The New Berlin, 1912-32

Dodo

[Image: Dodo, Theatre Box Logic, for ULK magazine, (1929), watercolour and graphite, 40 x 30 cm, Krümmer Fine Art © Krümmer Fine Art]

The New Berlin, 1912-32 is a current exhibition which examines art that flourished in Berlin during the flowering of Modernism from 1912 to the end of the Weimar Republic in 1932 (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, 5 October 2018-27 January 2019). The exhibition (including more than 200 works of art in all media) focuses on advanced German art that made it to Belgium in those years and the art made by Belgians in response to that art. It features many names familiar to international visitors and figures from the Belgian art world who are lesser known internationally. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The exhibition opens in 1912, which was when (in March 1912) the Der Sturm gallery opened in Berlin. The gallery would feature much of the era’s most ground-breaking art. In collaboration (and competition) with Galerie Georges Giroux in Brussels and dealer Alfred Flechtheim, Der Sturm allowed art to reach Berliners and – through loans and publications – international audiences, including those in Belgium. Futurism, Cubist, Blaue Reiter, Expressionism and abstract art began to be diffused via publications such as Die Aktion. The influence of Expressionist woodcuts – being the most accessible and accurately reproducible art of the time – became apparent in the art of Frans Masereel and Gustave De Smet. Their woodcuts are stylistically identical to those produced by the German Expressionists.

The year 1912 was when Belgian art’s influence began to dramatically wane. Art Nouveau, Aestheticism, Symbolism, Luminism and Neo-Divisionism all had leading practitioners in Belgium, not least in the fields of illustration and poster design, and were popular Europe-wide from roughly 1890 to 1910. Belgium (particularly Brussels) was one of the artistic hubs of the period. The outbreak of the Great War decisively extinguished these movements as vital strands.

The Art Critic

[Image: Raoul Hausmann, The Art Critic (1919-20), lithograph and printed paper, 31.8 x 25.4 cm, Tate: Purchased 1974, Inv. T01918 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017]

Belgium was occupied by German forces from 1914 to 1918. At this point German art, through exhibition and publication, became dominant sources of new ideas in a Belgium isolated from the rest of Europe. Belgian artists exiled in the Netherlands found kinship with German Expressionists in artistic terms. Some of the Expressionists were anti-war, Socialist and internationalists, which struck a chord with foreign artists. During the war and into the 1920s and 1930s Expressionism became a distinct school in Belgium, influencing artists of École Laethem-Saint-Martin, Nervia and independent painters such as the young Paul Delvaux. Expressionism of Belgium (principally in Flanders) is characterised by its domestic subjects, muted coloration, emotional moderation and links to traditional subjects. The Belgian palette contrasts with the lurid aggression of the Germans. Belgians saw Expressionism as a way of connecting to an actual remembered past while the Germans wanted to connect to an imagined past of exotic savages. The exhibition includes paintings and prints by Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Pechstein, Ernst Barlach and Käthe Kollwitz. During the occupation many German artist-soldiers made the pilgrimage to the studio of James Ensor in Ostend. The elderly Ensor was considered a pioneer of Expressionism for his celebrated mask paintings, made decades earlier. While stationed in Belgium, Heckel made art and the exhibition includes one of his paintings of Bruges.

In aftermath of the war, the assertively Modern seemed the only adequate response to the horror of invasion, destruction and mass slaughter. In 1918 Art Nouveau seemed incomprehensibly archaic and Symbolism a feeble fantasy world. Art for a shattered world would have to break with tradition. Exposure to art of Germany led to many young Belgians looking East following liberation. They divided roughly into two camps: the angry Expressionists, Dadaists and satirists and the idealistic abstractionists. The former reacted to the social and emotional upheaval of the war; the latter decided to prevent suffering and disunity through the establishment of technical perfection, scientific social policy and aesthetic revolution. In Belgium over 1918-20 there was a burst of short-lived utopian artistic groups inspired by liberation and the Russian Revolution. With the ideals of pacificism, Modernism, Socialism and internationalism (advocating European unity), these groups espoused rejecting tradition rather than adapting or hybridising it. Much of the art that inspired Germans and Belgians was Russian: Naum Gabo, El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko and Kazimir Malevich.

Model for 'Constructed Torso'

[Image: Naum Gabo, Model for constructed Torso (1917), cardboard. 1917, reassembled 1981, 39,5 x 29 x 16 cm, Tate: Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1995, T06972, © Tate, London 2018]

Some of the leading Belgian abstract artists were Pierre-Louis Flouquet, Victor Servranckx and Marthe Donas. The radical ideas of Soviet architects found fertile ground with German architects and Bauhaus teachers. A number of uncompromisingly modern projections for redevelopment of Alexanderplatz, Berlin are shown here.

In the 1920s Berlin became a world metropolis, the third largest in the world (behind London and New York). Berlin was a city that was uniquely divided between the advanced and the regressive. It was home of the world-class pioneering technology, architecture and arts and was beset by widespread unemployment, hunger, prostitution, poverty, political violence and the persistent effects of wartime upon former soldiers, many severely crippled. This proved a stimulating environment for new art.

Dix_01

[Image: Otto Dix, Two Children (1920), oil on canvas, 95 x 76 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium, Brussels, inv. 7510, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn © SABAM Belgium]

Georg Simmel described the city dweller as free from traditional constraints of religion, morality and local political affiliations. The urban person had been liberated from the constraints of custom and – newly anonymous, mobile, freely associating – was able to develop his/her talents; these tastes might reach a state of extremity. Take a look at Hans Baluschek’s printed portraits of a drunk, carnival whore and cocaine addict – victims of urban degeneracy. Criminologists in Vienna and Berlin were engaged by the question of whether or not cities caused latent criminality and moral weakness to corrupt individuals. Two paradigms were at war: the utopian (cities allowed the fusion of individuals into superhuman forces of productivity, creativity and innovation) and the dystopian (cities allowed the moral and genetic dregs of society to spawn turpitude among the masses). As one looks through the art here, one cannot help but see the abstractionists, Bauhaus teachers and city planners as utopians and the political artists and Dadaists as dystopians.

The proclivity for people to seek out likeminded others led to the acceleration of tendencies and producing ever more extreme and specialised styles. In Modernism there has always been a craving for novelty. When the style of Weimar Berlin art was not Modernist, the subject matter was often contemporary. The Neue Sachlichkeit and Magic Realist artists painted modern places (such as cabaret clubs, cinemas, streets filled with automobiles) and modern people (drag artists, homosexuals, flappers, Communist and Nazi agitators). Dodo, Lotte Laserstein, Hannah Höch and others female artists were the so-called New Women, liberated from former constraints, and they portrayed New Women. Only Laserstein could be described as a Neue Sachlichkeit painter. (See my review of Laserstein’s current solo exhibition in the Städel Museum, Frankfurt in the next issue of The Jackdaw.)  Political satire often dictated the tone, especially in the work of George Grosz, Otto Dix, Raoul Hausmann and John Heartfield. This was the time when Heartfield made photomontage into a mass art and a political weapon. His attacks on Nazism featured on the covers of AIZ and other publications and are recognised as classics today. (Read my review of Heartfield’s photomontages here.)

Berlin was home to other leading creative figures, including filmmaker Fritz Lang, playwright Bertolt Brecht and novelist Alfred Döblin. The catalogue includes an informative essay on Expressionist cinema discussing the role of Nietzsche’s thought on the films by Robert Wiene and others. Other essays cover the changing character of Berlin, photomontage, the New Women of Berlin and political art. Groups of works are illustrated in sequences with brief written summaries. The texts (which are based on research rather than theory and are admirably free of jargon) ably map the importance of Berlin as a centre for the visual arts and explain links between Belgian artists and the capital of Germany during the period of High Modernism. The profuse illustrations of periodicals show what people were reading at the time and how they consumed art. This catalogue forms a good introduction to these subjects and will be of value to anyone wanting to understand the role of Berlin in European Modernism during its heyday.

 

Inga Rossi-Schrimpf et al, The New Berlin, 1912-32, Lannoo/Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, 2018, hardback, 256pp, fully col. illus., €34.99, ISBN 978 2390 250 739

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books here: http://www.alexanderadams.art

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Peter Kuper: Kafkaesque

Kafkaesque FINAL FINAL COVER

[Image: (c) 2018 Peter Kuper]

Kafkaesque is a new book by graphic artist Peter Kuper featuring stories by Franz Kafka. Kuper, whose previous graphic novel Ruins won an Eisner Award in 2016, has produced black-and-white woodcut-style illustrations for 14 stories by Kafka. Kafka wrote stories in different forms. There were lengthy allegories, stories in the form of dreams and short parables which were as honed as parables of Biblical character. Kafka was the sort of visual writer whose stories lend themselves to illustration – ones with lots of strong images but not overly descriptive or detailed. Interestingly enough, when Kafka discussed with his publisher the illustrations for his famous “Metamorphosis” (wherein Gregor Samsa woke one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect) Kafka was categorically insistent that the insect Gregor not be depicted. Kuper has elected not to illustrate “Metamorphosis” – but only because he has already made his version of it.

Kuper decided to work on scratchboard, which is an inked board or paper which is scratched away with a tool. This is working in negative, a reverse of the ink-on-paper positive approach. This gives the images a starker, rawer feeling. The slight irregularities of the scratching – combined with the unreliable fidelity of the scanning technology which records it – add to the slight wavering quality of the images. This softens what might otherwise be a rather harsh mono style without mid-tones. The style also works against cross-hatching, which tends to abrade scratchboard unpleasantly and erratically. The primacy of black gives the panels an omnipresent atmosphere of impending darkness, where daylight or electric light are only brief reprieves from the natural normality of a dark universe. In Kafka’s writing, one feels the standard is ignorance, unfairness, oblivion, coldness and isolation. There is much humour in Kafka – which Kuper brings out – but that does not invalidate his bleak outlook. Humour is the spark of humanity in the cosmic expanse of indifference and darkness. It is deliberate that blank pages between stories are black rather than white.

Extracts of Kafka’s text are used as narration and dialogue. The stories are changed from Kafka’s neutral or naturalistic settings to a heightened setting, often in modern America, though never explicitly contemporary. Kuper’s art blends uses imagery of mid-century America, populated by people, drawn in a consistent and stylised manner. The stylisation is in line with the Expressionist printmakers that Kuper admires.

helmsman1

[Image: (c) 2018 Peter Kuper]

The artist describes his drawn stories as translations and conversations with the original stories. Sometimes Kuper has adapted freely and imposed a distinct personal approach. For example, “The Trees” becomes a depiction of homeless rough sleepers on New York streets. “Before The Law” becomes an allegory of racial injustice, where a black man awaits admittance to the chambers of the law, guarded by a white man. To be fair to Kuper, he leaves this matter open to our interpretation but our knowledge of current political narratives suggests a political intention. “In The Penal Colony” needs no alteration to make it a criticism of the severity of judicial punishment. The story is rather complex. Kafka undercuts the obvious message extolling humanist compassion by portraying the prisoner, condemned to die on an elaborate machine, as a hardly better than an animal, a comic stooge and a fool who is both an impediment and willing participant in his execution. There are many other elements, not least of which is the story functioning as a parable critical of society. The story leaves us in some doubt about the apparent moral that capital punishment is cruel and unusual.

Bucket Rider 1112

[Image: (c) 2018 Peter Kuper]

Overall, Kafkaesque balances the humour and seriousness of the original stories. One thing that Kuper has not been able to replicate is the eeriness of Kafka’s prose and scenes, which fluctuate between the ordinary and uncanny. However, these graphic stories are translations not exact parallels or recreations and one should not expect that full richness of the sources to be present in these partial re-presentations. Kuper’s understanding of the limited capacities of art is apparent in his choices of stories. He has naturally been attracted to the ones that are most absurd, slapstick and dramatic. For example, “Gracchus the Hunter” is a personal favourite of mine but it would clearly have been unsuitable for Kuperisation.

Most of the stories are six pages long. Some are longer, such as “The Burrow” at 22 pages and “In The Penal Colony” at 46 pages. “The Burrow” is an example of effective use of double-page spreads. The cross-sections of the timid and inventive burrow-dweller’s underground network of passages and chambers incorporate multiple scenes in two-page panels. The multi-directional passages allow text and action to be broken into sequential fragments. In one image we see the burrow-dweller inhabiting the labyrinthine recesses of his own brain, hiding from potential intruders real or imagined. Kuper’s creative freedom allows him to create a parallel pictorial system which mirrors the burrow-dweller’s tunnels made with such industriousness and ingenuity.

One can say that the spirit of the originals is partially captured and enjoyably transmitted in these new versions. Kafka (who had a habit to making ludic stylised drawings) would have found many panels in Kafkaesque to admire and amuse.

 

Peter Kuper, Kafkaesque: Fourteen Short Stories, W.W. Norton & Company, 19 October 2018, £13.99/$19.95, hardback, 160pp, mono illus., ISBN 237 0000 441 560

Peter Kuper’s website: www.peterkuper.com

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art