The competition for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner was announced in 1952 by the London Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). It achieved its outstanding importance because it offered artists a broad international forum for the first time after World War II and, against the background of the East-West conflict in the post-war period it reflected a highly ideological (art) policy.
Artists from all countries were invited to participate; there were no restrictions on age, origin or style in order to achieve the highest possible number of responses. As the announcement did not specify which political prisoners were to be commemorated, those of National Socialism, for example, or those who Stalin had imprisoned at the time, the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union boycotted the competition. In addition, US authorities, including the CIA, were suspected of being involved in the financing of the competition.
More than 3,500 sculptors from 57 nations responded to the announcement, almost 1,500 submitted their designs. With 262 submissions, the young Federal Republic of Germany had the largest number of participants. Whereas the older generation of artists, such as Gerhard Marcks and Richard Scheibe, did not join in, young sculptors recognized the opportunity to attract international attention after long years of isolation. The German proposals were first shown together with the 46 entries from Switzerland at Haus am Waldsee in Berlin in 1952/53. Twelve finalists were chosen and, together with the finalists of all national preliminary rounds, presented at the Tate Gallery in London for final selection.
There an international jury chose the British sculptor Reg Butler as the winner of the competition. He designed a metal construction on a massive stone pedestal that resembled both a watchtower and a radio tower. Mirko Basaldella (I), Naum Gabo (USA), Barbara Hepworth (UK), Max Bill (CH), Alexander Calder (USA), and Lynn Chadwick (GB) also received awards. A striking number of artists had abandoned the figurative implementation of the competition theme and provided highly abstracted or even abstract designs. In general, the artists tried to convey a general image of suffering and imprisonment, which should often be expressed with de-individualized human figures and motives reminiscent of shackles, chains and barriers.
For a significant part of the public the progressive designs represented an aesthetic stress test. Numerous reviews of the exhibition complained about an inappropriate depiction of the prisoners’ suffering, which art was unable to express. Nevertheless, the mayor of Berlin at the time, Ernst Reuter, announced his city’s interest in being the site for the winning sculpture. The realization of these plans ultimately failed due to the resistance of the city’s residents and the lack of funding. The competition entries were forgotten and, as far as they are still preserved or documented, a selection of them will now be exhibited for the first time after 1953 at the Kunsthaus Dahlem.
The design of the exhibition at the Kunsthaus Dahlem by Ute Schimmelpfennig was based on the highly regarded design that Philip Johnson, curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, conceived in 1952–53 for the American preliminary round and contrasts the architecture of the building with a decidedly modernist idiom.
Artists in the Exhibition
International Section: Ørnulf Bast, Reg Butler, Wessel Couzijn, Emil Gehrer, Gerður Helgadóttir, Barbara Hepworth, Hugo Imfeld, Lazaros Lameras, Ulrika Marseen, F. E. McWilliam, Luciano Minguzzi, Jorge Oteiza, André Ramseyer, Theodore Roszak, Jewad Selim, Jorge Vieira.
German Section: Egon Altdorf, Karl Hartung, Bernhard Heiliger, Hans Jaenisch, Franklin Pühn, Erich F. Reuter, Zoltán Székessy, Hans Uhlmann.
A catalogue in German and English is published on the occasion of the exhibition:
Der unbekannte politische Gefangene.
Ein internationaler Skulpturenwettbewerb zu Zeiten des Kalten Krieges
The Unknown Political Prisoner.
An International Sculpture Competition in the Cold War Era
hg. v./ed. by Petra Gördüren und/and Dorothea Schöne
304 Seiten/pages, 87 Abbildungen/figures
Berlin: Wasmuth & Zohlen Verlag, 2020
ISBN 978 3 8030 3406 9