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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