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Painting the glamour and misery of Weimar Germany

The glamour and misery of Weimar Germany

A new exhibition shows how painters captured the splendour of the fledgling democracy – and anticipated its demise

A new exhibition shows how painters captured the splendour of the fledgling democracy – and anticipated its demise

Lena Schipper | November 22nd 2017

“The painter is the eyes of the world”, Otto Dix once wrote. It could have been the motto of the “New Objectivity” movement that took hold in Germany in the years after the first world war. Adherents like Dix used a direct, naturalistic style of painting, forgoing the exaggerated, highly emotional and sometimes abstract aesthetic fashionable among expressionists and other members of the avant-garde in favour of more accessible, explicit social criticism. “Splendour and Misery in the Weimar Republic”, a new exhibition at the Schirn Gallery in Frankfurt, invites visitors to explore how Dix and contemporaries such as George Grosz, Georg Scholz and Jeanne Mammen depicted the fledgling democracy.

As the exhibition’s title suggests, the subjects depicted by these artists oscillated between splendour and misery, much like their country. The political and economic turmoil that racked Weimar Germany provided fertile ground for social commentary. They painted disabled war veterans, bread strikes, starving prostitutes and back-street abortions. Some painters, such as Carl Grossberg, created deeply unsettling images of industrial landscapes devoid of any signs of humanity. But they also immortalised figures from the jazz age: glamorous women in flapper dresses being eyed up by underworld characters in smoky bars, strapping young men on bicycles, well-dressed industrialists cutting deals. Their art captured a country that was forever on the brink of disaster yet managed to sustain, for a time, a more open and progressive society than Germans had ever enjoyed.

The exhibition is loosely arranged around themes such as art and politics, entertainment and the “new woman”. The curator, Ingrid Pfeiffer, has done a good job of highlighting connections between them, with wall texts explaining the history of the period and in her arrangement of pictures. By placing a painting of war veterans next to one of a prostitute, she illustrates how the devastation of war led to a rise in prostitution, as many women whose husbands had been killed or wounded were forced to resort to selling sex to make ends meet. Pfeiffer has also ensured that there is a balance between men and women artists, giving little-known painters such as Jeanne Mammen and Alice Lex-Nerlinger the attention they deserve. And the exhibition shows how Germany’s artists foresaw the rise of the Nazis – even at the beginning of the 1920s, some included swastikas in their paintings. 

 

“Weimar Carnival” (1928-29) by Horst Naumann

This painting, displayed right at the start of the exhibition, sums up its central theme: the precariousness of Weimar Germany. The title is bitterly ironic: the chaos and the grotesque expressions on some of the figures’ faces are the only thing that is carnivalesque about the disintegrating landscape. The “splendour” of the exhibition title – Weimar’s glamour and social freedoms – is already being crowded out by “misery”. Capital, symbolised by the globe-straddling banker and the bundles of dollars on the right, still reigns supreme but the ground below it is already shifting. The swastika on the central figure’s steel helmet shows the spectre of National Socialism towering over everything while his missing eye hints at the lasting damage of the first world war. 

 

“Paragraph 218” (1931) by Alice Lex-Nerlinger

For well-off city dwellers, the Weimar years offered an unusual degree of freedom to live and love as one pleased. Women cut their hair into bobs, wore suits and practical shoes, took jobs and lovers. However, the law failed to catch up with the era’s social liberalism. Abortion was banned. Many women, particularly those who made a living as prostitutes, died in botched back-street operations. Alice Lex-Nerlinger’s painting is a drastic call to repeal the abortion ban, which was enshrined in paragraph 218 of the constitution. The women knocking over the law seem to be saying: we refuse to bear this cross any longer. They wear simple dresses, hinting at their working-class origins (the victims of botched abortions were disproportionately poor). The lack of individual features (note that their faces are turned away) shows that they are pursuing a collective task – Lex-Nerlinger was a life-long socialist. But it also suggests that their womanhood makes them invisible. The pregnant woman on the left quietly observing their efforts does not get a face either. 

 

“Street scene—Kurfürstendamm Berlin” (1925) by George Grosz

George Grosz, one of the most famous practitioners of “New Objectivity”, is known particularly for his sharp caricatures. Versions of the characters in this street scene, of Berlin’s main boulevard, appear in many of his other works. They depict the full range of Weimar-era clichés: the wounded war veteran selling matches on the side of the road, the elegant woman who might be a bourgeois lady or a prostitute, the fat industrialist puffing a cigar and the well-dressed yet shifty-looking gentleman. In this painting, Grosz throws them together, with the slightly threatening chaos of the city as his backdrop. 

 

“Of Things to Come” (1922) by Georg Scholz

The industrialist Hugo Stinnes is depicted here in conversation with a union boss (left) and Walter Rathenau (right), a liberal-nationalist politician who was assassinated by a right-wing group the same year this picture was painted. The title quotes a book Rathenau published towards the end of the first world war, in which he advocated a pan-European customs union and a new industrial policy for Germany. In Scholz’s companion work “Masters of the Universe”, the same three men make an appearance, reinforcing Scholz’s point that whatever hopes socialists and social democrats may have had, it is still the forces of capital that are in charge of the new republic.

 

“Ash Wednesday” (1926) by Jeanne Mammen

Born to a German family, Jeanne Mammen grew up in Paris and studied art there but was forced to leave during the first world war to escape internment. In Berlin, she found her subjects on the street: pimps and whores, cabaret dancers, nighthawks. Unlike many of her male contemporaries, who often likened sexually liberated women to prostitutes, she looked at them with warmth. The woman in this watercolour is evidently recovering from a raucous night on the tiles, with the shadow of a cat on the right suggesting a bad Kater (the German for “hangover”). But there is no sign of regret in her expression, only quiet confidence. Her bright red lipstick, symbolic of the new “modern woman”, is still defiantly unsmudged.

 

“Lady with Mink and Veil” (1920) by Otto Dix

This unforgiving depiction of an ageing prostitute is typical of Dix, who sought to emphasise the ruin and moral degradation of Germany after the first world war. A soiled, ill-fitting night dress sliding off the woman’s shoulder to reveal a sagging cleavage makes her look ridiculous rather than enticing. Her face is painted in garish colours that succeed only in highlighting her bad teeth; the veil, meant possibly to lend an air of girlish flirtatiousness, merely emphasises the grotesque choice of colours. The mink, usually a symbol of wealth, high class or even royalty, is the final insult: piercing red eyes glare diabolically from its scruffy fur. Viewed next to works such as Jeanne Mammen’s “Ash Wednesday”, the painting illustrates the different ways in which male and female artists of the era looked at women.

Splendour and Misery In the Weimar Republic Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, until February 28th

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