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George Grosz, "Diablo Player", (1920) (© 2015 Estate of George Grosz/Licensed by VAGA, New York)


Nobody in Germany liked the Weimar Republic: not the old imperial aristocracy, not the Bolsheviks, not the industrialists, not the newly-minted far-Right paramilitaries, not the academics, not the trade unionists, not the middle classes — not even the artists, photographers, writers, designers, architects, lights of stage and screen, and assorted bohemians whose cultural achievements are explored at length in Berlin Metropolis: 1918–1933, at the Neue Galerie in New York. “Beleaguered” might be the most charitable assessment one could bestow upon the various Weimar governments’ best days, those few short hours between the proliferation of crises that plagued the immediate post-armistice years and the grand crisis of worldwide depression that attended the republic’s collapse.

The modernist Geist (spirit) that pervaded Berlin and a number of other German cities in the 1920s was as radical and fervent as Weimar statecraft was weak, but the proponents of the new metropolitan culture, many of whom were Jewish, were regarded with much the same contempt as the state by the vast majority of population. Wandering through the galleries at the Neue, however, the museum-goer is liable to forget that detail — perhaps, in part, because of the paucity of explanatory text in the exhibition — and instead marvel at the apparent transformation, almost overnight, of a stolid, traditionalist sensibility into something distinctly modern.

In order to cram the whole picture into a wide-angled frame, the exhibition’s curator, Olaf Peters, and designer, Richard Pandiscio, have arranged Berlin Metropolis both chronologically and thematically; 350 works in a variety of mediums, many on loan from German museums, archives and private collections, populate six galleries, each of which is devoted to a different aspect of life in the capital. While the survey approach effectively conveys the visual experience of the city in the 1920s, the wide sweep of the show itself causes it to feel both fragmentary and overwhelming at times. This is not necessarily a bad thing: the experience is probably not unlike that of the average German tourist who visited Berlin, or at least certain districts of Berlin, on holiday.

The opening gallery, “The Birth of the Republic”, features paintings and photocollages that train their eyes on urban and social subjects in the wake of war and defeat. Many of the artists on display, including George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield, and Hannah Höch, were associated with the “anti-art” First International Dada Fair of 1920 as well as the left-leaning, but slightly more conventional, November Group. Their unusually political brand of Dada, combined with the newly developed technique of photomontage, yielded scathing indictments of bourgeois society, such as Höch’s Heads of State (1918–20) and Hausmann’s A Bourgeois Precision Brain Incites a World Movement (1920).

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