Helga Goetze, 1992
© Helga-Goetze-Stiftung | Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin

Helga Goetze

Many Berliners still remember her provocative actions in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and the TU Berlin: Helga Goetze (1922-2008) was an artist, writer, poet and political activist whose life was just as multifaceted as her practice. It was also characterised by duality: Goetze was a housewife who found her personal and artistic calling later in life, yet never referred to herself an artist.

by Amelie Gappa

In her diverse and extensive art, Helga Goetze explored topics such as sexuality, physicality, and the deconstruction of traditional gender roles, while advocating for a better, more peaceful society. Her work comprises of more than 3,000 poems, drawings, paintings, embroideries, and protests in public spaces.

Childhood and adolescence in the shadow of war

Born on 12 March 1922 in Magdeburg to the lower middle-class Troch family, Helga Sophia Goetze was a curious and inquisitive child. She and her brother Harald grew up in the interwar period, a time characterised by catastrophe and political changes that would soon be overshadowed by the Nazis’ rise to power and the Second World War. Helga Goetze first met her future husband Curt Goetze when she was eleven years old. The two married in 1942 and had their first child two years later. Six more children would follow.

Breaking with tradition

Helga Goetze spent the first half of her life in a marriage with a traditional division of roles: her husband worked as a banker while she worked as a housewife taking care of their seven children. Photos from the early 1970’s show Helga Goetze standing in the kitchen, neatly coiffed and wearing a smart dress. It wasn’t until she was in her mid-forties that she broke out of this traditional role. The turning point she cites were sexual experiences she had with a man called Giovanni, whom she met on holiday in Sicily in September 1968 on the occasion of her silver wedding anniversary. A short time later, Helga Goetze embarked on a new phase of life characterised by female self-determination and freely lived sexuality, during which she also discovered activism and art.

A new life in Hamburg and Berlin

After separating from her husband, Helga Goetze initially lived and worked in Hamburg, where she founded an institute for sexual information in 1972. In 1974, she moved into a communal flat that practiced free love, came into contact with the commune run by the Viennese performance artist Otto Mühl (1925-2013) and became actively involved in the cultural centre Fabrik in Hamburg. Her first performances in Berlin paved the way for her move to the then divided city in 1978. It was there that she began her almost daily “vigils for the sexual liberation of women” in front of the Technical University of Berlin and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. After moving from Kreuzberg to Charlottenburg in 1983, she founded the “geni(t)ale Universität” in her flat.

Helga Goetze during one of her vigils at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, 1996.
© Johannes Hinkelammert

Messenger of sexual liberation

During the vigils that Helga Goetze conducted in the public spaces of Berlin almost daily for 20 years, she tried to engage passers-by in dialogue about the issues that were important to her. Her provocative exclamations, such as “fucking is peace!”, are one of the ways she used to draw attention to herself. Even today, society still criticises women in particular for using vulgar language and talking about sex in public. The artist herself boldly declared that “fuck is a completely normal word, it means moving back and forth“.

With such statements, Goetze encouraged her audience to question their reactions to certain words and actions. In addition to her actions in public spaces, she created numerous poems, drawings, paintings, and embroideries in which she dealt in particular with the deconstruction of classic societal roles and socially taboo topics like sexuality and physicality as an act of liberation. Her work often depicts paradisiacal landscapes in which the figures are primarily preoccupied with one thing: having sex.

Goetze used her work to envisage her utopian ideal of a peaceful and communal coexistence characterised by love and desire. She brought this message to the public through her performances, protests and her embroidered clothing.

Radical, provocative and finally recognised

In 1973, Goetze caused a scandal with her appearance on the TV programme “Hausfrau sucht Kontakte” (Housewife Seeks Contact) simply by speaking openly about her sexuality. Her appearance was met with disparaging headlines in the German tabloid newspaper BILD. The title of her first volume of poetry, Hausfrau der Nation oder Deutschlands Supersau? (Housewife of the Nation or Germany’s Super Pig? 1973) was an allusion to these headlines.

She caused additional controversy in the 1980’s, including with her 1982 appearance on an episode of the ARD programme “Arena” dedicated to the topic of nudity, during which she removed her clothing. She once again caused a stir and provoked discussion in the media.

During her lifetime, Helga Goetze’s public image was largely shaped by the German media landscape, which is why her work as an activist, educator and artist was only marginally recognised and appreciated. Critics tended to belittle and sometimes even pathologize her. In the 1980’s, however, there were already voices who spoke positively of Goetze’s political activism. One was director Rosa von Praunheim (born 1942), who used interview sequences with Goetze in his 1982 film “Rote Liebe” (Red Love). Even back then, Praunheim described her as an important and radical pioneer who had something to say on the subject of free sexuality.
Author Katja Lewina also recognised this many years later. In her book Sie hat Bock (She’s up for it) (DuMont, 2020) in which she examines female sexuality and desire, the author cites Helga Goetze as an example of a woman who openly addressed taboo topics in public. Lewina thanks Goetze at the end of the book’s introduction.

In the 1990’s, in addition to holding her vigils in public spaces in Berlin, Helga Goetze regularly invited people to her Märchenstunde (fairytale hour), where she read her poems. She was also a guest on other talk shows. In 2000, together with like-minded people and friends, she founded the Metropole Mutterstadt e.V. association, which is committed to preserving, managing, and publicising her work.

In 2020, the dependent foundation Helga Goetze Stiftung was established at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin to preserve her artistic legacy. Her documents such as diaries, letters and poems are kept by the Feministische Archiv – FFBIZ.

The activist and artist died on 29th January 2008 at the age of 85 in Winsen (Luhe). She did not live to see her work gain increasing recognition.

Film tips

Die Natur lassen wir draußen, die stört. (We leave nature outside, it disturbs us.) A documentary film in German about Helga Goetze by Uwe Cardaun, Klaus Dorn, Wolfgang Jost and Winfried Wallat. An Uwe Cardaun production, Berlin 1980, 54 minutes.

Sticken und Ficken (Embroidery and fucking.) A documentary film in German about Helga Goetze by Monika Anna Wojtyllo, 2003, 15 minutes, 16mm, HFF Konrad Wolf.

Helga Goetze bei einer Performanz vor der Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, aus der 13-teiligen Fotoserie von Thomas Marx über die Künstlerin, 1985/1986
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Online Collection

Discover the work of Helga Goetze in the online collection, featuring 280 embroideries and 300 paintings and drawings:

About the author

Amelie Gappa (born 1994) is an art historian and curator specialising in contemporary and modern art. Her practice focusses on the concept of art and the artist, as well as works located at the intersection of art, design, and architecture. Amelie Gappa has previously worked for institutions such as Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen (Düsseldorf), Museum Ludwig (Cologne) and Kunstmuseen Krefeld. She currently works as a freelance curator (e.g. for the La Felce art space) and organises events on a voluntary basis for the queer-feminist initiative And She Was Like: BÄM!, which is active in the field of art and design.