Bernhard Heiliger

Maquette for Monument for the Unknown Political Prisoner


Not on display

Bernhard Heiliger 1915–1995
Original title
Modell zum 'Denkmal des Unbekannten Politischen Gefangenen'
Bronze and iron on steel plate
Object: 594 × 901 × 901 mm
Presented by the artist 1984

Display caption

Heiliger was one of twelve national prizewinners of the competition for a monument to 'The Unknown Political Prisoner', whose entries were sent from Germany for display in the international exhibition held at the Tate Gallery in 1953. This work was cast from the plaster maquette that Heiliger submitted to the competition. A second cast is in the museum at Checkpoint Charlie, which until 1989 was a celebrated border crossing between East and West Berlin and was suggested as a possible site for Reg Butler's overall winning entry to the competition.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Bernhard Heiliger born 1915

T03897 Maquette for Monument for the Unknown Political Prisoner 1953

Bronze and steel 194 x 901 x 901 (23 3/8 x 35 1/2 x 35 1/2)
Inscribed '1953 | BH' on knee of kneeling figure
Presented by the artist 1984
Exh: Suffering Through Tyranny, Tate Gallery, Dec. 1984-May 1985, repr. p.4
Lit: Hanns Theodor Flemming, Bernhard Heiliger, Berlin, 1962, pp.17-18, repr. p.55; Reg Butler,, Tate Gallery, 1983, pp.21-2, repr. p.21; Bernhard Heiliger: Retrospektive,, Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum der Stadt, Duisburg, 1985, pp.26-7, repr. p.28; Robert Burstow, The "Unknown Political Prisoner" International Sculpture Competition: Ideological Uses of Modernist Art in the Cold War, unpublished MA thesis, City of Birmingham Polytechnic 1987, no.21 pp.104, 183

All quotations from the artist come, unless other indicated, from a letter to the compiler dated 5 March 1988. This work was cast in 1953 from the original plaster (repr. Bernhard Heiliger: Skulpturen Zeichnungen seit 1945,, Kunstmuseum, Lucerne 1960, pl.10) made in the artist's first Berlin studio in 1952. The original plaster no longer exists and there were no other versions of the work in plaster. Two bronze casts were made in collaboration with the founder H. Noack, Berlin. The other cast is in the museum at Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin. The main figure and the thorn-like surround are bronze, while the base plate and three small vertical elements in the opposite corner are made of steel. The original plaster version of this sculpture was exhibited at two of the 'Unknown Political Prisoner' exhibitions, those in Berlin and at the Tate Gallery, London (Ausstellung der Deutschen und Schweizerischen Modelle für den Londoner Wettbewerb zum 'Denkmal der Unbekannten Politischen Gefangenen', Haus am Waldsee, Berlin 1958 [79, repr.] and The Unknown Political Prisoner, Tate Gallery 1953 [3].

The theme of 'The Unknown Political Prisoner' was chosen for the inaugural International Sculpture Competition, organised by Anthony Kloman, sponsored by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1953. An anonymous donor provided 'the largest prize money ever offered in a competition of this nature' (The Unknown Political Prisoner 1953, [p.2]). The organisers chose a theme as this was in keeping with the nature of memorial sculpture. They felt a desire, they wrote, 'to commemorate all those unknown men and women who have been deprived of their lives and of their liberty in the cause of human freedom' (ibid., [p.2]).

Unlike many other memorials (for example, to the victims of Auschwitz and to the unknown prisoner at Dachau) this competition was not tied to any specific event or location of the recent past. The theme of the competition, moreover, signalled an openness towards very diverse stylistic approaches and a conscious effort was made to encourage a multitude of styles, whether 'non-representational' or 'more natural' (ibid., [p.2]). The competition was planned to be international in scope. Although no Eastern Bloc countries entered, entries were received from the countries of six continents around the world. The boycott of the Warsaw Pact countries was possibly due to a suggestion that the winning sculpture should be erected in Berlin, although Kloman's introduction suggested only that 'the sculpture eventually winning the Grand Prize would be installed on some site of international importance such as a prominent situation in one of the great capitals of the world, and its execution would be paid for from the Competition funds' (ibid., [p.2]).

Some 3500 applications were received from 57 countries. As it was plainly impossible to transport all the works to London for judging, national panels were set up to choose the finalists, whose work was then included in the exhibition. Germany, with 607 entries, was the country with the most applications. Heiliger writes, 'this theme, following the War, was of the utmost interest to me ... the theme was so important, that I felt I must take part'. He was among the 12 German prizewinners chosen by the jurors and won the 2000DM prize offered by the German Federal Government. The other two prizes, 2000DM offered by the Berlin Senate and 2500DM offered by the Federation of German Industry, were won by Egon Altdorf and Hans Uhlmann respectively. Professor Will Grohmann was the international juror on the German panel. The other jurors, representing both Germany and Switzerland, included Professor Hans Hildebrandt, Dr Adolf Jannasch (the director of the Berlin Office of Art, and representative of the German prizegivers), Dr Carl Linfert, Dr Herbert Pee, Professor Hans Scharoun, Dr Karl Ludwig Skutsch (the director of the Haus am Waldsee), Dr Carola Giedion-Wecker and Arnold Rüdlinger (who deputised for Dr George Schmidt, as he was unable to attend at the last minute). The national exhibition was held at the Haus am Waldsee, Berlin.

The aim of the competition, to see the winning design placed prominently in one of the world's capitals, was to founder on political grounds. Heiliger recalls with some irony the scale of the competition and the subsequent unwillingness of governments to accept the humanist intentions of the theme:

There was a huge jury, all the big guns of contemporary art history were there. The competition created a great furore that went right across the world. Only afterwards, when it came to erect the winning design, did one realise that it would be politically impossible to carry this out. Reg Butler, later a good friend of mine, realised this too. He designed something akin to a gallows, it was absolutely enormous, and nobody wanted it. Not America, nor England, nor France, nor anywhere else. They all said they did not have any political prisoners. Then Grohmann started pushing his weight around and said that the monument should come to Germany. That was a natural choice. However, the Federal Government refused. When Grohmann saw that it was not possible, he said at least bring Heiliger's monument to Berlin. That was also impossible; no one wanted to be reminded of anything. However, this competition did a lot for German sculptors, many of whom became known outside the country for the first time (Bernhard Heiliger: Retrospektive 1985, p.26).

In a letter to the compiler, dated 22 March 1988, the artist writes:

the original version for the competition was made of plaster in 1952. Only later did I get bronze casts made. Due to the time it was in storage, it was necessary to retouch and repair certain areas.

Heiliger was inspired, he writes, 'solely by the theme of the competition'. His design was not guided by pre-existing sources. A kneeling figure surrounded by a thorn-like structure stands at one corner of a flat, steel base plate. Diagonally opposite also in the corner, are three standing forms. The artist, in a letter to the compiler dated 22 March 1988, writes that both the figure and the surrounding structure were made of plaster. Heiliger writes that there were no sketches for T03897, although there were two preparatory '70 x 50, graphite drawings, which have since been lost'. A plaster model, entitled 'Prisoner', was completed in 1952 as a preparatory stage in the making of T03897. In a letter to the compiler dated 22 March 1988, the artist writes: 'The work given as "Prisoner" [in Flemming 1962, catalogue number 66 and illustrated on p.54, bottom left], was only a preparatory plaster version for the competition version, which was made shortly afterwards. Is was a plaster sketch, which was photographed, but several months later did not exist anymore.'

T03897 holds an important place in the artist's development. It belongs, 'so a very small group of torso-like, semi-figurative sculptures made right at the beginning of my activity as a sculptor'. Flemming describes the relationship between this organic, human form and the surrounding web of spiky uprights:

the scaffold has the effect of a spiky web of thorns, made up of a few striking forms. Through the imprisonment of the torso-like form within, Heiliger creates a punctured zone around the sculptural core, which defines the space around is and mediates between the solid form of the figure and the surrounding space. Thus a unique integration of figure and space is achieved (Flemming 1962, p.17).

The version sent to the competition exhibitions in Berlin and London (of which T03897 is a cast) differs slightly from the Tate's work, which can be attributed so the repairs and retouching needed after the plaster version had been in storage. The figure imprisoned within the thorn-like scaffold retains the stump of the neck, whereas this is removed for the bronze casts. This removal renders the figure more abstract, more bone-like and heightens the contrast between the smooth, rounded figure and the sharp, angular scaffold. Flemming writes of this contrast: 'the spikes afflict him [the figure] and illustrate the tortured situation of captivity. Escape is possible only upwards and the three spikes point directly up, indicating the possibility of freedom' (Flemming 1962, p.17).

The setting for T03897, a large, flat base with three small, vertical elements standing in the corner diagonally opposite the encaged prisoner, belonged so the artist's conception of the work from the outset. In a letter so the compiler dated 22 March 1988, Heiliger writes:

the base-plate belonged so my conception of the work from the beginning, because I wanted to allude to a large, open space - in the middle of the city, not in the country. The three figures were meant solely as yardsticks. They do not belong so the design, in the bronze versions, therefore, I made these yardstick elements out of bronze too, in order so highlight the dimensions of the sculpture.

A photograph of the jury standing around Heiliger's prizewinning entry points to the differences between the plaster version and T03897. In the photo only two small yardstick figures have been added, whereas in T03897 there are three, which are also less rounded and thinner. In a conversation with the compiler on 4 May 1988 the artist confirmed that the original plaster figures did not survive intact the storage period between the London exhibition and the casting in Berlin. New yardstick figures were made: a third was added 'on purely optical grounds, because is looked better'.

Two later versions of the subject were made. These are entitled Prisoner I 1953 (cast in 1956, repr. Bernhard Heiliger: Skulpturen Zeichnungen seit 1945, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum, Lucerne 1960, pl.9) and Prisoner II 1953 (cast in 1960, repr. Flemming 1962, p.54 t.r.; list of works p.199-201, no.141; repr. Bernhard Heiliger: Retrospektive 1985, p.29) and are discussed below. Each was cast in bronze (in an edition of one) and both are now in Berlin private collections. Heiliger writes:

I wanted to represent a captive, residual human form. Apart from the two later versions, there are no links with any other works. The linking of residual human figures with freely invented forms occupied me for a few more years, until figuration was superseded by purely abstract forms in about 1960. After 1960 I made no more figurative work.

Prisoner I, made shortly after the competition model although cast in 1956, reveals a number of differences to that earlier version and points towards the third version of the subject made in 1953 (cast in 1960), Prisoner II. With Prisoner I Heilger has enmeshed the figure in the surrounding scaffold, a practice continued in the 1960 cast of the subject (Prisoner II). The surface of the residual human form in Prisoner I is more mottled than the smoother, twisting figure of T03897. The gashes and surface puncturings caused by the integral scaffold in Prisoner I and Prisoner II echo the initial maquette for T03897, described above.

An extensive discussion of the Unknown Political Prisoner competition relating to T02332 by Reg Butler is in Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1978-80, pp.72-82. Other maquettes in the Collection and acquired by the Gallery at the time of the competition in 1953 were those by Consagra [N06166], Gilioli [N06167], Minguzzi [N06165], Pevsner [N06162], Roszak [N06163] and F.E. McWilliam [N06164]. Gabo's maquette was later presented by the artist [T02187; see also T02186].

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.165-7

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