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The other side of Weimar art

The other side of Weimar art

Interwar German painting could be savage, but it was also full of energy and optimism

Interwar German painting could be savage, but it was also full of energy and optimism

David Bennun | September 25th 2018

Think “Weimar” and you think decadence and doom. There is certainly plenty of both on display in “Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33”, a new exhibition at Tate Modern in London. But rather than presenting the Weimar Republic as a brief, ill-fated interlude born of one set of horrors and foreshadowing another, the organisers of the exhibition have selected artworks that give a more nuanced impression of the era.

“Magic realism” is most often thought of as a literary genre, one that blends fantastical elements with a more lifelike depiction of the world. Yet the term was coined in 1925 by Franz Roh, a German art historian, who observed that many artists in the Weimar Republic rejected the idealistic style fashionable before the first world war, which combined naturalistic depiction with an amplification of beauty and virtue, in favour of a realism with uncanny elements.

The paintings and drawings on show in these six rooms (arranged by themes such as “The Cabaret”, “The Circus”, “Faith and Magic”) unsettle the viewer with their mix of the weird and the everyday. The grotesque satires of George Grosz and Otto Dix, two of the figures most closely associated with Weimar, are set alongside a selection of less celebrated artists with very different styles. I wasn’t previously familiar with the range and power of Albert Birkle, or Jeanne Mammen’s caustic ingenuity.

Much of the work on show is bleak, savage and pessimistic, but we also see energy and optimism. Dix’s “Lust Murder” pictures are characteristically unnerving, but his series of circus sketches is light and enchanting. The exhibition reminds us that Weimar was, for these artists, a living present – the unwritten future of which contained possibilities other than disaster.

 

Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, “The Poet Däubler” (1917)
It was still wartime when Davringhausen painted Theodor Däubler, a poet and critic, as a heroic giant sitting astride a kind of paradise – a symbol, perhaps, of how the life of the mind represented an escape from grim, everyday existence. His luminous use of colour testifies to the influence of the most magical early modernist, Marc Chagall, whose “The Green Donkey” (1911) is included in the exhibition, and whose work was exhibited twice in the 1910s at Berlin’s leading expressionist gallery. Davringhausen’s painting harmonises well with one hung nearby: Harry Heinrich Deierling’s “The Gardener” (1920), suffused with a similarly gentle sensibility and showing a monkish figure in a world of brightness and calm.

 

Hans Grundig, “Girl with Pink Hat” (1925); Rudolf Schlichter, “Lady with Red Scarf” (1933)
These curiously complementary portraits, painted eight years apart, underline the range of magic realism. Grundig’s picture is ostensibly the less realistic, in its use of line and form, yet its mood and setting could hardly be more quotidian. By contrast, Schlichter’s painting of his wife, Speedy (a name she preferred to her given one, Elfriede), portrays her with intense, detailed realism, yet the background – the strange, twisted landscape, the moon and ominous sky – give it the other-worldly atmosphere of a science-fiction book cover. We are at home with the loosely rendered girl with the pink hat, and on another planet with the precisely represented lady with the red scarf.

 

Rudolf Schlichter, “The Artist with Two Hanged Women” (1924)
Schlichter’s painting is as disturbing as anything in the whole show. It reflects both the Weimar obsession with “lust murder”, wherein women are the fetishised objects of sexual violence, and the high suicide rate of 1920s Germany, but offers nothing by way of context. The aghast expression of the painter himself (a hollow sketch, set against the fully realised dead women) mirrors the viewer’s own.

 

Jeanne Mammen, “Boring Dolls” (1929) and “Brüderstrasse (Free Room)” (1930)
In an exhibition full of pictures of women painted by men, the work of Jeanne Mammen is one of the most startling and refreshing elements. She offers glimpses of Weimar women’s lives seen from the inside. “Boring Dolls” could be interpreted as a sarcastic comment upon the tendency to objectify women: to the male eye, these women may be as decorative and empty as the dolls with which they share the frame. But their feline self-containment suggests a powerful inner life. The same can be said of the sex workers in “Brüderstrasse (Free Room)”. In Wiemar art, prostitutes often appear as symbols of degeneracy. Here they are real women, caught between shifts, staring back at the viewer with a sly perceptiveness. 

 

Albert Birkle, “The Acrobat Schulz V” (1921) and “The Crucifixion” (1921)
The paintings were made within a year of each other, yet they could hardly be more different in spirit. The Weimar magic realists returned again and again to the circus as a theme, never with more striking results than in Birkle’s portraits of Schultz, capturing the extravagant facial expressions for which the performer was renowned. That comical hyperbole is poles apart from Birkle’s crucifixion scene, inspired by Matthias Grunewald’s medieval Isenheim Altarpiece, and riven with a visceral agony which evokes the memory of the trenches.

 

Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33 Tate Modern until July 14th 2019