Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933

The Geist of Weimar

Jeffrey Greggs

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).

“Panorama (Down with Liebknecht)” (1919) by George Grosz (© 2015 Estate of George Grosz/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

The city streets teetering unsteadily under the weight of profiteers, prostitutes, and counterrevolutionary zeal described in Grosz’s Panorama (Down With Liebknecht) (1919) and the geometric automaton in The Diablo Player (1920), show off the range of his Expressionist, Cubist, and Futurist influences. The vicious cartoon style for which he is perhaps best-known turns up in the grim Fit for Active Service (1918) and the furious The Secret Emperor (The Industrialist Hugo Stinnes) (1920), and can be situated as part of the wider trend towards realism, indeed hyperrealism, that came to be called Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”) following the eponymous 1925 exhibition. The Berlin incarnation of the movement inclined toward the ugly and sordid, a “Verist” tendency that is also evident in Max Beckmann’s print series Trip to Berlin (1922), Karl Hubbuch’s Intoxication of the Lunatics (c. 1923), and the much-neglected Karl Hofer’s baleful Man with a Melon (1926).

The pieces in “The New Utopia” demonstrate how modernism, frequently called the New Building, also saturated the world of architecture and design, and it was in these domains (as well as in fashion) that modernist ideas had the most impact on mass culture. Between 1919 and 1925, the population of Berlin doubled, rising to four million residents, which led to an acute housing shortage. Since the Weimar constitution promised to provide a “healthy dwelling” for all Germans, architects were kept busy once the economy stabilised. The cost-effective, functionalist public housing complexes designed by the Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut, and Hugo Häring no doubt proved attractive to the government thanks as much to their affordability as to their aesthetic. And where people find a modicum of prosperity, the demand for mass entertainment is sure to follow: the sleek, low-slung cinema palaces designed by Hans Poelzig and Martin Punitzer anticipate the streamlined look that enjoyed popularity in the next decade, especially in the US. Meanwhile, the glass surfaces and severe geometric compositions in the sketches of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper project (1921) and Glass Skyscraper project (1922) once prompted the architectural historian Heinrich Klotz to declare that, while “the first skyscrapers were indeed built in the United States, the high-rise was invented in Berlin”.

“I and the City” (1913) by Ludwig Meidner (Private Collection)

As buildings soared to greater heights, hemlines and hairdos famously got cropped. The selections in “The Neue Frau” (“The New Woman”) address a shifting sense of the feminine: Christian Schad’s painting Two Girls (1928) and Erich Godal’s watercolour Seduction (c. 1925) supply erotic views of flapper girls “at play,” while Jean Mammen’s watercolours Fortune Teller (1928) and You Have Very Beautiful Hands (1929) depict warm, all-female scenes of everyday interactions about town. Fashion plates by Gerda Bunzel and costume designs from films and theatricals, such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Erik Charell’s Analle, show a more glamorous version of the liberated look. Liberation was more easily aestheticised than achieved, however, and in Hannah Höch’s The Bride (Pandora) (1924/27) the bride’s head on a standard wedding cake topper has been replaced with an outsized child’s face. She regards her anxieties about matrimony and motherhood with no little trepidation.

It should come as no surprise that the final room of the exhibition, “Into the Abyss”,  is largely given over to works dealing with the political conflicts that led to the demise of the Weimar Republic. John Heartfield’s anti-Nazi photomontages, now making use of Surrealist rather than Dadaist imagery, fairly jump off the wall, especially Adolf the Superman Swallows Gold and Spouts Rubbish (1932), in which an X-ray of the Führer’s upper body reveals a gullet and belly overflowing with marks, and As in the Middle Ages, so in the Third Reich (1934), which juxtaposes the image of a medieval martyr lashed to a Catherine wheel with a Nazi victim likewise broken over a swastika. Agitprop to be sure, but we should all be so lucky to employ such imaginative propagandists.
 There are quieter pieces here as well: Bauhaus colour studies by László Moholy-Nagy, and his 1928 series of photographs shot ingeniously from atop a Berlin radio tower. Four tempera industrial landscapes by Oskar Nerlinger, the most charming of which is Through the Rose-Colored Glasses of the Romantic (1929), marry a futuristic figural style to the simple colouring and economy of a Hiroshige woodcut.

“Lonely Metropolitan” (1932) by Herbert Bayer (© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

Appropriately, the show’s final offering, Rudolf Schlichter’s allegorical Blind Power (1937), is one of its most searing. A bare-chested gladiatorial figure representing German culture stands on the rocky outcropping of a blasted wasteland, gazing into the abyss. His torso is beset by a sextet of Bosch-worthy demons busy ripping into his flesh and exposed entrails. A city, characterised by the modernist housing settlements on view in previous galleries, burns in the background.

Seen in a postwar light, Blind Power strikes the viewer as a savage critique of the Third Reich. But that tells only half the tale. When Schlichter, who had taken up with the radical Catholic Right, began work on the painting in 1932, the demons were meant to symbolise the forces of liberalism and democracy. It was, as Peters notes in the exhibition catalogue, a “programmatic image of the so-called conservative revolution against the Weimar Republic”.

The Nazi programme, however, did not incline to big-tent policies following the successful conclusion of its revolution. The party set to, eliminating and silencing its rivals on the Right almost as quickly as its enemies on the Left. Adolf Ziegler, the head of the Reich Chamber of Visual Art, seized Blind Power for the infamous Entartete Kunst (“Degenerate Art”) exhibition of 1937, and Schlichter was banned entirely from exhibiting in 1939.

By reworking the painting slightly and dating it to 1937, Schlichter refocused his criticism on the Nazi party. For him, as for many then and in  the years since, the catastrophe of the Third Reich obscured all that came before it. So when we consider the Weimar era, which the historian Walter Laqueur once referred to, with some justice, as a “new Periclean age”, a question which comes to mind is, “What might have been if not for Hitler?” But further contemplation of the republic’s deep unpopularity and its avant garde culture’s inability to gain real traction with the general public reminds us why what might have been wasn’t.

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