Mosaic frieze: Our Life

The famous “abdominal bandage”

The mosaic frieze Our Life is Europe’s largest work of art, measured by area. Comprising approx. 800,000 individual tiles, it extends around two storeys of the Haus des Lehrers, which is located on Alexanderplatz and was designed by Hermann Henselmann. Walter Womacka designed and produced the monumental frieze, measuring seven metres in height and 125 metres in length, between 1962 and 1964 in cooperation with other artists.

The work was commissioned following a competition launched by the GDR Ministry of Culture. Henselmann’s plans for the building included a frieze facade around the third and fourth floors. Womacka was later put in charge of designing this frieze. The two windowless storeys behind the frieze were allocated to the archives of the central education library.

Womacka initially completed a preliminary design representing humanity’s relation to the four elements – fire, water, earth and air. However, the competition jury rejected this idea for being too “un-Marxist and metaphysical”. According to art historian Elmar Kossel, the jury wanted the frieze to mark out Henselmann’s cool, “modern complex as ‘socialist architecture’”. The aim was to create a symbol in Alexanderplatz, one of East Berlin’s most central and prestigious locations, that would educate the city and propagate political messages.

Over the course of various design stages, Womacka developed a new concept that adhered more closely to the clear visual style and comprehensible meaning stipulated by the authorities who had commissioned the project. Using strong colours, expansive forms and black, angular lines, he designed a frieze comprising scenes with human figures and conventional symbolic motifs. He took the murals of Mexican artists as his model and inspiration.

Against the backdrop of his own war-time experiences and with an unwavering faith in the GDR’s programme of development, Womacka created an ideal image of a peaceful, modern socialist state. The result was a panorama of a youthful, industrious society living in harmony and looking confidently ahead into the future.

“Nowadays, I would no longer be capable of the naivety that permeates the image,” reflected Womacka in his autobiography, published in 2004. “If I had to design a mural of this kind today, it would be more ruminative. But that would be completely wrong. An image like this isn’t meant for a museum. It needs to be decorative, ornamental, optimistic.”

Given the mocking but affectionate moniker “the abdominal bandage” by Berliners, Womacka’s mosaic frieze, made of glass enamel, ceramics and lead, now has protected heritage status alongside Henselmann’s building complex. The frieze set a new trend in architectural art in the GDR. A lavish restoration project, commissioned by Berliner Congress Center GmbH and WBM Wohnungsbaugesellschaft Berlin-Mitte mbH, was carried out between 2001 and 2004.

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Das Haus des Lehrers mit dem Berliner Congress Center.
The north side

The north side of the frieze is dedicated to science and technology. Womacka represented the topic of science with a doctor and a chemist, and supplemented the image with additional elements such as a parabolic dish and a radio mast. Opposite, an engineer – who has sometimes been interpreted as an homage to the architect Hermann Henselmann – represents the world of technology, whose unshakeable faith in the future is manifested in the image of the rocket taking off in the background.

Science and technology enjoyed a special status in socialist countries. The GDR saw itself as a state committed to a scientifically oriented form of socialism. The idea was that technical development and scientific research would help create the basis for industrial innovations and economic growth as well as demonstrating the superiority of the socialist system of society. In the 1960s, spurred on by great progress in the fields of space travel, computer technology, nuclear research and automation, faith in the limitless possibilities of human ingenuity was spreading quickly. The state and the party carefully stoked this widespread euphoria about the future and emphasised the notion of a “scientific and technological revolution”.

The south wall

The south wall is filled with a single scene. It shows three workers, including a young woman and a strong steelworker, talking to a painter, who is a few brushstrokes away from completing a large mural. Womacka’s image combines two apparently distinct spheres of life: art and work. He gives them equal standing, side by side, and even shows them interacting. The underlying idea is of the artist as a servant of society who creates art on its behalf, contributing to the success of the socialist ideal just as much as the factory worker. Completely in line with state cultural policy, Womacka seems here to be reflecting his own activity in the image.

The official mission of art and culture in the GDR was, according to art historian Uta Grundmann, to promote the “moral [...], political [...], and aesthetic [...] education of the East German population with respect to the dominant worldview”. The constitution of 1968 stipulated that artistic production should be based on “a close connection between creators of culture and the life of the people”. Other parts of the frieze also present examples of harmonious coexistence between different groups of workers. It represents the promise of a classless society.

The east side

One of the central themes of the eastern part of the frieze is friendship between peoples. To illustrate this theme, Womack designed a colourful array of scenes that bring together figures of different ethnicities. The humanist and anti-fascist ideals that the GDR was committed to are in clear evidence here. These ideals included supporting developing countries to fight for political and economic independence. A key motivation behind this was the mission of bringing socialism into the world combined with the hope of speeding up international recognition of the East German state through foreign policy measures.

The white doves emphasise the peaceful nature of these ambitions. The doves mark a transition to the central image that dominates the east wall, which depicts an armed soldier belonging to the National People’s Army flanked by a youthful farmhand and a worker waving a large red flag. In their steadfastness and serenity, the three figures represent the pillars of socialist society, personifying protection and progress. 

Womacka also represents the theme of peaceful coexistence in the image of a young couple in a meadow filled with flowers. This is, incidentally, an inverted reference to his 1962 painting On the Beach, which went on to become the most reproduced image in the history of the GDR.

A scene from the world of sports on the right-hand side of this frieze introduces another important theme that links to the images of international cooperation discussed previously. The extremely successful GDR athletes were regarded as “diplomats in tracksuits”, while sporting contests were regarded as a peaceful form of competition that brought different peoples together.

The west frieze

The west frieze shows scenes that were supposed to represent everyday life in the GDR. At the centre of this section is a young couple. With outstretched arms, the man points out the connection between the blossoming tree to his left and the three overlapping micro- and macrocosmic models to his right. Meanwhile, the young woman has released a dove, an omnipresent symbol in the GDR that united the ideal of peace with that of social progress.

The other scenes are grouped around this central image: a mother with two children in front of a fruit-bearing tree of life, a science lesson, a workers’ brigade meeting and two farmers collecting the harvest in the light of the rising sun – subjects drawn from the stock themes of GDR architectural art. Images like the dove, the tree of life and the sun were readily comprehensible. Womacka’s realist narratives convey the utopian dream of a contented, classless socialist society.