Conference on Visual Cultures in Socialism, University of Hamburg

Dr Jessica Jenkins
Conference on Visual Cultures in Socialism.
Organised by the University of Hamburg.


My own PhD research uncovers the art and design of public spaces in communist East Germany, and Visual Cultures in Socialism gave me an excellent opportunity to learn about related research areas. This overview gives a brief insight into this academic conference, which although not titled as such, presented design history research, with a focus largely on forms of visual communication in a number of state socialist states in the post war period up until the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Firstly, a thought on Hamburg, the German city made wealthy through its position as a gateway to the North Sea. Although the city lies actually 100km from the sea, the capitalisation of the harbour has defined Hamburg for hundreds of years. It was the abundance of water and wealth that struck me on my visit, but at the same time a social dimension typical for Germany. Students don’t pay fees, universities are run as places of learning, canteen food is cheap and healthy, nurseries are modern and well equipped, public transport is efficient and affordable, and the cost of a beer at a prime spot overlooking the Elbe was no more than anywhere else.

None of this of course, has much to do with the subject of the conference. East Germany was situated far away from Hamburg, and even today there is a huge divide in perception and experience between East and West. On the other hand, in fact, the “social contract” in Germany is part of the Cold War story. West Germany’s political strategy was to make Capitalism attractive, and thus weaken the case for the Socialism of neighbouring East Germany, once part of the same country. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this need to prove West German superiority also fell away, and whilst the sense of public provision is still tangible, the social contract has been eroded over recent years.

The conference covered all sorts of visual subject matter. Imagining the visual histories of socialism, certain images come immediately to mind: Stalin portraits, red flags, the hammer and sickle, posters of female tractor drivers, and bits of material culture emanating from economies marked by shortages. However, the richness and diversity of the visual culture which spread across this vast territory for forty years and more is a fascinating resource for design and visual culture historians. The conference asked: how was socialism visually defined and represented? How was it made recognizable? How can we understand the relationships between the control and production of images, the consumption of images and mass culture, the interaction between “high” and “low”, in addition to the management of cultural and ethnic diversity in the socialist societies of the 20th century and the visual cultures tied to ruling practices?

During the conference, one of my thoughts was how little, even within graphic design which is at least 50% concerned with images, we actually critically engage with images. We have a flair for finding and using images, but how often do we really stop and think about the significance of our choices, and the culture we are immersed in and which we make it our task to perpetuate?

Now for the images…

JJ 1


Christoph Lorke, WWU Münster.

Thinking the Social: Social images of ‘poverty’ and the construction of ‘self’ and “otherness” in GDR society.

Christoph Lorke examined officially sanctioned images of 1) the elderly and 2) large families in the GDR, Bulgaria and the USSR. The socialist states were keen to present old age as a time of social and personal flourishing, (in contrast to the image of poverty from the West, see far left). Large families were promoted as places of good moral and social education where all members contributed to the well being of the family unit. Mothers who bore many children were presented with medals in some countries.

JJ 2


Christine Gölz, GWZO Leipzig.

Merry pictures of the little folk: The cartoon magazine ‘Veselye kartinki’, or what’s left from the Socialist ‘children’s world’

The Merry Little folk of Soviet socialist comics. Initially the brief was to be fun and apolitical, but from the late 1967s there was an increasingly socialist agenda in the stories.

JJ 3


Paweł Miedzinski,
Institute of National Remembrance, Szczecin, looked at the Polish sate photography agency. Top, images of Polish advertising techniques. The trusty technique, sale through sexual association is used, as well as the now less common focus on the product.

Below, Micha Braun, University of Leipzig
presented the bizarre counter state activities of surrealist and performing arts groups in the 1980s who satirised state socialism. The public action “who is afraid of toilet paper” where sheets of toilet paper were distributed to the public was a reflection on shortages of basic necessities.

JJ 4


Sabine Stach, German Historical Institute, Warsaw/University of Leipzig.

Personae non gratae or How to stage hidden heroes. Visual representations of Jan Palach.

Stach looked at the changing reception of the icon of Jan Palach, the young student who burnt himself to death in 1968 as a protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops. Once a potent symbol for “socialism with a human face”, today he is politically neutralised as a symbol of democracy.

Beata Hock, GWZO Leipzig presented images of women in socialism as: Casualties of remembering communism/ Above, the female Soviet cosmonaut who set the Russians ahead of the Americans in the gender race in the 1960s. Below left, a still from the late 1980s film of the deviant Russian woman, “Little Vera”. Below right, the extraordinary photographs commissioned by Life magazine, contrasting a Dior model, albeit invited to the Soviet Union by Khruschev, with the simple, headscarfed Russian women in 1954.

JJ 5


Nadine Siegert, University of Bayreuth: Images of nostalgic and utopian Socialism: visuality and counter-visuality in Angola & Mozambique.

Siegert presented an extraordinary range of socialist propaganda images from Angola and Mozambique from the 1960s and 1970s, which showed influences from Soviet socialist realism, American pop art, Polish poster design and West European activism.

JJ 6


Carmen Scheide, University of St. Gallen:
The visual construction of Soviet Ukraine.

How was Ukraine constructed as female, as opposed to the male characterisation of the Soviet Union which ruled the country? As folk image, as innocent, as pre-modern, Ukraine was to play cultural feminine to the Soviet modern and hi-tech masculine.

JJ docks

View of central Hamburg.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s