Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The conquest of space: a mural at the Juri-Gagarin-Schule, Sangerhausen

In the former German Democratic Republic and other people's democracies, it was relatively common to find large works of art on the façades of public buildings and in the streets. Political propaganda was often an integral part of these works.
This was less the case at the Juri-Gagarin-Schule (Yuri Gagarin School) in Sangerhausen, a mining town southeast of the Harz Mountains. There, local artist Wilhelm Schmied produced in 1970 a colourfur mural depicting man's ambition to conquer the skies and space. Needless to say the bright colours, typical of the time, appealed to generations of kids, including my girlfriend who was a pupil at that school.

Unfortunately the school has been closed for years and some of the ceramic tiles have been falling down. The right part of the mural has suffered most. The fall of Icarus occupies most of the wall but the eye is attracted by the bright and burning rays of the sun and by the decorated kites and the colourful hot air balloon that rises successfully towards the skies.

On the left part of the mural a cosmonaut floats in space, with the moon and satellites in the background. Obviously this couldn't be Gagarin since the Russian astronaut didn't step out of the Vostock 1 cockpit. Interestingly the letters 'CCCP' don't appear on the helmet. Below the cosmonaut some kind of supersonic plane is flying at incredible speeds, leaving a vapour trail across the whole mural.

The school, whose name was changed to Friedrich-Schiller-Gymnasium in the 1990s, is due to be demolished soon. Sadly it looks as if the mural will be crushed with it. It would have been easy to rescue the tiles and display them elsewhere. I can certainly think of a few buildings in Sangerhausen that would benefit from having them on their façade, starting with the local museum!

Born in Dresden in 1910, Wilhelm Schmied first trained as a furniture painter and lacquerware artist before studying painting in the 1930s. He then moved to Sangerhausen, where he opened a studio. By the 1950s his work started to be recognized and in 1959 he became president of the Halle section of the East German Graphic Artists' Association. Later he joined the East German Academy of the Arts. His 1962 painting Mansfelder Land was particularly well received by the critics and the public and one year later he was commissioned to decorate the ticket hall at the train station of Sangerhausen. There he created a large mosaic depicting the people and mining industry of the area (that will be for another post). The scenery and the communities of the area remained his main source of inspiration, the Juri-Gagarin-Schule mural being an exception. In 1976 his painting Rappodetalsperre, which represented the reservoir of Rappode and the surrounding Harz landscape, was selected for the Palace of the Republic in Berlin. Schmied died in 1984.

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