The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37

A diverse collection of artworks from the Weimar period focused on sex and death make an astonishing show, Peter Hill says

October 20, 2011



Credit: Still from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari 1920
Brave work: sex and death occupy the heart of the exhibition


The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37

National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

25 November 2011 to 4 March 2012

It's tempting to wonder what today's vice-chancellors and research mandarins could learn about creativity and the visual arts from the Weimar period in Germany, and the Bauhaus in particular. Probably a great deal. Creativity, not disciplined methodology, is at the core of what artists do. And what we do permeates the whole of visual culture, from architecture to industrial design, from fine art to public sculpture and digital media. All of this - but especially the primacy of creativity - becomes apparent the moment you walk into The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37, a major exhibition curated by Jacqueline Strecker that is about to move across Australia from Sydney to Melbourne. One of its many delights is seeing what strong holdings Australian and New Zealand galleries have in this area and how well they complement the international loans that have come from Europe and the US.

What makes this exhibition unique in global terms is that it does not just showcase one art movement but several overlapping tendencies, including Expressionism, Dada, the Bauhaus, Constructivism, New Objectivity and the art of the Metropolis. The Bauhaus is a good place to start, not just because its lifespan echoed that of the Weimar Republic itself, but because it shows us how good an art school can be when it is given its head and allowed to be run by artists rather than bureaucrats. This is Karen Koehler, professor of architectural and art history at Hampshire College in the US, writing in the catalogue: "Arguably the most important art school in the 20th century, the Bauhaus was not a style - it was a place where some of the most important international artists taught and studied. Their work varied considerably: cubistic paintings, experimental theatre, multiple kinds of photography and decorative objects, and in only a few instances, the construction of actual buildings. Made up of classes and critiques, the energies of the school extended into festivals, parties and impromptu antics. There was even a jazz band, and students took part in everything from chanting and fasting, to soccer and fencing."

Walking through room after room at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where I first saw these works - high above the Sydney Opera House and under the blue skies of the south Pacific - felt at times more like visiting a vast archive of the Weimar years rather than experiencing a traditionally hung exhibition. Yes, there were the canonical works, including Christian Schad's Self-Portrait (19), almost devoid of emotion and a hymn to casual sex. The painter, recently divorced, wearing only a thin green body stocking, posed on a bed with a naked woman who has a deep scar, or fregio, on her cheek, symbolising both passion and possession. There is Otto Dix's scary portrait of Dr Paul Ferdinand Schmidt (1921), director of the Stadtmuseum in Dresden, but looking more like Peter Lorre propping up the bar of Rick's Café in Casablanca. There are Max Beckmann's trapeze artists, Wassily Kandinsky's kaleidoscopic canvases, and Hannah Hoch's darkly menacing collages.

But there is so much more in this astonishing exhibition. On various cinema screens scattered throughout the display, Marlene Dietrich sings in The Blue Angel, the dark future (later picked up in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner) still beckons from the frames of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (19), and Hitler is seen visiting the Degenerate Art exhibition (1937). His banal presence is also here in John Heartfield's chilling photomontage Adolf, the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Rubbish (c.1932). Brave work for its time, or any time. Posters for the film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) hang within reach of Bauhaus fabric swatches and Kandinsky ceramics.

Yet it is sex and death that occupy the heart of this exhibition. In places it is as cold and as brutal as a contemporary Swedish crime novel. Rudolf Schlichter's Sex Murder (1924) shows a prostitute, lying face down, her body slashed to ribbons, yet the whole painted in the pastel colours of a Peter Rabbit illustration. Schlichter uses stronger colours and greater eroticism in two other works. Meeting of Fetishists and Maniacal Flagellants (1921) is a group fantasy of clothed males, half-naked women, old men masturbating and young women with knee-high boots flashing what Mick Jagger once called "far away eyes". The same artist combines movement, sound and unashamed erotic display in his masterpiece Tingel Tangel (1919-20). This is Berlin at its wildest - not to be matched again until David Bowie and Martin Kippenberger imposed their own quite different sensibilities on the last days of Cold War Berlin.

Two half-naked women gesture on the stage in ways which, in their primitive sensuality, are light years ahead of Lady Gaga or Lily Allen. Yet the men at the front row cabaret tables are looking elsewhere, projecting ahead to more physical encounters later in the night, while the pianist in the background goes through the motions. It's like a Toulouse-Lautrec poster without the joie de vivre.

Finally, there is The Mad Square (1931), the painting by Felix Nussbaum that lends its name to the whole brilliant yet sometimes rag-tag exhibition. Roughly 3ft by 6ft, it shows young artists demonstrating in Pariser Platz, against the old guard of the Prussian Academy of Arts. Nussbaum paints himself into the foreground, clutching a petition of some sort, while high above him the academy's president, Max Liebermann, works on a huge self-portrait that floats above his rooftop studio.

This masterpiece is full of intriguing details. The artist Kathe Kollwitz, whose son Peter was killed at the age of 18 during the early stages of the First World War, is depicted as one of the conservatives marching through the square. Yet her work is some of the most emotionally heart-wrenching in the whole show. Writing in her diary about her woodcut Memorial for Karl Liebknecht (1919-20) which also references the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, both key figures of the Spartacist movement, she says: "Karl Liebknecht was buried today, together with 38 others who had been shot. I was allowed to make (a) drawing of him and went to the mortuary early. He was lying there in a coffin in a hall beside the other coffins, with red flowers round his bullet-holed head. His face was proud, his mouth slightly opened and twisted in pain."

The whole composition of gravity-defying figures and collaged architecture including crosses sunk into the windows that is The Mad Square could almost be a collage by Terry Gilliam from the early Monty Python years, were it not for the knowledge of what was to come next. In Nussbaum's own case, he was banned by Joseph Goebbels from continuing a residency in Rome at the Villa Massimo, and later spent four terrifying years living in German-occupied Brussels. As Jacqueline Strecker recounts in the catalogue: "While in hiding, he painted a number of powerful images that portray the fear, despair, isolation and constant threat of death he experienced throughout the early 1940s. Nussbaum was captured by the Nazis in July 1944 and deported to Auschwitz, where he died on 2 August."

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