Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37 @ AGNSW

Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37 @ AGNSW

The sheer forcefulness and directness of many of the works in this exhibition stem from the tension that is created by representing a view of modernity that was hopeful, dynamic and vibrant on the one hand but dysfunctional and vulnerable on the other.” – Jacqueline Strecker, exhibition curator

The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37 – brings together over 200 diverse works exploring the fascinating and complex ways in which artists sought to portray the modern world in the Weimar Republic.

During this time there was an explosion of artisitic expression in Germany, spurning new artisitic movements such as Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus and New Objectivity as well as changing the way in which folm, photography, theatre and street art was constructed and viewed

During this unprecedented moment in history, avant-garde movements – Expressionism, Dada, Bauhaus, Constructivism and New Objectivity – blossomed and were linked by artists’ shared interest in radical experimentation across all areas of the visual arts, including painting, sculpture, graphic art, decorative arts and design, photography and film.

The title, The Mad Square, is taken from Felix Nussbaum’s painting which depicts Berlin’s famous city square, Pariser Platz, as a frenetic and liminal zone. Berlin, as a heaving metropolis with a voracious appetite for pleasure and a thriving underbelly, was the centre of Germany’s avant-garde during the Weimar years and the inspiration for many of the artists in this show. The city’s cabaret stars, prostitutes and greedy business men are mercilessly caricatured by the likes of Grosz and Dix.

The ‘Mad Square’ is both a place – the city, represented in so many works in the exhibition – and a state of mind that gives these works their edginess. The ‘square’ can also be seen as a modernist construct that saw artists moving away from figurative representations towards increasingly abstract forms.

The importance of the Bauhaus, another radical German movement with a lasting impact, is also highlighted in the exhibition through works by teachers from the famous craft and design school such as László Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer.

On view until 6 Nov 2011
Art Gallery of New South Wales

Modernity in German Art 1910 -1937

This is the first exhibition in Australia to look in-depth at the turbulent time of the Weimar Republic when, following the catastrophe of World War I and in a period of intense crisis, Germany entered an extraordinary era of creative artistic fervour.

From its traumatic birth at the end of World War I, the Weimar Republic was an unstable experiment- ‘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.

The mad square exhibition, organised by the Art Gallery of New South Wales with loans from museums and private collections from around the world, opens in Sydney 6 August 2011, and tours to the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, in November.

Berlin, 100 years ago, is the starting point for the exhibition. The thriving cosmopolitan metropolis provided new subject matter and new audiences for radically modern art forms. Over two decades Germany became a centre for international avant-garde artists who were attracted to the culture of Weimar Germany.

Through over 200 works by leading artists of the period – including Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, Karl Hubbuch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Käthe Kollwitz, László Moholy-Nagy, August Sander, Christian Schad, Rudolf Schlichter and Kurt Schwitters – The mad square reveals the intensely original art forms both of this time and the fascinating and complex ways in which artists responded to the forces of modernity.

A number of visiting experts including Sean Rainbird, Prof Dr Uwe Fleckner and Prof Dr Carla Schultz-Hoffmann discuss the artists the movements and ideas at play in Germany from 1910 to 1937



The Mad Square focuses on a brief chapter in German history, a period of only 27 years in which the country survived one world war and moved inexorably towards another, and, for a fleeting moment, became the international centre of an extraordinarily fertile avant-garde culture. In less than three decades, a plethora of radical artistic movements that still resonate today were nurtured by German artists: Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism and New Objectivity.

The Mad Square acknowledges this legacy and presents key works by major players from each movement, such as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, Karl Hubbuch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Käthe Kollwitz, August Sander, Christian Schad, Rudolf Schlichter and Kurt Schwitters.

Elsewhere, the Berlin of the 1920s is transformed into the dystopian city of the future in Fritz Lang’s epic film, Metropolis. This classic silent movie will be screened at the Sydney Opera House, accompanied by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, as part of Berlin Sydney, an extensive array of satellite events. The exhibition will also tour to Melbourne, opening towards the end of November

Berlin Sydney

To celebrate the launch of Art & About Sydney and the exhibition The mad square, the Gallery invites you to step back for a night into the decadent world of Weimar Berlin, with performances, talks and films inspired by this explosive period of intense creativity which flourished amid chaos and revolution.

In conjunction with The mad square, a series of programs focussing on Weimar culture and Berlin in the 1920s – covering theatre, music, cabaret, exhibitions and other events – will be held around Sydney. Organisations include Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Symphony, Sydney College of the Arts, and Museum of Sydney.

Berlin in the 1920s was a melting pot of amazing creativity, as the AGNSW’s exhibition The Mad Square reveals.

Film was another of the arts at which the Germans excelled and here’s your chance to catch some all-time classics for free on the big screen at the gallery’s Domain Theatre.

There’s Marlene Dietrich in Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (Sun 4 Sep); 1922’s answer to Twilight, FW Murnau’s Nosferatu (7 & 11 Sep); and Fritz Lang’s immortal sci-fi work Metropolis (5 & 9 Oct).

You can also see Murnau’s Oscar-winning Hollywood debut, Sunrise (25 Sep), and his final film, South Seas romance Tabu (Wed 28 Sep & Sun 2 Oct). Fritz Lang went on to have a significant Hollywood career and the chilling M is screening (12 & 16 Oct) as well as two films noirs: Scarlet Street (19 & 23 Oct) and The Big Heat (26 & 30 Oct).


@ Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
Friday 28 October and Saturday 29 October 2011 8pm

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was the most ambitious, and expensive, silent film ever made. An icon of 1920s cinema, it is set in a futuristic urban dystopia, where a world of luxury and opulence is supported by a class of underground slave-workers.

This Australian premiere of the newly restored version of the film includes 30 minutes of footage, lost until 2008, and now shown for the first time in Australia. Conductor Frank Strobel, a renowned film expert, will conduct the Sydney Symphony, to marry Gottfried Huppertz’s lush original film score with Lang’s incredible imagery in a live performance and screening.

Bob Carr speech

Last night I talked on themes out of the Weimar Republic to a big audience at the Art Gallery of NSW, coinciding with their excellent exhibition “The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37.”

Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Stresemann are the politicians I admire from this politically dismal era. Bear in mind that Weimar was a republic without republicans, a democracy without democrats. The judges, the teachers, the universities and the armed forces remained monarchist and hostile to the regime. So did the conservative parties on the political right. All the more admirable, then, were the fierce democrats at the centre.

Friedrich Ebert was the first working-class person to be head of state in the industrial era, anywhere. A saddler, he came to the leadership of the great German Social Democrat Party in 1913. He was elected President of Weimar in 1919. I admire him because he acted decisively to put down Germany’s version of the Bolsheviks, the gaggle of muddle-headed romantics and murderers who wanted nothing more than the opportunity to kill fellow citizens in the way Lenin was inflicting civil and class war on the Russians.

That Ebert used the Freikorps, a right-wing militia, to restore order simply proved that he had what it took. If there had been a Bolshevik revolution in Germany, it would have been carrying out slaughter on a Stalinesque scale. And – here’s the punch line if you ever have an argument with the revolutionary left – the German workers, even the worker and soldier councils established in the chaos after the collapse of World War One, never supported the revolutionary left. The revolutionary left never commanded a majority of the working class. As in Russia, the revolutionaries were a tiny minority. Ebert denied them the opportunity to cheat their way into power the way Lenin had cheated his way into power. Good old Friedrich Ebert, democrat.

Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Stresemann – the men who could have stopped the Third Reich

Gustav Stresemann was a precursor of the Europe that emerged after 1945, the Europe of Franco-German reconciliation, of De Gaulle and Adenauer. Leading the German People’s Party, a centrist business bloc, he stabilised the currency after the great inflation of 1923. He concluded treaties with Germany’s neighbours and he defied the nationalists and revanchists. He told the League of Nations, eloquently:

It cannot be the sense of the divine world order…to direct supreme national efforts against each other time and again, continually throwing back the general development of culture. Humanity will be best served by him who, rooted in his own people and culture, grows beyond it to serve all…. Away with the rifles, machine guns, cannons! Clear the way for arbitration, conciliation, peace! (My emphasis)

Away with the rifles, machine guns, cannons! Oh, to hear that in the Middle East today!

I said that the triumph of Weimar came with the success of the Federal Republic of Germany that was inaugurated in May 1949. West Germany became something approaching a social democracy. Its electoral system and constitution were profoundly democratic. It survived every challenge from the right and from the left (such as the Baader Meinhof terrorists). It made itself a multicultural society so that Turks might wave the German flag at the World Cup. It extended workers’ rights in industry. Its successful economic model was the reason the East German dictatorship collapsed in 1989. And the Federal Republic defied all expectations by absorbing the huge cost of reunification and, right now, exporting its head off – and in manufactures.

My heroes Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Stresemann were harbingers of this success.

Weimar’s triumph lies in the success of modern Germany which it pre-figured.

The Federal Republic flies the flag that Weimar flew, the red, black and gold. It was the flag of the German liberals in the revolution of 1848

Expressionism in Berlin

Expressionism is a term that can be used to cover a huge variety of subjects and styles in which shape or colour is exaggerated or distorted so as to express the emotional essence of a subject.

In Germany, where it was dominant in the first decades of the 20th century, Expressionism is associated with two generations of artists. The first – such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky – included the Brücke and Blaue Reiter groups, founded between 1905 and 1911, which were swept up by the idealism and optimism of the new century. The second, born ten years later – like George Grosz and Otto Dix – came to maturity on the brutal battlefields of the First World War.

This exhibition starts in Berlin in the heady years leading up to and at the beginning of World War I when Kirchner and some of his fellow Expressionists moved there to seek out new subject matter and audiences for their revolutionary art movement. This marked a distinct turning point in the evolution of Die Brücke towards subjects that dealt with life in the city.

Visions of the world on the brink of an apocalypse and dynamic impressions of a generation eager for war are featured with scenes of the metropolis. Anxieties about living in the modern age often centred around sexual representations of the female body, as depicted in these striking paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, and in other works throughout the exhibition. Women are portrayed as symbols of modernity revealing the tensions between traditional female roles and the new roles for women in an increasingly urban and industrial society

World War I and the revolution

Many artists and intellectuals in Germany responded enthusiastically to the outbreak of war in 1914, eagerly volunteering for service in the belief that it would bring cultural renewal and a rapid victory for Germany. However, this optimism soon gave way to the grim realisation of mechanised warfare’s potential to tear apart humanity and civilisation.

The works represented here are by the generation of artists who experienced war first-hand. These artists turned away from the bright sunlight depicted in many prewar Expressionist landscapes toward the representation of shredded nerves and nocturnal terror. These works show the devastating effects of war on the individual and society and depict fear, anxiety and violence.

The disturbing subjects provide important insights into the tough economic conditions and social dysfunction experienced by many during the tumultuous early years of the Weimar Republic (1918–33). During these years, a new democratic republic was founded in the town of Weimar in central eastern Germany after the abdication of the Kaiser in 1918 and the following year of violent revolution. To make matters worse, Germany was hit by an economic crisis and crippling hyperinflation that lasted from mid 1922 to the end of 1923.


The Dada movement emerged in Zurich in neutral Switzerland in 1916, fuelled by the philosophical and political despair experienced by artists and poets during World War I. Initially centred around the Cabaret Voltaire, Dada brought together Tristan Tzara, Richard Huelsenbeck, Emmy Hennings, Hugo Ball and others to protest against what they perceived as the irrational and senseless elements of European culture. Violent, infantile and chaotic, Dada took its name from the French word for a child’s hobbyhorse or possibly from the sound of a baby’s babble. Its activities included poetry readings and avant-garde performances, as well as creating new forms of abstract art that subverted all existing conventions in Western art.

The impact of the Dada movement was felt throughout Europe – and most powerfully in Germany – from 1917 to 1921. Christian Schad’s participation in the Zurich Dada group resulted in the creation of a unique series of photograms, or camera-less photographs, together with abstract wood reliefs. In Cologne, a branch of Dada emerged through the work of Max Ernst, who produced intricate collages and staged highly provocative anti-art exhibitions. Kurt Schwitters in Hanover developed Dada-inspired works, called ‘Merz’ collages, through which he invented a completely new way of making art, composed from found objects taken from modern city life. Berlin Dada, which formed in 1917, took on a decidedly political tone. Though the Dada movement in Germany was very short-lived, it has profoundly influenced subsequent developments in avant-garde art and culture.


The Bauhaus (1919–33) is widely considered as the most important school of art and design of the 20th century. Founded by the German architect Walter Gropius in the provincial town of Weimar – also the centre of the new republican government – the Bauhaus quickly established its reputation as the leading and most progressive centre of the international avant-garde. Gropius sought to do away with traditional distinctions between the fine arts and craft, and to forge an entirely new kind of creative designer, skilled in both the conceptual aesthetics of art and the technical skills of handcrafts. Students were assigned to a workshop – in metals, ceramics, textiles, wood, printmaking or wall painting – where they progressed from apprentice, to journeyman, to master craftsman. Key examples of the Bauhaus and its approaches are presented here.

From the outset, the school was considered to be both politically and artistically radical. In 1925, authorities forced the school to close in Weimar because of its perceived cultural bolshevism. The Bauhaus relocated to the industrial city of Dessau and in 1928 the architect Hannes Meyer took over as director. Growing political pressure forced the Bauhaus to move again, this time to Berlin in 1932. The Nazis closed the Bauhaus permanently in 1933 after police raided what had essentially become a school of architecture under the direction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.


For a brief period from 1922 to 1923, Germany was the centre of the art movement known as International Constructivism. Having emerged in Russia after World War I, Constructivism developed in Germany as a set of ideas and practices that experimented with abstract or non-representational forms and in opposition to Expressionism and Dada. The Constructivists developed works and theories that fused art with technology in response to the age of the machine. They shared a utopian belief in social reform, and saw abstract art as playing a central role in this process.

El Lissitzky developed his idea of abstract art through Prouns (projects for the affirmation of the new in art). He was committed to revolutionising all forms of art, including painting, printmaking, typography, book design, decorative arts and architecture. László Moholy-Nagy sought to create a new abstract art for a dynamic modern society. He advocated the idea that photography was a revolutionary extension of human sight and proposed that the camera was the vehicle through which artists could best capture the brave new world. This selection of photographs reveals a widely varied range of attitudes towards the machine, from romantic idealism to documentary realism.



The thriving, sophisticated and cosmopolitan metropolis provided a rich source of imagery for artists. By the 1920s, Berlin had become the cultural and entertainment capital of the world and mass culture played an important role in distracting a society traumatised by World War I. The metropolis also came to represent unprecedented personal and sexual freedom and tolerance, and artists depicted scenes of leisure, entertainment and the city at night. George Grosz and Rudolf Schlichter portrayed Berlin’s seedy underbelly. Their brilliant yet sinister representations of brothels and sex murders seem shocking, but their intention was for art to affect social change by representing the victimisation of society’s outcasts. In Frankfurt am Main, Max Beckmann depicted elaborate scenes of outsiders, such as circus and carnival performers, which became metaphors for modern city life and its social corruption.

In photography, modernity was emphasised either by unusual views of the metropolis or through the representation of city types. Contemporary debates around the question of whether a photograph could capture the psychological depth of a person were played out in the works of August Sander and Hugo Erfurth, who photographed many of the most prominent members of German society. The diverse group of works in this room portrays the uninhibited sense of freedom and innovation experienced by artists throughout Germany during the 1920s.

New Objectivity

By the mid 1920s, a new style emerged that came to be known as Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. This term took its name from an exhibition organised in 1925 by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, director of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim. Hartlaub defined the features of this new tendency as the sharpening of the artist’s gaze, a sober concentration on the external appearance of the subject and a sense of emotional detachment. He identified two different variations of this style which he labelled as ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’. George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix were referred to as the ‘left-wing’ artists, or Verists, because they were committed to the truthful representation of their subjects. The ‘right-wing’ was a group of painters based in Munich including Alexander Kanoldt, Carlo Mense, Georg Schrimpf and Heinrich Maria Davringhausen.

Many artists felt the need to return to traditional modes of representation after experiencing the atrocities of World War I and the harsh conditions of life in postwar Germany. Portraiture became a major vehicle of expression for this group of artists, with its emphasis on the realistic representation of the human figure. Artists mostly chose their own models rather than seeking out commissioned portraits. The purpose of these portraits was to create a picture of the era by portraying people who helped to shape Weimar culture.

Art & Power

By 1929, many modern artists in Germany sensed a prevailing loss of direction in avant-garde art and were simply unable to sell their work after the crash of the stock market in New York. This crisis of modernism had already begun by the late 1920s and dramatically worsened in the 1930s. The sharp decline in artistic production was exacerbated by the deteriorating political situation and the onset of the Great Depression, which resulted in mass unemployment and poverty across Germany.

This period of economic instability and political extremism marked a turning point for modern art. Artists realised that their situation was becoming increasingly precarious as the National Socialists expanded their power and launched their brutal campaign against modernism. After the seizure of power by Hitler in 1933, modern artists were forbidden from working and exhibiting in Germany. Their works were confiscated from leading museums and then destroyed or sold cheaply on the international art market. Artists were either forced to leave Germany or retreat into a state of ‘inner immigration’; sometimes, as in the case of Felix Nussbaum, they died in concentration camps.

‘Degenerate’ art

The Degenerate art exhibition, held in Munich in 1937, represented the culmination of the National Socialists’ assault on modernism. Hundreds of works by leading painters and sculptors of the Weimar era were selected for the show which aimed to illustrate the mental deficiency and moral decay that had supposedly infiltrated modern German art. The works were displayed haphazardly with derogatory slogans to further discredit and ridicule modern art. Over two million people visited the exhibition in Munich, while far fewer saw the Great German art exhibition held nearby in the Nazi-designed House of German Art, which sought to promote what the Nazis considered as ‘healthy’ art.

Though many masterpieces of modern art were lost or destroyed through the ‘degenerate’ art campaign – which saw the confiscation of thousands of works from museums and private collections – many survived and are now held in collections around the world. The final section of this exhibition brings together a small group of these works to celebrate the achievements of these artists and their great contribution to modernism.

Christopher Allen From: The Australian September 03, 2011

It is fortuitous that Jacqueline Strecker’s outstanding exhibition devoted to German modernism should open at the Art Gallery of NSW while The Enemy at Home is still showing at the Museum of Sydney.

This exhibition, reviewed here three weeks ago, is devoted to the Germans interned in Australian prisoner of war camps as enemy aliens during World War I. What is compelling about the photographic images it comprises, mostly by one of the internees, is the picture they present of a sophisticated, disciplined people rebuilding a miniature society out of lives scrambled together and confined.

In more than one sense, and for all the injustice they suffered, these internees were the lucky ones, at least until their forced repatriation after the end of the conflict. For those at home not only suffered the unprecedented slaughter of trench warfare but, as the works in The Mad Square amply demonstrate, the near-collapse of civilised life under the stresses of war, military defeat, political collapse and revolution, terrifying epidemics of influenza and typhus, economic catastrophe and the struggle between competing versions of totalitarian tyranny.

Few realised, at its outbreak in 1914, how long or destructive the war would prove to be. Driven by nationalistic folly, plenty of people in France and Germany looked forward to the conflict with enthusiasm. Ernst Barlach’s bronze sculpture of The Avenger (1914) is a monument of bellicose fervour, although the artist would soon come to change his mind. The horror of war itself is unforgettably captured in Otto Dix’s etching of Storm Troopers Advancing under a Gas Attack (1924), their faces hidden by masks, and brandishing grenades.

The image is like a vision from a nightmare, yet Dix was so drawn to the violence and extremity of war that he repeatedly, and voluntarily, returned to the front. Afterwards, too, he continued to be grimly fascinated by the lasting evidence of the destruction in the thousands of grotesquely mutilated and disfigured men who continued to live on in the new Germany that followed the return of peace. How long, one wonders, could a man such as the one represented in the company of a diseased and pox-ridden prostitute (1923) actually live in this state? Perhaps as long as the descent of Germany into the madness of the next war? Certainly the Nazis disapproved of such images as Dix’s War Cripples (1920), which they confiscated, displayed in the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937 and later destroyed; allegedly the painting was disrespectful to war heroes, but in reality such work was simply demoralising in the eyes of a militaristic regime.

Not that what followed on the capitulation of the German army could properly be called peace. From the point in late 1918 that defeat became ineluctable, events raced ahead in a chaotic sequence that no one could really control. While early ceasefire negotiations were still under way, pressure mounted on the kaiser to abdicate, the army schemed to secure its future and civilian political parties struggled to avoid a collapse into the kind of Bolshevik revolution that had engulfed Russia the year before. A republic was proclaimed in November 1918, but agitation continued and by January 1919 the communist Spartacists revolted and were brutally suppressed, with the killing of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

Meanwhile the devastating post-war flu pandemic, which had first broken out in the trenches, raged from 1918 to 1919, killing about 400,000 German civilians. In June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed: the French had insisted on oppressive reparation payments from an already ruined German state, which ensured the persistence of anti-French resentment in Germany and exacerbated social and political conditions later exploited by Hitler. In the shorter term, these punitive reparations helped to precipitate the hyperinflation that destroyed what remained of the savings of ordinary Germans between 1921 and 1923.

Some of the most interesting works in the exhibition belong to these crucial years, from posters representing different sides of the revolutionary struggle to a woodblock in which Kaethe Kollwitz mourns the death of Liebknecht (1919-20). Not surprisingly, the dada movement, which had begun in neutral Zurich during the war, spread to Berlin in the immediate post-war period, and the exhibition includes works by Hannah Hoech and John Heartfield as well as those of Dix and George Grosz, who were associated with the movement. There are paradoxically beautiful collages made from tickets and other paper scraps by Kurt Schwitters, although he was rejected by the dadaists because of his connections to the expressionists.

Most striking of all is the tone of despair and cynicism which seems to be the direct expression of the collapse of all social certainties: images of violence and suicide abound, some of them going back to the war years, such as Dix’s Suicide (1916), in which the red-light district is the background for an hallucinatory vision of crime, misery and despair. The connection of sex and violence is particularly notable, from Heinrich Davringhausen’s The Sex Murderer (1917), in which the killer lurks in the shadows beneath the bed of a naked prostitute, to Grosz’s Murder in Ackerstrasse (1916-17), in which a fat and rather timid-looking man washes his hands in the basin of a cheap hotel room after beheading another prostitute with an axe. The theme returns with a gruesome ordinariness in Rudolf Schlichter’s watercolour of one more killing in a sadly mean setting (1924).

Of course there was rebuilding after the war, during the 14 years of the Weimar Republic that lasted from 1918 to 1933; the currency was stabilised by 1923 and there were years of relative respite until the worldwide crisis of 1929. As unstable, corrupt, politically divided and ultimately doomed as the Weimar was, it coincided — as Eric Hobsbawm writes in a brilliant piece reprinted in the catalogue — with an extraordinary explosion of cultural, literary and scientific activity in Germany, partly stimulated by the sense of living on the edge of a precipice, in a world whose past had been abolished and whose future was unknown and perilous.

Berlin became the centre not only for German and Austrian writers and artists but for others from central Europe, the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian empire and even from Soviet Russia. The members of the Bauhaus, based successively in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin, included Germans (Walter Gropius, Oskar Schlemmer), Swiss Germans (Paul Klee), Russians (Wassily Kandinsky), Dutchmen (Theo van Doesburg) and Hungarians (Laszlo Moholy-Nagy). It was this cosmopolitan, dynamic but dangerous city that became briefly the most vibrant centre of modern art and culture.

Among the memorable images in the exhibition are photographic records of the new industrial environment — bleak urban skylines, views of factories or close-ups of machines: defining pictures of a colourless world of mechanised alienation. As though in counterpoint to these reminders of a harsh outside reality are the ideal, at times escapist compositions of contemporary painters: the geometric abstraction of El Lissitzky, the spiritual lyricism of Kandinsky and the whimsical forms of Klee.

The people who appear in photographs of the time are stylish but tense and self-conscious, such as the rather epicene young man and still more androgynous young woman, both by August Sander; she looks out at us — or rather, past us, like a boy in a dress, holding an almost burnt-out cigarette in extraordinarily long fingers, elegant but brittle. She could be frigidly asexual but for her vulnerability; and we are left unsure whether we are looking at an aesthete of vice or a just an empty-headed narcissist who goes home to supper with her aged mother.

Sexual indulgence and the permissiveness of an underground culture were what attracted many to pre-Nazi Berlin, even if it was, as Rudolf Schlichter suggests in his pictures of a cabaret and of a sort of club for amateurs of assorted paraphilias, inevitably tawdry and even at times simply boring. This is the Berlin evoked by Christopher Isherwood in Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which were eventually condensed into the musical (1966) and later (1972) film Cabaret.

Perhaps the most memorable single image in the exhibition is Christian Schad’s self-portrait with a singularly disconcerting female model (1927); he sits, apparently perched uncomfortably on the edge of the bed, wearing an oddly creepy diaphanous green top, while she stares grimly away into the distance, her face marked with the scar or sfregio that was once common in Naples: a ritual scarification by which a woman was marked as a man’s lover and that women are said to have worn with pride as proof that they were possessed and protected by a man.

Schad’s picture, although particularly arresting, is surrounded by other paintings of the Neue sachlichkeit (new realism) movement, many of which are also of great interest, and particularly repay close attention to the way in which they are executed. Dix’s portrait of Theodor Daeubler (1927) borrows from Albrecht Duerer, greatest and most canonic of German painters, even to the minute rendering of the hairs in the beard; but there is something at once theatrical and slightly unreal about the image of this poetic patriarch with the absent gaze.

Georg Schrimpf also alludes to the Renaissance in the fine portrait of his wife Hedwig (1922), but this image worked mostly in thin glazes remains ethereally disembodied; and on the other hand Grosz’s Self-portrait with Hat (1928), while a vivid impression of the artist, is in reality only blocked out in areas of opaque paint, revealing and almost emphasising the artifice by which it is made, the gaps in the illusion. All of these portraits, vivid and sometimes brittle, thus reveal a certain instability or fragility in the very manner of their painting.

Such subtleties in the craft of painting itself — such deliberate play with the range of effects and technique inherited from the tradition of oil painting for the purpose of dramatising the everyday, evoking inner life, and articulating states of uncertainty and anxiety — parallel the complexities of music and literature at the time. But all this would soon be swept away by the rise of a movement that had no time for such introspective refinements.

The elections in the summer of 1932 made the Nazi party the largest in the Reichstag, without yet having a majority; by the beginning of 1933, however, Hitler was asked to form a minority government and his rise became irreversible. Among the strongest and most urgent images in the exhibition are the photomontages of Heartfield, satirising Goering as a butcher (1933) and Hitler, shown with a spine of gold coins (1932), and juxtaposing the pronouncements of Nazi propaganda with the misery of widespread poverty. And these images are from well before the outbreak of war; there was, in fact, much worse to come.


The Age  sept 3, 2011  by John Mcdonald

Mention ”the Weimar Republic” and automatically we think of decadent cabarets in Berlin, the inexorable rise of the Nazis and inflation so extreme 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 1937 (”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 to cover too much ground. The National Gallery of Australia’s Turner to Monet exhibition of 2008 was a 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 telltale sign being the final work in the show: a small abstract picture by 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, much about this exhibition 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 prominence in the hang and the catalogue. The curatorial approach is conscientious and professional and the show projects a real intellectual enthusiasm for the material.

Besides, how can anyone miss with a show of German art from the years between the world 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 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, thousands of people were living on the breadline – refugees, menial workers, petty criminals, war invalids and beggars. This aspect of life is captured brilliantly in Joseph Roth’s What I Saw, a collection of small essays published in German newspapers at the time. Roth roamed the crowded city, observing rich and poor, revealing 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 – 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.

Schad was not the only artist to jump between styles, growing more or less expressive under the pressure of circumstances. Max Beckmann, 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 rein 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 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

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