This dissertation analyzes the visual language of American cultural images disseminated in Cold War Berlin and investigates how such institutional, lens-based media played a role in the country’s grappling with its postwar identity. Divided Berlin, with porous borders from 1949 to 1961, embodied a “final frontier,” “Western showcase;” a synecdoche of larger American geopolitical interests during a time when information and images defined the Cold War. Existing art historical studies of Cold War-era visual propaganda emphasize the prototypical East/West, communist/capitalist dichotomies, but often do not focus on the impact of the United States as Germany’s most prolific western occupier.
Across three chapters, this dissertation investigates the US government’s visual framing and staging of American life and culture through sponsorship of renowned social documentary photography exhibition, The Family of Man (1955); the establishment of “border cinemas” and their dissemination of Hollywood teen tropes; and mass consumer goods exhibitions staged to equate capitalism with “modern living”. Advocating for American-style democracy, capitalism, and mass consumerism, these popular cultural initiatives provoked explicit German responses. In both West and East Berlin, large-scale photography exhibitions by Karl Pawek, and Rita Maahs and Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler utilize The Family of Man’s malleable, humanist framework to serve their own ideological agendas and politics, prompting a group of East German photographers to use images as a means for quietly subverting a despotic regime. After seeing such Hollywood films as The Wild One (1953) and Rebel without a Cause (1955) at cinemas opened on the border of West Berlin, a subculture of young, working class Germans emerges called the Halbstarken (“rowdies” or “hooligans”), who use the iconic American style seen on film to challenge and differentiate from the older, wartime generation. Linked by their concept of “Capitalist Realism,” artists Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter produce storefront demonstrations as a commentary on the alienating effects of the American-style consumption embraced during West Germany’s “economic miracle”. By challenging the common Cold War binary, this dissertation both questions and expands conceptions of German and American identity. The camera lens is investigated as both an ideological tool, but also a subjective and interpretive vehicle through which skepticism and doubt converge.
Eric M. Stryker
Dr. Steven Weisenburger
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Richman, Lauren, ""Silent Salesmen," Skeptical Consumers: American Images in a Divided Berlin, 1949-67" (2019). Art History Theses and Dissertations. 3.