The Weimar Republic was the snapshot of a short period when playing with fire soon turned into a blaze, the flamboyant 1920s were only a façade that covered the misery. The Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt sheds a light on this glorified period of German history in a comprehensive themed exhibition on the art in the Weimar Republic between 1918 and 1933 with 190 works by 62 artists. The exhibition depicts the psychic profile of a society in a crisis which went on vacation from war to throw itself vehemently into the next war and its own downfall.
Divided into nine topics the exhibition Splendor and Misery in the Weimar Republic takes a look on the dark sides of this period and depicts the panorama of a society whose artists hold a mirror up to with brutal honesty. With irony, anger and prophetic clairvoyance they illustrate the struggle for democracy and the fear of political instability that was to end in the economic collapse and the apocalypse of the Third Reich. The exhibition illuminates the social and political topics that moved the people the most strongly, starting with the trauma of the First World War and the millions of war invalids on the one side and the war profiteers and revanchists on the other side.
Albert Birkle, Kurfuerstendamm, 1924
The entertainment industry was the emotional counterbalance to block the lost war out, prostitution was booming, while the women were torn between new rights and the paragraph 218. Portraits of public persons and the industrialization with its social consequences demonstrate the extremes of this torn society. The will to battle was increasingly shifted to the area of sport in the Weimar Republic, being the harbinger of a new body cult and at the same time a warm-up to the militant slogans of National Socialism which wasn’t satisfied with the athletic trial of strength anymore in preparation of the first excesses of violence.
The parcours through the thematic blocks of the exhibition is preceded by the subtitle Neue Sachlichkeit. However, curator Ingrid Pfeiffer doesn’t want Splendor and Misery in the Weimar Republic to be understood as an academic history of styles reduced to Verism and New Objectivity, but as a psychological and social background study of a society that was torn between a sense of optimism, progressive innovations and the rise of fascism. As multifaceted as the various environments of the emerging mass society were, as heterogeneous were the artists and their styles they worked in. The Neue Sachlichkeit was just the style that was the most obvious one in the perception of the art of the Weimar Republic, being the logical consequence as counter-reaction to the abstraction and exaggerated gestures of Expressionism.
Karl Voelker, Railway Station, 1924-1926
The lost First World War was a heavy burden for the Weimar Republic.
The feeling of acceleration, the political events going haywire required a kind of a journalistic examination also in visual arts which was reflected in an unemotional clean painting technique, but also in satirical graphics and scathing criticism. Often the artists felt called to render the immediate present of the modern world and to play an active role in pointing to social evils. Therefore the artistic ways of expressing ranged from a painting technique like the old masters to caustic caricature in order to unmask the true, ugly face of society. The enormous creative output of this period wasn’t limited to painting and graphics of course, but was also reflected in photography and the achievements of the Bauhaus. That the curators refrained from these subject areas is understandable, as they would have gone beyond the scope of the exhibition and the focus was clearly on the psychic profile of a society teetering on the brink of the abyss. The density of the exhibition and the variety of artists, with wrongly forgotten and now rediscovered artists such as Jeanne Mammen or Kate Diehn-Bitt along the great names like George Grosz, Otto Dix and Christian Schad, depict an impressive panorama of the Weimar Republic.
The politicization of society captured all areas of life always reverberating in the works, on many of them there is something like a brown veil which was a premonition of the disaster that was to mean the end of the Weimar Republic. Election posters from the 1920s the staircase of the Schirn is papered with bear witness to the politically charged atmosphere in the Weimar Republic. The political camps were fragmented facing each other irreconcilably. The trauma of the lost First World War had left wounds that wouldn’t heal representing a massive threat to the young democracy.
Splendor and Misery in the Weimar Republic, Schirn Kunsthalle
The Versailles Treaty stipulated the reduction of the German army to 100.000 soldiers which resulted in major political and social problems, as the labour market couldn’t absorb the many dismissed soldiers. The war had claimed two million dead in Germany and turned 1.5 million people into war invalids who had to go begging in the streets as they received no or only small disability annuities against the promises of the state. The horrific truth, the gloomy burden of the Weimar Republic was described by Otto Dix in his pictures of war invalids, mutilated torsi with faces corroded by gas who populated the streets in Germany.
Otto Dix, The Match Seller, 1920
In “depraved Berlin” people sought to block out the political chaos.
Otto Dix and George Grosz brought up the painful subject and made no secret of which social forces they would call to account for this. His satirical provocations made George Grosz a target of right-wing nationalist revanchists. As he had called the military “pimps of death“, he was sentenced to a 5000 Mark fine in 1921. Already in 1923 Grosz portrayed Hitler in the satirical magazine Die Pleite (Failure), which shows how alarmingly early the ideas of National Socialism were corroding the Weimar Republic already in her founding years. The metastases of the brown ideology were growing in all social classes, in the country just like in the major cities. In the print Patriotic Education by Georg Scholz from 1923 a hopeless right-wing nationalist is wearing the swastika on his arm in the midst of his pupils while he is playing with explosive. Jeering National Socialists by Gerd Graetz from 1929 demonstrates the dullness of the brown spawn who seem to feel pretty confident in the meantime.
Georg Scholz, Patriotic Education, 1923
Gerd Graetz, Jeering National Socialists, 1929
The misery of the war invalids and the slogans of the parties contrasted with the entertainment industry in the Weimar Republic that helped the people to forget the horror of war and to block out the social and political chaos of the present. Especially in Berlin an enormously vital scene emerged with cabarets, dance and nightclubs whose permissiveness was said to outshine even Paris. In “depraved Berlin“ there was something to be found for every taste, the artists of the Weimar Republic became chroniclers of the decline of society and documented how the people preferred to follow their pleasures in the Admiralspalast or other revue temples instead of dealing with the reasons of the political upheaval.
The dance with the devil went on when the first rumble of thunder of the imminent great eruption already heavily shook democracy that was hanging by a thread. Alcohol and drug consumption strongly increased, the price of one kilogram of cocaine exploded from 16 Mark before the war to 17.000 Mark in 1921. Revues with extravagant costumes and the exhibition of nudity were booming throughout Germany. In 1923 360 revues took place in 119 cities, the biggest one in the Admiralspalast in Berlin was regularly attended by 2000 visitors. A mixture of American jazz, military parade and the rhythm of the emerging assembly line work dominated the performances in the dance palaces.
Paul Grunwaldt, Varieté, 1925
Karl Hofer, Tiller Girls, before 1927
The need in the Weimar Republic resulted in a triplication of prostitution.
The saucy debaucheries of the Roaring Twenties also had their dark sides. Prostitution became a growing social phenomenon in the Weimar Republic, the number of registered prostitutes doubled between 1913 and 1925 in German major cities such as Berlin, Hamburg, Leipzig or Frankfurt. However, a triplication is more realistic, if one adds the dark figure of illegal prostitutes. The modernization of society through more liberal laws came at the high price of social exploitation. Exploitation took place in all social classes in this indifferent society and many women in existential need were struck by it, as for many war widows and wives of war invalids prostitution was the only chance to earn a living for their families.
George Grosz and Otto Dix deplore the common corruptibility as well as the degeneration the moral decline of society in the Weimar Republic in grotesque exaggerated pictures. The view of the female artists on the other hand is detached and objective, Jeanne Mammen emphasizes the social solidarity among the prostitutes without prejudging them, while Elfriede Lohse-Waechtler who was temporarily living in Hamburg in the red-light district of St. Pauli depicts the environment with sensitive compassion and a mixture of irony and melancholy.
Karl Hubbuch, Lissy in the Café, ca. 1930-1932
Elfriede Lohse-Waechtler, Lissy, 1931
Christian Schad, Seminude, 1929
The female role model had to be redefined as a consequence of war which caused social upheavals. Especially paragraph 218 sparked a debate that reflected the inner conflicts of society which was torn by the fights between the political camps. The abortion ban was codified in the criminal code of the German Reich in 1871 under the paragraph 218 that stipulated a prison sentence not only for pregnant women, but for the person who conducted the abortion as well. The topic turned into an instrument of power to control family planning and was fiercely discussed in public among jurists, physicians, the churches and the parties. The abortion debate became a synonym for social criticism and turned into a grass roots movement which was supported by various progressive forces of the middle and working classes. The emerging feminist movement claimed the “right to the own body“ which gained new topicality in the course of the in 1918 newly introduced women’s suffrage.
Hainz Hamisch, Pregnant Woman, 1932
Otto Dix, The Pregnant Woman, 1930
Women were no longer consumers only, but captured creative professions.
The hot topic was picked up not only in visual arts, but in literature and theatre as well. The impoverished proletarian woman with many children as symbol of the state-mandated force to birthing was in the centre of the protests, but despite numerous alliances, mass demonstrations and the cancellation motions tabled in the Reichstag by USPD, SPD und KPD, the fight against paragraph 218 was unsuccessful in the end.
Due to the liberalization and the economic modernization in the Weimar Republic women captured new professions such as operator, stenotypist or shop assistant. Often they made up the host of the employees, but also doctors, academics and political activists could be found among the women. They didn’t continue to be only consumers anymore, but now were producers as well, they worked in creative professions and took part in the cultural life. With a percentage of 30 percent of female artists the exhibition at the Schirn reflects the important contribution of women in the cultural life of the Weimar Republic. The political debates on the paragraph 218, marriage laws, prostitution and wages were influenced by the question of women’s rights.
Rudolf Schlichter, Portrait of a Woman with Bob and Tie, 1923
Kate Diehn-Bitt, Self-Portrait in Black Underwear, 1932
But also in fashion and everyday culture the image of the “new woman“ became generally accepted, the boyish garçonne with masculine haircut redefined the image of femininity in the Weimar Republic. Accessories such as monocle, pant suit, dinner jacket and cigarette that used to be reserved for men in the past became popular through film stars such as Marlene Dietrich, the bob was expression of a new female self-confidence. However, the emancipation of women was limited to the major cities and was only short-lived as conservative forces pushed the feminist freedom movement back again in anticipation of the takeover by the National Socialists in 1933.
In the course of liberalization also the paragraph 175 was discussed in the Weimar Republic which penalized homosexuality. Sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld campaigned against the discrimination of homosexuals by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche: “What is natural can’t be immoral.” Hirschfeld supposed innate causes of homosexuality and tried to achieve an amendment through publications and petitions in the Reichtstag. He was the first to conduct surveys about the sexual practices of the population by means of anonymous questionnaires. Hirschfeld also coined the term “transvestite” through his book The Transvestites, an Examination about the Erotic Drive to Cross-dressing which was published in 1910. Already in 1908 he contacted Sigmund Freud, hoping to gain further insight into the causes of homosexuality, but unsuccessfully. In 1933 he was forced to flee to France where he died already in 1935.
Jeanne Mammen, Transvestite Hall, 1931
Mass society resulted in social impoverishment in the Weimar Republic.
An impressive cross section of society of the Weimar Republic also represent the numerous portraits that are often executed in the style of the Neue Sachlichkeit, among them gallerists like Alfred Flechtheim, journalists and writers, but natural scientists, physicians, tycoons and politicians as well. Along these public persons certain types crystallized in the emerging mass society, prototypes of today’s target groups. The listener was one of these “types” and showed up after radio broadcasting had gone on air in 1923 and the number of listeners had increased from one to four million between 1926 and 1932. Thus the foundation of mass communication was laid which was misused unscrupulously by the National Socialists later on. In his picture The Listener from 1930 Max Radler has depicted this type of a new consumer as unemotional, chilly and withdrawn. The artists often characterize the anonymous representative of mass society by adding attributes that are carried out with the same precision as the portrayed persons themselves. The artistic equal treatment of man and object is one of the most characteristic features of the Neue Sachlichkeit.
Erich Buettner, Portrait of Max Herrmann-Neisse, 1921
Otto Dix, Alfred Flechtheim, 1926
Georg Scholz, Self-Portrait in Front of the Advertising Column, 1926
The phenomenon of mass society resulted in social impoverishment, war invalids, dismissed soldiers and unemployed flooded into the cities, while the social networks of traditional family structures became more and more porous. Inflation caused a strong increase of unemployment already at the beginning of the 1920s which got even worse during the Great Depression in 1929 and led to social chaos. George Grosz wrote in 1922 “Man has created a mean-spirited system – a top and a bottom. (…) To show the oppressed the true faces of their lords is the goal of my work. Man isn’t good, he is a beast.”
The suicide rate increased dramatically during the economic decline of the Weimar Republic, artists such as Hanna Nagel and Oskar Nerlinger depicted the suicide wave with brutal directness. But also familial topics and the working life of the proletariat were picked up, especially by artists of the Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists of Germany. As left-wing activists artists such as Otto Griebel or Hans and Lea Grundig wanted their art to serve their political objectives. Already in 1932 the artist Alice Lex-Nerlinger was arrested because of her left-wing position and depicted her imprisonment in two paintings.
Hanna Nagel, Suicide Candidates, 1930
Oskar Nerlinger, The Last Exit, ca. 1930/31
The deserted cities of the New Objectivity were the quiet before the storm.
The technological achievements of the modern era like machines, smoking chimneys, telegraph poles and stations were symbols of the belief in progress and were frequently used subjects in the Neue Sachlichkeit. The belief in a better future which had been embraced already in the Wilhelmine period was invigorated by the enthusiasm for technology that was fuelled by inventions like the radio and the cinema. However, progress also had its dark sides, the assembly line work turned the workers into exchangeable numbers and was physically and mentally stressful, while the enhanced efficiency and rationalization contributed to mass unemployment.
Industrialization subdued nature ruthlessly which receded as an artistic subject-matter to the same degree that artists turned to the theme of the city characterized by factories and the increasing anonymization. In the pictures of the Neue Sachlichkeit the renderings of the cities appear aseptic and deserted reducing them to a mere backdrop. The human aspect has disappeared in these images full of melancholy which reflect the heritage of the Pittura Metafisica, it’s the quiet before the storm.
Karl Voelker, Concrete, ca. 1924
Oskar Nerlinger, Down to Work, 1930
Carl Grossberg, The Yellow Boiler, 1933
The state reacted upon the changes in society which were caused by industrialization and detected sport as a guiding concept and instrument to influence the mass. On the one hand sport was meant to recreate the health of the workers that was endangered by the monotonous factory work, with the “Workers Gymnastics and Sports Association” emerging from the socialist workers gymnastics movement in 1919. On the other hand in the Weimar Republic sport was seen as a symbol of the competition and achievement oriented ideas, and served to overcame class and gender barriers. In politics sport replaced the need to combat and the trial of strength after the defeat in World War I. Reports on victories on the front now were succeeded by records in track and field as well as cycle and car racing. Through the radio sport enthusiasm captured the mass who hailed their new heroes. Sculptor Rudolf Belling whose famous sculpture Triad represents the first abstract sculpture in Germany paid homage to boxer Max Schmeling with a naturalistic bronze sculpture.
Rudolf Belling, Max Schmeling, 1929
The National Socialists had realized the significance of sport from the very beginning and used it later on for their racist ideology and the remilitarization of the population. As it were, the pictures by Franz Radziwill represent the finale of the exhibition Splendor and Misery in the Weimar Republic. His deserted cityscapes under disrupted garish skies appear like prophecies of the looming apocalypse. Franz Radziwill’s iconic work Karl Buchstaetter Falls to his Death is the symbol of a society in a state of intoxication which wanted to fly too high. The Weimar Republic was a blind flight through history.
Franz Radziwill, Karl Buchstaetter Falls to his Death, 1928
27.10.17 – 25.02.18 Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt