Grundig, Lea (1906–1977)

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Grundig, Lea (1906–1977)

German-Jewish graphic artist of the later years of the Weimar Republic who became one of the most honored artists of the German Democratic Republic. Born Lea Langer in Dresden, Germany, on March 23, 1906; died while on a Mediterranean cruise on October 10, 1977; daughter of Moses Baer Langer and Juditta (Händzel) Langer; had sisters Marie and Klara; married Hans Grundig; no children.

Lea Langer was born in 1906 in Dresden, Germany, into a prosperous Jewish family that was considerably more traditional in its religious orthodoxy than the majority of German Jews, who regarded themselves as "German citizens of the Jewish faith" (both of her parents had been born in Polish territory). Lea's upbringing at first provided few of the stimuli that would one day propel her into the world of revolutionary art. While she did show an early interest in drawing, and even as a child often spoke of her determination to grow up be an artist, the essential elements of her environment were typical of Germany's Jewish urban middle class.

In her teens, the popular and attractive Lea was a member of Dresden's militantly Zionist youth organization Blau-weiss (Blue-White). In 1922, drifting from her orthodox roots, she embarked on a serious study of art. At first, she was a student at the municipal school of arts and crafts, but by 1924 she had set her sights much higher by enrolling in the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. Here she met and fell in love with Hans Grundig, a talented fellow artist who was also a militant Communist.

Having become convinced that only the creation of a Marxist society could assure Germany and the world a future of social justice without the scourge of war, in 1926 Lea joined the German Communist Party (KPD). She further alienated herself from her conservative family in 1928 by marrying Hans Grundig, who was not only a Communist but a non-Jew as well. To signal her break with her comfortable bourgeois background, and rebelling as well against the "commercial spirit" (Händlertum) of her family, Lea moved with Hans to a small apartment in the working-class Ostbahnstrasse district of Dresden. As was customary among many leftist couples of the day in Weimar Germany, the Grundigs looked upon their marriage as a Kameradschaftsehe—a companionate union of fully equal partners.

Lea Grundig and her husband regarded themselves not as artistic individualists but rather as members of a revolutionary collective body, the German Communist Party. Rejecting the middle-class ideals of aesthetic subjectivity, both Grundigs accepted the discipline of a highly regimented (eventually Stalinist and totalitarian) mass movement committed to social revolution. In their artistic lives, in 1929 they became members of the Communist-oriented Asso (Assoziation Revolutionärer Bildender Künstler Deutschlands—German Association of Revolutionary Artists). As active Asso members, the Grundigs chose to harness their developing artistic talents to the cause of Marxist social revolution. They regarded their art as a weapon in the class struggle, believing that if it could not be disseminated among the masses, there was little point in creating it. To enhance the effectiveness of KPD agitation and propaganda (agitprop) among Dresden's workers, Lea and Hans often produced flyers, posters, and inexpensive drawings that could be sold to poor workers for a few pfennigs.

The early 1930s were years of social distress and political instability in Germany. The collapse of world trade cost millions of industrial workers their jobs, and while many of the unemployed were now sympathetic to the appeals of Communism, many more Germans of all backgrounds found themselves listening seriously to the Nazi movement led by Adolf Hitler. For Lea and Hans Grundig, the Nazis, who preached violent hatred of Jews and Marxists, had to be fought with every means at their disposal. As militant anti-Fascists, they attended countless meetings and rallies. As artists, they were determined to create paintings and prints that could serve as weapons in the struggle against Hitlerism. In one of her earliest series of prints on topical subject matter, "Harzburger Front," Lea was able to capture with savage irony the faces of the Nazis and their conservative allies who claimed to represent "the German spirit" but in reality embodied the poisonous frustrations of a sick society.

By early 1933, the battle to save Germany from the Nazis had been lost. Hitler came to power in January of that year in an alliance with gullible conservatives and nationalists fearful of chaos and social upheaval. Within weeks, the

KPD was destroyed. Only small secret cells of determined party members like the Grundigs now kept the flame of working-class resistance against the Nazis alive. Although Hans Grundig was "of pure Aryan blood" and thus presumably acceptable to the new rulers of Germany, his outspokenly Marxist affiliations in the past and his refusal to divorce his Jewish wife led to his expulsion from the Reich Culture Chamber, thus making it impossible for him to find legal employment. As a Jew, Lea Grundig was banned from earning a living as an artist.

Subsidized by Lea's family, the Grundigs concentrated on their art as well as their anti-Nazi underground activities. In the spring of 1933, when the Nazis had barely begun to consolidate their dictatorship, the Grundigs purchased a copper-plate etching press. Over the next five years, Lea and Hans printed about 230 engravings, many of which were treasonous in their commentary on the Nazi political regime. Lea Grundig, who produced the majority (approximately 150) of these engravings during the years 1933–38, emerged during this difficult period not only as a courageous member of Germany's anti-Nazi underground but as a powerful artistic personality as well.

Although she had mastered various forms of printmaking by the 1930s, Lea was particularly fond of drypoint, a process in which she used a diamond-sharp needle to incise her drawings into copper plates. Of the prints (Kaltnadelradierungen) she made during these years, 114 copies survived Gestapo raids and searches, her and her husband's imprisonment, and the destruction of Dresden in 1945. In most instances, only from one to five copies were pulled from their small press, to be given to trusted colleagues. A number of unique prints were smuggled out of Nazi Germany at great risk. In one case, the Grundigs' poet friend Auguste Lazar took some copies to Denmark, where they were given to Bertolt Brecht's wife, actress Helene Weigel , who in turn took the precious prints to France. In another instance, some of the engravings were sent to Switzerland for safekeeping.

The works of art produced in Nazi Germany in the 1930s by Lea and Hans Grundig are remarkable both aesthetically and in a broader sense. These pictures both defined and defied a fascist regime that was preparing for war and genocide while many Germans were its enthusiastic supporters and the outside world remained indifferent. In series after series created between 1933 and her arrest and imprisonment in the spring of 1938, Lea depicted the harsh realities of working-class life in Nazi Germany. Entitled "Women's Lives," "Under the Swastika," "The Jew is to Blame," "War Threatens!" and "On the Spanish War," these sets of engravings represent a powerful indictment of fascism, even though they were produced within Nazi Germany by an artist whose life was under constant threat for both political and racial reasons.

In her "Women's Lives" series, Grundig depicts the daily existence of working-class women, boxed in their tenement rooms. One of the most moving in the series is The Dying Child (1935), which shows a near-skeletal girl on a bed, with her mother facing her, but her father turned away. In The Laundry Room, an exhausted woman bends over a washbowl, while a small, neglected child stands in the back of the room. Another print, The Kitchen, portrays a pregnant woman whose youth has vanished, sitting dejectedly in her ancient, suffocating kitchen. Yet not all of Grundig's art from these years is despairing. In Comrade Else Frölich and Sonia (1935), a working-class mother and child, though obviously impoverished, radiate dignity. After her parents were imprisoned by the Nazis, Sonia, aged ten, undertook dangerous courier tasks for the resistance cell of which the Grundigs were members.

In her "Under the Swastika" ("Unterm Hakenkreuz") series, Grundig captures the continual fear of arrest of anti-Nazis like herself and her husband Hans. Her depictions of those of the working-class are compassionate but not idealized. They are shown to be both weak and strong. In Gestapo in the House, the palpable fear of a lower-class family of three is presented in the instant they realize the Nazi authorities suspect them of involvement in resistance activity. The print Sleeping Prisoners shows five emaciated prisoners in a cell, each self-contained in their only escape from daily fear and pain. The Hunted One shows a solitary man running from wolves, with witnesses in the background unable or unwilling to offer help. The etching Christl Beham is a haunting portrait of a colleague in the Communist underground who was not only the Grundigs' closest friend, but a man destined to die in a Nazi concentration camp.

As a Jew, Lea Grundig had particular cause to both fear and hate the National Socialist regime. Although she ceased to think of herself as being Jewish in religious terms, she was fully cognizant of a Nazi racial regime that defined her as being a member of an element that must be driven from German soil. Her response, not surprisingly, was an artistic one. In her etching series, "The Jew is to Blame," she portrays Jews both as individuals and a community, victimized but clinging to their humanity and retaining dignity in the face of relentless persecution. In Pogrom (1935), a small group of Jews shriek in terror while their unseen tormentors continue to attack. The composition and lighting of this stark work was possibly inspired by Goya's classic painting of heroic Spaniards' deaths in the Napoleonic Wars, The Third of May, 1808. In The Scream (1937), another work in this series that anticipates art inspired by the Holocaust, a man's open mouth summons up a scream that is at once a testament of defiance and a warning to a still indifferent world. In The Jewish Burial (1935), of which only five were initially printed (sixty additional copies were drawn from the plate in 1972), a group of grieving and still-proud Jews, led by their rabbi, proceed to the cemetery past an ugly, indifferent industrial landscape.

Although only a handful of trusted friends saw their art, the Grundigs continued to etch, draw and paint. In her 1936 print Mothers, War Threatens!, Grundig captured the same spirit of compassion and anguish that had earlier inspired another great German artist, Käthe Kollwitz . The anticipated terrors of a new, infinitely more destructive conflict are summed up in GasMasks, in which science and technology are unleashed to snuff out lives. The Children, another in the "War Threatens!" series, shows abandoned children holding hands in a nightmare landscape of generalized destruction. In her "On the Spanish War" etchings, Grundig depicts despair in the print As Madrid fell and defiance in We Will Liberate Ourselves, which shows a bound man about to break his fetters.

Despite almost constant surveillance by the Gestapo, the Grundigs continued to produce large numbers of art works which they showed and in some cases presented to colleagues they could trust. But over a period of several years, many of their friends were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and their small circle kept being reduced in size. On several occasions, trusted individuals turned out to be Nazi agents or simply lost their faith in the cause and defected to the enemy.

In 1936, soon after her return from a trip to Switzerland, Lea was arrested (Hans would also be arrested several times during these years). After each arrest, the Grundigs would return to their increasingly risky activities even though they realized their prospects for keeping intact a successful underground network were precarious. In May 1938, Lea once again found herself under arrest, but this time she received a long prison sentence—a grim prospect for a Jewish Communist in Nazi Germany, but still a somewhat more hopeful situation than being sent to a concentration camp.

In December 1939, a ray of hope appeared for the imprisoned Lea. Her parents and sister, who had already immigrated to Palestine, were able to secure exit papers for her. Hans approved of her plans, and after several brushes with calamity, including the sinking of her ship, she arrived in Palestine in 1941. Life in the British Mandate of Palestine in the early years of World War II was tension-ridden and uncertain. For a number of months, Grundig was kept by British authorities as an illegal immigrant in the Athlit internment camp. Here, she produced a new series of graphics, "Anti-Fascist Primer," as powerful an indictment of Nazism as the works she had produced in Dresden. Outspoken in her rejection of Zionist ideology, and daring to continue to converse in a now-hated German language, Lea established a number of deep friendships while in Palestine but also managed to attract enemies. Within the Betar movement of Zionist extremists, some came to regard her as being little better than a crypto-Nazi. The fact that she also advocated peaceful coexistence with the Arabs was for Betar the last straw. As a result of her "treason," Grundig was the recipient of death threats.

Her reunion in Palestine with the Langer family, who had long had mixed feelings about her lifestyle, was in many ways bittersweet. But just as her parents had offered support to Lea and Hans in Dresden, once more they offered their help. After staying for a time with her sister in Haifa, Grundig found employment in her father's Tel Aviv restaurant. In her precious leisure time, while the Holocaust raged in Europe, and millions of Jews went to their deaths in Nazi death camps, in 1942–43 she created another series of graphics entitled "In the Valley of Death." This bone-chilling representation of the Holocaust, perhaps the first major artistic statement on this central tragedy of our era, was initially published in Palestine as reproductions in 1944, and would be her first postwar publication in Germany, appearing in print in Dresden in 1947 as Im Tal des Todes, with poems by Kurt Liebmann. In view of the fact that details on the death camps had been only reported in the press in a highly fragmentary fashion, Grundig's depictions of gas chambers and Holocaust victims are truly astonishing. Still haunted by the Holocaust even after the defeat of Hitler, from 1945 through 1948 the exiled artist refused to turn away from this painful subject. She created several new etching series, including "Never Again!," "Ghetto," and "Ghetto Revolt."

Undeterred by the hostility to some of her political views, Grundig was extremely active during her years in Palestine as an artist and citizen. Supported by a German-Jewish emigré circle led by Joseph Kastein, she was able to produce sufficient art works to mount exhibits in Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv as well as at several art-starved kibbutzim. Her large circle of German refugee friends included the venerable poet Else Lasker-Schüler , the artist Hermann Struck, and the novelist Arnold Zweig, but Lea did not live in the past as did some emigrés, preferring instead to enter into contemporary political struggles, which included the contribution of drawings to Kol Haam (Voice of the People), the local Communist newspaper, as well as forging ties to the Palestinian Communist Party and the Society for Arab-Jewish Understanding. Concerned that her life as an urban intellectual would cut her off from ordinary people's concerns, she lived for several months on a kibbutz, a visit that inspired artistic creations she believed would be of permanent value.

For more than five years, Lea Grundig did not know what had happened to her husband, sometimes losing hope that he had remained alive. Arrested in 1940, Hans Grundig was taken to the infamous Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. Dragooned into the Wehrmacht in 1944 to fight on the Russian front, Hans was able to desert to the Soviets. He returned to Dresden in 1946, but his health had been shattered (he would suffer for the rest of his life from severe pulmonary disorders). Until she received a letter from him, Lea did not know until July 9, 1946, that Hans had survived Sachsenhausen, the war, and captivity in a Soviet POW camp. "Lea, once again it is springtime for us," he wrote. But the couple's reunion was to be delayed, not for weeks or months, but for years.

Since Hans had returned to Dresden, a devastated city since the Allied bombing raids of February 1945, he lived in what was now the Soviet Zone of Occupied Germany. By 1946, when he and Lea were reunited if only by mail, it was clear that a new conflict, the east-west Cold War, would tear apart not only defeated Germany but most of Europe and the rest of the globe as well. The fates of individuals were now to be decided on the basis of strategic national interests. In Palestine, as British rule was waning, movement of Jews both in and out of the territory was subject to countless bureaucratic restrictions. Lea Grundig, as a German-Jewish Communist, found herself facing a particularly precarious situation. Not until 1948, some months after Israel had declared its independence but with a war with its Arab neighbors still raging, was Lea able to finally depart for Germany. Even then, roadblocks remained, and she found herself stranded in Prague from November 1948 until February 1949, when she finally returned to her hometown of Dresden.

Soon after her arrival, Lea was finally reunited with a husband that she had not seen since May 1938. Because of his poor health, Hans was once again confined to the sanatorium at Sülzhayn which specialized in treating patients with pulmonary illnesses. "And then he stands before me, my old gray Hans," she wrote in her memoirs. "He is ill, and in his small face one can still see the frightful tensions of those terrible years. His hair has gone totally white—but his straight mouth is laughing, as before."

Hans Grundig had served as rector of the denazified Dresden Academy of Fine Arts from 1946 to 1948, but by the time he was reunited with his wife in 1949 he had already resigned that position. Although poor health was a major factor in Hans' resignation, he and Lea would soon find themselves enmeshed in the Byzantine cultural-political conflicts of the newly constituted East German state. In October 1949, the Soviet Union had orchestrated the creation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). With their sterling anti-Fascist pedigrees, the Grundigs appeared at this juncture to be destined for nothing but smooth sailing. In 1949, Lea Grundig was appointed the first female chaired professor of graphics and drawing at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, a post she held until her retirement in 1967.

By 1950, Cold War fears were spiralling out of control. Many in both east and west believed a nuclear war was all but inevitable. While loyalty oaths, the search for "un-American activities" and a spirit of anti-Communist hysteria plagued America's public life, in the Soviet Union and its satellite states, including the GDR, general paranoia was the order of the day, and many feared that in the Kremlin an aging Joseph Stalin would unleash a purge matching the savage bloodletting of the 1930s.

Throughout the Soviet bloc, the arts were by no means immune from a mounting pressure to achieve a state of absolute Marxist orthodoxy. The anti-Fascist art of the Grundigs, while respected in the immediate postwar years, now was seen as being too pessimistic for a society engaged in the tasks of "socialist reconstruction." Lea Grundig was also suspect in the eyes of some Socialist Unity Party ideologues, being potentially too "Western-oriented" not only because of her Jewish origins but because she had spent the war years neither in Germany nor the Soviet Union, but in British-ruled Palestine.

The expected bombshell against the Grundigs and other artists suspected of displaying insufficient orthodoxy burst on January 20, 1951, when a pseudonymous article signed "N. Orlow" appeared in the Soviet-controlled East Berlin newspaper Tägliche Rundschau. Entitled "Right and Wrong Paths in Modern Art," the article did not mention the Grundigs by name but clearly linked their work to a "formalist" art that did not serve the needs of a socialist society. Hans and Lea responded in an article that appeared a month later in the same newspaper, asserting that new concepts of what is beautiful or ugly would have to evolve, and that their art, which had served as weapons in the war against fascism, should now serve to advance the cause of social progress, even if it did not appear to meet standards of conventional beauty or "socialist realism."

Although neither she nor her husband suffered legal sanctions for their assertiveness on this and other occasions, the GDR cultural bureaucracy regarded their claims of artistic integrity with great suspicion. Measures were taken to restrict the influence of the Grundigs largely to the Dresden region, but even here they were forced for years to endure what was clearly a centrally orchestrated boycott of their art. Only with the start of a timid de-Stalinization process in the GDR in 1956 (which in no way matched the much more sweeping cultural "thaw" in neighboring Poland) was it possible for the Grundigs to exhibit their works in public. One such exhibition took place in 1956 in the Saxon town of Zwickau. In June 1958, Lea and Hans had the satisfaction of seeing a large number of their works exhibited in East Berlin's Pavillion of Art. A few months later, the same works were shown in Moscow.

Unfortunately, this belated sign of recognition came too late for Hans Grundig, who died in Dresden on September 11, 1958. Within weeks of his death, both Hans and Lea were named recipients of the National Prize of the GDR, Second Class. Lea Grundig never remarried and remained strongly influenced by her husband's example. She gave expression to these feelings in her 1964 self-portrait, which shows her own face, marked by grief, wisdom, and a lifetime of painful events, merging with that of Hans. From the late 1950s to the end of her life, Lea Grundig's reputation in the GDR was secure. As a living embodiment of the Marxist republic's anti-Fascist traditions dating back to the pre-Hitler epoch, she was now celebrated as a Grand Old Lady of the GDR cultural scene. With the end of a blatantly Stalinist regime in the arts, her work could now be studied and praised.

Starting in the early 1950s, Grundig produced graphics that positively portrayed the building of socialism in the GDR and looked critically at the "imperialist" societies of the West. Unambiguous in their support of socialism, these works are generally less convincing than her anti-Fascist works of the 1930s. Grundig once suggested that she hoped to be remembered not as an artist, but rather as "an agitator" for the noble cause of socialism. Perhaps this is a key to understanding the totality of her work, both in its strengths and weaknesses.

No longer an outsider, in 1958 Grundig published her autobiography, Gesichte und Geschichte (Faces and History), which became a GDR bestseller, going through ten printings between 1958 and 1984. In 1961, she was elected a member of the prestigious German Academy of the Arts, followed in 1964 by her election as president of the League of German Artists (Verband Bildender Künstler Deutschlands). In 1967, she received the GDR National Prize, First Class, and in the same year was elected a member of the Socialist Unity Party's Central Committee. A number of additional awards came her way during the next decade, including the granting in 1972 of an honorary doctoral degree by the University of Greifswald.

In 1973, an ambitious exhibition of many aspects of her life's work took place in West Berlin's Ladengalerie, a gallery that had been showing her art on a more modest scale since the early 1960s. It was this show that broke the ice jam that had kept Grundig's graphic oeuvre largely hidden behind the Iron Curtain and, in her own case, the Berlin Wall as well. In the crisis-ridden GDR's last decade, the 1980s, there was an "organized lack of interest" in Grundig's achievements, a situation that changed dramatically in 1996–97 when a one-woman show brought her work to the attention of art lovers in both Berlin (Ladengalerie) and New York (Galerie St. Etienne).

In her final years, Grundig enjoyed maintaining and deepening her contacts with friends and students. She also looked forward to her foreign travels and was able to visit a number of countries she had dreamed of exploring when young, including several socialist societies: Cuba, Chile, and the People's Republic of China. It was during another such trip, a Mediterranean cruise, that Lea Grundig died suddenly, on October 10, 1977. She is buried in Dresden, next to her beloved husband Hans.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia