Art out of anarchy
Posted: 14 May 2012 | By: Patricia Anderson - Editor
The mad square exhibition, which showcased the strands of modernist art movements in Germany between 1910 and 1937, opened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in August 2011 and was also on show at the National Gallery of Victoria till March 2012.
When readers of the catalogue see Eric Hobsbawn’s words “When I go there today, I still feel it has never recovered from 1933.”, there is an immediate recognition of the enormity of the dislocations. Germany’s troubled Weimar republic period has been as well documented by historians, novelists, sociologists and film makers as Edwardian England. England had Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford and Berlin had Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud and Christopher Isherwood. Two of the latter’s celebrated novels, Mr Norris changes trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939) — which inspired the film Cabaret in 1972 — are particularly revealing of the milieu.
The Weimar Republic — with its bubbling cauldron of economic and political instability between the two ‘world’ wars —was doomed from the start. The death and maiming of millions of young men in World War I, the crushing terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the restlessness and resentment of returning troops who reassembled as the Freikorps to engage in street battles with national socialists, anarchists, republicans and communist parties, the assassination of politicians, bread rationing and the freefall of the Reichsmark all made it impossible for any coalition to govern effectively.
At the beginning of 1923, one American dollar bought 20,000 Reichsmarks, by the end of the year, it took over four million Reichsmarks to buy that same dollar. Then in June 1929, another crushing blow was delivered: the Wall Street Crash. This heralded the beginning of the Great Depression and America was no longer in a position to offer short-term loans to Germany. Four years later, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was re-elected to the presidency by the smallest of margins over a man who, just eight years earlier, had been in jail following a failed coup d’etat in Munich: Adolf Hitler.
By May 1932, four million people were unemployed in Germany. The following year, after much bullying and bluffing, he was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany and the ‘Enabling Act’ of 1933 established the Third Reich. An implacable campaign to disenfranchise a group of people who constituted a mere 1% of the German population began in earnest with an official national boycott of Jewish businesses.
In 1934, when Hitler instigated the Röhm purge (the Night of the Long Knives) in which one branch of the Nazi party — the SS — massacred another — the SA, terror and distrust spread like an oil slick. When in 1935 Hitler disowned the Versailles treaty and began the defiant rearmament of Germany, the western powers felt the need to appease him rather than rankle him as an insurance against the equally cataclysmic events in the Soviet Union. That same year, the Jewish population were deprived of all citizenship rights and the terrifying Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) caused many German–Jewish people to emigrate.
The Third Reich’s obsession with some phantom notion of racial purity and the perfect Aryan physical specimen embodied in the catchcry ‘blood and soil’ initially found expression in the incarceration in institutions of the incapacitated, the mentally unstable and the physically frail, where they were given lethal injections. Here one might ponder that some of those making the loudest noises about the perfect Aryan were themselves stubby, cross-eyed, club-footed, spindly and neither blue-eyed nor blonde.
Germany’s murderous regime was attempting to identify itself with a chimeric classical past, and we have plenty of reminders of the saccharine results in architectural building programmes even beyond Germany’s borders. This same regime also identified with a phantom, untainted, bucolic world where simplicity and certainty reigned and ‘cosmopolitanism’ and its heady infusions were snubbed.
This strange period brought forth many monsters and infected whole groups with a grim fatalism and fanatical gaiety which was given expression in art exhibitions, the theatre, the music hall, in opera, in literature, and in pamphlets and newspapers. The poet Apollinaire had used the term ‘surrealism’ in 1917 to describe the ‘unleashing of zany creativity’i in the ballet Parade, before a combat wound despatched him in 1918.
Weimar was not only the small town from which a newly constituted democratic government was announced in February 1919, but the home of the celebrated Bauhaus, an institution founded by the architect Walter Gropius which opened its doors in the same year. In some ways the achievements of the Bauhaus: the melding of art, design and craft in some of the finest expressions of that century stand for an ideal — a utopia — even as it was fractured by political events, and its relocation from Weimar in 1925 to Dessau and thence to Berlin in 1932. It closed the following year under pressure from the Nazi regime.
It came to be remembered as the ‘International style’, whose design innovations were stripped of ornament, embodied simplicity, functionality and rationality, and encouraged high-quality mass production which did not render the maker an anonymous cipher. It had been influenced by the Deutscher Werkbund, a German national designers organisation which formed in 1907 and the European modernist movement. The period in which it flourished embodied both ‘zeitgeist’ (the spirit of the times) and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).
Sigmund Freud, whose exploration of the subconscious mind and how it underwrote the inclinations of humanity at large, gave a boost to those painters whose strange conjunctions of imagery had been prompted by free association and a dragging of the subconscious seabed to snare the detritus of dreams and nightmares. These painters were called surrealists, and a number laid claim to Freud’s ideas — as did the dadaists.
And what was dada? It was a phenomenon rather than a movement, and its roots were in language: an accidental language — a nonsense language. The abandonment of reason was precisely, it was argued, what had thrust a dagger through the heart of European civilisation in 1914. If the world had gone mad, then artists would give verbal and visual expression to this madness. Its offshoot, surrealism, is still with us today.
The Nazi regime had discredited the modernists, hounding them, burning their works, and exhibiting them in an orchestrated propaganda exercise called Entartete Kunst — Degenerate Art — in Munich in 1937. Over two million people visited the exhibition in Munich, many more than visited the nearby display The Great German Art Exhibition, which was intended to showcase works the Nazis considered ‘healthy’ art. Artists such as Emile Nolde, Ernst Barlach, Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckman and Otto Dix might have found themselves out in the cold where the official art establishment was concerned, but there were many who recognised their importance and a great groundswell of buying and selling went on behind the scenes.
As for the personal preferences of Hitler and undoubtedly many of his cohorts, these ran to stylised muscular clichés in male sculptures and demure maidens in rustic settings in paintings of idealised German womanhood. As the Nazis consolidated their power over every detail of German life and production, many artists were obliged to leave Germany or become psychologically detached from their homeland — a kind of internalised migration.
And so, to return to this thoughtfully curated exhibition whose works give expression to the spiralling down of an entire culture where moderation and civility vanished, and where political and cultural institutions were all but dismantled. Many of the works on display are evidence of the powerful subliminal links between sex and violence.
Four works in the introductory room to the Sydney exhibition set the scene: Ludwig Meidner’s Apocalyptic Landscape (1913) collapses before our eyes. The sky is shredded, the land buckles, a man’s face composed of raw impastoed paint strokes is frozen in horror and confusion. Ernst Barlach’s bronze The Avenger (1914) wields a scythe, Davringhausen’s Lustmord (The Sex Murderer) 1917, hints at a murkier underworld and subterranean psychopathologies. Ludwig Kirchner’s Woman in a hat (1911) suggests a world of artifice and brittle glamour.
The historian Eric Hobsbawn, in the catalogue’s preface, reminds the reader that one result of Hitler’s murderous regime was the persecution or migration of many who would make their mark in the fields of medicine, law, public life, “art history and visual culture, as well as the media through the innovations of Continental publishers, journalists, photographers and designers”. The mad square embraces many of these offerings, not merely paintings and drawings.
The kind of painters who fell afoul of the Nazi establishment were either those who laid bare the horrors attending it, depicted images of war-maimed veterans and those who were psychologically shattered, or whose candid subject matter hinted at a cornucopia of degeneracies. These in particular were thought to undermine the classically oriented offerings of the traditionalists. The mix of nationalities was extensive: Austro-Hungarians, Germans, Russians, Swiss and Dutch. The exhibition, which is divided into specific themes, reflects this.
The first body of works focuses on the World War I years and the Revolution. Another group assembles the offerings of the dadaists and another, the Bauhaus and its lecturers and followers. The constructivist movement, which germinated in Russia at the end of World War I, and the machine aesthetic (with its connotations of a ‘brave new world’) occupy a room and the theme of the ‘metropolis’ another. Yet another body of works focuses specifically on the German movement called Neue Sachlichkeit, which meant ‘new objectivity’. This was a style which embraced an icy, detached, splinter-sharp realism.
Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the show is the substantial number of works which have been drawn from Australia’s own state and private collections. These include the photographer Margaret Michaelis, Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, Paul Klee, El Lissitzky, Franz Marc, Marianne Brandt, Max Beckmann, Rudi Feld, Käthe Kollwitz, Max Pechstein, Johannes Itten and Wassily Kandinsky.
One artist which many viewers will have some familiarity with is George Grosz, who painted scenes inspired by Berlin’s colourful night-life and consistently satirised political henchmen. His works are far removed from the notion of the golden twenties as fun and glitter, instead they expose the elements of raw and arrogant power — crude characters fixed in a moral vacuum.
Max Beckmann’s psychologically intense works have some links with the French avant-garde of the 1920s he admired. After serving as a medic in World War I, his subsequent career in the art world in the Weimar Republic blossomed until Hitler came to power. Then his fortunes reversed and he moved to Amsterdam where he lived in poverty and self-imposed exile.
Otto Dix had taken part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and earned the Iron Cross before he was discharged from the army after being wounded in the neck. His experiences and his recurrent nightmares of crawling through destroyed houses would provide much material for his art and he produced a number of etchings of hospitalised young men requiring reconstructive facial surgery for their horrifying injuries.
Ludwig Kirchner had suffered a nervous breakdown while serving in the German army in World War I and was discharged. In 1937, he was one of many artists whose work was singled out and branded degenerate — 600 of his works were sold or destroyed. He committed suicide the following year.
The Germany these artists depict has slid into a terrifying space where all moralities are suspended and, like a mirror reflecting images in the cold light of day, they reveal the contusions of last night’s prize-fighter stepping from the ring. Perhaps it is not drawing a long bow to see some links between the congested horrors of these canvases, woodcuts and etchings and the offerings of Hieronymous Bosch in the mid-1400s — another period when religious and thus political cauldrons were brewing.
The Swiss-German Paul Klee is represented by some lyrical and meandering works in this show. He was born into a musical family and was spared the front in World War I thanks to the behind-the-scenes intervention of his father. His friends August Macke and Franz Marc had both been slaughtered. Klee had been one of the most influential teachers at the Bauhaus, which made him a target for the Gestapo. His home was searched and he was dismissed from his position as lecturer at the Düsseldorf Academy. One might surmise that his innocent, playful, light- and colour-filled works were a retreat into a purer world, one where aesthetics could snub all political and economic realities.
In 1911, August Sander set out to take black and white photographs for a project he called People of the 20th Century. These sombre, bleak documents were published as Faces of our Time in 1929. They were not politically inspired portraits, rather a cross section of society — farmers, tradesmen, professionals, clerks and the homeless, but Sander did not escape the crushing effects of Nazi ideology. His book was seized in 1936 and the photographic plates destroyed. His son, who belonged to the left wing Socialist Workers’ Party, was arrested in 1934 and died in prison ten years later. Sander’s studio was destroyed by a bombing raid in 1944.
Of all the works in the exhibition, the one which gives the exhibition its title — The mad square (1931) by Felix Nussbaum — demands scrutiny. It presents Berlin’s city square, Pariser Platz, filled with artists demonstrating against their exclusion from the Prussian Academy of Arts. The established artists — the academicians — ignore them and file into the institution. The academy’s president Max Liebermann works on a self-portrait on the roof of his studio in the background. He could be the embodiment of unassailability except for two interesting details. Nussbaum has floated a gilded statue of Victory behind Liebermann’s portrait. She has lost her wreath and Liebermann’s house has begun to crumble.
Nussbaum arrived in Berlin in the 1920s and his career as a painter looked assured when he was invited to study at the Villa Massimo in Rome in 1932. But the following year, Joseph Goebbels banned Jewish artists from studying there. After years of hiding in Brussels, Nussbaum was captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz where he died in 1944.
i Peter Conrad, Modern Times, Modern Places, p.143.
Images from top:
Felix Nussbaum, The mad square, 1931, oil on canvas, 97 x 195.5cm. Berlinische Galerie, Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Fotografie und Architektur. ©Felix Nussbaum/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Christian Schad, Self-portrait, 1927, oil on wood, 76 x 61.5cm. Private collection. Courtesy Tate London. ©Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg. VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, The sex murder, 1917, oil on canvas, 119.5 x 148.5cm. Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen, München. ©Renata Davringhausen.
George Grosz, Tatlinesque diagram, 1920, watercolour, collage, ink on paper, 41 x 2cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. ©George Grosz/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Max Beckmann, Young Argentine, 1929, oil on canvas, 125.5 x 83.5cm. Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen, München. ©Max
Beckmann/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
George Grosz, Suicide, 1916, oil on canvas, 100 x 77.5cm. Tate, London. ©George Grosz/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Woman in a hat, 1911, oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Western Australia.
Ludwig Meidner, Apocalyptic landscape, 1913, oil on canvas, 67.3 x 80cm. ©Ludwig Meidner-Archiv. Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main.
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