A multimedia approach to Berlin during the Weimar period is the goal in this presentation of over 400 paintings, sculptures, photographs, collages, films and forays, architecture and fashion. Oct. 1-Jan. 4, Neue Galerie, neuegalerie.org
Berlin's 'moment' has arguably come and gone, but in the US people are flocking to an exhibition of art from a relatively obscure time and place: Berlin between the world wars.
In one room of the latest exhibition at the Neue Galerie in New York City, dozens of people are circling a macabre mannequin with German military garb and a startling pig's head. The figure, John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter's "Prussian Archangel," reigns over walls covered in Dada art and grotesque dolls from the era.
"I didn't know she would do bizzaro puppets," one visitor, Diane Smook, enthuses about Hannah Hoech's "Dada puppets." "It's really cool."
Upstairs, a 1927 film about daily life in Berlin plays on a continuous loop. Patrons cram five rows of benches to take in the black-and-white scenes of railroad tracks, streets and factories in Walter Ruttman's "Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis."
Another patron has a hard time tearing herself away.
"I would love to watch the whole thing," said Marilyn Gordon, who was visiting from Michigan. "It's intriguing to me to see what life was like then and what it ended up being, and to think of all the turmoil that went on in between."
As Berliners wonder whether years of limelight and gentrification have dulled the city's luster, people in New York are flocking to a show focusing on a short chapter from the German capital's past - about 400 works of painting, sculpture, photography and other mediums made between the world wars. On a recent visit to the Neue Galerie on Manhattan's Upper East Side, dozens of people waited in line to see the show, "Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933," and you could barely move once inside.
So what gives? Have New Yorkers contracted a strange case of 'Sehnsucht' (longing)? Or is something else at work in the US fashion and financial capital?
George Grosz' painting 'Diablo Player,' from 1920. Copyright: 2015 Estate of George Grosz/Licensed by VAGA, New York.
George Grosz' painting 'Diablo Player,' from 1920
During a tour of the show, museum spokeswoman Rebecca Lewis pointed out there are more similarities between Weimar Germany and the contemporary US than first meet the eye.
"In the same way they were sort of dealing with the modern metropolis, that's kind of how we're dealing with technology now," Rebecca Lewis said in front of Ludwig Meidner's "I and the City," a claustrophobic 1913 portrait of a face circled by hostile-looking buildings.
"Everything is changing so quickly, we don't really know how to make sense of it," she continued. "It feels like everything is outpacing itself constantly. That angst that they were feeling is something we can relate to today.
Meidner's oil-on-canvas work is a kind of set piece to the show. In a room the museum has called "The New Woman," samples of 1920s fashion intersperse acerbic interpretations of the family. In one example, Hoech's "The Bride (Panorama)," a man mindlessly clutches the arm of a woman whose head has been supplanted by a gigantic baby face. The child gasps at a circle of symbols that seem to represent the matrimony to come - a heart in chains, a weeping eye, a ravenously suckling babe.
Paintings by George Grosz, Christian Schad and Rudolf Schlichter, among others, tackle more aspects of the tumult Germany experienced after World War I ended and as the rise of Nazism loomed. Grosz's decadent cityscapes and Schad's frank treatment of sexuality give visitors a new perspective on Germany in the first half of the 20th century.
"I've never seen anything like this before from that period," said an Indiana man who gave his name as Elliot. "It's very interesting, what was going on in Berlin."
The Klimt factor
He and his wife had come to "Berlin Metropolis" on a recommendation from friends. Others were in town to see the museum's main attraction, a permanent exhibit of paintings by Gustav Klimt.
A recent pair of films touching on the artist has given a major boost to the Neue Galerie. Admission jumped from 92,091 visitors in 2013 to 180,032 last year, when "Monuments Men" came out, according to the museum. The film is about the efforts to recover artwork stolen by the Nazis - including Klimt masterpieces that changed hands during World War II.
This year's "Woman In Gold," about the effort to recover one of the main works currently at the Neue Galerie, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," have put the institution on track to draw even more visitors, according to a spokesman.
A reproduction of Herbert Bayer's 1932 'Lonely Metropolitan' Montage. Copyright: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
A reproduction of Herbert Bayer's 1932 'Lonely Metropolitan' montage
Several who came to the museum for Klimt were quick to draw lessons from works in the "Berlin Metropolis" show. Gordon said conditions depicted in the turbulent paintings by Grosz, Otto Dix and others reminded her of her home state's struggling hub of Detroit.
"The biggest relevant factor is we don't want that to happen again today," she said.
Looking for lessons
Olaf Peters, a Germany-based professor who organized the exhibit, cited more technical reasons as his inspiration for the show. "I was interested in avant-garde techniques like montage and collage," he said.
But he added that works from interwar Germany, known as the Weimar Republic, have a broader interest, too.
"We are also in these days taking about a economic crisis, a political crisis, the crisis with the refugees and wars all over the world," Peters said in a phone interview from the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Saxony-Anhalt. "Weimar was to some degree a state in crisis. Therefore I think it was interesting to have a look back in history to understand the present in a more appropriate way."
The last room in "Berlin Metropolis" features works dealing with the rise of Nazism. "Adolf the Superman Swallows Gold and Spouts Rubbish," by John Heartfield, shows Hitler as a money-eating monster. Several Nazi posters exemplify the movement's stark propaganda. A large painting by Schlichter called "Blind Power" provides a frightening, critical interpretation of the Nazis' violent vocabulary and methods.
Elliot and a companion said they were surprised to find "so much life" in such works.
"It's got some mysterious draw," he said. "I think that's why you see all these people here."
"Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933" runs until January 4 at New York's Neue Galerie.
So you didn’t get out much this summer. Happy news: This fall’s big museum shows will take you on a trip ’round the world — minus those pesky TSA agents.
The bawdy days of Berlin will be recalled in all their often X-rated glory at the Neue Galerie. Opening Oct. 1, “Berlin Metropolis” covers the “golden” years of 1918-1933, a modern age both for women and artists like George Grosz and Max Beckmann, who felt free to express themselves. There’ll be paintings, drawings, sculpture, collage, photography, film and fashion — all of it organized by Dr. Olaf Peters, the man behind the Galerie’s 2014 blockbuster, “Degenerate Art.” (Through Jan. 4; 1048 Fifth Ave., at 86th Street; neuegalerie.org)
At once quite keenly historically focused and materially, disciplinarily expansive, this exhibition posits Berlin as a most robust urban exemplar of the creative flourishing that coincided with the interwar patch of German history often referred to as the Weimar period, which, from 1918-1933, was characterized as much by democratic ideals and palpable progress as by all-too-coincident dashings, per financial duress and political disorder, of the same. No less than a socioeconomic, politically restive hot mess, Weimar Germany was also a hotbed of experimentation and notably fast-forwarded advancements in all manner of creative expression, and nowhere was this more candid than in Europe’s allegedly ‘most American’ city at the time, Berlin. In literature, music, architecture, film, fashion and the visual arts, the creative practitioners in this grand metropolis dug deep into the expressive riches of their mediums to explore war and conflict, hope and hardship, post-imperial implosion, and markedly omnivalent industrial explosiveness. It wouldn’t be long before Germany’s incubatory democracy would transition from generally pacific to direly bellicose, but for a little while, its great capital’s creative chemistry and societal circumstances were just right to make for a lot of great art. Expect the multi-media breadth of Berlin Metropolis to explore very similar claims from many different angles. Opens October 1st
New York has just added another outstanding museum exhibition to its autumn roster, this one at the Neue Galerie. “Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933” is an ambitious effort in a limited setting that successfully combines historical sweep, clockwork organization and an egalitarian approach to mediums.
Its nearly 350 pieces — expertly shoehorned into six themed spaces — cover the cultural ferment of the fragile Weimar Republic, as it came to be known, which was sandwiched between the end of World War I and the onset of the Third Reich and was Germany’s first attempt at full democracy.
The show is hardly definitive, yet it can feel that way because it creates such a poignant, specific view of the devastation of Hitler’s rise and rule: the array of potential cultural achievements destroyed by death, disruption and the shattering of a great city.
Is it too much to say that during the Weimar years Berlin was poised to become the capital of the 20th century, repurposing Walter Benjamin’s exalting phrase about the significance of Paris in the 19th century? Perhaps. The title probably belongs to New York. But this show can make Berlin – considered the most American of European capitals at the time – seem like a contender.
After the war, the city resumed much of its robust prewar growth. (Its population quadrupled between 1871 and 1919.) All the arts thrived in this fulcrum: painting, film, architecture, photography, collage, fashion illustration and various kinds of design (graphic, clothing, costume, set). It was a time when German Expressionism became more socially critical; the even more disgruntled tendencies of Dada took hold and a hyper-realism called Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) resurrected Northern Europe’s tradition of exacting realism. (This broad strain is examined and linked with photography in “New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933” opening Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.) The world’s most creative film industry emerged, as did indisputably modern architecture and design, partly thanks to the nearby Bauhaus, founded in 1919.
The show represents a spectrum of human innovation and aspiration: Some of it ferociously engaged with the Weimar’s tribulations and Hitler’s rise, some of it Utopian, some of it aimed at middle-class creature comforts. And there is often an undercurrent of mounting dread. Some artists knew what was coming and confronted it directly; others expressed less consciously a German fatalism older than Albrecht Dürer. Another kind of consistency comes from inventive uses of line and also photography.
“Berlin Metropolis” reunites the curator and designer responsible for the Neue Galerie’s harrowing “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 2014. The curator is Olaf Peters, a German art historian who focuses here on a handful of emblematic figures – especially Hannah Höch, George Grosz and John Heartfield – sometimes bringing out surprising facets of their work while including a large cast of less familiar figures.
The vast majority of the loans come from German museums and archives, especially in Berlin, so a lot of the material is fresh. Among the surprises: four oil paintings from 1924 by Höch, an early adopter with Raoul Hausmann of Dadaist collage, that are thought never to have traveled to this side of the Atlantic. Höch’s collages often created monstrous faces and masks from snippets of magazine images. Now we learn she translated these beings onto canvas – most grotesquely in a quartet of lurid creatures titled “Journalists.” These paintings have a lot to offer contemporary artists.
The exhibition design, by Richard Pandiscio, has nice touches. In the opening gallery, “The Birth of the Republic,” blowups of typographically elegant Dada poster-poems confront fiery political posters designed by German Expressionists during the turmoil that preceded the signing of the new republic’s constitution in Weimar in 1919. Later in the show, a reproduction of the handsome five-sided electrical traffic light that presided over Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz – probably the first in Europe – sums up a lot about German design logic and ingenuity. Mr. Pandiscio found it in an old photograph. It flashes cautionary yellow.
The evenhanded mix of mediums is especially inspiring. Properly scaled, it turns out they really can all get along. For example, it is one thing to know that Fritz Lang’s great silent film “Metropolis” of 1927 bares traces of the influence of German Expressionism. But it is another thing to actually see it playing on a slim screen no larger than a drawing in a gallery alongside works that reflect the same absorption and use teeming crowds to the create overall sense of urban energy. “Metropolis” converses with Max Beckmann’s great, perturbed “Trip to Berlin” lithographs of 1922 and Karl Hubbuch’s refined prints, which seem to mimic collage’s use of photographs.
For collage, there’s Höch’s quietly subversive “Heads of State,” from 1918-20, which recasts two European politicians as bare-chested tribesmen in a jungle formed by an ironed-on embroidery pattern; and Hausmann’s elaborate excoriation, “A Bourgeois Precision Brain Incites a World Movement (later known as Dada Triumphs),” from 1920. You get a striking sense of Grosz’s versatility, as he moves from demonic cafe scenes of bourgeoise obliviousness to a geometric set design for a police station (1923) to “Gymnast,” a painting from around the same time that subscribes to the robotlike idealization of Oskar Schlemmer.
Nearly everything here has both echoes and opposition. The importance of film is underscored in “The New Utopia” section by Hans Poelzig’s 1924 designs (and one fabulous drawing in wax crayon) for the Capitol Cinema movie palace, which hesitates between Art Deco and the more severe International Style. Erich Mendelsohn’s model of the German Expressionist Einstein Tower in Potsdam (1917-21) contrasts with his 1924 drawings for a more streamlined Berlin apartment complex. And Mies van der Rohe’s drawings of monolithic apartment towers rise majestically above everything else, commensurate with his stature as a modernist god. Three perfect white benches add to the gallery’s hushed, chapel-like effect. But they are intended for viewing Walther Ruttmann’s 1927 film, “Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis,” a relentless, mesmerizing portrait of the city projected on one wall that brings reality crashing into the space. (Ruttmann made photomontages using stills from the film that are included here, shown in the United States for the first time.)
Similarly, the gallery titled “The Neue Frau” (New Woman) includes dresses, shoes, movie stills and a vitrine of sparkling jewelry. But the distorted faces and bodies of Höch’s paintings and collages are also here, disrupting the mood. So are photographs of the spirited actress Valeska Gert, taken between 1917 and 1934, and Christian Schad’s sexually charged “Two Girls,” from 1928.
In the show’s final gallery, “Into the Abyss,” the horror of Hitler’s totalitarianism comes to the fore in a series of extreme contrasts of violence and calm. Oozing Dalíesque decay, the large marauding centurion of Rudolf Schlichter’s 1937 allegory, “Blind Power,” fights horror with horror. So do Heartfield’s grimly prescient photomontages from 1933-34, sometimes turning the swastika into an instrument of medieval martyrdom. Actual Nazi posters are also here, while large tempera paintings by Oskar Nerlinger from 1928-30 perpetuate the rarefied fantasy architecture of the 18th century yet hint at the conflicts of modern life. And other works focus elsewhere, like Carl Grossberg’s hyper-real painting of a Miesian dining room from 1935.
Amid all this, another small screen interjects Lang’s masterly film “M,” from 1931, in a gorgeous recent restoration. It indicates his seamless transition to sound with a murder melodrama that seems keyed to the growing hysteria of real-life Berlin. Its poster features a large hand painted with a big red M, a scarlet letter that also foreshadows the tattooed numbers of the concentration camps.
This show is itself masterly, a fast-moving smorgasbord that coheres through its call-and-response syncopation among the artworks themselves. Above it, buoyed by its evidence, hovers the unanswerable question of what might have been.
Today in New York, the Neue Galerie opened a new, stunning exhibition “Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933.” On the surface, it is a familiar narrative. This is the story of how Germany’s defeat in World War I led to massive inflation and economic ruin, which in turn led to the rise of Nazism.
Beneath that surface, this exhibition goes much deeper. Viewers are invited to walk through this period of history, seeing it through the eyes of Berlin’s artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers. They are at once critical, reactive, agonizing and revolutionary. Taken together, they come to life.
Curator Dr. Olaf Peters, Professor of Art History at the Martin Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg, has organized the 400-piece exhibition chronologically in three parts, marking clear shifts in cultural and social norms as they shift with the moving political landscape. First, the beginnings of the republic in Berlin develop in the wake of WWI. Next, a relative economic stabilization is seen with the rise of consumer industries. Finally, the decline of the republic is ushered in by economic catastrophe and political confrontation. The artwork here selected is structured around these turning points in Berlin’s history.
Housed entirely on the second and third floors of the Neue Galerie, the rooms of this exhibit are actually small enough to view in one visit. The imagery and ideas encountered, however, will likely linger far longer.
“The theme is to show the development of Berlin through the artists of the time,” Dr. Peters told CULTURE+TRAVEL. “Some were avant-garde. Many were anti war. The works shown here acknowledge cliché during the Weimar Republic, but also open up the unknown.”
It wasn’t a pretty or polite time, and this isn’t necessarily pretty or polite art. Some of the exhibition’s most iconic works - including Ludwig Meidner’s I and the City (1913), Raoul Hausmann’s Dada Triumphs: The Exacting Brain of a Bourgeois Calls Forth a World Movement (1920) and Herbert Bayer’s The Lonely Metropolitan (1932) – make powerful social and political statements that still translate today.
The Birth of the Republic
One of the first works visitors see is Ludwig Meidner’s famous self-portrait I and the City. Painted in 1913, it serves as a kind of prescient prelude before the outbreak World War I.
Meidner was an expressionist painter and poet who championed modernity in his depictions of Berlin, urging his contemporaries to do the same. “We must at last begin to paint the home where we live, the metropolis that we love without reserve. With feverish scrawling hands we must cover canvases without number, and large as frescoes, with everything that is monstrous and striking about our great avenues and railway stations, our towers and factories…” wrote Meidner in his 1914 text titled (as translated) “Instructions for Painting Pictures of the Metropolis.”
His words speak easily to modern artists today. But his painting of the Berlin Metropolis is understood best in its historical context. In “I and the City,” Meidner’s eyes directly confront the viewer. Behind his head, a hectic grim city is depicted with buildings, churches and homes falling at all angles. His Berlin appears to be in tumult and the people in it, walking with shoulders hunched over, appear oppressed. Meidner continued to paint falling, apocalyptic landscapes before the actual crises of the First World War occurred.
The Berlin Dadaists
In another room, images of rebellion cover each wall.
By the end of WWI, revolution was afoot in Berlin. Artists began using collage and montage techniques as a rejection of the traditional bourgeois concept of art. War and all its horrors had destroyed the virtues of nationalism and militarism. Walking this gallery, you can almost hear their argument: What is art besides the glorification of institutions and leaders we don’t believe in?
Meet the Berlin Dadaists. Their ironic anti-establishment art is characterized by its subtle humor, its parody of the crippling economic realities they were faced with, and its blatant rejection of all things conventional. Of this, Raoul Hausmann’s Dada Triumphs: The Exacting Brain of a Bourgeois Calls Forth a World Movement (1920) is portrayed at the Neue Galerie as a classic example.
Leaving this room, something may have shifted in your perception of the Weimar Republic. Still other perspectives await around the corner.
The Lonely Metropolitan
By 1932, the end began. The Nazi Party became the largest party in Parliament and unemployment had hit a high of 30% in Germany. That same year, Herbert Bayer created the photo collage called The Lonely Metropolitan. In this chilling black, white and grey image, the artist’s eyes stare from the palms of his hands, which are cut off at the wrists and float mysteriously in the courtyard of a Berlin apartment block. A graphic designer who worked in advertising during Berlin’s “golden years” (1924-1929), Bayer’s photomontages are thought to have illustrated his own dreams.
What was it like to live in the Weimar Republic? In this exhibition, the artists themselves answer. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933” runs from October 1 through January 4 at the Neue Galerie: 1048 Fifth Avenue New York, NY. Tel. +1 (212) 628-6200
Just beyond a velvet curtain, beyond Klimt’s stately “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” begins one of the most startling shows in town — complete with a life-size, pig-headed dummy in military dress, dangling from the ceiling.
Wilkommen to the Neue Galerie’s “Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933,” a head-spinning look at Germany between the world wars. As “Cabaret” lovers know, it was a sexually free, politically fractious place before the Nazis trampled it all under their boots.
From 1924 to ’29, Berlin was a hotbed of jazz, cinema, art and fashion. Free-spending fräuleins had a costume for every occasion, from tennis to evening. This was the Neue Frau, or New Woman: an emancipated, sometimes gender-bending pioneer, depicted here in movie stills and in Christian Schad’s paintings of lesbian lovers.
But no artist typified her more than Hannah Höch (1889-1978), whose painting “The Bride” (pictured) is a case study in ambivalence.
Even as she hopscotched between lovers — male, female, male — Höch’s artistic vision didn’t waver. She challenged oppression wherever she saw it. So did John Heartfield, who was born Helmut Herzfeld, but Anglicized his name at a time when Germans were supposed to hate the Brits. His photo collages mocked Hitler and his minions — one shows a swastika made of bloody axes — and the SS knocked on his door in 1933. Heartfield jumped out of a balcony and hotfooted it to Prague. Later, when the Nazis took Prague, he fled to England.
Near the very end of his life, he made it back to East Berlin. Iron Curtain or not, it was still his home, and he could still make art that challenged it.
If contemporary Berlin is seductively enigmatic, an assemblage of unassuming facades issuing vague invitations, the Berlin of the 1920s was by all accounts raucous and disorienting. It is this Weimar Republic-era Berlin—vivacious and dynamic, disjointed and sometimes deafeningly cacophonous—that viewers are invited to explore in the exhibition Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933, currently on view at the Neue Galerie in New York. Founded at a time of political and cultural upheaval, the Weimar Republic made a short-lived attempt at democracy beginning in 1918 and culminating with the 1933 ascendance of Adolf Hitler. Throughout, Berlin was a turbulent cultural epicenter, exemplary of many of the changes that characterised the worldwide shift towards modernity.
At the height of the Weimar Republic, Berlin was the largest city in the world by area and the third largest by population. The growth of mass culture attended its radical expansion. US-inspired popular entertainments banned during WWI—jazz and dancing prime among them—afforded denizens of all classes a welcome artistic outlet. The bounds dividing high and low art forms dissolved as motifs culled from ragtime found their way into the work of respected composers like Stravinsky, and formerly inaccessible media like radio, cinema and a new crop of illustrated magazines became widely affordable. The so-called Neue Frau, or “new woman,” who was enfranchised and salaried, acquired newfound purchasing power.
Artistically, the Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”) movement stressed the need for practical engagement and politically-inflected work. Meanwhile, the Dadaists staged comic performances and made ironic montages designed to mock the bourgeois conservatism of traditionally figurative art. The result was a bitter rejection of idealistic strivings towards beauty—and an affirmation of empty nihilism, which the Dadaists believed to be more reflective of the bleak reality of post-First World War Europe. At the same time, members of the Novembergruppe united Cubism, Expressionism and Futurism to embrace artistic radicalism in all its forms, while Modernist architects espoused a no-fuss functionalism that favored clean, unadorned facades. Mies van der Rohe’s iconic but unrealized plan for a stark glass office building, sketched in 1921, was famously defiant of the mandates of classical architecture. Like the burgeoning city, the proposed building did not unfold symmetrically around a central axis but rather splintered off haphazardly, seemingly at random.
Berlin’s growth necessitated radical spatial reconfigurations, and the ad hoc planning of the past gave way to more deliberate manipulations. High rises, traffic lanes and standardized public housing, along with the installation of a national telephone network in 1922, transformed the urban landscape. These infrastructural developments had a curious orientation, at once public and private: mass housing and transport catered impersonally to personal needs. Works like Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis highlight the sense of anonymity and alienation that distinguished the mechanistic Modern city even as it was outfitted with state-of-the-art conveniences.
Weimar-era Berlin managed to pack a great deal of artistic and technological punch into its mere fifteen years and Berlin Metropolis, whose subject matter ranges from visual art to film to architecture to fashion to photography, crams nearly as much into even fewer rooms. From the moment viewers enter the show’s first room, they are inundated with a barrage of paintings, posters and prints. Fittingly, the exhibition kicks off with an examination of Dada, and the discursive, disordered arrangement of the initial display echoes the jumble of Dadaist absurdity. On the other end of the aesthetic spectrum is the severe simplicity of Bauhaus architecture and design, to which we are treated just a corridor later. Berlin Metropolis, like the city it hopes to encapsulate, presents us with dual but opposing dangers: on the one hand, the threat of urban pandemonium; on the other, the menace of a sterilising, technocratic order.
The question of how one was to navigate this new and often oppressive environment grounds the exhibition. Industrialists dominate the cityscape—and are dominated by it in turn. In Ludwig Meidner’s painting I and the City (1913) and Georg Grosz’s picture Street in Berlin (1931), the city’s occupants are visually subordinated to urban bustle, seemingly dominated by the crush of densely populated, claustrophobic streets. But in Grosz’s Of Things to Come (1922), three tycoons loom over a flattened landscape, the passive object of their sinister designs. And in Max Beckmann’s 1922 Trip to Berlin lithographs, a series of black and white caricatures of native Berliners, gangly human figures spill forth from frames even narrower than the paper on which they are drawn. These characters are afflicted not by the weight of high rises but by an oppressive impermanence and relentless pacing.
Those condemned to inhabit this schizophrenic city were marked by contradictions, and the works in the exhibition offer drastically divergent prognoses about the future of man. Humanity devolves into inhumanity in drawings, paintings, and films that conjure up deformed bodies and grotesque monsters: in Georg Scholz’s 1920 painting Industrial Farmers, a trio of rotting corpses, savagely bound together with nails, gather around an incongruously familial table. In Karl Hubbuch’s 1923 lithograph Intoxication of Lunatics, a throng of lurid ghosts recall the haunted yet humanoid villains of German films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922). In other works, inhumanity is rendered differently, this time with an emphasis on Modern man’s tendency towards the robotic. In Georg Grosz’s 1920 watercolor Diablo Player, a faceless automaton sits in a harshly angular room. The cut into his chest reveals a set of gears placed where a heart should be.
Yet advertisements and promotional images, aimed largely at the new bevy of female consumers, abound with beauty. Robustly healthy women, expertly coiffed in sleek, sporty apparel appear in works like Gerda Bunzel’s 1924 sketch Women in Evening Dress. Avant-garde artists took these glamorised portraits as incitations to satire. The Dadaist Hannah Höch’s collages, which combine magazine clippings of various body parts to create Frankenstein-like constructions, are perhaps the most apt rejoinder to the chaos of Weimar Berlin. Höch’s confused bodies fail to resolve into any definite form.
An exhibition as ambitious as Berlin Metropolis is bound to turn out a bit like Höch’s fragmentary collages, and some degree of clutter is perhaps thematically warranted. But the density can feel busy, the scope overwhelming. “The public was confronted with a seemingly arbitrary assemblage of posters, collages, and drawings,” writes the show’s curator, Olaf Peters, of the iconic 1920 Dada exhibition in the catalogue. He may well have been writing of the show he organised.
Becca Rothfeld is a contributing editor of Momus and a master’s student at the University of Cambridge.
Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933, Neue Galerie, New York, until 4 January 2016