Starting this summer, Tate Modern explores the art of the Weimar Republic (1919-33) in a year-long, free display, drawing upon the rich collection of the Greek shipping billionaire George Economou, with a few works owned by Tate. The display showcases around seventy paintings and works on paper that address the complex paradoxes of the Weimar era: from depictions of new emancipated women, modern architecture, and entertainment sites to desperate prostitutes, crippled war veterans, and alienated urban landscapes.
Germany’s Weimar Republic was established between the end of World War I and the Nazi rise to power. A thriving laboratory of artistic and cultural innovation, it documented the social tension, political struggle and turmoil after the violent and bitter war conflict. The country's unprecedented upheaval impelled many artists to reject Expressionism in favor of a new realism to capture the new emerging society.
This new art movement, now known as Neue Sachlichkeit—New Objectivity—was also termed as 'magic realism' by the artist and critic Franz Roh in 1925 and demonstrated a transition from the anxious and emotional art of the Expressionism towards the cold veracity and unsettling imagery of the inter-war period. This new realism reflected more liberal society and moral depravity and decadence in the context of the economic collapse and growing political extremism.
Works by Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann—New Objectivity’s well-known triumvirate—are the highlights of the exhibition. Best known to us today for their unsettling depictions of Weimar life, they are supplemented by the works of artists not so familiar but who may well be recognized as key figures of the era, such as Otto Rudolf Schatz, Jeanne Mammen and Rudolf Schlichter, and many others whose art works were condemned as pernicious and degenerate by the Nazis.
The Weimar Republic has long been portrayed as decadent. Most of the artists labeled ‘degenerates’ by Hitler really did revel in the perverse and depraved. Some of their paintings displayed at the exhibition, drenched with sex and violence, still shock. But artists had their reasons for making such art. Many of them served in the German Army and their experience during the World War I influenced their art works. And all of them were sharp observers of the Weimar Berlin decadence after the wartime defeat and the financial collapse.
It was a very strange and chaotic time. Roving gangs of Communists, Anarchists, Pro-Republics, and right-wing Nazi SA stormtroopers were so passionate in their competition for government control that they battled each other right in the streets. The treaty of Versailles, and later the Great Depression, produced inflation, making German currency worthless. Many people went broke and they were pulling in tricks to make ends meet. As a result, crime and prostitution grew. During this time, police identified 62 organized criminal gangs operating inside Berlin.
Berlin became a Metropolis of Vice. In response to the hyperinflation of the 1920s, driven by poverty, the sex trade in Berlin exploded as a means to put food on the table. Aside from prostitution, it was also a hub for drugs (morphine, cocaine and opium) and black market goods. Thrill seekers sought out Berlin as a destination and guide books were produced highlighting Berlin's erotic nightlife entertainment. There were an estimated 500 venues, ranging from cabarets to brothels, with around 160 catering to homosexual, lesbian, and transgender clientele. Berlin was the cheapest European city to buy sex and fulfill any fantasy of a man or a woman at the time, making it the world center of sex experimentation.
Many Berliners, living in a world of sexual freedom and criminal violence, became fascinated with sex humiliation—perverted manifestation of predominance in sexual games. Aside from sexual fantasies of a woman dominated over a man, lust-murders, or “lustmord," became part of the city life. Publishers printed cheap crime novels called "Krimi," and artist painted murdered prostitutes with ruptured vagina and abdomen.
The display showcases a watercolor by Rudolf Schlichter The Artist with Two Hanged Women, a dismal 1924 drawing portraying the artist who sits and contemplates two dead women in high button shoes hanging from his ceiling. Schlichter, the Dadaist and the New Objectivist, did like when his wife wore such boots, for which he displayed a marked fetish. And the artist has actually photographed his wife hanging from the ceiling in these shoes when holding the other end of the rope. This weird photo is not displayed at the show, thank goodness.
Lustmord theme continues in two works from 1920 and 1922 by Otto Dix at the exhibition, both entitled Lust Murderer. One depicts a killer dancing with the leg of his still-spurting, dismembered victim. These etchings are even more astonishing.
Maria Tatar, an expert in art of the Weimar era, in her book "Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany" quotes Dix's explanation of why he painted murdered prostitutes: "I just had to get it out of me."
She traces much of Weimar's "gender trouble" to Germany's unprecedented defeat in World War I. She says that in the 1920s, German males felt emasculated by their military subjugation and invented a "stab in the back" theory to explain it. She writes: "The rank-and-file soldiers positioned themselves as victims or martyrs who sacrificed for the fatherland and then were betrayed by the women who stayed home and supposedly took over the labor force. Women became the enemy. You repair the trauma by killing the feminine."
Just add here the fact that women in Germany were granted the right to vote in 1918 and as a result, their emancipation gathered pace during the Weimar era. All these reasons may well explain why the sexually motivated murder of women was a weirdly prevalent theme in male artists' fantasies in 1920s.
The representation of women is a recurring subject at the exhibition. Aside from pictures of prostitutes and violent attitude towards women, there are several portraits that depict women of a new era, with cropped hair, emancipated glance, full of confidence and self-esteem. Moon Women by Otto Rudolf Schatz were recognized by contemporary reviewers as works “from the margins of society, most concise.” First shown by Schatz under the title “Girls in a Landscape,” they created a shock effect on critics “with two rigid and cheerless female nudes, who looked like unclothed store window mannequins.” The strikingly new and avant-garde approach evident in these female nudes combined Surrealism and New Objectivity. The naked female bathers wearing only shoes with their hands behind their back remind us more of businessmen dressed in suits that look straight into our eyes without any sings of shame or confusion as if telling us: "Nothing personal just business."
Left: Otto Rudolf Schatz, Moon Women. 1930. The George Economou Collection
1.2. Rudolf Schlichter, Lady with Red Scarf (Speedy with the Moon). 1933. The George Economou Collection
Another section of the display, presented in the opening room, highlights entertainment sites like cabaret and circus which became very popular in Weimar Berlin. In dance halls and cabaret shows, at the circus and varieté theatres, the big-city dwellers allowed themselves to be transported into an intoxicating world of illusion and sensations. Facing social problems, the Berliners' desire for diversion grew. Yet, provocative performances of Otto Dix’s enigmatic Zirkus (‘Circus’) print portfolio show us the jazz-filled nights in a rather controversial way. For the jaded wealthy bourgeoisie, they were full of sexual freedom and fantasies, but for the life-risking proletariat performers, they were an underpaid hard job.
Cabaret and circus performers interested Dix and other artists as a subject because they lived on the fringes of society, free from moral constraints but subject to great personal danger. Artists felt great sympathy for them on the one hand, but being afraid of their aggressiveness and fantastic openness to sexual experiments, they distorted performers' traits making them look more like wild-beasts, on the other. Otto Dix's pints at the show include images of trick riders, a tattooed lady, and an animal tamer which is dressed like a dominatrix, whose stubby features resemble a lion’s muzzle.
Left: Otto Dix, Lion-Tamer. 1922. The George Economou Collection
As an artist, Otto Dix viewed himself as both an Expressionist and an objective documenter of his times. Being heavily influenced by the service in the hellish trenches of World War I, he once said: "Art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time."
The same dramatic effect has the bizarre portrait of a circus acrobat called Schulz (see bellow) by Albert Birkle. It was not the glitz of the performances that inspired the artist, but rather the day-to-day reality of the circus artists. Thrills at any price: death-defying acrobats risked their lives in daredevil performances at the circus halls or on the city's rooftops.
But who were those daredevils? Just look at Schulz, one of them. He's a middle-aged man, his skin is flabby and wrinkled. He is staggering backwards and rolling his eyes upwards in bewilderment. Is there someone falling from the ceiling? Birkle does not show any action taken from his part, just his emotion. In his portrait, we see not only a shabby man, unsure how to react and what to do, but the whole German nation in a perplexed era of Weimar Republic.
One of the most expressive canvases at the exhibition indeed is the Suicide by Grozs (1916). At the outbreak of the World War I, George Grosz volunteered for the German Army and was sent to the front. Disillusioned, he became a strong opponent of the war and was released for being unfit for duty. Diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock, he attempted suicide, and was hospitalized before being discharged.
During the war, Grosz, along with his friend John Heartfield, began making the Dada anti-war art. After the war, he produced savagely satirical paintings and drawings that "expressed [his] despair, hate and disillusionment." He became a New Objectivity artist who examined the Weimar Republic's desperate and wretched marginals, like wounded soldiers and prostitutes, and criticized politicians and profiteers.
The horrific picture of Suicide by Grozs astonishes by its savage imagery, harsh colours and restless composition. Highlighting the misery of the middle class who has no means to live on today and no future tomorrow, the artist gets one man strung up on a lamp post and the other shot on a stage just near a prompter guy in his cabin. Is his death a real thing or is it a part of some performance? It seems to be quite real because everybody promptly abandons the scene except for the hungry dogs roaming the desolate streets of Berlin. And these murders are no worser than dubious pleasures given by an ugly, men-like prostitute to an aged bald client visiting her in a cheap apartment block—the only source of solace from the cold and desolation for the bourgeois at the time. The pervasive moral corruption in Berlin during the war years is underlined by the forsaken Kirche at the back.
As one critic put it, referring to the New Objectivity movement, painting like Grosz’s was “not likely to be acceptable to those who want art to be pretty”. The same refers to all artworks exhibited in the Magic Realism. Don't wander into the display in search of "pretty". It's characterized by an unflattering realism and intense emotionalism that prompts us today to think where we were, where we are now and in which direction we are moving.
Magic Realism is curated by Matthew Gale, Head of Displays and Katy Wan, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern. The display is realised with thanks to loans from The George Economou Collection, with additional support from the Huo Family Foundation (UK) Limited.
The show is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue from Tate Publishing.
Written on materials of: Tate Modern, The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, LACMA, Harvard Magazine, Weimar Republic - Germany: Berlin Metropolis of Vice movie, Stadt Museum, studioinmternational.com, christopherhallart.com. Title illustration: The Beggar of Prachatice by Conrad Felixmüller (1924). Photograph: The George Economou Collection © DACS, 2018.