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A head of the curve
Modernist sculpture in Chemnitz and Chicago 

You work with me not someone else

Words and photography by Sarah Feeney for
the modernist
print magazine
A 4-minute read


During WW2, Chemnitz was a critical part of the Nazi war machine. That all ended in 1945 when the Soviet troops marched in with their Kirza boots and T34 tanks to occupy it following Germany’s surrender.


In 1949 the Allies re-drew the political map. The Federal Republic of Germany was formed in the west from the territories administered by the British, French, and Americans. 


In response, the Soviets established the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from their territory in the east. 


Chemnitz was now part of the Soviet’s East Germany, and the GDR would now take a dominant role in all aspects of the city’s economics, politics and decision-making for the next 40 years. The GDR’s ideology informed everything, including the city's reconstruction and its town planning, 


The GDR decided Chemnitz would receive the honour of paying homage to the Godfather of Socialism: Karl Marx, philosopher, political theorist, Socialist revolutionary and, perhaps most importantly, GERMAN (born in Trier). 

They elected to rename the city Karl-Marx-Stadt.


The city's new appellation goes a long way to inform you of the ideology under which the city would now be rebuilt after being mostly destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945.


It was to be a Modernist city; built to represent progressive and Socialist thinking. 


On May 10, 1953, Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl officially baptised the new city in a ceremony. He delivered a truly inspiring and motivational speech befitting traditional Socialist-style rhetoric whilst clutching the lapel of his jacket with one hand and holding his right fist aloft in truly rousing, stylised Socialist fashion.


“The people who live here do not look back but look forward to a new and better future. They look to Socialism. They look with love and devotion to the founder of the Socialist doctrine, the greatest son of the German people, to Karl Marx. I hereby fulfil the government's decision. I carry out the solemn act of renaming the city and declare: from now on; the city bears the proud and mandatory name Karl-Marx-Stadt.”


Karl Marx Stadt was a fruit bowl of Marxist ideology —a kind of greatest hits of all that the man himself espoused.


In case its new name didn't make the GDR’s intent clear enough, they commissioned a gigantic, massive stylised head of Karl Marx in the Soviet ‘realist’ style by the Russian artist Lev Kerbel.


The darkly charismatic sculpture is both menacing and inspiring. Despite its massive size — it’s reportedly one of the world's largest busts — it’s still not big enough to reflect the actual status of its subject, Karl Marx. 


Kerbel had a good crack at the challenge, though; cast in Bronze, it weighs 40 tons and stands 11 meters high if you include its base platform. If I were a sculptor (but then again, no), I would definitely sculpt in the style of the Soviet sculptors for maximum impact.


Although a part of Karl-Marx-Year (it was commissioned in 1953), the statue wasn't officially inaugurated until 1971. It survived demolition post-reunification in 1990 and is now preserved as a cultural monument. 


It is colloquially known as Nischl, Saxonian for “the head” or skull. A panel on the wall behind carries the mandatory rally call from the Communist manifesto —without which no Karl Marx monument is complete: “Workers of the world, Unite!” carved in German, English, French and Russian, ensuring a most inclusive call to arms. 


The statue is the city's landmark and stands before the building of the former Rat des Bezirkes (Council of the GDR District) on Bruckenstrasse, a.k.a Nischelgasse: “Skull Alley”. 


The poster in the photo here reads: Chemnitz is neither brown (as in fascist) nor grey (as in dull). 


Around the same time, Lev Kerbel was putting the finishing touches to his monument, the city of Chicago was about to receive its own colossal sculpture…15.2 meters, to be exact, weighing 162 tons.


This monument was by another king of modernist thinking: Picasso, and was dedicated on August 15, 1967, in the civic Daley Plaza in Chicago, Illinois. 


It was essentially a massive sculpture of a dog, an abstract representation of Picasso’s Afghan Hound. 


Picasso’s modernist monument is progressive because it broke with tradition in several unusual ways. 


Firstly, he refused the fee offered as he wanted instead to “gift” the sculpture to Chicago. This not-for-profit act of art-for-art's sake was reminiscent of Socialist thinking around society being unified and harmonised by coming together and sharing joint endeavours such as culture and art. All are conducted for the benefit of the people and not for profit.


Furthermore, the courts then dedicated the sculpture to the “public domain” after an accidental lapse of copyright notices meant it belonged to everyone. 


Secondly, and most importantly, Picasso’s sculpture marked a radical shift away from the idea of public art being statues of historical figures. Commemorative statues that the general masses were expected to walk (literally) in the shadow of, as a constant reminder of how “important” the elite few —those wealthy enough to have paid for them— had considered the subject's endeavours to have been. 


Despite the two sculptures' very different contexts and subject matter, the Picasso and the Lev Kerbal surprisingly share more than their colossal size.


They both offer a more progressive and egalitarian idea about art in the public realm; who should be celebrated and why.


So I’ll end this piece with a question: which of these public art pieces do you consider the most modernist?


A sculpture of a modernist or a modernist sculpture?


Don’t write in.


As featured in the modernist magazine issue  #46, MASSIVE.

Writing and photography by Sarah Feeney​



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