The Mad Square

September 3, 2011
Rudolph Schlichter, Tingel tangel
Rudolph Schlichter, Tingel tangel

It happens from time to time that I fail to distinguish a cabaret from a crematorium
- Joseph Roth

From its traumatic birth, at the end of World War One, the Weimar Republic was an unstable experiment. The historian, Eric Hobsbawm charts its rise and fall in an introductory essay for the catalogue of The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37, at the Art Gallery of NSW. He reminds us “the republic lasted only 14 years, and of these just six, sandwiched between a murderous birth-period and the terminal catastrophe of the Great Slump, had a semblance of normality.”

Mention “the Weimar Republic” and we automatically think of decadent cabarets in Berlin; the inexorable rise of the Nazis; inflation so extreme that workers were obliged to carry their wages home in a wheelbarrow and spend them before they depreciated. It was a time of extreme social turbulence that has been invested retrospectively with a tawdry glamour.

With this exhibition, guest curator, Jacqueline Strecker has tried to present a broader picture of the Weimar years, showcasing its incredible artistic diversity. The Mad Square is divided into sections devoted to movements such as Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism, and the Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”). There are also examinations of the Bauhaus; urban culture (“Metropolis”); and the impact of National Socialism, with a special emphasis on the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition of 1932 (“Power”).

This is a lot to cram into one show, which incorporates painting, sculpture, photography, the applied arts and film. It might have been wiser to pursue a narrower program, even at the risk of historical distortion. No exhibition can hope to be all-inclusive, and Australian museums have a distressing tendency to try and cover too much ground. The National Gallery of Australia’s Turner to Monet exhibition of 2008 was the prime offender, but The Mad Square might also be improved by a less ambitious agenda.

One could argue that Strecker has concentrated on the thesis at the expense of the exhibition, with a tell-tale sign being the final work in the show: a small abstract picture by the little-known Friedrich Stuckenberg. A major show has to end with a bang, not a doodle. Even the title is a potential stumbling block. The Mad Square is the name of a quirky painting by Felix Nussbaum that acts as an allegory for the artistic upheavals of the Weimar period. It makes poetic sense, but will probably confuse potential viewers who would have responded to a more prosaic title. When it comes to paying customers, local galleries need to be pragmatic.

My final criticism is pretty standard for international blockbusters: there are too many works on paper, covering a lack of major paintings and sculptures. It is a constant disappointment that European and American museums are so reluctant to lend important works to Australian venues. More than half the show is drawn from Australian collections.

Having got my misgivings out of the way, there is much about this exhibition that is impressive. Strecker demonstrates an expert grasp of her subject, and has commissioned a series of well-written, accessible essays that complement her own writing. The major paintings that did make the trip, such as George Grosz’s Suicide (1916), Max Beckmann’s The Dream (1921), and Christian Schad’s Self-portrait (1927), are given some prominence in the hang and the catalogue. The curatorial approach has been conscientious and professional, and the show projects a real intellectual enthusiasm for this material.

Besides, how can anyone miss with a show of German art from the years between the wars? This was one of the most exciting and dangerous periods in the history of Modernism. Germany had just emerged from a disastrous war that had reduced a proud nation to poverty. The monarchy had been overthrown, and a republic established in the historic town of Weimar, renowned as the home of Goethe and other German culture-heroes. From the very beginning the fledgling republic was crippled by the war reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, which would help breed new forms of extremism. John Maynard Keynes predicted as much in his famous book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), but the allied powers were in no mood to listen.

The contrasts of poverty and wealth created an atmosphere in which despair and decadence flourished. The “no future” idea that generated the punk movement in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, was alive and well in Weimar period-Berlin. People drank, danced and took drugs as if there would be no tomorrow. Aesthetes sought ever more refined and perverse pleasures, while others succumbed to mental illness and nervous breakdowns.

For every playboy squandering his money in a Berlin nightclub, there were thousands of people living on the breadline – refugees, menial workers, petty criminals, war invalids and beggars. This aspect of life is brilliantly captured in Joseph Roth’s What I Saw, a collection of small essays published in German newspapers at the time. Roth roamed all over the crowded city, observing rich and poor, revealing the hidden truths of urban life to those who saw only a part of the whole.

We need a Roth today, to balance out the image of Berlin propagated by Christopher Isherwood’s novels and Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), which still provide the popular stereotypes.

This is what Strecker attempts to do in The Mad Square, by devoting considerable space to the utopian ambitions of Constructivists such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and El Lissitzky, who saw abstract art as the pathway to a more harmonious society. She also gives us a glimpse of the Bauhaus, the celebrated school started by architect, Walter Gropius, that aimed to unite the worlds of art and design, bringing a new distinction to mass produced objects. This allows the inclusion of works by artists and Bauhaus teachers such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Schlemmer; as well as a selection of paintings by graduate and tutor, Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, who came to Australia as an enemy alien on the Dunera, and went on to become art master at Geelong Grammar.

Hirschfeld Mack is one of great secrets of Australian art, and it is a pleasure to see his works in this context. Nevertheless, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the Bauhaus artists and Constructivists deserve an exhibition in their own right.

The more lurid aspects of the Weimar period will always steal the show, from Otto Dix’s grotesque pictures of cripples and prostitutes, to works dealing with the phenomenon of Lustmord – the violent sex crimes that were such a consistent feature of those years. This show has three suitably chilling examples in drawings by George Grosz and Rudolf Schlichter; and Heinrich Davringhausen’s large oil painting of a naked, blank-eyed prostitute menaced by a murderer lurking under the bed. It is a work in which Manet’s Olympia meets Hitchcock’s Psycho.

There is no denying the weird power of Christian Schad’s Self-portrait, in which the artist wearing a strange, transparent shirt shares the canvas with a nude woman with a severe, modern hairdo and a scar on her face. It is startling to compare this piece with a painted, wooden relief made by the same artist in 1916, under the influence of the Dada movement.

Christian Schad, Self portrait

Schad was not the only artist to jump between styles, growing more or less expressive under the pressure of circumstances. Max Beckmann, who is arguably the greatest figure in this show, altered his style to reflect the levels of strain he felt in a society where he went from being one of the most celebrated artists in Germany, to a virtual outcast. In an image such as The Night (1918-19), seen only in print form in The Mad Square, Beckmann gave reign to his worst fears. In pictures such as The Dream, he shows Germany as a kind of circus or madhouse, where everyone is performing. More than 500 of his works would be confiscated from German museums.

Some artists such as Nussbaum and Otto Freundlich would lose their lives in the Nazi campaign against modern art, while Emil Nolde, suffered the special humiliation of being a card-carrying member of the Party, and still being classed as degenerate. Having subscribed to all the quasi-mystical claptrap about the Aryan race and the Teutonic spirit, Nolde was devastated to find that his own brand of Expressionism was viewed as cultural terrorism. It was the end of his romance with Hitler, as he and his peers began to understand that the contradictions of these chaotic years would have deadly consequences.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 3, 2011

The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37, Art Gallery of NSW, until 6 November.

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