Written on the Wall: Artists repaint Berlin Wall murals
Twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall collapsed.
The wall was the most famous part of the Iron Curtain, which separated free Western Europe from communist Eastern Europe, and a physical reminder of the pain and death the division caused.
The wall was started in 1961 and encircled West Berlin, which was located in communist-controlled East Germany. It took several years to complete, a combination of a concrete wall and an adjoining "death strip" with mines, watchtowers and barbed wire. At least 98 people died trying to escape communist rule by breaching the wall that divided families, friends and relatives, and cut cultural and economic ties between East and West Berlin.
When the East German government declared in 1989 that residents of the divided city could freely travel from one side to the other, Berliners got rid of the wall within months. Nobody thought to preserve parts of it as a historic monument, so bad were memories of the wall and its ugliness. Demolition firms and souvenir hunters reduced the wall to almost nothing.
Some decorative segments, covered with colorful graffiti, were sold worldwide by the Berlin Senate. A construction firm saved several sections and put them in storage. To mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, Bild Zeitung, a big German newspaper, bought wall segments and donated one to each of the 16 German states as a symbol of German unification.
The only major part of the wall that escaped destruction is in the eastern side of Berlin, in the former communist sector. One side was protected by the Spree River, which formed the border between the two sides during the Cold War. The other side faced East Berlin and was virtually untouched.
Untouched, that is, until a group of some 118 artists from 21 countries created 106 colorful murals in a variety of art styles on it in 1989 and ’90.
Their work became known as the East Side Gallery, and it saved the section from being dismantled. Nearly one mile long, this open-air gallery is especially popular with young tourists and is almost a must-see while visiting Berlin. It includes a famous painting of an oft-published photo of communist brotherhood: Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev kissing East German President Erich Honnecker during a state visit in 1979. The city of Berlin declared the East Side Gallery a historic monument in 1992.
Eventually, the wall and the paintings deteriorated. Time, weather, air pollution and vandalism damaged the concrete and the artwork. In 1997, a collective of Berlin artists began restoring 40 of the most-damaged murals and asked the city for financial help.
This year, 1 million euros of public money was made available for the restoration project. The wall was sandblasted and the concrete was restored and covered with two layers of special paint to create a perfect base for the original artists who were invited to paint their work a second time.
The murals are supposed to be exact copies of what was painted in 1990. So far, 80 murals have been restored, and by Oct. 30, the East Side Gallery is scheduled to appear in its original colorful, imaginative glory.
20 years after the fall of the wallThe restored paintings of the East Side Gallery will be unveiled to the public in early November, possibly Nov. 9, the final day of Berlin’s three-day Festival of Freedom.
The festival includes many of the official activities marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and will be observed by government representatives from around the world. It will be held at the Brandenburg Gate and will involve a commemoration ceremony for those killed while trying to escape East Berlin, a variety of formal events, a mix of entertainment and fireworks.
According to the Web site www.mauerfall09.de, among the events is a symbolic collapse of the wall being called Domino Action and involving 1,000 8-foot-tall slabs made of plastic foam covered with fabric. The slabs, being decorated by city youth, will be lined up like dominoes in a 1¼-mile-long chain. On the last day of the festival, they will be toppled.
Exhibitions, demonstrations, films, tours, lectures and activities for youth have been going on throughout the year.
For a day-by-day list of events, see the Web site.