April Eisman studies East German Cold War art

Kayla Schaudt

April Eisman, assistant professor of integrated studio arts, will spend a year in Germany doing research for a book about female artists during the Cold War in East Germany. 

During the Cold War, it was not easy to make potential disagreements with the government publicly known. East Germany claimed to have achieved women’s equality, though in reality they were far from it.

There were various ways to express indignation with the conditions of the time, including showing opinions through art. One of the most notable female artists of this period was Angela Hampel, a woman born and raised in Germany.

Eisman recognizes the work done by Hampel and believes more people should know her story.

Eisman was named an American Fellow by the American Association of University Women in order to study female artists in the former East Germany. Eisman speaks fluent German and is using this opportunity to study for a year in Germany and conduct research for a book about Hampel and similar female artists. 

“This book will show that East Germany had art, and that it had important women artists,” Eisman said. “In Germany, the complexity of East German art is much better known, but the story is dominated by male artists. My intent is to write women back into the story of East German art.”

Spending a year in Leipzig, Germany, Eisman is planning to study Hampel’s works and learn more about her life as a woman artist during the Cold War.

“Working [here] enables me to access the primary and secondary materials needed to write the book — from archival files to books and journals and the art itself,” Eisman said. “I will also be able to meet with the other scholars working on East German art.”

Eisman has been to Germany at least once a month nearly every year since 2000. This is her second year-long fellowship.

Eisman points out that these paintings have an emphasis on figuration and technical skills. Unlike the West, which focuses on creativity, East Germany art schools constructed lessons around technical skills, figuring that students had the rest of their lives to create a personal style.

“It’s not an obvious difference,” said Ingrid Lilligren, professor of integrated studio arts. “It’s subtle. It has to do with the content; it has to do with the narrative. It’s interesting to think about how hard an artist that lives in an oppressive regime has to work in order to make a statement that could potentially be seen as subversive.”

Studying the art of East Germany during the Cold War will give art history scholars a unique look into artwork that describes the struggles of people during a difficult time in German history.

“The result was a wide diversity of artistic styles as individual artists found their own artistic voice over the course of several decades,” Eisman said. “The number of students allowed to study art was extremely limited, but the result was that those who graduated were guaranteed employment as artists for the rest of their lives [as long as they didn’t criticize the government].”

The stories the artists of East Germany tell are subtle, but during the Cold War, they meant the difference between life and death.

“If you want to say something about your horror at the way people are being treated and the conditions of your home country and you know that if you said it in as many words there would be punishment, you have to find subtle ways to do that,” Lilligren said.