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Fighting the system: Cornelia Schleime

INTERVIEW! Schleime, winner of this year’s Hannah Höch Prize for lifetime achievement, on fleeing East Berlin, starting all over again and creating free art in a free world. Don't miss her exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie, on through Apr 24.

Image for Fighting the system: Cornelia Schleime
Photo by Sophie la Roux

Cornelia Schleime, winner of this year’s Hannah Höch Prize for lifetime achievement, on fleeing East Berlin, starting all over again and creating free art in a free world.

Schleime’s prodigious body of work includes not just paintings but films, novels and even a punk band, Zwitschermaschine, in the early 1980s. She sat down with us to reflect on how her life and art came together in A Blink of an Eye, her Berlinische Galerie solo retrospective on the illusion of beauty.

Your exhibition title is also the title of one of the paintings…

It’s the one where a girl is standing by the window and there are birds flying into the room. There’s something final about getting a prize for your life’s work. It makes you ask yourself: am I already that age? I see the title as a way of refuting that. This exhibition is itself just a blink of an eye. It represents a moment. For me, that is the most important thing in painting: you decide what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it in the moment. An artwork is a culmination of moments.

Have you made new work for this exhibition?

Image for Fighting the system: Cornelia Schleime
Cornelia Schleime, Meine Hand ist deine Bewegung (2008), Sammlung Christiane Bühling-Schultz, Berlin, repro: Bernd Borchardt

I fundamentally can’t create artworks for exhibitions. I don’t do portraits on request, either. There’s too much pressure. I have to create from within myself. The “Eisvögelin”, the cover painting of the exhibition, was painted after the exhibition was planned in January, but obviously not for the exhibition. This might come from the com- missioned art in the GDR, which I totally rejected, working instead in the “underground” scene. The idea of painting for an exhibition gives me that feeling of déjà vu. I was so conditioned to fight against that system and put individuality first. The oldest works are self-staged photographs from 1982, which were returned to me by a photographer. I lost everything when I fled – my apartment was broken into and stripped almost bare.

This was in East Berlin, where your work spurred the attention of the officials. Can you tell us about how you got an exhibition ban in 1981?

Nobody knocked on my door and said it straight out, but we did plan an exhibition that then wasn’t allowed to take place. The exhibition manager told me that
 the culture ministry had imposed a ban on my work. I started working with the pseudonym CMP [Cornelia Monica Petra, Schleime’s full name] so that they wouldn’t know it was me. Here comes the absurd part: I was working in a ceramics gallery to support myself because I couldn’t exhibit, and then the Cultural Minister, who had signed my exhibition ban, bought a ceramic set from me, without knowing I had made it! I
was never an enemy of the state or anything like that, I just had a different visual concept. I was told, for instance, that a woman I’d painted, with her head hanging down in a melancholy, surreal expression, didn’t look as she should according to socialism. They didn’t like that. The models happened to be tired when they came to my flat one evening –
of course their heads were hanging down! And I painted them just like that… but apparently that’s not how the socialist woman should look!

Banned from the art scene, you formed a punk band…

Yes, and pretty soon it was obvious that we were banned, too. We later learned that one of our friends had been recruited to spy on us. The punk band actually wasn’t an act of rebellion, it was just a way of expressing myself since I wasn’t allowed to exhibit art.

So you moved to the West in 1984. How did your style of painting change?

I had to start all over again. I couldn’t walk into a gallery and assert myself as the artist Cornelia Schleime from the underground scene and so on… I had to do everything again: find a gallery, establish myself and find a way of being able to survive from art. In the GDR we had socialist realism, but on week- ends I would go to the library and research fantastic artists that my tutors would never have heard of. I built up my own aesthetic that was free, surreal and poetic to counteract the rigidity of the GDR. I started out doing the same thing in the West, but then, six years later I got a stipend to study in New York and I had a totally different problem: should I paint freer pictures in a free society?

How did you approach that, painting freely with nothing to oppose?

I started painting totally different things, like the skyline in Queens. After a while I started thinking about perception, and that’s how the portraits started. The only thing I carried on from the GDR was film.

Your paintings often feature beautiful women with piercing eyes. Each of them seems completely unique. Do you paint from photographs?

Sometimes, it depends. Sometimes a paint- ing will start from a photo, but then it takes on its own identity
– for instance, I might like a photo of a woman but then paint her as a man. Other times, though, I base paintings on my drawings, which I do completely from memory. Sometimes I’ll bring
 a model in to correct something. Because the way I work is very withdrawn, the eyes become my counterpart, that’s why they are so striking. The idea that “the eyes are the window to the soul” also comes into it. I want the portraits to have a soulful energy. At first glance, you might think the women are beautiful but then when you see them in person you notice imperfections, that they are injured in some way.

In your 2006 artist statement you said: “Painting is like a sponge that absorbs aggression and melancholy. Time congeals in painting, while it flows through other media.” Do you still find this to be true?

Painting makes time stand still, for the painter as an individual. It requires a crazy amount of concentration, you really submerge yourself in it. I would never work in an office with assistants like I know some people do these days.
I wouldn’t be able to cope with the foreign energy in my space. I wouldn’t be able to cope if my partner lived with me! I need absolute solitude so that I can submerge. That’s how time congeals.

Cornelia Schleime – A Blink of an Eye, Through Apr 24 | Berlinische Galerie, Kreuzberg