With his odd symbols and signs, the East German painter created a ‘democratic’ style in defiance of the state. A new exhibition shows how his vision was inspired by the trauma of conflict and the cold war

In 1979, the Stasi entered Ralf Winkler’s Dresden studio and trashed the place. It was the culmination of a harassment campaign against the artist, who found fame under the pseudonym AR Penck, for refusing to make social-realist propaganda.

Instead, his paintings featured oft-repeated hieroglyphs, odd symbols and signs, seemingly child-like naive scrawls and simple stick men (often with outsized penises). The authorities were right to be suspicious of this new painterly style: Penck sought the construction of a new language, one that mixed the linguistic and pictorial, that was both “universal” and “democratic”. It was a wish born of the trauma of the second world war, particularly witnessing the destruction of Dresden as a child, and the ensuing dystopia of the German Democratic Republic.

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