Monday, March 18, 2013

Lust for Life: German Expressionism Before, During and After

AT THE HEIGHT of German hyperinflation in 1923 and 1924, people would sit on the streets ready to barter with crates of paper money. It was sold by weight and worth more than old bones but less than rags.
This was a hell of a year to be alive in Berlin: Franz Kafka was an obscure figure, ill with tuberculosis and consulting the Talmud, preparing a retreat home to Prague where he would soon die; Vladimir Nabokov was arriving as a young student, returning to his Russian emigre family from London; Joseph Roth was surviving, hand-to-mouth, describing city life in newspaper columns known as feuilletons, a model he defined as "saying true things on half a page".
Roth would eventually write a tart letter in 1926 explaining his approach to an editor: "I don't write 'witty columns'. I paint the portrait of the age. That's what great newspapers are there for. I'm not a reporter, I'm a journalist. I'm not an editorial writer, I'm a poet."
Almost 100 years on his journalism is collected in book form as What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33. It is a testament to his abilities and to the fact the capital of Weimar Germany thrilled as much as it appalled. Certainly there was a harshness and inhumanity to the city that would cause Roth to observe: "Berlin is freezing even when it's 60 degrees."
Two-dozen daily newspapers quickened the pulse of the city, a fever of communications. Pamphlets, periodicals and street posters were also rife. Artists embraced this new "age of mechanical reproduction" - to use German philosopher Walter Benjamin's phrase - with limited-edition portfolios and printmaking techniques, lithographs, etchings.
A part of this activity had sprung out of the immediate post-war period when political advocacy and social instability engaged artists in street-level protests. Every party and cause under the sun needed a rallying image. Later, when money proved to be worthless, their drawings, prints and portfolios were as a good a currency as any to enable artists' survival, while easily reproducible works were publishable as well as capable of reaching a larger audience.
It was a trend that connected to a graphic impulse deeply embedded in the woodcut experiments of early 20th-century expressionism, and a latent national pride that associated these craft-oriented forms with 15th-century gothic masters such as Albert Durer; a venerable German tradition. In a defeated and indeed crushed country such processes offered up their own vague consolations for cultural identity.
Those following the Communist Party-influenced 1919 manifestos of the Berlin dada group saw it rather differently. For the dadaists, satire and protest emerged out of collage and photomontage - then a radically new technique - the necessary pathways to confront the mass media developing around them. By rearranging imagery, a suppressed reality could be made manifest; lies could be exploded.
If such applied cultural theories seem dated now, they were then as radical as shooting a feature film on an iPhone appears today. It had not been done before, it had not been seen. In any case, oils and canvas had come to cost more than most artists could afford. The new way was also the cheap way.
Bouncing back rapidly from the economic insanity of the early 1920s, Berlin would re-establish itself as the third largest city in Europe after London and Paris, a metropolis thrumming with corruption and opportunity.
It was not just the capital of the Weimar Republic of Germany; it was the most exciting city in the world, its sins and sorrows visible to anyone who cared to see. Suitably inspired, Berlin's trinity of hyper-realist art - George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann - would depict disfigured war veterans, corpulent businessmen, the sex trade and acts of suicide with an illustrative, almost sinister relish.
Two million German soldiers had been killed during World War I; another four million were wounded. Amputees and beggars were everywhere, shell shock and nervous breakdowns part of the social disorder. About 700,000 people had died of malnutrition and starvation between 1914 and 1918, many of them towards the war's end.
The assassination of Jewish foreign minister Walter Rathenau by right-wing extremists in 1922 added to the grim tidings. An urbane and brilliantly conciliatory figure, he had personified hopes for the fledgling democracy. The year of hyperinflation then smashed whatever slender economic security people - especially the old - thought they still had.
After all this, it is hardly surprising anything like good times should be grasped with a desperate, almost manic lust for life, and everything else be damned.
Inevitably painters, writers, musicians, dancers and bohemians of all stripes were drawn into the vortex. Almost 20 per cent of the German population was composed of  foreigners by the mid-1920s. Berlin was the cosmopolitan capital, a doorway to revolutionary Russia, whose changes shook Europe in seismic waves. Refugees flooded in from across the border; so did ideas about art and design, such as were seen in constructivism. The reality of homelessness and unemployment made itself felt as a countervailing force to any internationalist spirit among the bohemians.

As history would prove, Berlin was on the edge of the most important existential and political struggles of the 20th century. Zeal and antipathy, hedonism and repulsion, would drive the bipolar character of the city's inhabitants regularly to the brink.

The Weimar's unsteady life - racked by punitive war debts and 20 government cabinets in 14 years - was ultimately destroyed by the worldwide Depression that began in 1929, paving the way for the National Socialists to seize power in 1933.

Grosz, Dix and Beckmann, photomontage artist John Heartfield and playwright Bertolt Brecht were among those who recognised what was happening.

Inevitably their work put them on a collision path with the Nazis. They weren't just making art; they were fighting for their lives and for their world as it staggered out of one cataclysm and back into another in the interval of barely more than decade. Everybody was up to their necks in it.

WITH AN EXHIBITION at the Art Gallery of NSW entitled The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-1937, curator Jacqueline Strecker tries to stretch beyond the 14-year measure of the Weimar Republic from 1918 to 1933 to examine the pre-war years and World War I itself as part of the deeper cultural force that led to so much great art.

Along with this exhibition there will be a concurrent production of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera - the Malthouse and Victorian Opera production from Melbourne is being presented by Sydney Theatre Company - and a screening at the Opera House of Fritz Lang's Metropolis with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The print of Metropolis, the most expensive silent movie made, is yet again improved with 30 additional minutes of footage discovered in 2008 and never seen before in Australia.

Numerous other events and talks will feature across the city, with gallerists Rex Irwin and Ray Hughes presenting subsidiary shows.

A below-the-radar highlight will be a screening of Walter Ruttmann's experimental film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, essentially a visual poem filmed from morning until night in 1927. Jazz pianist Stu Hunter will play a live score to it with fellow musicians at the AGNSW's Domain Theatre.

The intent of all this is to re-create the ambience of a city ignited by art across myriad disciplines, a hopeless cause for present-day Sydney, but an admirable feast for those who want to immerse themselves in Weimar life.

Ironically the "metropolis" of Berlin, as Lang's futuristic parable suggests, was an inherently frightening development in a country that had been far more rural before industrialisation and World War I.

Words and phrases such as nerves, nervy and nervous energy crop up frequently in the catalogue to The Mad Square. The title of the exhibition puns on the name of a Felix Nussbaum painting from 1931 to look at what the "mad square" might have been: be it insanity in a public place, or rage within the frame of a painting, or something else as the Nazis loomed closer to power and artists responded in a frenzy amid a newly urbanised life.

We peer now into the abyss of the Weimar Republic through the prism of its phenomenal art, literature, design and theatre with strange longing nonetheless. It is a revealing feeling, and not so far from Otto Dix's accounts of his experiences as a machine-gunner during World War I: "The war was a horrible thing, but still something powerful," he wrote. "Under no circumstances could I miss it! You need to have experienced men in this unbridled state to really learn something about man."

Black-and-white works from Dix's portfolio War (1924) provide a salutary and gruesome rebuff to simple-minded voyeurism. Neither a pacifist nor a warmonger, Dix lays out the facts like a deck of cards, a fractured nightmare that enters fully into a bloody domestic painting such as The Felixmuller Family (1919).

This is a world stained by war that soon enough will stampede its way towards another, despite the artist's best efforts to disillusion people.

As usual the AGNSW will also run a program of films to parallel The Mad Square. Modern-day classics such as Cabaret will help to re-create the dark vibrancy of the era, a bridge to arguably even darker experiences such as Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930), with Marlene Dietrich as the archetypal nightclub femme fatale.

The latter explored a common theme: desire and anxiety, focused on the Neue Frau (New Woman), urban, independent and granted voting rights for the first time with the advent of the Weimar Republic in 1919. Hannah Hoch, who was reluctantly accepted into the dada group, would question this stereotype in her freakish collages, reaching a more melancholy high point with her painting Imaginary Bridge (1926), an exploration of a failed relationship and her two terminated pregnancies.

The convergence of sex and death, explicit or implicit in so much of the work, inevitably leads to a detached eroticisation of the era, and much of its magnetism. Christian Schad's Self Portrait(1927), with a naked woman on a bed behind him, a scar on her face, while he stares out at the viewer as if glancing into a mirror, sets the tone. It is one of the key works in a Berlin painting movement of the mid-1920s known as the Neue Sachlichkeit (translated as New Objectivity or, more correctly, New Matter-of-Factness).

One ultimately has to ask how much beauty there is to be experienced at an exhibition such as this, or if it is all one long slide into the approaching darkness.

"I don't subscribe to the view that these works are culturally pessimistic," Strecker says. "I don't see that as the overwhelming quality. The artists were acutely aware of what was around them, of course. The extraordinary thing was the artists were responding so quickly to so many dramatic changes, and even though they existed on the fringes there was a feeling what they were doing could change things or influence society.

"And it was that belief in creative expression and the role of the artist in revealing and even changing things that was unique to this period. I think that idealism has actually gone now from a lot of contemporary work."

She admits: "There is a lot of resistance in Australia to this kind of art. It's edgy. For some people it will be ugly and too political. But it's that edge and that engagement with society that I find more satisfying as a brand of modernism than 'art for art's sake'. You look at some of the works now and you can see that they could only be created in that place and time."

Strecker fingers the pages of the exhibition catalogue and even wonders if the work will have the same impact for a modern audience inured to images of violence and pornography as part of their casual entertainment. Rudolf Schlicter's The Embrace (1927-28), for example, shows two women in tight sexual coupling. Strecker says: "The overwhelming quality of it is the way it has been drawn. The subject matter has almost become secondary."

The same, perhaps, may be said for the early Grosz lithograph Murder in Ackerstrasse (1916-17), which depicts a beheaded prostitute on her bed while her goonish killer washes his hands. A cartoon grotesque, it shows the influence of children's illustrations and toilet graffiti that Grosz turned to in rejecting bourgeois ideas about art. Not so oddly, the image feels as if it has grown out of a tabloid newspaper report: part horror story, part grind-house amusement.

Despite her mixed thoughts on how people may respond - aesthetically, morally or emotionally - Strecker is intrigued by "the power of the work in the exhibition and how much of it does still speaks to us so directly".

She senses "that quality of embracing the new and being excited by modern life, but also fearful of it. We're in a similar period in a way with technology transforming things at such a rapid pace".

As if it is so obvious it barely needs saying, she shrugs and says, "Artists were facing similar changes back then."

BRECHT WAS RIGHT. In a 1930 film version of The Threepenny Opera he adds a final verse to Mack the Knife to explicate his interest in the lives of the rich and poor in Germany:
There are some who are in darkness
And the others are in light
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight.
The verse serves just as well as a eulogy for the artists of the Weimar Republic. The Nazis, who favoured neoclassical Roman and Greek art as their ideal, began a savage rollback against anything remotely tainted by modernism as they rose to power. By the time the National Socialists were burning books and artworks in 1933, many artists had wisely left.

Jews, communists, homosexuals and "degenerates", they were the un-Germanic filth that would form part of a great cultural exodus that transformed the West in theatre and music (Brecht and Kurt Weill), film (Lang), photojournalism (August Sander), political satire (Grosz), philosophy (Benjamin) and painting (Wassily Kandinsky). All of them had made Berlin their focus, a generation it is hard to imagine gathering in one place again.

Those left behind would enter into a state of internal exile to survive, or kill themselves if they weren't already being shipped off to concentration camps.

These suicides were not simply a matter of historical defeat, they were also the logical conclusion to a nihilism that was born in the trenches of World War I, then cultivated as a political and psychological aesthetic that left them nowhere else to go. People had been hanging themselves and jumping out of windows since the war. Things had gone from bad to worse. The lucky ones cringed behind doors, working in watercolours rather than oils so no one could smell what they were up to.

To see this exhibition is to be excited nontheless by the artistic project of social engagement. It is not all murder, sex and protest either, as the beauty and elegance of the Bauhaus school in everything from architecture and furniture design to teacups painted by Kandinsky make clear.

Indeed it's a surprise to realise Paul Klee and Kandinsky were both teaching at the Bauhaus school during the 20s, and to see their interest in "other worlds" of colour and form were as much a part of the era as more obviously intense social commentary. Eventually the Bauhaus was closed down by the Nazis for its supposed communist sympathies, a little too much talk of affordable design serving the working masses.

This elegance and beauty and, yes, this spirituality noted, there is still something about most of the works that calls to mind film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's phrase, "fear eats the soul". For The Mad Square is ultimately about a culture squeezed between two apocalyptic dramas, World War I and the coming of the Nazis. It cannot be denied.

It's instructive, therefore, to dwell again on the end of World War I. After the ruling kaiser had fled in defeat, a series of spasmodic and violent upheavals occurred, all of which were brutally suppressed. Thousands were injured and killed in street fighting and the jostling for power from late 1918 well into 1919.

A moderate Social Democratic Party, propped up by the same generals who had prosecuted the war, was able to establish the basis for a parliamentary democracy. It was this that would become known as the Weimar Republic, but there was always a feeling the SDP never washed the blood of these associations off its hands. The murder in custody of communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht by a paramilitary unit nominally controlled by the SDP in 1919 had such symbolic freight all public signs of grief were immediately banned. In the longer run it would prevent the political left from ever forging a united opposition to the Nazis.

Among the many standout works in the exhibition is a black-and-white woodcut, Memorial for Karl Liebknecht 1919-20.

Invited by the Liebknecht family to sketch him at the mortuary, artist Kathe Kollwitz would note in her diary how "he was lying there in a coffin in the hall beside other coffins, with red flowers around his bullet-holed head. His face was proud, his mouth slightly opened and twisted in pain."

Her woodcut emanates a religious grief of near medieval darkness, intensified by an empathy that had grown out of the death of Kollwitz's own son during the war. The work is stark, powerful and, in the context of the times, an act of humane bravery.

It may sound grand, but there is a larger feeling of bravery running through much of the work: for its aesthetic boldness, its ecstatic principles in the pre-war years and later challenges to the bourgeois order and corruption of the Weimar period that saw right-wing nationalism fester and triumph.

The Mad Square culminates in a documentation of The Degenerate Art show of 1937, an event critic Uwe Fleckner flags as "a defamatory exhibition" by the Nazis.

Paintings, sculptures, collages and other works were hung in a purposely slap-dash and ramshackle fashion, crammed into a few rooms and surrounded by numerous, shrill signs declaring things such as: "Revelation of the Jewish racial soul"; "The ideal - cretin and whore"; "Madness become method"; and "The Jewish longing for
the wilderness reveals itself - in Germany the Negro becomes the racial ideal of degenerate art".

Much earlier Joseph Roth had written in fury and pain from Paris in 1933 as the Nazis threw books and artworks into great bonfires: "We have sung Germany, the real Germany! And that is why today we are being burned by Germany!" Called The Auto-da-Fe of the Mind, it is actually one of his least controlled pieces, as if Roth's own writing is breaking apart before the horror.

By the time of The Degenerate Art show it was all over for them. In bearing witness to the art still with us in The Mad Square, we're strangely fortunate to see the ones in brightness that survived. Those in darkness drop from sight. Burned.
- Mark Mordue
* This article was first published under the title 'Lust for Life' in The Weekend Australian Review, July 30, 2011. It was inspired by the exhibition, 'The Mad Square', held at the Art Gallery of NSW August 6 - November 6, 2011.