At 8 am, an unusual time for a meeting in the cafeteria, the 9th-grade students of Assisi School in Ilmenau had the perfect opportunity to explore the concrete relief created by Rudolf Sitte (1922-2009) and engage in a discussion with Antje Kirsch from the “Freie Akademie Kunst + Bau” Association in Dresden. The association preserves the archive of the Production Cooperative Art in Construction, founded in 1958 by several artists, which maintained its own studio building. The archive primarily contains contract documents for art-in-construction projects, such as fee agreements, invoices, and correspondence between artists and clients.
The concrete relief in the Ilmenau cafeteria is a unique work, as Antje Kirsch began explaining to the project group. The use of concrete in interior spaces is very rare, and the artwork also serves a structural purpose: the relief is a load-bearing wall between two dining areas and has a backside. Today, the two sides of the relief are referred to as “positive” and “negative.” In the positive, the forms and figures stand out. Sitte used the positive to create another plaster mold, with which he then made the negative of his motif. Whether Sitte himself gave this name to the artwork couldn’t be confirmed by Antje Kirsch. In the archive documents, the designation “Teaching and Research at the Technical University” can be found, likely representing the prescribed theme for the commissioned work.
Rudolf Sitte’s works are often figurative and abstract. For the Ilmenau cafeteria, he combines the abstract representation of switchboards and magnetic and voltage fields with the figurative depiction of researching individuals. In the early GDR, political guidelines for public art were very strict, and emphasis on form, as seen in abstract works, was rejected. Rudolf Sitte was expelled from the art school in 1949 because he did not conform to the ideals and had to work in mining for a year. Especially from the 1970s onwards, more geometric, formal, abstract art-in-construction works were created. Antje Kirsch explained, “Artists in East Germany always worked according to their ideas, but it was not always easy because officials had a certain understanding of art.” Art in public spaces was always a negotiation process.
The students from Ilmenau had already explored criticism of formalism and the Socialist Realism dictated by East German politics during their visit to the Andreasstraße Memorial in May. The name Sitte had already come up during that visit. After all, a section of the enamel painting “Kampf und Sieg der Arbeiterklasse” by Willi Sitte, a brother of Rudolf Sitte, is now hanging in the permanent exhibition at Andreasstraße.
Many of Rudolf Sitte’s works disappeared after 1990. Antje Kirsch suspects that Rudolf Sitte received little recognition for his art, also due to the material, concrete. The Ilmenau cafeteria was only placed under monument protection after Sitte’s death. During the renovation of the building, his other works, such as the backlit glass design in the cafeteria, disappeared.
The students were impressed that Rudolf Sitte created the concrete relief from design to completion on his own impressed the students. The artistic idea was developed in close collaboration with the architect Ulf Zimmermann, who also gave Sitte the commission for the artworks. In the podcast episode “Sitte in Ilmenau,” there is more information about the history of the concrete relief. The podcast group researched in the university archive and delved into the discussion within the university about the design of the artwork. An interview team also accompanied the art workshop and interviewed fellow students about their own artwork. The relief is intended to have a permanent place in the school. The students were tasked with depicting the special features of the school in the artwork. Concrete was not an option for the short time available. Under the guidance of sculptor Sylvia Bohlen, the art group created a ceramic relief.