Humboldt Forum: Mr Strang, Meissen porcelain wall decoration had a long-standing tradition in the GDR, for example, the wall decoration by Max Lingner in the former House of Ministries. That relief, created in 1975 for the Palace of the Republic, had a significantly different style compared to this one. How did it come about?
Peter Strang: At that time, I was working with Ludwig Zepner, Rudi Stolle and Heinz Werner in the Artistic Development Collective at the Meissen State Porcelain Manufactory VEB. When the Palace of the Republic was being built, the architects asked us whether we would like to make some porcelain wall decoration. We had complete freedom of artistic expression – there were only two requirements: it couldn’t be a political or a figurative representation. The idea for the design emerged one day during our lunch break as we were lying on the grass under the trees, with the sun shining through the branches. During work on the design model, it quickly became clear that we didn’t want to create a tiled wall. I’m a modeller and sculptor, so the artistic and artisanal possibilities of a sculpture appealed to me. We decided on blossom and rays of sunshine made from white and gilded porcelain with a Böttger ware background, which the architect approved of. Our design was picked out from numerous entries to be used in the Palace restaurant.
You created two companion reliefs to decorate the roughly 3 x 5 metre long side walls of the room. The individual parts weighed up to 30 kilos. How manageable are these materials?
We were all very experienced porcelain modellers and sculptors, but this work was a particular challenge of our craftsmanship. The large porcelain elements in particular were enormously difficult to manufacture. We had to stir the mixture until all the air bubbles had been removed, Otherwise, the porcelain would have exploded in the kiln. We also couldn’t let it get too smooth, so we had to reinforce the porcelain mixture with the addition of burnt shards. Then the careful pouring, and hand-cutting the field tiles – that’s like your first time leaping off the ten-metre diving board. Of course, we were all enormously pleased when the result was even more beautiful than the design.
How do you rank that commission in your work from that time?
The Palace of the Republic was the most inspired and the most monumental construction in the GDR, and it was wonderful to be a part of its creation. You don’t get a commission like that often in your life. We had free rein to exploit virtually every artisanal and technical possibility of the materials. That alone was something special – it didn’t happen often in those days.
Eating in front of Meissen porcelain
Opened in 1976, the Palace of the Republic welcomed almost 70 million visitors during its 14 short years of operation. The catering facilities, with their varied range of cuisine, played a major role in that success. The largest of the 13 restaurants, cafés and bars was the Palace Restaurant. Situated on the first floor, its wide window looked out onto the cathedral and Museum Island.
The commission for the vast wall design in the Palace Restaurant went to the Artistic Development Collective at the Meissen State Porcelain Manufactory VEB. The design, created by Peter Strang, Ludwig Zepner, Rudi Stolle and Heinz Werner, was, as it were, an homage to nature in a strongly representative style: two floral reliefs, companion pieces, stretching the length of the end walls of the room. Large stylised leaves and blossoms in white porcelain applied to a brown Böttger ware background. Gilded areas and organic shapes in the grout between the tiles create an impression of sunlight shining through branches. The aspiration to create the entire room as a unified work of art is emphasised by the corresponding interior design of golden yellow carpet and dark walnut veneer. The expressive design not only gave the room an individual festive character in keeping with its design concept, but also symbolised the efficiency and the showcase-style production of the GDR’s national economy.
After the closure of the Palace of the Republic, one of the reliefs found a new home in the Federal Ministry of Finance. The 300 individual elements of its mirror image counterpart have been restored by the Meissen State Porcelain Manufactory. They are currently being prepared for installation at the Humboldt Forum. In the restaurant facing the Spree, the work will then once again fulfil the function originally envisaged by its artists.