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Saturday, 25 January 2020

ART AFTER THE FIRST WORLD WAR: DISQUIET ON THE EASTERN FRONT (GERMANY AMID DEFEAT)

This final instalment in our tripartite look at art after the Great War looks at what was singular about German art, focusing on two Tate exhibitions, - 'Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' and 'Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919/33’.



“Everything had broken down… new things had to be made from fragments… new art forms from the remains of a former culture.”
- Kurt Schwitters

The Viewer Finds Their Own Face

Germany is something of an expedited case. It not only lost the Great War and was emaciated and impoverished by the following ‘peace’ treaty, this was followed by a great period of tribulation. If people went hungry in post-war Britain and France, they went hungrier in Germany. If there was unrest elsewhere, there was more in Germany. The only place to rival it, ironically at least ostensibly on the winning side, was Russia.

But this was also a time of, to borrow Homer Simpson’s classic phrase, crisotunity. We should not forget the thing centenary celebrations of the war were most keen to gloss over, that it marked the most revolutionary period in world history, with Germany having a briefly successful revolution (during which many assumed that it would soon join Russia as the next major Communist nation) followed by a much more progressive government than anything gone before. And naturally enough, the art of Germany and Russia through this time are to me the most fascinating art scenes history has given us so far.

The term ‘magic realism’, naming one of these two shows, was used uniquely for Germany. It’s borrowed from contemporary art historian Franz Roh, perhaps not wisely as we associate the term with later Latin American novelists and it seems a poor translation anyway. (At one point the show uses ‘uncanny realism’, which works better.) The intention seems to have been to find a compound term for the combination of sharp observation and scathing satire. Which leads us onto…



Albert Birkle's ‘The Acrobat Schultz V’ (1921, above) is a striking image unsurprisingly used as the poster image for the show. His subject was an acrobat by profession, but in this picture those acrobatics are all going on in his face. It’s so plasticised as to be clownish and cartoony. Yet at the same time it’s so perturbed, with eyes upturned uneasily. It’s a reaction shot, so severe it’s like the face is retreating back into itself like a snail into its shell. What could he be reacting to? Thee art scene of its time, known for its challenging and shocking nature? Or the whole society around him at the time, in all its tragicomedy? As the show puts it, “the appetite for sensation could take unsettling forms”. The reaction of that face could stand for ours.



Whereas in Conrad Felixmuller's ‘Portrait of Ernst Buchholtz’ (above) from the same year the subject leans louchely to the side of the frame, looking decadently androgynous. His pursed lips are waspish, ready to emit cutting comments, his expression hard and cynical. This is the jaded, seen-it-all character of Berlin Cabaret. This is the Twenties as we’ve subsequently liked to envisage them, so gorged on sensation as to have lost appetite for life. Licentious excess so extreme it led to the opposite extreme of Nazism. (The actual Buchholtz was a defence lawyer who specialised in freedom of expression cases. But appearances are what art is about.) Is this also the face of Weimar Germany? Perhaps, given Roh’s double-termed label for the era, we should expect to come out wearing these faces in combination.

Good Taste is The Enemy

A feature unique to Germany was that it had been home to Expressionism, with the movement’s formal start normally held to be the launch of the Die Brucke group in Dresden (in 1905). Wikipedia says its “typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective”.



Felixmuller’s ‘The Beggar of Prachatice’ (1924, above) foregrounds the title character. As the show says he’s a ‘type’. As is not uncommon for art of this era, subjects become almost the human equivalent of zoological specimens. Yet we effectively see the world through the distortion of his eyes, as if we were inside his head. The sharply angled street is both a bed of uncomfortable-looking cobbles and a raging river, flowing against him like he’s detritus. The one passer-by ignores him.

Often, that subjective perspective was the artist’s own. At its most extreme it became like ‘angst goggles’, helpfully showing us everyday folk the way the tortured artist saw the world. But at other times, as here, it lay in an interchange between introspection and social commentary.



George Grosz’s ’Suicide’ (1916, above) has similar features, such as the distorted pictorial space of an urban scene. But most immediately noticeable is its bathing almost the entire frame in shocking red, as if none are untainted. The title clearly refers to the prone central figure, his head already a skull. As with Felixmuller’s beggar the others ignore him, but rather that just passing through the picture each seems wrapped up in their own troubles. One’s head is hung, with a proximity to a leaning lamp-post which makes it seem almost an actual hanging. Another is headless as he scurries out of the frame. Only the prostitute’s client looks to another figure, a look we can presume isn’t made out of solidarity. Miseries are universal but private, dividing lines lie everywhere. There is not the ‘in’ Felixmuller gives us by allowing us to associate with the beggar, which makes the work seem starker and more confrontational.

A mere two years later Grosz would co-sign the Berlin Dada manifesto whose central thrust was repudiating Expressionism and with it art as a means of self-expression:

”Expressionism is not spontaneous action. It is the gesture of tired people who wish to escape themselves and forget the present, the war and the misery… who have turned their backs on nature and do not dare look the cruelty of the epoch in the face. They have forgotten how to be daring. Dada is daring per se, Dada exposes itself to the risk of its own death. Dada puts itself at the heart of things. Expressionism wanted to forget itself, Dada wants to affirm itself. Expressionism was harmonious, mystic, angelic… Dada is the scream of brakes and the bellowing of the brokers at the Chicago Stock Exchange. Vive Dada!”

Which, translated out of rhetoric, I think means something like… By privileging the artist’s inner feelings over everyone else Expressionism seemed to rule out any kind of collective action. It could show the symptoms of a malaise but only through individual cases, and could offer no cure.

Each new Modernist movement would try to position itself over the corpse of the last, while actually inheriting much more than it would admit. Yet notably Expressionism is positioned not just as yesterday’s news but as a thing between, looking away from nature but not yet fully upon “the cruelty of the epoch”. And the focus on negativity (with the manifesto twice using the headline “No! No! No!”) is new. If it wanted to supplant Expressionism, this was only temporary. Dada was not a new way of producing art but anti-art, “the scream of brakes”, prophesying its own death. All of which seems nascent within ’Suicide’.

Grosz’s drawings are characterised by a frenzied, spluttering line. And his vindictiveness is as sharp and forceful as that line. The Tate website describes him as “violently anti-war”, almost the perfect descriptive paradox. Norbert Lynton wrote that he “worked out of anger… his hatred of injustice and cupidity… came close to being a general disgust with humanity.” (‘The Story of Modern Art’) He said himself, with rather telling phraseology “today I no longer hate indiscriminately. Today I hate their bad institutions and those in power.” He seems constantly attempting, but barely able, to channel his general misanthropy into class rage, which gives his work its enticing tension. Like the Zone in Tarkovsky’s film ’Stalker’ his art ”lets those pass who have lost all hope. Not good or bad, but wretched people.”

Which is about as removed from Socialist Realism as it’s possible to be. This is no workman artist obediently working to satisfy some party cadre. When he joined the Communist Party he was given his card personally by Rosa Luxembourg. He later travelled to Russia and met Lenin, experiences which caused him to leave it again - stories so fitting it’s hard to credit that they’re true.



Similarly see Otto Dix’s print ‘Butcher Shop’(1920). The woman serving smiles. But behind her two butchers, in the show’s words, “dissect meat with disturbing enthusiasm”. The butchers look themselves like the animals they frenziedly dismember. Are they animals killing animals or men killing men? Some years before Orwell, it’s impossible to tell which. The boy’s wariness must surely be enhanced by the two knives which point straight at him.

And if this seems straightforward, without need of art critics to intervene with explanations, remember this is a portable, copyable print. When Grosz savagely quipped “the bourgeoisie have art to hang in front of their wall safes”, the image he creates is of course an oil painting. It feels fitting that the first places I saw this work weren’t art books or documentaries but agitational political magazines. The Berlin Dadaists not only had a publishing house, Malik Verlag, they opened a bookshop with large display windows. But this content needs an aligned form…



Brecht had said “the masses’ bad taste is rooted more deeply in reality than the intellectuals’ good taste.” Good taste wasn’t just an encumbrance, it was an active weapon of the enemy. So art now needed to emulate that bad taste. Dix’s etching ‘Billiard Players’ (1920, above) has no direct political message but essentially weaponises crudity. While the billiard table is given some perspective, a table alongside it is an upright rectangle, the beer jugs on it mere icons. One character seems to wear his legs in front of each other. The hatching on the back wall is rough and uneven, in fact the whole thing could have been gouged with a compass end. Yet, as we’ll soon come on to, when he wanted Dix was an accomplished artist. Why resort to such roughness? Because times called for graffiti not grand edifices, heckles not public speeches, spat out in a fury - ugly language for an ugly truth.

(German Dadaists were in this way quite a different creature to Marcel Duchamp, to the point it’s arguable they shouldn’t have shared a name. He was concerned with anti-art, with producing artworks which seemed to lack the signature touch of the artist, they wanted ammunition to throw art of its pedestal and let it fall into their hands. He wanted works which confounded you to the point you threw in the towel over this whole art business, they wanted works which would drag you down to their level just by looking at them. Their enemy was more high culture than the esteemed art object, their motives more political than philosophical. Grosz put it as “painting is manual labour, no different from any other.”)



Was this down to the savage burden of a war which had cost so much while winning nothing? Partly, yes. See for example Dix’s ‘Shock Troops Advance Under Gas’ (1925, above). This nightmarish image of gasmasked soldiers initially looks entirely unlike the anti-sublime of Nash or Nevinson (seen last time). Yet in a sense there are no human figures here either, for everyone has been dehumanised. And though those figures come out at you they hold German hand grenades, Dix’s own side are portrayed as if the enemy. This is the side of the soldier that surrenders to war, that never really comes home, that becomes a battlefield ghoul.

But there’s a twist. Check that date. This was not produced till six years after the War. He’d drawn during the conflict, but not with this imagery. He’d even been awarded the iron cross for bravery. He commented “people were already beginning to forget the horrible suffering,” suggesting what had initially needed suppressing now required remembering. Also check the style. ’Billiard Players’was a drypoint, with that savage incised line. This is an aquatint, giving it those nightmarish but sophisticated shades of grey. And indeed the mid-decade, which came to be called the Golden Twenties, were as near to the Roaring Twenties as Weimar got. War was no longer a brutal truth that others were hiding, but a suppressed memory. This time the point had to be well made.

The Broken Faces



And a frequent subject, matching this anti-aestheic style, was the war wounded, as in Dix’s print ’Match Seller’ (1920, above). In the Vorticism piece I described Jacob Epstein’s ’Torso in Metal From the Rock Drill’ (1916) as “a de-masculinated riposte to [his] first Rock Drill [sculpture] - drill now removed, limbs reduced to stumps, like a once-proud marcher returned from war an impotent amputee. This in fact is the actual, original Rock Drill, which Epstein modified to the point of vandalism for his new work.” Yet, much as a dented helmet was brought in to stand for a murdered man, that remains on the level of symbols. These German war cripples are far more in-your-face.

There may well seem an overlap here with the Surrealist veneration of those who lost their sanity to war, an action taken without exactly asking their permission. And unsurprisingly this was often the same people, those who came back physically disfigured by war were unsurprisingly also mentally scarred. But this time the whole question of questionable taste has a twist to it.

The term ‘cripple’ is used widely, for example in Dix’s ‘War Cripples’ or Heinrich Hoerle’s ‘Cripple Portfolio’ (both 1920). The show, in what’s now known as a trigger warning, explains this “was commonly used in the early Twentieth century without the negative connotations it holds today”. Of course the very opposite is true, the way to stop the war disabled being referred to pejoratively had been not to refer to them at all. 

(Though interestingly, while the same proved true for Britain, we’re told that in France an organisation for “the broken faces” kept them prominent at public events.) Hence Dix shows a war cripple as shunned, trying and failing to work as a street seller. And the work needs that sense, of forcing people to view something they’d naturally shy from.

Plus, while these works put the war cripples on view, we should note what we don’t see. The strong-armed job-happy Constructivist worker, most people’s default image of Communist art, is not to be encountered in German Dada. In fact the prole seems but a variant on the conscript soldier, overalls as another uniform, and the soldier himself half a beat away from the war cripple. So for example in Grosz’s ’Are We Not Fit For the League of Nations?’ (1919), disabled veterans are contrasted to a prosperous businessman who blithely ignores them.

In capitalism a worker’s limbs are effectively not his own. They are there to be sold, to become remote tools for his employer. They are the only thing he has to sell, so he has little choice in this ‘exchange’. So a limbless worker is a thing to throw away, as you would a broken tool. The cripple’s made less than a man by a system which never saw him as a man, and now disparages him for that very thing. While in those days workplace injuries were far more common, to the point they were effectively an occupational hazard of life.



But there’s also another, more aesthetic reason. Let’s more closely at the other Dix print mentioned, ’War Cripples’ (above). As mentioned, even in paintings and prints, people are frequently shown as unintegrated with one another, just scattered across the composition like thrown stones. Collage conveys this sense all the better, an anti-composition for a society in decomposition. (See the Schwitters quote up top.) So they had a penchant for collage, and of a particular type.

As I found over the Hannah Hoch show at the Whitechapel (which was splendid, but to my everlasting shame I never blogged about), this collage isn’t necessarily about combinations. Negative to its core, it’s at least as much to do with reduction, removal and abstraction. And Dix presents the cripples with their crudely replaced body parts as a living form of collage, where a leg might easily be swapped for a wheel, almost equivalent to the Exquisite Corpse game of the Surrealists.



Compare them to Grosz & John Heartfield’s assemblage, ’The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Goes Wild’ (1920, above), made for the first Dada exhibition. The artificial leg given to the mannequin makes the connection clear. A cannibalistic knife-and-fork sit where medals might. The show suggests a light bulb for a head is a reference to electro-shock therapy, then commonly used on those already shell-shocked. But it may also stand for the cartoon image of the light bulb above the head, the fully-formed thoughts which spring from the brow of the individual genius, a role so fetishised by bourgeois culture. It got the artists a conviction for slandering the military.



While Rudolph Schlichter’s ’Phenomenon Works’ (1919/20, above) deliberately confuses mannequins with human figures, and (behind them) window views with framed portraits.

The point is really not to see all these as separate explanations but combine them, like adding extra elements to a collage. The war invalids present the dysfunctional body as a synecdoche for a dysfunctional society, where any grotesquery they possess is also ours. They just wear their broken hearts on their broken faces, and so are shunned for being the true reflection of this twisted world.

Lust Murders

But bad taste… sometimes it was just bad taste. Dix’s print 'Lust Murder’ (1920) is so salacious in its sexual violence I’m going to just link to it and give people the choice whether they want to see it or not. The dismembered victim has a face in shock, as if this is all somehow happening to her instantly. But the focus is on the murderer, and there’s a creepy ambiguity whether we should recoil like the acrobat Schultz, or just look on jadedly like Ernst Buchholtz. Perhaps we’re even meant to share his crazed smile.

It doesn’t even look like a pen-and-ink precursor to a Video Nasty. It looks like the work of a disturbed teen asked to imagine a Video Nasty. There’s an over-the-top absurdity to it, a cartoonishness which reacts with the visceral horror in not at all a good way. Or if not a teen, however bizarrely for an artist later banned by the Nazis, you could imagine this to be the work of some Nazi Stormtrooper, scrawled drunkenly on a wall. But it’s not unique. Such lust murders seem a trope of the time, Dix made other works with the very same title and Pabst’s 1929 film ’Pandora’s Box’ ended with lead character Lulu killed by Jack the Ripper.



Similarly, in Grosz’s ‘Self-Portrait In the Studio’ (1930/7) one of the greatest artists of history transforms before your eyes into Benny Hill. The painter is supposed to look at his model, or else there’s not much point in having one. But the composition’s arranged to suggest him stealing a glimpse, just as he suggestively squeezes a tube of paint, as if he’s getting off on that stealing as much as the looking.

Works such as this are often given what I call ‘the Crumb defence’, after the underground comic artist. This is effectively “better out than in”, conceiving of artistic self-expression as inherently therapeutic. At which point I like to remind people that Hitler was also an artist. But there may be something about their overtness which makes them useful, in the sense that in being more open they’re more open to challenge.



Conversely, check out Rudolf Dischinger’s ’Back Yard Balcony’ (1935). With the woman figure bereft of both head and hand (both of which would signify agency), we’re looking at a bloodless decapitation. This is Dix’s frenzied murder, but sheathed in dispassionate aestheticisation. This is much, much worse.



Contrast these to Jeanne Mammen’s ’At the Shooting Gallery’ (1929, above). The attendant doesn’t just look her customer squarely in the eye but through narrow, black-rimmed eyes and a flat, firm mouth. This is not a subordinate service-encounter face, the customer doesn’t even meet her gaze. She’s a direct contrast to the swimsuited pin-up girls painted as targets behind her.

And, perhaps strangest of all, at other times Dix painted women more like this. It’s not included in this show but his ’Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden’, if not exactly flattering, represents her as herself, the way he would a male subject. Von Harden later commented he insisted on painting her because “You are representative of an entire epoch!” How could these clashing images co-exist?

The Twenties saw great advances in the role of women in society, of which the Weimar Republic was often in the forefront. The 1919 Constitution gave them the right both to vote and hold office. (Which didn’t happen in France till 1944.) They had by necessity done “men’s” work in all the warring nations, but in Germany things were slower to revert than in other countries. Alice Rühle-Gerste, who witnessed these times, commented:

”Women began to cut an entirely new figure. A new economic figure who went out into public economic life as an independent worker or wage-earner entering the free market that had up until then been free only for men. A new political figure who appeared in the parties and parliaments, at demonstrations and gatherings. A new physical figure who not only cut her hair and shortened her skirts but began to emancipate herself altogether from the physical limitations of being female. Finally, a new intellectual-psychological figure who fought her way out of the fog of sentimental ideologies and strove toward a clear, objective knowledge of the world and the self.”

And this inclusion of a new physical feature made for something eminently capturable in art.

The answer to the conundrum is that the two things, the lust murders and the confident new figures, go together precisely because they’re at odds. History suggests that women speaking up invariably leads to attempts to slap them down. These lust murders are an extreme form of “now see what you made me do”.

Ultimately of course the conundrum was settled by the rise of the Nazis. In ‘Mass Psychology of Fascism’ (1933) Wilhelm Reich concluded that primal sexual repression manifested in perverted ways, as obedience to authority and as vindictive violence. (“Sadistic brutality and mystical feeling go always hand in hand when the normal capacity for orgastic experience is lacking.”) And while for obvious reasons he concentrated on how this fed the rise of fascism, the theory’s as applicable to any authoritarian group. As if to prove his point, the Communist party soon kicked him out for writing it. He’d go on to describe Bolsheviks as “red fascists”.

To See Things Without Art

New Objectivity was another art movement arising in Germany in this time. Ostensibly this seems closer to the Return to Order seen elsewhere in Europe (and in the previous instalment) than Dada’s scathing frenzy and insistence previous art movements had not gone far enough. Yet Otto Dix at least links them. He painted in traditional methods, including tempura, for which Grosz nicknamed him ‘Old Master’. But one link is the rejection of Expressionism. Dix insisted: “We want to see things completely naked, clear, almost without art.”

Its self-defined mission was to unsparingly tell the truth. So, in the essence of Modernism, it’s aim was never to merely reflect reality but always to change it. In this time innovations in photography, with both still and cine-cameras, made location shoots easier. The films of Pabst, mentioned above, are sometimes considered to be New Objectivity.

Which might make it sound like another term for social realism, but it has its own unique qualities. First, it tended to portraits rather than scenes or habitats. Further, social realism tended to be interested in case studies for general trends, and so dealt in types - the impoverished worker and so on. This art makes for a slightly strange combination of likenesses and cartoonishness, which makes its subjects into a combination of individuals and types.



See for example Dix’s ’Working Class Boy’ (1920, above). With no background, the emphasis is all on the boy. He’s effectively threadbare, his cap too big, his coat too small. Yet he has an assertive face, as if unwilling to accept his lot either in life or in art. Though the title assigns him to a group rather than naming him, he seems someone - not just a representative of a social relation.



Similarly, Curt Querner’s ’Demonstration’ (1921, above), is really a character study of two figures, each like the other only in dress. It earns it’s title by the way they stand shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s full of realist details, such as the way their knuckles whiten where their fists clench. But their features are too exaggerated for conventional portraiture.

I’ll confess I’m not entirely sure how this works. You could look at it reductively and say the portrait likenesses give the individuality, which are then set against the broader tropes of the cartoony elements. (Cartoons, after all, often occupy an interchange between symbols and likenesses.) But there seems more to it. It’s more like each work is a flipping coin, constantly spinning between the two without ever landing on one.



In this way some connect Birkle, seen on the way in, to New Objectivity. And even Grosz, despite his the arch-Dadaism and teasing of Dix, had his associations. In ‘Grey Day’ (1921, above) the figures are much more cartoonish, much more representatives of types than Dix or Querner. The bourgeois gentleman in the foreground is grotesque, the spade-carrying workman virtually a symbol. But they’re depicted dispassionately, a long way from the frenzied line of his drawing. This, and the closer approximation of pictorial space, underlines how oblivious of one another they are. The bourgeois is even walled off from the army veteran, though his extended briefcase handle looks about to trip him.


Coming soon! Art after the Third World War, the way things are going...

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