September 2011

Arts & Letters

Republic of art

By Sebastian Smee

‘The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910–37’

You can look at French art of the 1870s and momentarily forget about the Franco–Prussian War and the Paris Commune. You can study the paintings of Picasso and Matisse between 1914 and 1918 and tentatively put aside the grim fact of the Great War. You cannot for a moment, however, look at avant-garde art of the Weimar Republic and see it apart from the wider cataclysm that was brewing.

This uncomfortable truth – which helps to explain, I think, the critical and institutional reluctance to acknowledge the tremendous quality of German art between the wars – becomes painfully clear in The Mad Square.

The exhibition, held at the Art Gallery of NSW, is superb. There have been many recent shows in Australia and elsewhere that have addressed one or other of the various avant-garde movements in question – Expressionism, Dada, the Bauhaus, Constructivism, the New Objectivity. And exhibitions focusing on individual artists, from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Beckmann to Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and László Moholy-Nagy, have not been lacking. But this exhibition is the first in Australia to present an overview of all these artists and movements. It shows not just paintings but prints, posters, photographs, furniture, home ware and archival materials.

Undoubtedly, it spreads itself thin. A single room, for instance, stands in for the prodigious output of the Bauhaus. A mere handful of items represent the keen provocations of Dada. But the pay-off is great. Just by wandering through the galleries we are made to understand how all these movements – so apparently disparate in style and underpinning philosophy – overlap and intertwine, and how the allegiances of the period’s major creators were constantly shifting.

Kandinsky, for example – a pivotal figure of nature-worshipping, transcendence-seeking Expressionism – is seen designing teacups at the Bauhaus a decade later. Christian Schad, who, in league with his Dada colleagues, is experimenting with abstract wooden collages and photograms in 1919 and 1920 is, just seven years later, turning out psychologically riveting portraits in an ostensibly traditional idiom. George Grosz and Otto Dix, likewise, crop up in multiple places, multiple guises.

The social and political context for all this is impossible to ignore. And, of course, despite all the excitement and danger we associate with Weimar Germany – the cabarets, the cross-dressing, the sexual licence – it is profoundly bitter to contemplate. There is the bitterness of the recent past – above all, the incomprehensible losses of the Great War followed, in defeated Germany, by the crushed people’s revolution of 1918–19. There is the ensuing bitterness of the Weimar Republic and its impossible predicament: the draconian war reparations, the hyperinflation of the early 1920s, the brittleness of the new political edifice.

But, above all, there is a retrospective bitterness: the knowledge that the avant-garde art of this period – so much of it brilliant, inventive, passionately engaged, wry, utopian, scathing, sardonic – was neither ignored nor marginalised (the fate of so much earlier avant-garde art) but, on the contrary, singled out for special treatment by the Nazis. This art was systematically looted from museums and private collections and displayed in official exhibitions throughout Germany as ‘degenerate art’.

Its central figures – the Bauhaus teachers, the brilliant Max Beckmann, George Grosz and so many talented others – were hounded out of their jobs, their homes and Germany itself; or worse, rounded up and murdered.

This art could never again be seen on its own terms. Cursed with a new political centrality it could never, even at its most socially engaged, have sought or foreseen, it was forever perverted by the Nazis’ demented ideology.

Some disasters are so beyond reckoning that they embarrass us. It seems to me that the embarrassment of the German situation in the 1930s – its very extremity, which so wantonly breached the decorum that had protected the relationship between art and life – explains the discomfort so many curators, critics and tastemakers have felt before the works of Schad, Beckmann, Dix, Höch and Grosz.

It helps explain, too, why the institutions charged with telling the story of modern art so often downplay the contribution of these figures, preferring to tell a simpler, more hygienic story about Paris and New York, and about the gradual ascendency of formal values (colour, line and mark) over storytelling – emphasising art about art rather than art about the city, about social existence, about reality.

For there is no denying that much of the great German art of this period was made in direct response to the period’s upheavals. You think of Hannah Höch’s spare and sly political collages, or Käthe Kollwitz’s powerful lamentations in the direct medium of the woodcut. You think of Grosz’s satirical depictions of greed and venality; Beckmann’s coruscating compositions combining urban, often marginal types with the acid of allegory. You think of the snort of contempt and utopianism that was Dada, and then of the earnestly playful purposefulness of the Bauhaus.

Right from the show’s opening gallery, which presents art made before 1914, we are made aware of the stimulus of the city, of sensational news items and social upheaval. There is a Kirchner portrait – far from his best – of a woman in a hat, probably a prostitute. There is a bizarre composition, based on Manet’s Olympia, by Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, showing a naked prostitute reclining on a bed, a black cat at her feet, a bug-eyed murderer lurking under the bed. The city outside, seen through a window, bends and trembles. Lightning strikes.

There is something ridiculous about the picture (embarrassment again!). The allusion to Manet – the epitome of French cool – only emphasises its absurdity. But Davringhausen’s warped, hallucinatory image lingers in the mind.

So does an apocalyptic landscape by Ludwig Meidner from 1913. Meidner was drafted into the German army only a few years after painting this and other frighteningly prescient images. He survived the war, only to be condemned as a degenerate artist in 1935. He escaped with his family to England in 1938.

There are many brilliant pictures – both prints and paintings – by Beckmann in the exhibition. The Dream, a vertical composition in chalky oils, was painted in 1921, and evokes – better than any of the hyperventilating visual reportage of Dix or Grosz – a sense of social trauma. The upturned, weather-beaten face of the organ grinder, his eyes closed, is perhaps the most moving passage of paint in the show.

The final gallery is titled ‘Power’. It is here that we learn about the ‘degenerate art’ exhibitions and see Felix Nussbaum’s haunting (the word is overused but unavoidable) 1931 picture The Mad Square.

Nussbaum was an artist of Jewish descent from northern Germany. He was enjoying considerable success when Joseph Goebbels cut short his residency at the German art institute Villa Massimo in Rome on the grounds that such opportunities should not be available to Jews. Nussbaum spent several years in exile and then in hiding in German-occupied Brussels. He was eventually captured and taken to Auschwitz, where he was killed in August 1944.

Nussbaum’s painting shows a jumble of artists, himself included, gathering in Berlin’s Pariser Platz with freshly painted canvases, protesting their exclusion from the Prussian Academy of Arts. It’s a classic confrontation between the establishment and the avant-garde, where the establishment holds all the power. But everywhere there are signs of decay. The statue of Victory has been toppled from her column and is losing her golden wreath. The house of the revered German artist Max Liebermann is crumbling. There are crosses in the windows of the academy.

You could say that the eventual collapse of Nazism resulted in a victory for the avant-garde; that the (almost) complete destruction of Nazism meant that avant-garde styles and critiques were subsequently validated to the same degree that they had been despised by the Nazis. Certainly, all the terms were changed. But to describe this ‘victory’ as pyrrhic is plainly insufficient to the horror of what took place.

The image from this show that sticks most powerfully in my mind is a small print by Beckmann, Children at the Window, made in 1922. It shows two boys at a window and, beyond – that beloved subject of German Expressionism – the vibrant city at night.

We think of Berlin in the ’20s as a place of relentlessly adult entertainments. But what was it like for children? These boys’ peers and pals might well have been roaming the streets outside, individually or in gangs, unsupervised, excited, hungry, at risk. The two boys, however, do not look out through the window. They turn in to look at each other. What is it they see?

The Mad Square is held at the Art Gallery of NSW until 6 November; it will be shown at the National Gallery of Victoria from 25 November 2011 to 4 March 2012.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of The Art of Rivalry, and a forthcoming book on Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.


George Grosz, 'Suicide', 1916. Oil on canvas. © George Grosz/VG Bild-Kunst. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
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