By Craig Lee-Winser
How can a period so afflicted with anxiety produce something so unique and variant in its ideology regarding the limitations and constraints of art in the 20th century? This was the question I asked myself, standing alone in the entrance foyer of the Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37 exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Grey walls, faint yellow lighting, and the distant echo of a 1920s cabaret singer invite strangers together to gaze upon the art vested within its halls. A personal infatuation with this integer of complex history compelled me to attend the first few opening nights. Among the throng of people incessantly murmuring about the forever varying qualities that each work seemed to possess, I sat and absorbed everything. Every wall, every narrative, every work. Everything. This exhibition diverts its energies into investigations of key avant-garde movements of the Weimar Republic and, as a consequence, the varying perspectives of these differing art movements. The title of the exhibition – Mad Square- draws directly from Felix Nussbaum’s 1931 painting, also displayed within the walls of the show. It represents the famous German Pariser Platz: a symbol of both bourgeois leisure and a place to exhibit artistic abstraction. The painting depicts the bourgeoisie to the left, lining up to enter an institution devoted to a classical art. Cherubs hover above the paths, serenading and praising the privileged class of tradition. In the centre, artists attempt to sort through the irrational mess that is their abstracted works, supposedly dumped there by the upper classes in a rouse to cleanse German cultural institutions. Interestingly however, the city framing the Pariser Platz is literally in a state of degeneration. Buildings are cracked and decrepit; they seek cultural reaffirmation and reinvigoration. Nussbaum being an abstractionist himself, this work comes to represent a prevalent cultural repression of a Germanic digression away from figurative forms and increasing tendencies towards abstraction. This fragmentation of the city becomes a metaphor for art in its entirety, neglected and shunned by its patrons. However, now in contemporary context, cherished and prized. Much like the Weimar Republic, the exhibition begins and ends with atrocities of war. The soothing sounds evocative of a 1920 cabaret contrast with artworks of a violent ideology displayed within the first rooms. As the works are exhibited in a roughly chronological sense, we encounter a conjunction of art derived from Berlin Expressionism and art from World War I and the Revolution. Expressionism offers a precursor into art before WWI when artists moved to the metropolis of Berlin in order to seek out new subject matter and audiences for their revolutionary styles. Apocalyptic scenery and unique representations of a society eager for war are exhibited within the art of the Expressionists. Ludwig Meidner’s Apocalyptic Landscape, 1913, offers stunning insights into how war was perceived, portraying scenery dominated by raw and devastating power. Explosions come to alter and control weather; houses cower away from the power that is Germany. In every sense, this picture, although terrifying, is a majestic manifesto to war being something of honour and victory. It comes to speak of domination, not decadence. The art of WWI however, offers a shift in a perception that gains momentum as the exhibition continues. Instead of scenes dominated by displays of Germanic power, feelings of societal claustrophobia and suffocation replace motifs. Artists began to understand war as being a mechanical weapon that could, quite possibly, wipe out all civilisation. Dismembered, abstracted figures embody themselves within art for the first time and, as consequence, art begins to turn an eye towards elements of a society gone wrong, inspiring insights into a society in disrepair, a society incapable of rehabilitating itself. Given the context, it becomes easy to perceive why, when all hope of the ability of the human race to endure such conflict was under question, abstracted forms of artistic nihilism emerged. Arguably, one of the most nihilistically infused movements, Dada, arises in the next juncture of the journey. Stark red walls display a haphazard collection of Dadaist drawings and collage. This room becomes shadowed by projections exclaiming; ‘art is dead’. This prognosis of Dadaism offers a stark contrast to art offered by the rest of the exhibition. It is indeed interesting that the curator of the Mad Square chose to emphasis the ‘anti-art’ element of Dadaism when the traditional narrative of this movement usually orientates around the invention of new art rather than its intended destruction. During the World War, a cultural war was indeed initiated, irrationality utilised to disperse the rational, and as a result, create a rupture in society dedicated to the disbanding of a war based on morals and reason. Each movement comes to aspire towards its own rupture used in attempt to repair the degeneracy of society. In the next room we see the reaction of the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus is often misinterpreted as an artistic movement, yet in this case, the gallery has accurately portrayed it as not a movement against convention, but as a school in which the revolutionary combination of art and craft aspire towards the creation of a universal art form. The Bauhaus (1919-33) is often considered to be one of the most influential art and design schools of the 20th century. Founded by the architect Walter Gropius and situated within the Weimar Republic, the school offered a unique social commentary on perspectives of German artistic youth. Under the guidance of Gropius, it sought to disregard traditional perceptions of the artist and instead construct a more progressive creative designer, possessing both the conceptual aesthetics of art and the technical skill of handcrafts. Along the exhibition walls, glass cabinets encase works such as Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Carl Jakob Jucker’s Table Lamp 1923-24 and Tea Service 1930, all surrounding displays of interior design; furniture for the modern Wohnung (apartment). Ideally, the art produced of this school sought to modernise society with the aim of reforging it to encapsulate form and function as primary elements. Form and function however, evolve into a differing aesthetic in the room of Constructivism and the Machine Aesthetic. Instead of aspiring towards the irrational as a means of justifying the dissolution of the rational systems of power, the works in this room seeks to assemble its own construction of the rational, with intentions of art becoming a product that society should emulate. This movement shared a utopian belief in social reform and saw abstraction as playing a central role in this progression. In this intended revolutionising of all art for a dynamic modern society we can see a new form of reason exemplified in the machine being understood as an extension of human abilities; and as such, the path in which we could achieve a hyper-rational society. A super structured, regimented and reason abiding society devoid of conflict. The works of Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy, among others, utilise this machine aesthetic in order to display their adherence to the ‘socialist values of clarity, order and the possibility of collective human progress’, (Lissitzky cited in Strecker, 2011). Aspiration towards a future form of reason is then contradicted with the Metropolis, and the New Objectivity, seeking to return art to previous figurative formations. The thriving, sophisticated and cosmopolitan metropolis seemed to provide a rich source of imagery for artists. The city’s seedy underbelly inspired images of brothels, decadence and sex murders. The development of the metropolis came to represent society’s victimisation of the forgotten classes. In the mid-1920s a new style of right-wing portraiture emerged that came to be known as new objectivity. This developed as a means of attempting to return to traditional conventions of representation after the First World War and the depravity of the Berlin metropolis. In the midst of a metropolis reeking of decrepit degeneracy, this room seemed to exhibit, in part, a rejection of modernity. Upon thinking about these varying views of the Weimar republic, I came to find myself in the midst of the final room of the exhibition. Forceful and dictating in how art of Germany should be perceived; Power and ‘Degenerate’ Art. This room challenges the totalitarian, oppressive perspectives of the narratives of Nazi Germany. By 1929 many German avant garde artists sensed a loss in the momentum and direction of art. The crash of the New York stock market made it virtually impossible for them to sell their works and collaborated with the increasing political deterioration of the 1930s: art was dwindling. In 1933 Hitler seized power in Germany and the situation of art became ever more precarious as the National Socialist party launched a campaign to label modern art as degenerate. Modern works were confiscated and modern artists forbidden from working or exhibiting artworks. Many artists went into hiding, produced works secretly, or, in the case of Nussbaum, were murdered in concentration camps. Indeed, the overall emotion portrayed in this final room is one of intense oppression and despair. Standing among works of such a high calibre, with their labels re-enacting that of the 1937 degenerate art exhibition, I felt the political and social tension rife within this period. Degenerate slogans project onto walls informing you of the mental depravity needed to initiate such works of moral decay. In essence, the aspirations of the modern period to reform society for the better are subverted and instead labelled as the cause of depravity within society. Emotion runs wild as artists struggle for a freedom they cannot obtain in this period due to Adolf, the superman: (who) swallows gold and spouts rubbish 1932. On this historical journey I came to find this exhibition quite a breath-taking ordeal. In short, the Grand Narrative that one might come to assume as just a simple fact of history; such as the Weimar republic being doomed from the start, is contradicted. Instead, I gained an essence of the multiplicity of varying narratives, each with its own hope. Each inspired to take affirmative action in regards to what they saw as a society gone wrong. These works come to exemplify the reaction to depravity, rather than being the initiator of it as the National Socialist believed. I found, that in order to truly understand this exhibition, I had to immerse myself in the varying perspectives denied by a controlled history. I had to change my thinking in order to not be fooled into recognising history as the teller of a single tale.
The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 6 August- 6 November, 2011.
Strecker, Jacqueline. The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2011.