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Brotherly love: 25 years on, the artist behind the iconic Berlin Wall mural tells his story

Brotherly love: 25 years on, the artist behind the iconic Berlin Wall mural tells his story

When artist Dmitri Vrubel painted Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker locked in a kiss of socialist brotherhood on the Berlin Wall he created the most famous mural of the Cold War. On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, he recalls the making of an iconic image

11 November 2014
Interview Andrey Borzenko

This interview first appeared in Russian in Kommersant Weekend

AB: Do you remember 9 November 1989?

DV: Yes, and I could have easily ended up in Berlin then, by chance. A friend and I were driving a Volga sedan from Paris to Moscow. And since my friend had bought a computer in Hanover, and it was illegal to bring computers into the Soviet Union, he said firmly that he didn’t want to take any chances and cross the border in Berlin. Besides, in Paris we saw on TV that there were demonstrations there, and unrest, so there was a chance that we’d not only get the computer confiscated, but beat up as well. So we took a detour around Berlin. Nothing told me that my future life would be in any way connected with the Berlin Wall.

AB: But its fall was an important event for you?

DV: At that point, I didn’t even know, really, that it was actually a wall. I’d lived in the Soviet Union for 29 years and was a kind of cultured “Homo Sovieticus”. And yet it so happened that all the important moments in my artistic and personal life accidentally coincided with various historical events. For example, in 1989 I went abroad for the first time. So my personal Berlin Wall fell at about the same time as the real one. I lived in Paris for two months and, frankly, what was happening in the world interested me less than my own experiences.

My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love in 1991

AB: How did you get the idea of putting up graffiti on the Berlin Wall?

DV: A girl I met in Paris came to Moscow and gave me a photograph of Brezhnev and Honecker kissing. She said, “Look at this cool picture. You have to paint it.” It was a repulsive, revolting thing that almost made me throw up. But still, as usual, I wanted to preserve in art that which can’t be preserved in it, and this painting somehow began to live in my mind by itself. I started making sketches on paper, and at one point [poet and artist Dmitri] Prigov saw them and said, “Dmitri Vladimirovich, this would be good to paint on the Berlin Wall.” We laughed and forgot about it, of course. But then a man named Alexander Brodovsky visited my apartment gallery. He’d come from Berlin to find artists for the first exhibit in East Germany of the contemporary Soviet avant-garde. We discussed everything, he officially invited me, and in April 1990, I went to Berlin to see him. The first thing out of his mouth was, “Dima, we have the Wall!”

AB: What was your first impression of the wall and of the city itself?

DV: When I saw the wall for the first time — not far from Warschauer Straße — I was amazed by how low it was. For me, the wall was “The Wall”, a fortification too big to see beyond. This was a huge mistake on the part of the East Germans, by the way — they should have made it about 50 metres high, so that West Berlin couldn’t be seen from the East at all. There was some kind of van with paints there, and a few paintings already up; someone had already called it the East Side Gallery. This was a time when things were a total mess. There were border guards on the wall. They wouldn’t let me into West Berlin, but they gave me water for painting. No one wanted to claim the wall at the time — no one knew who owned it. Naturally, West Berlin and West Germany said they had nothing to do with it. East Germany’s defence ministry said they hadn’t built it. There was no more Stasi. And the Soviet Union was far, far away. But there was some Scottish girl there, handing out permits for painting — a total racket. But I saw a sign that said “Gallery”, and a gallery was exactly what we’d been dreaming of! I knew that an artist must get into a gallery. And on top of everything else the girl had a contract! What else does an artist need? To sign a contract with a gallery. I signed it, and didn’t read it till about five years later, when everything had already been annulled, and I saw it said that artists gave up all rights to their paintings.

The mural in 2013

AB: And you just set about working?

DV: The Scottish girl said that Brezhnev and Honecker was politics, and that she had to talk it over with someone. I was told that the senate of West Berlin and the government of West Germany are afraid that if Gorbachev sees this painting on the wall, he’ll refuse to let East Germany unite with West Germany. I even believed this. But then they gave the permission. I came back to Moscow briefly and started telling people I knew that you could paint on the Berlin Wall, and all my fellow artists said, “You’re an idiot. That fence will get knocked down in a month. If you want to paint on fences, do it in Moscow.” But I wanted to paint specifically on the Berlin Wall and specifically Brezhnev and Honecker’s kiss. In this painting, there’s one German and one Russian, and the Berlin Wall is about the same thing but in reverse: here [in the painting], there’s total love, while the Berlin Wall separates two worlds — it was a perfect fit. When you paint something large in the open air, you’re thinking not only about people’s perception but also about their gut reaction. You’re expecting everyone to say, “Wow!” I was waiting for this, too. But of course I didn’t think that 25 years later my painting would be seen as a symbol of the Berlin Wall.

AB: When did you realize that you would be recognised primarily as the creator of this work, and that the work itself would become iconic?

DV: First I saw the early publications in West German magazines. Being a Homo Sovieticus, I thought that nothing could be cooler. Likewise, as a Homo Sovieticus, I didn’t make any use of my popularity at the time and didn’t capitalise on it in any way. I simply didn’t know what to do with it. For many years, I lived my private life, while the painting lived its own life. In the early 2000s, people started bringing back souvenirs from Berlin — magnets, mugs, and the like — with the “Kiss” on them, which were now being sold not just at the East Side Gallery, but all over the city. That’s how it became clear that it was now a symbol, an iconic work. And when in 2009, before the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, I heard on TV that the paintings on the wall were going to be restored, I understood that now was the time to take control of things. In 1990, when I painted the “Kiss”, it hit the bull’s eye totally by accident. But the restoration and the current fate of the painting — this was something I did. At first, I fought for a long time for the preservation of the original layer [of paint] — in order not to do it Moscow-style: tear it down, rebuild it, and then call it the original. But either there wasn’t money for a decent restoration, or the wall really was in truly bad shape — whatever the case, they didn’t listen to me. I clearly remember how in March 2009 I was walking by the wall and saw that the “Kiss” was gone. I fell into an absolutely terrible state and then I said: hold on, this isn’t right. I took pictures of it and through the newspapers drew the Germans’ attention to the fact that the “Fraternal Kiss” was gone. And the Germans said, “Hey, guys, hold on there. Has someone just gone and taken our history away from us?” That’s when it became clear that it had become a part of history, a part of Berlin. For three days in a row, there were articles, interviews with me, interviews with the man who had erased the painting. I started painting anew, and called a press conference on the day when the restoration began, because it was important to leave a record of all this — not only for myself, but for Berlin, too.

Dmitri Vrubel

AB: For you, how is the second “Kiss” different from the first one?

DV: In 1990, I painted something outside for the first time in my life, and for the first time in my life I used acrylic paints — before then, for 15 years I had painted only in apartments and only in oil. For this reason, that painting was sincere, maybe a little childish, and it was full of mistakes, which in 2009 I fixed. But the most important thing wasn’t to fix the technical mistakes: it was not to make the painting worse. I began making sketches, and suddenly realised that in the collective memory my painting had been preserved in its original state, but I myself didn’t remember how I had painted it. These were some of the most nightmarish days in my life. I was afraid that I would paint it over, and that someone would come up and say, “Well, of course, the other one was cooler, we all understand, it’s hard to repeat something, and you’re not so young.” I washed off everything and somehow forced myself to turn away from these thoughts. And in a couple of days, when the faces were already finished, five German newspapers simultaneously came out with a photograph of this work and headlines like: “We have the Bruderkuss back”. That’s when I relaxed — it was a hit.

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