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.