Johannes Stahl


It is general knowledge that the term "capital" is derived from "caput", the latin word for head. Any attempts at an interpretation based on other associations - the Roman Capitol, Marx's DAS KAPITAL, capital punishment, capital gains tax etc. - are simply heading for trouble. There are a Iot of different things beginning with "head" - in fact too many for comfort.

The title-page of Thomas Hobbes1 "leviathan'" - in many respects quite remarkable - transposes this verbal equation into a vivid image. In order to bring home his absolutist theory of government to non-readers or to people who can think better in pictures than in words, Hobbes depicts the state as a human organism. And there is absolutely no doubt as to who the head is meant to be. However, it would perhaps be going too far to translate this metaphor of the body politic into city-planning terms or to instigate typological studies in this direction 2, especially when the head in question is a bronze sculpture which stands in the middle of what used to be called "Karl-Marx-Stadt". On the other hand, there have been frequent attempts in the past at interpreting this central urban complex as the outward expression of socialist ideology. If this is a problem, then it is one which primarily concerns the preservation of monuments and, as such, is also one of historical and political identity.3

What aggravates this problem additionally, however, is the city architecture whithin the immediate surroundings of the monument. But for the occasional historical gem - the "Schloßplatz" being one example - the "Straße der Nationen" is flanked by that typical monotonous architecture which was celebrated all over East Germany (in Magdeburg, Dresden and Eisenhüttenstadt, for example) as the ultimate achievement of socialist architecture and of the social idea behind it: the complete intermeshing of living and working environments, The buildings that line the main street of Chemnitz not only clearly reveal their practical function but also show what a state-run working and living community can look like in our industrial age. Similar complexes - born either of related or even of like-minded ideologies - were also built in Frankfurt am Main and in other cities of West Germany.4 What is peculiar to the Chemnitz situation, however, is the relationship between the huge head of Karl Marx and the main street. Like all the other squares along the street, the head simply "docks" onto it. Being the most recent sequel in the history of the city, the head claims the right to write the last, valid chapter of Chemnitz's history book and, in so doing, to embody the city's new name in a chronicle made physically visible by its architecture and city planning. This huge, neckless head cannot fail to have achieved its monumental effect. As a virtually architectural solution to the problem of building a sculpture of such huge dimensions, it certainly affords some scope for innovation in formal terms, though its figuration and its political message clearly belong to the period of its origin and to the historicizing attitudes which prevailed at that time.

The way the sculpture relates to the extensive frontage against which it has been placed is reminiscent of the effect often achieved by a sculpture in relation to the walls of the room in which it is exhibited. The idea that a free-standing sculpture may relate not only to the architecture behind it but also bear a defined and political relationship to the place where it has been erected is not new as such. What is Karl Marx's head in Chemnitz is the Roland statue in Bremen, or any one of the countless equestrian statues that stand in front of the buildings from which political power was at one time wielded. Whilst enough has certainly been thought and said about the political differences, it is still worth our while to give some thought to the formal aspects of this sculpture. What is noticeable first and foremost is the fact that the head and the frontage of the building behind it form an integral whole in terms of scale, form and content. Particularly remarkable, too, is the heavily emphasized frontality of the sculpture; the possibility of viewing the sculpture at an angle or in profile is definitely subordinate to the full frontal view. From the front, the head can be readily viewed by pedestrians at street level - the eyes of the sculpture are directed straight at them - and also from a more distant stand point where the striking, optical attributes of Marxism are just as easily discernible. No doubt these different possible viewing distances account for the various differently sized inscriptions on the sculpture. Whilst the monumentality of the entire complex is obvious, one question still remains: Is the scale of the sculpture in keeping with the similarly large-scaled architecture of the city? The question is altogether valid if we think of Thomas Hobbes' title-page.

Moreover, the head is mounted not just on a double plinth but also on a large step which raises the entire sculpture above the level of the street. Whilst the reasons for this may have lain not just in the desire to express monumentality but also in the very pragmatic need for a proportionate relationship with the background architecture, the plinth and the step do in fact make a formal contribution - and with absolutely classic means - towards a heightening of content. It is precisely in this regard that a comparison with Hubertus von Pilgrim's "Adenauer Head" - a subsequently executed and, in artistic terms, altogether unhappy sculpture outside the Chancellor's Office in Bonn - would be helpful.

The situation is unique - perhaps because it is as valid as it is anachronistic. This combination of the architectural individuality of the complex as a whole and the lack of individuality in the formal, sculptural detail of the monument itself runs counter to existing, meanwhile complacent patterns of thought and suppression. Artistic intervention will obviously be the most suitable means of resolving this dilemma between city planning, form and idea, between the head and its city.

Johannes Stahl

1 Hobbes, Thomas: Leviathan, London 1651.

2 Werner Oechslin examines this iconographical topos in his extremely readable essay "Dinokrates - Legende und Mythos megalomaner Arehitekturstiftung". In: Daidalos 4, 1982, p. 7-26.

3 Dören, Bela: Chemnitz. In: Stadtbauwelt 129, Berlin 1996, p. 704 ff. Bodenschatz, Harald: Das Ringen um das verlorene Zentrum. In: Stadtbauwelt 129, Berlin 1996, p. 7008 ff. Seidel, Wollgang: Innenstadt Chemnitz: Shopping-Malls oder Stadtrekonstruktion. In: Stadtbauwelt 129, Berlin 1996, p. 714 ff.

4 It would perhaps be interesting to examine the extent to which similarities exist between the vacated centres of such socialist cities as Karl-Marx-Stadt, Magdeburg etc. and cities in West Germany. What immediately springs to mind here is the empty space that existed for many years between the Gothic cathedral and the ancient town hall (the Römer) of Frankfurt/Main until it was finally I filled by the historically styled Ostzeile.