a guest of the painter and his wife, Ingrid. During my visit, we looked at his work, and our discussions were lively and instructive. Willi took me to visit some young painters and poets at their homes, most impressively, Sarah and Rainer Kirsch. Although I had already lived in Germany for seven years, I now felt I was in another country. A visit to the Moritzburg with Sitte, where we spent a whole day looking at the extraordinary collection, allowed me to see painting with new eyes.

The Fachschaft 

My election as Fachschaftssprecher was more of a formality when it happened. I only realized after several days that my new position could help us achieve quite a few things that we considered important. Who was “us”? Several fellow students and friends, including Werner Mittlmeier, Rupert Friedrich, Ulla Gass, Wolfgang von Steinitz, and Gabriele Sprigath.3

If I ask myself now, sixty years later, which issues we considered crucial, I would say that they all revolved around two primary sets of concerns: (1) the relationship of art history and, consequently, of art historians to contemporary art, especially abstract art; and (2) the relevance of philosophy, and Marxism in particular, for art history.

I was elected for a one-year term around the end of the winter semester of 1963–1964 (most likely in February). Our attention was immediately directed toward the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. We began to visit the studios of the Academy’s master’s students and initiated discussions with them. Both parties found the experience so satisfying that we decided to organize an exhibition of works by twelve master’s students in a new gallery set to open at No. 25 of the elegant Maximilianstrasse: Galerie Thomas. The owner, Raimund Thomas, a young man of our age, and his mother, who believed religiously in classical modernism, were thrilled with the idea—even more so when I explained that we would carry out the remaining work refurbishing the exhibition spaces (I remember in particular scrubbing the wooden floor) without any financial compensation and also provide the necessary personnel during the opening hours of the exhibition. Over the course of the exhibit, a public discussion was held every Friday with the artists in front of their canvases. In my papers, I found a list of the twelve master’s students (indicated by a number in front of their name) who participated in the show (Fig. 2). Forty-four members of the Fachschaft prepared the gallery for the opening (Fig. 3). Finally, we printed a small invitation that we distributed to faculty members and sent to the press (Fig. 4).

This project explains, to a large extent, our interest in Marxist art history. The present counted for us as much as the past. The exhibition was a response to the institute and its director, Hans Sedlmayr, whose hostility toward modern art was notorious. We were studying art history but had no contact with artists—a situation that we considered absurd.

The Neue Münchner Galerie, headed by Richard Hiepe, played quite a role in the cultural life of Munich and offered me a whole world to explore. The gallery promoted the work of artists such as Michael Mathias Prechtl, Alfred Hrdlicka, Carlo Schelleman, Franz Radziwill, HAP Grieshaber, and Christoph Meckel. Hiepe also published a journal called Tendenzen, defending a more combative form of realism. He was open-minded, interested in art theory, and involved in publishing special issues on topics such as caricature or short texts by authors like Max Raphael, Wilhelm Fraenger, Wilhelm Hausenstein, Frederick Antal, Lucien Goldmann, and others. 

Speaking of our interest in modern art, I should not forget to mention cinema. A friend with the necessary financial means acquired a good camera, and we recorded a video about the everyday life of a cemetery near my house. We studied François Truffaut’s scenario for La peau douce (1964), which we considered a Marxist cinematographic masterpiece. Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962) prompted me to start learning Polish at the LMU (which I continued for a few weeks at the École des Langues Orientales Vivantes in Paris) so that I could study at the Film School in Łódź.

Our interest in Marxism required us to understand how the philosophical breakthrough brought about by Marx was possible. So, when, by chance, the (leftist) Hegel Gesellschaft—which coexisted in West Germany alongside the (conservative) Hegel Gesellschaft (Hegel really was split into two back then)—organized a congress in Salzburg in September 1964, our first reaction was to inform all members of the Fachschaft about the event and collect a list of those who wished to participate. I remember Klaus Herding’s comment on the list: “I wish to participate at all costs.” This was our intellectual nourishment. I believe a republication of the program in the present context is instructive (Fig. 5). 

The Organization of the Conference

How did we come up with the idea to organize a conference on Marxist art history at the LMU? I am unable to answer the question. I am fairly certain that no one (from the East or the West) suggested it. I would certainly remember if that was the case. I believe it was likely an idea of mine, a rather naïve one at that—as can be seen in the title itself: “Die Kunst und ihre Deutung: Marxistische Kunstinterpretation” [Art and its Interpretation: The Marxist Reading of Art]. It never occurred to me that the project would immediately mobilize forces to shut it down or that it would turn people unknown to me into enemies and others into friends.

I suppose that my insistence on inviting speakers from the GDR was also a consequence of my recent trip that year to Halle. Here was a state that offered art history courses at the university level, defending a Marxist interpretation of art and history. It was also my conviction that one could not ignore the legitimacy of its political regime.

I cannot find a copy of the letter that I addressed to the Ministry of Culture of the GDR proposing the conference, nor their obviously positive response. How else would GDR scholars have obtained permission to visit the Federal Republic of Germany and attend the conference? We should not forget that the Wall had been built just three years earlier, in August 1961. 

In my initial letter to the Ministry, I must have mentioned the names of scholars we wanted to invite. We sent letters to scholars who held positions at universities or museums of the GDR. Some declined, such as Werner Timm (Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen Berlin, Fig. 6), Johannes Jahn (then director of the Leipzig Museum, Fig. 7), Günter Feist (Fig. 8) and, post festum, Wolfgang Hütt (Fig. 9). Hütt’s name and the title of his talk remained on the program, and I wonder why we took it for granted that he would participate. While he had written in his letter that he was too ill to come to the conference, Peter Feist later stated in his autobiography that the GDR authorities did not allow Hütt to travel because he was openly against the building of the Wall.4 But how could we have known? 

We invited Feist, who was then teaching at Humboldt University but did not yet hold the title of professor (Fig. 10). He was one of the most influential art historians in the country. I did not know him personally, but I had read some of his articles. He responded on September 9, 1964, in a positive spirit (Fig. 11). The next day, he sent a report addressed to “comrade Börner of the Central Committee of the SED, section science” (Fig. 12), in which he included a copy of the invitation he had received from us, as well as a copy of his answer, expressed his approval of the idea, and asked for “a rapid final decision” so that the Munich students and the conference participants would have time to prepare.5 

Sometime later, Werner Mittlmeier and I decided to see him in East Berlin. This trip must have happened soon after he accepted the invitation. He had a nice apartment on Karl-Marx-Allee, where we met him and his wife, Gisela, who was an impressive, dynamic woman. He was polite and friendly. I don’t remember what we talked about. Most certainly, the conference. But did we talk about the participants? I do not recall whether I already knew at the time who would join from the West and what the attitude of Sedlmayr and the institute would be. But I also did not know what was happening at the GDR Ministry of Culture. Who compiled the list of participants for the Munich conference, and in collaboration with whom? Were there voices against anyone’s participation? Based on the positive response from Heinz Lüdecke (Fig. 13), it appears that I had also written to him.

I also asked Willi Sitte to participate in the discussions. In a postcard dated September 13, 1964, he enthusiastically confirmed: “You can count on me to come with the others to the conference” (Fig. 14). Unfortunately, he was unable to attend in the end because of his other obligations, including a trip to China.

We know from Feist’s autobiography that, generally, the Ministry of Culture of the GDR decided who was and who was not allowed to attend a conference in the West. This determination was based not so much on the potential participants’ scholarly value but on whether they could be trusted to return to the GDR after the event’s conclusion. Feist described his participation at the 21st International Congress of Art History in Bonn (CIHA), which took place two months before the Munich conference in September 1964, as follows: 

In our small delegation [from the GDR], whose composition I criticized in my evaluation report [delivered to the authorities after his return], I was the only member who came from the universities; the others came from museums. Some had been dropped at the last minute, and in their place, Ullrich Kuhirt from the Gesellschaftswissenschaftliches Institut traveled with us, although his name was not included in the printed list of participants.6 

Something similar must have happened when the Ministry compiled the list of participants after approving, in principle, our proposal. 

I believe that the name of Eberhard Bartke, whom I mentioned in my first letter to Feist (August 26, 1964), and the title of his talk (!) were suggested to me by the GDR Ministry of Culture. The same was likely true for Lüdecke. Interestingly, I did not consider inviting figures like Gerhard Strauss, Friedrich Möbius, or Harald Olbrich. I probably did not even know their names at that time.

We had little success with most scholars in the West who were invited to participate, either as a speaker or guest. Werner Hofmann (then in Vienna, Fig. 15), Arnold Gehlen (Fig. 16), Ernesto Grassi (whom I visited in his office), and Werner Haftmann (Fig. 17) all politely declined. I was told that Grassi snuck into the auditorium the first evening and followed the discussion for a while. Martin Gosebruch, son of Ernst Gosebruch, the legendary director of the Folkwang Museum, refused to give a talk but was willing to sit in the audience (Fig. 18). He brought with him the painter Wolfgang Klähn (Fig. 19), whom he described as “an outstanding figure in creation and thinking,” as I recall him writing in a letter to me. I attended an interesting seminar with him in Freiburg, in which he was quite critical of Sedlmayr’s Die Entstehung der Kathedrale (1950). We have had a friendly relationship since then. Konrad Farner, author of Gustave Doré: Der industrialisierte Romantiker (1963) and a member of the Central Committee of the Swiss Communist Party (Fig. 20), finally agreed to participate after some hesitations due to financial difficulties. I had the opportunity to hear his impressive lecture on modern art at the invitation of Hiepe. Farner defended Hans Erni, a classicist Swiss painter and militant pacifist. He refused to take a position on the debate between abstract and figurative art, so I thought his presence would be useful if we wanted to avoid a sterile confrontation at the conference.

Among the professors teaching at the Munich Institute, Sedlmayr refused to attend, as did Erich Hubala and Wilhelm Messerer (Fig. 21). Three younger faculty members, all students of Sedlmayr’s—Hermann Bauer, Friedrich Piel, and Bernhard Rupprecht—joined the discussion. I do not remember Mohammed Rassem, one of Sedlmayr’s close collaborators, being present. We invited Wladimir Weidlé, author of Die Sterblichkeit der Musen (1958) and then visiting professor at the Institute of Art History, who attended the conference without further ado. 

While we had very limited means at our disposal, we did not need more. I suppose that the GDR’s Ministry of Culture covered the travel and hotel costs of the GDR citizens. They stayed at Hotel Bosch, Amalienstrasse 25, which was very close to the university. Attendants from the West had to cover all costs, including the hotel. I do not know what happened with Farner’s accommodation, but I suppose someone offered him hospitality.

Did the Fachschaft receive any funds from the AStA? I do not think so. My papers include an expense report created by a fellow student who served as “our accountant” (Fig. 22). Our budget was rather modest: 47.40 DM was spent on refreshments, 13.00 DM on the rental of an episcope slide projector, and 93.06 DM for the printing costs of fifty posters (Fig. 23). Hubert Burda, who was then preparing his Ph.D. on Hubert Robert, provided the necessary assistance. The program (Fig. 24) was printed at the expense of the AStA since the event was officially co-organized with its cultural affairs department [Kulturreferat]. Finally, one lecture was recorded: Dr. Farner asked Studentenfunk München to tape his talk, send the tape to his home in Thalwil near Zürich, and charge the bill of 43.00 DM to the Fachschaft (Fig. 25). I wonder if the secret services of either German state were present and if recordings of the conference still exist somewhere. The small auditorium at Newman Haus, near the university’s main building, was made available to us for free, probably thanks to the AStA or the rectorate [Rektorat].

Threats and Internal Oppositions

While organizing the conference was a relatively straightforward affair, obtaining permission for such an event to take place under the auspices of the Institute of Art History of the University of Munich had its challenges. There were notable hesitations and disagreements within the university between the rector, the Institute of Art History, and the Syndikus (a permanent legal adviser to the university), as well as at the Ministry of the Interior in Bonn. All official communication passed through the respective sections of the Ministry and directly through the president of the AStA.

Early on—certainly before October 29—Wilhelm Rottach, President [erster Vorsitzender] of the AStA, was informed by the Ministry of the Interior that the event was not authorized. Rottach passed this information on to me. Then the university’s rector, His Magnificence Prof. Dr. Gerhard Weber, invited me to his office. Among other things, he asked me what I would think about a German student in Greece interfering in the country’s internal politics. At the end of our conversation, he drew my attention to the fact that I had been a student for multiple semesters without any visible results. 

On Thursday, October 29, 1964, I received a letter from Rottach (Fig. 26). He had spoken to the Syndikus, who claimed that neither the university authorities nor the Ministry of the Interior had granted permission for the event. Moreover, he informed me that I was de facto removed from my position as Fachschaftssprecher because I had been a student for more than twelve semesters and thus was no longer considered a proper enrollee at the university. Since neither His Magnificence nor the Art History Institute requested my presence at the planned meeting with the rector, I was asked to send a substitute. We decided to send Werner Mittlmeier to the meeting. At the end of the letter, Rottach relayed that he complained to the Syndikus that he could not understand why the university was making things difficult but that he also believed all misunderstandings would be clarified at the meeting with the rector.

Six days after receiving this letter, on Wednesday, November 4, 1964, another letter arrived from Rottach, this time addressed to the Fachschaft Kunsthistorik [Art History Student Association] with the salutation “Dear fellow students” [Liebe Kommilitonen]. He informed us that on November 3, His Magnificence Prof. Dr. Gerhard Weber, in conversation with the AStA and the Fachschaft, unequivocally approved the planned conference on the Marxist interpretation of art. He added that Weber considered it beneficial for the faculty of the LMU to participate in the conference, and “he stressed that he would not put any obstacles in its way” (Fig. 27).

Two days later, in a letter dated November 6, this time addressed to me, Rottach wrote that there were no reservations whatsoever as far as the planned event was concerned on the part of the Ministry of the Interior. If any difficulties arose, “we” (i.e., the Fachschaft and AStA) should address ourselves “to them” (i.e., the Ministry of the Interior) without hesitation. Rottach concluded by asking me to come to his office with the poster and the program on Monday (Fig. 28). The road to the conference was finally clear. The question, of course, is what happened between October 29 and November 3? Did the rector, who disappeared for several days, go to Bonn to consult with both the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Education? Were there major differences of opinion as to the prohibition of the conference between the Ministry of the Interior officials?

Clearly, a blatant change of attitude took place. Based on which arguments? Different conceptions of Ostpolitik? More research is necessary to answer this question. I do not know which files, if any, from the period (of the rectorate, the AStA of the LMU, or the Ministry of the Interior of the Federal Republic of Germany) are accessible to the public today. However, the fact is that by November 3, Bonn withdrew all previous objections, and the German-German art historical conference on Marxist art history could finally take place. It was the first and only time such a “thing” would happen. In fact, it is almost as if it never occurred. As far as I could verify, it is not even mentioned in the Chronik der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München for 1964/1965.

Reactions During the Event

So, what happened in Newman Haus on Friday, November 13 and Saturday, November 14, 1964? As the tacitly reinstated (!) student representative, I kicked off the event with some introductory remarks that provided an overview of our motives and expectations for the conference (Fig. 29).

Reading my introduction now, I am struck by its apologetic character. The reference to Józef Maria Bocheński and the Heideggerian wordplay show how much I cared for the conference to be understood as a scholarly event and for “Marxist art history” to be accepted as a legitimate academic subject. I continued with brief introductions of the speakers, and then the podium was given to Feist. 

With such a distance in time, I can only enumerate a few general impressions of what followed. In the discussion following Feist’s talk, Wladimir Weidlé spoke first and denounced the tendency in countries practicing the Marxist-Leninist science of art to explain the singularity of artistic phenomena solely through economic factors. This criticism gave Feist the opportunity to distance himself from vulgar Marxism. Two of the younger faculty members, Hermann Bauer and Bernhard Rupprecht, criticized Feist for the one-sidedness of this approach, but he reassured them that it was a remnant of the Stalinist past. A rather heated debate ensued after Farner’s talk “Zur Wertung der sogenannten ‘abstrakten’ Kunst” [Concerning the evaluation of so-called “abstract” art], in particular between Farner and Gosebruch, but also Wolfgang Klähn. The guests from the GDR were mostly attentive but silent onlookers. Feist’s and Farner’s talks were the main attractions of the conference and gave some younger students, members of the Fachschaft, the opportunity to ask questions. Heinz Lüdecke’s talk was interesting and quite innovative as far as the Delacroix literature was concerned. I remember Gabriele Sprigath’s positive response. Eberhard Bartke delivered a rather ponderous presentation on “Art in the GDR.”

Peter Feist’s Lecture 

As far as my initial reactions to Feist are concerned, I must confess that I was unable to focus on his lecture as he read it. I was too nervous and curious about the impressions his talk would make upon the faculty members and fellow students in the room, which amounted to an audience of approximately 100–120 people. This issue persisted throughout the conference. My worries that something might go wrong did not allow me to properly follow the lectures and their arguments with the required composure. 

I clearly remember that despite my critical attitude towards Feist and his particular role—caught in the middle as he was, making concessions and compromises between a party and state bureaucracy on the one hand and his Marxist convictions on the other—I wanted his talk to be appreciated by the students and taken seriously by faculty members. I wanted him to make a good impression. In a sense, I was also caught in the middle. Despite my critical attitude, I behaved as if I were his impresario or a defender of GDR cultural politics at any cost.

Having studied his text again recently in August 2021, my reactions to it were contradictory. Further complicating my reading was the fact that between 2009 and 2014, I repeatedly had the opportunity to have lunch or dinner with Feist in Schöneberg or tea at his home in Pankow (in Berlin). I incessantly asked him questions, and he answered them tirelessly. His memory was extraordinary, his judgment serene. We talked for hours about GDR cultural politics, art history, and art historians in the East and West. Regrettably, I never asked him about the Munich conference and who, precisely, made the decisions concerning the composition of the GDR delegation. My critical faculties may be somewhat diminished through these agreeable personal encounters, but they have not subsided completely. The printed form of Feist’s lecture (Fig. 30) thus offered the possibility for a reevaluation.

At first glance, significant changes between the oral and the published versions can be noted. The title of the lecture, “Sinn und Methode der marxistisch-leninistischen Kunstwissenschaft” [Meaning and Method of Marxist-Leninist Kunstwissenschaft], was transformed into Prinzipien und Methoden marxistischer Kunstwissenschaft [Principles and Methods of a Marxist Kunstwissenschaft]. Two considerable alterations stand out: the disappearance of the reference to Leninism and the yielding of the one and unique method of the Marxist-Leninist science of art to a plurality of Marxist methods.

Feist first published a kind of press release about the Munich conference under the title “Is an isolated timeless art possible? Marxist art historians address Munich students” (Fig. 31).7 Its relationship to the subject of the lecture itself was rather distant. What happened afterward, before the final version went to the printer? Did he send his conference paper to friends and colleagues for edits, additions, and corrections, even to party or state authorities? Most probably. Almost certainly. The changes in the title alone are so serious, so enormous, that all hypotheses are legitimate, including approval by the responsible section of the Central Committee itself. For the needs of the present publication, I will use the printed 1966 version as a reference for my comments, leaving others the task of searching for any documentation in Feist’s personal archive concerning suggestions and corrections proposed by colleagues or imposed by party officials. 

The Thaw

In the 1966 version of his lecture, Feist conspicuously distanced himself from the preceding Stalinist understanding of Marxist art history. Accordingly, his text may be understood as a manifesto for the liberalization of the field. At one point, he laconically mentions “the longstanding obstruction and desolation caused by dogmatism.”8 The statement is clear, but it was not unique to Feist. The Eastern Bloc as a whole, under the direction of the Soviet Union, passed from “Stalinism” to a kind of “liberalized Stalinism,” as it were. The GDR was no exception. 

Feist was an ambitious, hard-working, and intelligent party member. The changes in society—bold in many cases, more timid in others, depending on the degree of resistance—suited his personality and convictions. The problem is that, even if he wanted to, he could not advance this agenda further on his own. He was well aware that the implementation of radical reforms required consensus among the higher levels of party membership and buy-in from the people; however, as the case of Czechoslovakia in 1968 later made clear, sometimes even this was not enough. The 1966 version of his text is thus marked by contradictions that signal the compromises he had to make. Notably, there is a conscious and deliberate openness on his part:

My remarks do not constitute the final say on what Marxism “is” in Kunstwissenschaft. They are meant to contribute to it and its continuous development, which takes place naturally and in an ordered fashion through the work of many scholars and the perpetual transformation of objective reality.9

In this spirit, he cautioned his readers that the booklet is “a personal contribution to the ongoing, global discussion,” not “a closed and rigid system.”10 Since it was “not closed,” it was obviously not as “rigid” as so many “closed” or self-contained Marxist-Leninist publications on philosophical and aesthetic issues were. He shielded himself from criticism by insisting that it was “a brief sketch… of what seems to the author the most characteristic and most important about Marxism in Kunstwissenschaft.”11 He used the first-person singular for claims that he expected would be met with strong resistance: “I consider iconology… to be a decisively important method and view structural analysis… as a fundamental means of mastering the dialectic of content and form.”12 Commenting upon his bibliography, he admitted that it contained the names of authors that “I find particularly noteworthy.”13 “On some points, other Marxists will have different opinions,” he announced at the beginning, thus abandoning any pretense of being the only legitimate voice of GDR Marxism in the field of art history.14

An urgent task in the process of “Destalinization” was the rehabilitation of disciplines formerly considered “bourgeois.” Feist’s strong commitment to sociology and psychology in Principles and Methods indicates that their status was, to a certain extent, still under discussion.15 He emphasized the need to make up for lost ground, particularly in the case of psychology: “Marxist Kunstwissenschaft must immediately turn to the psychology of artistic creation and reception with greater intensity than before.”16 However, he clearly felt more comfortable with sociology: “Of ever greater importance is sociology, as it more precisely determines the operations of social bodies, the emergence of value systems, behavioral motivations, etc., both in the present and in any historical context.”17

Feist’s restraint from condemning as non-Marxists those colleagues with whom he disagreed was also new. An illustrative example is Hans Koch. Feist quoted his book Marxismus und Ästhetik and referred positively to him throughout the text.18 However, in a footnote glossing Marx’s claim that artistic production is a “‘practical and mental [praktisch-geistige] appropriation of reality,’” he stated: “I abide by the understanding of others regarding Marx’s statement, contrary to the considerations of Hans Koch.”19 This was a new attitude and a new practice of dialogue brought about by the Khrushchev era. 

Indeed, who would expect a member of the Party since 1954, working on his habilitation, with teaching responsibilities at Humboldt University (he was Oberassistent since 1958) and the privilege of frequent travel to the West, to defend such differences of opinion? While he had to make concessions at various points to safeguard his position and immediate future (namely, approval of his habilitation and eventual professorship), here he reveals a remarkable openness.

The Marxist-Leninist, Dialectical-Materialist Kunstwissenschaft

There was an edifice, a cement construction, that was called in German “marxistisch-leninistische, dialektisch-materialistische Kunstwissenschaft” [“Marxist-Leninist, dialectical-materialist art history”].20 This edifice had been constructed mainly in the Soviet Union with materials dispersed throughout Marx and Engels’s publications and manuscripts and enriched with bits and pieces foundin Lenin’s writings and political practice. Feist took an intermediate position. According to him, the edifice was not yet complete, but he acknowledged that it existed as such: “It would be misguided and an obstacle to the rapid development of this field if one were to overlook that there are still clear gaps in the establishment of facts, in methodology, even in the formulation of questions.”21

While this “building” that Feist called “Marxist-Leninist Kunstwissenschaft” in 1964 and “Marxist Kunstwissenschaft” in 1966 was incomplete in its details, it was still relatively intact. When discussing commonly accepted elements, he abandoned the first-person singular and generalized: “Marxists also take into account…”22 Even the doctrine itself became personified: “Marxism sees…”23 Here, the art of compromise is at its peak. Yet, in a field dealing with words and concepts related to images, how else could he escape except by choosing another profession? By becoming a gardener, perhaps?

Quotes and References

Of course, this edifice was built upon an extensive array of quotes from the writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Some scholars used quotations as a shield, even if—or particularly if—they were opposed to the regime, while others considered it an unavoidable ritual.

Feist adhered to the early 1950s Marxist interpretation of history in a country where socialist and communist political ideas were imposed by those who conquered it after a bitter and desperate war. The great majority of the inhabitants of what became the Soviet Occupation Zone, as those of the U.S., the British, and the French Occupation Zones, were enthusiastic supporters of Hitler and the NSDAP only a few years before. The German communists and socialists who remained faithful to their convictions and survived the Third Reich, whether they fought on the side of the Red Army or returned from camps or exile, looked like traitors to those Germans who had supported the war effort and the “Drang nach Osten,” even if they did not consider themselves Nazis. On the one hand, Feist was defending his socialist convictions and, on the other, needed to make concessions to the new socialist bureaucracy, which was gaining increasing control over the state and party apparatus.

His relationship to the classics of Marxism was different in that it was the result of a free choice rather than imposed on him. Needless to say, quotations were necessary for either scenario. They certified the commitment and Parteilichkeit [partisanship with the Party] of those who used them. Feist’s quotations were, to a great extent, measured and functional, supporting his arguments and reasoning; others were part of the obligatory ritual.

As far as he was concerned, Marxist theory did not go through “reversals” or “turns,” as seen, for example, with Rugard Otto Gropp, the editor of the Festschrift Ernst Bloch zum 70. Geburtstag (1955), who, two years later, contributed an article to the volume Ernst Blochs Revision des Marxismus. If a theory or a position was defended by powerful party intellectuals (e.g., Wilhelm Girnus, Kurt Hager, or Alfred Kurella) or the party as such, a direct confrontation was practically impossible. What Feist wrote in his autobiography about the late 1950s and early 1960s was also true to a lesser extent in the following decades: “There were powerful opposing forces within our own ranks who considered the paths I had taken to be politically wrong… Repeatedly, party and government officials reproached me for political laxness and a lack of vigilance against the agenda of the ‘class enemies.’”24

The theory that art was a reflection [Widerspiegelung] of social reality is illustrative of this attitude. It was an unshakable part of the Marxist-Leninist edifice. At the time, neither Feist nor anybody else could afford to write and defend in public that the concept was informed by (or relied upon) a mechanistic perception of reality. In 1966, you could not cross this line.

Principles and Methods attest to his uncomfortable position in this respect. Widerspiegelung comes up repeatedly.25 On the one hand, the author mentions, without a trace of criticism, “the Marxist philosophical reflection theory, as it was developed, in particular, by Lenin in his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.”26 On the other hand, he tacitly limited the theory’s validity by reminding the reader that “artistic problems and solutions emerge primarily or even exclusively as a result of previous artistic achievements.”27 That said, Feist had the courage at a later point to further undermine the theory of art as a reflection of social reality (though without mentioning it by name), writing that “without the mutilations inflicted upon it by capitalist commodity production, artistic creation is fundamentally a socially useful activity linked to other creative areas, a ‘practical and mental appropriation of reality.’”28

According to his autobiography, it took several years before the circumstances allowed him, working with Michael Franz’s research group at the Institute of Aesthetics and Art Studies of the Academy of Sciences (founded in 1982), to develop a theory based on the concept of “appropriation” [Aneignung]; the results of their research were publicly presented shortly before the Wall came down.29 “I thought,” writes Feist, “it was productive for determining the nature of art, how he [Franz] centered Marx’s concept of appropriation instead of speaking, as before, of a reflection of reality [Widerspiegelung der Realität] in art.”30

Similarly, he had to make unavoidable concessions to a deterministic conception of history on such issues as the assessment of laws [Gesetzmäßigkeiten] following a set pattern in history and consequently in the history of art or progress and decline in art.31 His solution was to mention these concepts without stressing their importance and by granting them as little space as possible.

It was exactly in this vein that the Soviet contribution to Marxist art history was handled as well. In Principles and Methods, without one word of criticism, Feist referred to more than a dozen Soviet authors, who were mainly relegated to the footnotes.32 For the initiated, this was a way for Feist to censure them without running the risk of condemnation. In his autobiography, he expressed his point of view on the Soviet contribution to Marxist art history in plain language: “It remained a problem that for an art history based on Marx and Engels, only a few truly productive ideas came from the Soviet Union.”33

The Bourgeois Heritage

Since 1945, a major issue in the Soviet occupation zone and then in the GDR was the question of the “bourgeois cultural heritage.” In 1966, Feist took a clear stance in favor of this legacy and even bemoaned its lack of study: “Fundamentally, we are interested in exploiting the full wealth of insights and methods inherited from non-Marxist Kunstwissenschaft, which, unfortunately, has not been sufficiently practiced so far.”34 Feist easily could have been criticized for being “too soft” toward the enemy. In his autobiography, he mentioned the intense criticism Gerhard Strauss endured from party and government officials, like Eberhard Bartke, for not dissociating Marxist Kunstwissenschaft more radically from its bourgeois heritage and for not correctly evaluating—even undervaluing—contemporary socialist art.35 These two potential accusations were constantly hanging over Feist’s head as he worked, and he had to develop his arguments in such a way that he could refute any criticisms in advance.

A Marxism Limited in Space and Time

The above statements and positions are only some (shall we call them “liberal” or “progressive”?) aspects of Feist’s Principles and Methods, as well as a few examples of his ability to compromise. They all complement the mainstream Marxist approach that he identified with. However, the same publication also shows signs of a more traditionalist approach. 

Notably, the text is curiously one-sided. Of the many authors quoted, 90% are German-speaking: German art historians from the time of the Kaiserreich, the Weimar Republic, the Democratic Republic, and the Federal Republic of Germany; Austrians; German-speaking Swiss scholars; and Germans of Jewish origin who emigrated during the Third Reich. Of course, art history was, and largely remains, a German discipline—but not to this extent.

Feist, who began his scholarly career as a medievalist, does not mention even once scholars like Emile Mâle, Louis Bréhier, Marcel Aubert, or Henri Focillon. In fact, Louis Hautecoeur and Pierre Francastel are the only representatives of art history from west of the Rhine. More than a dozen authors from the Soviet Union and three from the People’s Republics of Eastern Europe complete the world panorama from a GDR perspective. A rather narrow perspective, one would say. 

The text’s contradictions and compromises have already been mentioned. The moralizing generalizations found throughout the publication are important and should not be underestimated, but they are rather limited. For example, Feist proclaimed that “We consider the mutual learning of peoples from one another, the ability of all people to achieve greatness, and the fundamental equality of creative potential in different peoples to be more important than their historically uneven development to date.”36 However, in reality, the Soviet model of socialist realism had been imposed through a system of art academies in the Soviet Republics of Asia, making a mockery of such declarations of equality.37 Feist, in a spirit of compromise, noted instead

the rapid unfolding of realistic art among the peoples in the Asian regions of the Soviet Union or the young nation-states of the Arab world, that is, among peoples who were previously restricted for centuries to ornamental arts and crafts due to economic and social backwardness and the Islamic prohibition of images. Respect for the creative capacities of all people also characterizes the Marxist attitude toward the problem of “world art” and overcoming Eurocentrism.38

Could one go any further than that on this issue in 1966? 

Some of these shortcomings were not only of a political nature but also profoundly theoretical, particularly with regard to recent approaches to the study of the figurative arts. It is true that in 1966, the wave of “reception theory” and “reception history” in East and West Germany had not yet arrived. Hans Robert Jauss’s seminal Literaturgeschichte als Provokation der Literaturwissenschaft (1967) was just on the horizon, and the studies in the GDR by Manfred Naumann and Robert Weimann and in the Federal Republic of Germany by Karl Robert Mandelkow appeared simultaneously in 1970.39 Regardless, in Principles and Methods, Feist relegated the study of the beholders of the figurative arts to the “psychology of artistic… reception.”40 Although he recognized the importance of approaching “art… from the standpoint of the social ‘consumer,’ or the viewer,” the history of reception was absent from both Principles and Methods and his autobiography, published some fifty years later, in which he briefly referred to the “aesthetics of reception.”41 While he did mention “ideological contexts” [ideologische Zusammenhänge] in 1966, in reality, the role of ideology in the processes of production and the reception of artworks had no place in his system of thought.42

Reactions and Appraisals After the Conference

It is difficult to assess the immediate and long-term effects of the conference on those who attended in person, as well as the students and teaching staff of the Institute of Art History who were not present. Did the news travel to other West German universities as well, and how did people react? I have no idea.

There is an interesting, even moving reaction from an anonymous student who sent a letter addressed to all three GDR speakers at the hotel they were staying at. This letter was found among Peter Feist’s papers, and his son, Michael Feist, was kind enough to send me a copy (Fig. 32):

Honorable Gentlemen!

I thank you for your lectures and for coming here. It is a pity that we Germans in East and West Germany, who are connected by so many things, cultivate so little intellectual contact with one another. Even if one could not adopt your views, your lectures nevertheless serve to question one’s own fixed judgments anew. To think through your reflections—to read Marx.

Your lectures were also useful in somewhat dispersing the notion that the Ostzone is a party apparatus, as one got to know the human beings in you. Hopefully, you also saw in us human beings in a strenuous search for the tasks given to them, for the fulfillment of these tasks, and for the benchmark to measure the justice of their intellectual egos [dem Maß des Rechts seines geistigen Ichs].

Thankfully, a student.

I imagine this letter represented a trend in public opinion at the time. How pervasively, I certainly cannot say.

Two articles about the Munich conference were published. The first article was by Doris Schmidt, a much-read art critic of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which appeared in the feuilleton immediately after the conference on Monday, November 23, 1964 (Fig. 33).43 Considering the political context of 1964, it is worth highlighting Schmidt’s positive evaluation: “The undertaking showed that dialogue between art historians from both parts of Germany is possible… These two days were certainly useful and meaningful for getting to know each other. There is no lack of willingness on either side to attempt further collaboration.” The author concluded her positive review by pointing out the limitations of this dialogue: “However, one should not forget that during the two days in Munich, the word ‘freedom’ was never uttered by any of the discussants; [had it been], the effort to come to an understanding likely would have failed.”

A second, favorably inclined article was published in the periodical of the AStA “Marxistische Kunstinterpretation: Zu einer mutigen Veranstaltung” [The Marxist Interpretation of Art: On a Courageous Event] (Fig. 34).44 I quote only the end, where the author, Hans Günther, insisted upon the fact that both East and West were interested in discussing subjects of vital interest: “How else can it be explained that a full auditorium discussed art almost continuously and tirelessly from 2:00 in the afternoon until 9:00 in the evening? The lecture series was once rightly called an ‘overture.’ This overture, I believe, should not be the end of it.”

Several days later, in early December, I received a letter from Feist thanking us for organizing the event. He thought the conference was a success and believed there were prospects for similar events in the future (Fig. 35).

This positive spirit also appears in Feist’s evaluation report of the conference, which he sent on January 10, 1965, to the state secretary of the GDR Ministry of Education (Fig. 36a-c). I assume another copy of the report was sent to the Central Committee. In any case, Feist’s evaluation of the Munich conference was extremely positive. It even entailed a few exaggerations, for example, the rumor that those in charge at the Munich Institute “regretted afterward not having sufficiently prepared themselves” to counter the Marxist functionaries at the conference.

From a letter he sent to Eberhard Bartke, dated April 4, 1965 (Fig. 37), I gather that I went once more to see him in Berlin, together with Werner Mittlmeier. Apparently, Feist envisaged the formation of a student group in Munich working on his lecture and Marxist art history, but we never received a typescript of his talk. In any case, it would have been impossible for me to participate since I decided to leave for France three months later to do research for my Ph.D. on Grandville (1803–1847). Despite the claim that I had studied for many semesters without any visible results, I was accepted as a Ph.D. candidate in the summer semester of 1964 after assembling the necessary number of certificates [Scheine] for the introductory courses and advanced seminars [Hauptseminare]. However, Sedlmayr refused to become my supervisor, arguing that “he did not feel he was the right person.” In fact, he had made some untenable arguments about Grandville in Verlust der Mitte (1948). He suggested I approach Hermann Bauer instead, who accepted. Before my departure in July 1965, he provided letters of recommendation from the institute so that I could gain access to the French museums and libraries and procure accommodation at the Cité Universitaire. The August 1964 issue of Kunstchronik, in which new Ph.D. projects were announced, included the Grandville project.

Returning to Feist’s letter to Bartke, it clearly illustrates how much he was interested in furthering scholarly exchanges between East Berlin and Munich after the 1964 conference. However, judging from my correspondence with Werner Mittlmeier after I had settled in Paris (between the second half of 1965 and all of 1966), it is clear that the idea of organizing another conference in East Berlin never went anywhere. Disagreements over possible subjects (initially “Manet and Léger,” proposed by Munich, and “Manet and Käthe Kollwitz,” proposed by Feist) were not the only reason for this failure. In fact, there was a lack of Ph.D. art history students in Munich interested in participating.

Eventually, the imposition of a dictatorship in Greece in April 1967 radically changed my priorities. Among other things, I decided to abandon the Grandville Ph.D. project and remain in Paris instead of returning to Munich. At the end of 1966, I received a copy of Feist’s Principles and Methods. We met again, forty years later, in Berlin.

  • [1] In July 1993, a symposium was organized at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut in Essen, likely at the initiative of Martin Warnke, in which I participated with a talk entitled “Deutsche Kunstgeschichte zwischen Ost und West, 1945–1993: Eine persönliche Erfahrung” [German Art History between East and West, 1945–1993: A Personal Experience].
  • [2] Hans Sedlmayr, ed., Festschrift Wilhelm Pinder zum sechzigsten Geburtstag (Leipzig: E.A. Seemann, 1938).
  • [3] It is significant that our scholarly interest in European art was focused on the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, as can be seen by the subjects of our dissertations. Werner Mittlmeier finished his PhD in 1969 on Munich’s Neue Pinakothek under the supervision of Norbert Lieb; Wolfgang von Steinitz finished his PhD in 1968 on Les Cris de Paris under the supervision of Hermann Bauer, and Gabriele Sprigath finished her PhD in 1969 on Subjects from the History of the Roman Republic in Eighteenth-Century French Painting, also under the supervision of Hermann Bauer.
  • [4] Peter H. Feist, Hauptstraßen und eigene Wege. Rückschau eines Kunsthistorikers (Berlin: Lukas Verlag, 2016), 90, 106.
  • [5] I am grateful to Michael Feist for forwarding this document and others to me, including his father’s evaluation report of the conference, which was sent to the GDR Ministry of Education in January 1965 (see Fig. 36a-c).
  • [6] Feist, Hauptstraßen, 105–6.
  • [7] Peter H. Feist, “Ist eine isolierte zeitfreie Kunst möglich? Marxistische Kunstwissenschaftler vor Münchener Studenten,” Humboldt-Universität, no. 2, January 27, 1965.
  • [8] Peter H. Feist, Principles and Methods, in Golan and Jäger, eds., Selva 5 (2024), 26–52, here 36.
  • [9] Feist, Principles and Methods, 27.
  • [10] Ibid., 28.
  • [11] Ibid. Emphasis my own.
  • [12] Ibid., 50.
  • [13] Ibid., 51
  • [14] Ibid., 27.
  • [15] Ibid., 36, 42, 49–50, 52, 52 note 64–65.
  • [16] Ibid., 36 note 26. Emphasis my own.
  • [17] Ibid., 52. Emphasis my own.
  • [18] Ibid., 28 note 3, 43 note 40–41, 46 note 51.
  • [19] Ibid., 42, 42 note 37. Here, Feist is citing a phrase from Karl Marx, “Einleitung zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie [1857],” in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Werke, vol. 13 (Berlin: Dietz, 1961), 633.
  • [20] Ibid., 27.
  • [21] Ibid.
  • [22] Ibid., 39.
  • [23] Ibid., 41.
  • [24] Feist, Hauptstraßen, 101, 104.
  • [25] Feist, Principles and Methods, 30, 32, 35, 39, 45.
  • [26] Ibid., 35.
  • [27] Ibid., 32–33.
  • [28] Ibid., 42.
  • [29] Peter H. Feist, Kurt Faustmann, and Michael Franz, eds., Zur Aneignungsfunktion der Kunst (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1990).
  • [30] Feist, Hauptstraßen, 165.
  • [31] Feist, Principles and Methods, 31–35, 47–48.
  • [32] Ibid., 36 note 24, 50–51 note 62, 52 note 65.
  • [33] Feist, Hauptstraßen, 95.
  • [34] Feist, Principles and Methods, 48.
  • [35] Feist, Hauptstraßen, 104.
  • [36] Feist, Principles and Methods, 34.
  • [37] See my article, Nicos Hadjinicolaou, “Kunstzentren und periphere Kunst, kritische berichte, vol. 11, no. 4 (1983): 36–56. For an English translation, see: Nicos Hadjinicolaou, “Art Centers and Peripheral Art [A Lecture at the University of Hamburg, October 15, 1982],” trans. Dieter Wältermann, ARTMARGINS, vol. 9, no. 2 (June 2020), 119–40.
  • [38] Feist, Principles and Methods, 34. Emphasis my own.
  • [39] Hans Robert Jauss, Literaturgeschichte als Provokation der Literaturwissenschaft (Konstanz: Universitätsverlag, 1967); Robert Weimann, “Gegenwart und Vergangenheit in der Literaturgeschichte,” Weimarer Beiträge, vol. 16, no. 5 (1970), 31–57; Manfred Naumann, “Literatur und Leser,” ibid., 92–116; Karl Robert Mandelkow, “Probleme der Wirkungsästhetik,” Jahrbuch für Internationale Germanistik 2 (1970), 71–84.
  • [40] Feist, Principles and Methods, 36, note 26.
  • [41] Ibid., 36; Feist, Hauptstraßen, 136, 162, 209. Emphasis my own.
  • [42] Feist, Principles and Methods, 42.
  • [43] Doris Schmidt, “Marxistische Kunstwissenschaft: Zu einer Diskussion in München,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, November 23, 1964.
  • [44] Hans Günther, “Marxistische Kunstinterpretation: Zu einer mutigen Veranstaltung,” Information: AStA der Universität München, vol. 8, no. 7 (1964), 6.