Vera Lauf / Radjo Monk

1. Leipziger Herbstsalon – staging artistic positions

Keywords: artist as curator artists’ union environment / installation institutional critique non-art venue self-organized site-specificity

The 1. Leipziger Herbstsalon stands for a groundbreaking initiative in which a group of artists successfully organized an independent exhibition in a state-run exhibition hall in the very center of the city. Within the art history of the GDR it is an outstanding example for a strategy to open up alternative spaces for action within the given legal and institutional structures of the repressive state. Furthermore, it embodies the overlaps between the semi-official and official art scene. The exhibition encouraged follow-up initiatives and exemplified the production of a public space through the organization of an exhibition. Due to constraints that were nevertheless formulated by the authorities the exhibition left conventional presentation formats behind.

“It was more than just an affinity of style or the restrictions of the little GDR that brought the six painters, sculptors and filmmakers together.“ In his speech at the opening of the exhibition Subversive Practices – Art under Conditions of Political Repression at the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart in 2009, Lutz Dammbeck summarized the motives of the artists participating in the Herbstsalon as follows: “they wanted to send an audible signal that made not only an artistic, but also a political impact“[1].
The diffuse pattern of interaction between the authorities of state control and artists who attempted to avoid this control can be illustrated on the example of the preparation, carrying out and impact of the 1. Leipziger Herbstsalon. The artists’ demand was to implement their artistic views in public, without complying with cultural-political guidelines regarding contents or aesthetics, or giving way to the pressure of the ideologically founded expectations exerted by cultural officials. The first attempt to realize an independent exhibition was made as early as 1977, when the later initiators of the Herbstsalon planned Tangente, a multimedia project combining painting, music, film, performance and literature. The organizers made two attempts to gain permission for this project, but the state authorities dealt with it in such a way – first authorizing it and then preventing it without naming reasons – that they were driven to devise new strategies. In 1984, Günther Huniat, Hans-Hendrik Grimmling and Frieder Heinze used their position in the Verband Bildender Künstler (VBK, the artists’ association of the GDR) to organize the 1. Leipziger Herbstsalon themselves, asserting their own artistic positions in the process. Their strategy was successful because no one in an administrative position could ever have anticipated it. Acting as a representative of the VBK, Günther Huniat negotiated a tenancy contract for the Messehaus am Markt (an official exhibition hall of the Leipzig Fair) with the Fair Office, taking advantage of a completely legal procedure. “…any dog breeding society could rent the Messehaus am Markt”, Huniat later recalls.[2]  “As members of an association, we were legally independent individuals. Of course, we had to say which organization we belonged to.”[3] Their courage was rewarded: for the first time, the state authorities were powerless against a provocation of this kind, even though the six artists were actually making a public statement against the SED’s power monopoly. The power monopoly was called into question through the self-organization of artists. It became clear that grey areas existed where the state was unable to exert its control down to the last detail.[4] The GDR Ministry of State Security was fearful of the power of this example. The SED district administration, the VBK Leipzig and the Central Committee of the SED discussed the matter with the Ministry for State Security, who engaged in damage limitation by setting conditions that could hardly be adhered to: each artist was to be allowed 5 visitors per day, there were to be no journalists, especially not from the Federal Republic of Germany, and the exhibition was to be declared a “workshop”. In the end, however, there were press reports;[5] as Peter Guth concluded in the newspaper Sächsisches Tageblatt: “The experiment of leaving the walls of the museum and taking a step towards the visitors appears to have been successful.“[6] Thanks to word of mouth, almost 10,000 visitors saw the exhibition, which was curated and supervised by the artists themselves, including communal meals and festivities in the evening.[7] The conditions themselves stipulated an exhibition concept that differed from the existing conventions governing exhibitions. As the rent contract forbade putting nails into the walls, the pictures were leaned against the walls, grouped in close constellations around the room. The exhibition thus became a hybrid between presentation space, studio and meeting place, the artists being present at all times. Their idea of using an alternative exhibition location was an important source of inspiration for later initiatives.[8]

Hardly a year later, Gerd Harry Lybke opened the Gallery Eigen+Art; almost half of the artists represented in the opening show had participated in the Herbstsalon. On the whole, the Herbstsalon was a warning shot for cultural politicians in the GDR, whereas, it was perceived as an encouragement by many young artists right up until the autumn of 1989. Even though a second edition of the Herbstsalon never took place, the artists’ design for action had taken root, inspiring other artists to develop their own individual forms of presentation.


Lutz Dammbeck, speech at the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart as part of the exhibition Subversive Practices – Art under Conditions of Political Repression on 31.5.2009, (22.09.2016).


Cf. Doris Liebermann, “Ein Piratenstück”, in: Gerbergasse 18/edition 1/2016 pp. 32–33.




In the operational procedure “Salon”, opened against the artists in 1984, the conclusion was drawn that: “The studio exhibition may have a role model and signal effect for artists in other areas (particularly Karl-Marx-Stadt, Berlin und Halle). The negative artists from Leipzig succeeded in evading state influence by organizing an art exhibition at short notice on their own initiative, without the utilization of state resources.” BStU (Records of the State Security Service of the GDR), MfS, BV Leipzig, HA XX 12851, p. 056.


Cf. BStU, MfS, HA XX, Nr. 12851, sheet 67.


Peter Guth, “Experiment Herbstsalon“, in: Sächsisches Tageblatt, 12.12.1984.


Cf. Lutz Dammbeck, speech at the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart as part of the exhibition Subversive Practices – Art under Conditions of Political Repression on 31.5.2009, / (22.09.2016).


Cf. BStU, MfS, HA XX, Nr. 12851, sheet 67.

Date: November 1984

Participants and organizers: Lutz Dammbeck, Günter Firit, Hans-Hendrik Grimmling, Frieder Heinze, Günther Huniat, Olaf Wegewitz

Location: Messehaus am Markt, Leipzig