Domestic Disputes

The walls of Sonja Blattner`s studio in Berlin are lined with her paintings of houses. Dozens of them, with bright, contrasting colors and irregular, expressive lines. Her sculptures, tall, thin houses tottering upon absurdly long stilts like giraffes, line shelves. Blattner`s studio is an intriguing universe of houses that variably invite of repel, initimidate or ease. They exist as though on their own planets, where the sky can be green or white or yellow and the ground purple or blue. Standing in her studio is like standing in the center of a colourful, wonderful alternative universe of houses.

   While her paintings appear to depict fantastical worlds, they are actually based on real houses in Europe and the United States. Perhaps her most impressive series comprises houses in der former GDR, a series she calls "drüben" ("over there", formerly the colloquial West German term for East Germany). Blattner has produced over 3,400 pantings in the drüben series over the last 20 years

mostly 6 by 8,5 inches in gouache and acryl, and the project is ongoing. If you didn`t know from the series title that these were houses in the former Easr Germany, you wouldn`t suspect it. She endowed them with new life, giving them bright,vibrant colours in place of the famously ubiquitous brown-gray of the GDR. What is perhaps most impressive abour this series, however, is that despite consisting of thousands of paintings, no two are alike in composition or color scheme. Her unflinching use of color and distinctive style lend the series its continuity.

   Blattner`s houses exist in environments that are largely devoid of human objects. In some of her paintings fences and street signs remain. As such, the houses`individuel characters come to the fore. Some are inviting, others seem to want to avoid human contact. In some of the paintings, the perspective lends the viewer the sense of rushing past and only catching a glimpse of the house. In others, the viewer stands at an uncertain position to the house, simultaneously near to it and far away, as though with a zoomed perspective.

   Blattner`s houses do something special, arousing a strange combination of defamiliarization and mesmerizing attraction. The houses are abstracted, existing as form, color and brushstroke direction. Free of inhabitants and the traces of human life, they do not evoke the typical emotions that seem to emanate from the houses themselves. Some of the houses even seem to speak for themseves. "Huuh" is the onomatopoetic title of one of her works, as if to express exhaustion. "Einsam"  ("lonesome") is another. The texture and materiality of the houses also do not evoke an association with the materiality and texture of home. Rather, their texture and materiality originate from the medium of representation (most of them gouache or acryl), the thick brushstrokes, and the layering of colors. Blattner`s houses defamiliarize, asserting their independence from humans and defying the Heimat ideals and coziness, belonging, and stasis held so dear in the German cultural imagination. But then, somehow, they also draw the viewer in and fascinate us with the dignity and character they have gained by being untetethered from the usual, familiar associations with home.

   Although these houses appear to be unencumbered by human activity, Blattner`s source material is anything but that. The drüben series depicts houses in the former GDR that are up for auction. Some are abandoned and have fallen into dispair. Some presumably have owners who want or need to rid themselves of the house and its financial burdens. None of them are inhabited, which explains the emptiness with which Blattner works as a theme.(It is only in this state that they can speak for themselves, according to Blattner.) However to know of this source material also provokes questions about the fates of the humans who once owned and inhabited them. Why have these houses been abandoned or why are they being given up? Did their owners leave after unification (or perhaps before)? Were they forced to sell more recently out of financial distress? And who will be their future owners? Who buys these houses in the East?

   Blattner`s houses, each painted in the first decades of the twenty-first century and at a time when they were currently on the market, make a fitting coda this study of cultural productions that depict the new property relations in the former East Germany. In Blattner`s paintings, as in the narratives discussed in previous chapters, houses have an enduring materiality and form that place them at the interface of a newly capitalist present and a difficult national past. Like the houses imagined by Judith Hermann (Sommerhaus später 1998) , Karen Duve (Regenroman 1999), and Juli Zeh (Unter Leuten 2016), Blattner`s houses have agency and personality. Like the house at the center of Jenny Erpenbeck`s Visitation, her houses exist in harmonious relationship to the landscape, as though organically part of the environment. And like every house appear in the new media, television, films, and fictional texts discussed in this monograph, their ownership is up in the air. What is then perhaps so fascinating about Blattner`s paintings is the simultaneous play on and resistance to the thorough commercialitation of home. Unlike in the literary depictions of home in Erpenbeck and Zeh, capitalism is not so pervasive that it determines all aspects of her houses. Blattner takes houses that are considered in the real world primarily as real estate, as the potential property of consumers, and then gives them life in a unconventional ways, not as a containers of human lives, but as themselves in their own expressive materiality and form.

    This de-commercialization of home provides some relief within the landscape of cultural productions that depict houses in the former East Germany.The news reports, made-for-television films, cinematic releases, and prose fictiontexts discussed in this monograph all depict houses to foreground the destabilization of home as an effect of the market-infused word. Each demonstrates that the new property relations have been one of the most devastating outcomes of German unification for Easterners. Far from depicting the "blooming landscapes" that Kohl envisioned, these texts and visual productions preserve the memory of deep insecurities that Easterners felt in the aftermath of unification about their position within the social and material worlds. They pose important questions. Who has a right to inhabit a place and conceive of it as home? What grounds one more closely to home: one`s habitation of it in the present or the memory (or family memory) of a home once inhabited? What happens when two parties have competing emotional ties to a home? Do those who depend financially upon retaining a home have a greater right to it than those who have the financial power to purchase the house and Heimat of their desires? What role does engagement with the materiality of houses and landscape play? For many East Germans, the questions of home has boiled down to a question of alienation in the new society: How can one feel at home in the new Germany if one faces losing one`s home quite literally?

   To date, the issue of property ownership in the East remains unresolved. A number of restitution cases are still pending, and both state-level and national offices for the Regulation of Open Property Questions continue to exist. Just as telling, Sonja Blattner`s drüben project carries on, and she sees little reason for it to conclude anytime soon. While she has painted over 3,400 houses so far, this is only a sampling of the houses that have stood, or now stand, empty in the former East Germany. Her project is not exhaustive, but rather, catalogs houses in a representative manner that attests, simultaneously in its selectivity and scale, to the continuing uncertainty about property relations of home in the former East Germany.


Domestic Disputes, Necia Chronister, De Gruyter, Bosten, 2021

Geman Cultural Studies, edited by Irene Kacandes


Unauthorized translation by Sonja Blattner






My serial painting is about empty houses that I never see in natural. I use medial archives as real estate catalogues to get in touch with the architectures. It's a sort of making portaits of these houses which means not only of the architecture but also by a sort of projection about the biography of the former inhabitants. I put my focus on the left behind and thus on the temporality. In the colourful, bizarre, sinister pictures using surreal elements to tell a story between social reality and kind of dreaming about houses and what they mean to mankind.


Sonja Blattner