If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Cubism After Cubism
Paris Coming to Order, Part Two
There was a second life for Cubism after the Great War. This lingering phase, a further development of an important art style was carried on by the so-called “Salon Cubistes,” who, although they had been away at War, were still famous to the art public, due to their participation in public salons. In the Salon d’Automne, they were scandalous dissidents and horrifying innovators; in the Salon des Indépendants, they were heroes, braving the scorn of critics. When they returned to Paris, one by one, these artists learned that the dominant painters were now Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, both of whom had remained in the city during the war, developing independent styles. Although Pablo Picasso (1871-1973) had taken off in his own many new directions, these former Salon Cubists sought to extend Cubism, now a historical and hence, lucrative art movement. The art scene in Paris had changed and, in the wake of the war, the Salon exhibitions were not the only game in town. The artist-dealer system, used so successfully by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, began to become a major factor. But the players on the market were new.
When War was declared, German national and Cubist dealer to Braque and Picasso, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979), was in Switzerland and was unable to return to France. Now that Kahnweiler was an enemy alien, his goods, his paintings, his property—Cubism itself–were sequestered by the French government, and his artists were left without support. Léonce Rosenberg (1879-1947), who collected modern art because it gave him pleasure and because he believed in what he called “l’effort moderne,” took Kahnweiler’s place as the supporter of Cubism. Rosenberg came from a distinguished family of art dealers, which stretched back to the nineteenth century. His father, Alexander (1842-1913), as did most of the art dealers of that century, specialized in the Old Masters, which is why his oldest son, Léonce, was educated in the history of art in European cities and in New York. After studying in London, Berlin, Antwerp and Vienna, he returned take his place in the business. By his side was his younger brother Paul (1881-1959). At the turn of the century, the père Rosenberg had added Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists to his stable. When their father died in 1913, the brothers inherited the gallery and divided the concerns of the enterprise between them. Léonce opened a new avenue for the Rosenberg establishment–contemporary art in his new gallery “Haute Europe”–specializing in the most cutting edged of Cubism. Even before the Great War broke out, there was a competition between the Rosenbergs and Kahnweiler, who was loath to play one buyer off another to get a higher price. According to his granddaughter, Anne Sinclair, Paul handled the nineteenth century and Old Masters part of the business but sold the historical works with an eye towards avant-garde art. As Sinclair relates in My Grandfather’s Gallery: A Family Memoir of Art and War, “When Léger came to him and said, “Paul Rosenberg gives me twice what you do,” Kahnweiler replied, “Very well, then, go to Rosenberg.”
Pablo Picasso. Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910)
But Kahnweiler was less sanguine about the activities of the Rosenbergs after the War. The War had destroyed his art business, cutting him off from his lucrative markets in eastern Europe and Russia. By the end of 1914, according to historian Michael Fitzgerald, Kahnweiler, without his business and his products, was unable to honor his contract with Picasso. After the War, the French government had many Picassos that Kahnweiler had not paid for and the artist had severed ties with his former dealer. When Kahnweiler returned to Paris, it was to a gallery emptied by the French government; and he was forced to make a new start without his core of pre-war artists, who were all now valuable cultural producers. As Sinclair wrote, referring to Kahnweiler: “He was probably angry and hurt about the behavior of Paul’s brother Léonce, who had attracted the cubist painters to his gallery while Kahnweiler was exiled in Switzerland during the First World War. Besides, Léonce’s reputation was tarnished by the fact that he had agreed, during the 1920s, to be an expert consultant in the liquidation of Kahnweiler’s property, which had been confiscated by the French because of his German citizenship.” But it was not just Kahnweiler who was disturbed by the actions of the French government.The artists whose work was part of the four sales that were held to dispose of a huge quantity of pre-war avant-garde works, “belonging” to a German national. Art historian John Richardson, the premier biographer of Picasso, discussed the repercussions of this event upon the art world and the artists. These auctions took place in 1921. By this time, Picasso was well into his classical phase and, with his new wife, the daughter of a Russian general, the artist was ensconced into a bourgeois existence, complete with servants. Since he had been, from very early on, part of the marketing of modernism, the packaging of which, as the historian Michael Fitzerald has pointed out, was the making of modern art, Picasso kept a close watch on exchanges within the art world. Kahnweiler’s was not the only sequestered collection up for sale: the properties of German dealers Wilhelm Uhde and Richard Goetz were also on view.
Jean Metzinger. Portrait of Léonce Rosenberg (1924)
As Richardson wrote in A Life of Picasso, “Since over half his cubist output was at stake, Picasso had fought to have the sequestration set aside. He had expected to recover at least the items for which Kahnweiler never paid, but now he had lost hope. Braque, Derain, Léger, and Vlaminck, who work had also been sequestered, were more optimistic than Picasso. As French citizens who had served their country, they felt entitled to preferential treatment: however, the world situation worked against them. Germany was so slow in paying the reparations stipulated by the Treaty of Versailles that the French government decided to convert all the assets they had been able to confiscate for cash. There would be no exceptions.” Richardson was not kind in his assessment of the Rosenberg brothers and their conduct during the series of sales. Noting that “Léonce had managed to get himself appointed expert adviser for the auctions..This, he said, would guarantee the success of the sales and put cubism back on the map as an ongoing movement..This unscrupulous man wanted to prevent Kahnweiler from recovering his prewar stock so that he could crown himself king of Cubism. Paul Rosenberg tacitly supported his brother. The dismemberment of cubism would be to his advantage. However, he was far too canny to appear to have had a hand in things and be tarred with the same brush as Léonce. By flooding the market with the cream of cubism, he effectively devalued it and earned the contempt and distrust of the painters he claimed to be promoting. As Kahnweiler foresaw, the auctions would be a disaster, the prices for paintings by the major cubists would not appreciate for another twenty years.”
Pablo Picasso. Portrait of Paul Rosenberg (1918)
The clash between the artists and the dealers would become a classic one, pitting makers, who cared about their art against businessmen, who cared about profits. There is no doubt that the brothers supported the Cubist painters with the hope of a handsome return on their investment. Richardson’s trenchant account of the auctions should be balanced by the unflagging support from Léonce, who, even though he was in the French army, kept tending to his Cubist artists during the War. As Fitzgerald noted in Making Modernism: Picasso and the Creation of the Market for Twentieth-century Art, even by 1919 there was still little faith in the value of Cubism when Rosenberg was selling modern art at his gallery on rue de la Baume. “Indeed, during 1915 and 1916, Rosenberg was almost the only person, who bought from Picasso and the other Cubists.” In fact, the author quoted an account of that period from Rosenberg himself, “..Picasso and a mutual friend revealed to me the deprivation that many Cubists found themselves in–abandoned by their dealer, a German–and the hostility and general indifference amid which they lived, and they fired my interest in taking a hand the destinies of a school of painting that deserved all of my efforts. I promised to found, immediately after my demobilization, ‘L’Effort Moderne.’ In the meantime, during the entire duration of the war and even when mobilized, I subsidized, by continuous purchases, the entire Cubist movement.” Clearly, this is a self-serving statement but it is, in the basic facts, quite true.
Bulletin for L’Effort Moderne, edited by Léonce Rosenberg, 1924
Therefore, for no reason other than a dedication to modern art, Rosenberg signed the German dealer’s artists, with the exception of Picasso and Braque, and continued the exhibition and promotion of Cubism during and after the war. Expecting to reap the rewards of handling Cubism at some point, Rosenberg crafted a new vision of Cubism, seeing it not as a unique style developed by a group of artists influenced by Paul Cézanne, but as part of a new and modern way of thinking that was manifested well beyond the fine arts. This modern world based upon the machine was revealed in a world view that appeared in posters and in advertising, popular culture, and fine art, becoming the visual language of its time. In Rosenberg’s interpretation, Cubism changed, disentangling itself from complex ideas of mobile perspective and becoming more flat and colorful, a strong design that could be moved from painting to advertising even to fashion and architecture. Cubism became the “house style” of Rosenberg’s gallery, “L’Effort modern” and the focus of his publication, Bulletin de l’Effort Moderne, but, despite the strong support from Léonce, Picasso waited to commit until 1918, when he joined Paul Rosenberg, the brother of Léonce. Perennially suspicious of dealers, Picasso had been cautious around Léonce and resisted the dealer’s efforts to bully him into joining the Cubist stable. The final straw seems to have been the refusal of Léonce to support Picasso’s work for Parade (1917). A year later Picasso and Matisse had a joint exhibition at the Galerie Paul Guillaume, but in 1919, Picasso repaid his debt to Léonce and had a large show at the L’Effort moderne. In these early years, just after the War, the status of Cubism was still in doubt. Were there too many copyists? Had the style become too familiar, too academic, too stale? Writing in 1988, Robert Jensen explained Picasso’s position as an avant-garde artist, “The chief paradox of avant-gardism..is that it takes its identity from opposing that which it most relies on: the trade in art.” And, according to Fitzgerald, Rosenberg described Picasso’s attitude towards commerce and the “relations of the artist and dealer as a “class struggle:” “Le marchand–voilà l’ennemi.” In his article, “The Avant-Garde and the Trade in Art,” Jensen wrote, “As the triumphant avant-gardist, who believes he has killed off all his rival, Picasso eventually dismissed the primacy of style over the artist.” In the author quoted Picasso as saying in 1923: “If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression I have never hesitated to adopt them.” Author Malcolm Gee pointed out his 1979 article, “The Avant-Garde Order and the Art Market, 1916-23,” that when the poet Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) formulated his famous “Recall to Order,” he did so “under the aegis of Picasso’s use of ‘style,’ and the attempts by the editors of L’Espirit Nouveau to codify the achievements of Cubism to place them in a well-defined ‘classical’ tradition in French painting can be seen as part and parcel of a general tendency at this time to assert the values of discipline, reason, and tradition in the arts..”
Pablo Picasso. Harlequin (1915)
It should be pointed out that as early as 1915, Picasso had signaled his retreat from Cubism with his return to a figure of his early years, the Harlequin. By 1918, Picasso was effectively no longer producing Cubist works and would not have fitted into the plans of Léonce. Paul, however, had a broader mission and could incorporate Picasso’s ever-changing directions. It was time for Picasso to move on with his post-war career and his alliance with Paul Rosenberg was a shift away from his Cubist past and into his independent future. Just as Léonce had been a dealer in antiquities, Paul Rosenberg had been a dealer of Impressionism and recognized the coming respectability of Cubism as a collector’s item, even before the infamous auctions of 1921. Although Paul handled other Cubist artists, he was the main support for Picasso, and the artist lived next door to his dealer whose gallery was at 21 rue de la Boétie. Once the Rosenberg brothers had become the dealers for Cubism, the task, which they both seemed to have realized, was now to make of Cubism something historical and valuable. As the art markets returned to post-war stability in the 1920s, Cubism was experiencing an afterglow. The next task was to make the case for the importance of Cubism.
Paul Rosenberg’s Gallery with art by Picasso and Marie Laurencin
The pre-war discourse on Cubism had been written by artists, such as Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, and by art critics, like Guillaume Apollinaire. This pre-war body of work was from the perspective of those who were “present at the creation.” For all intents and purposes, their task had been twofold: to legitimate Cubism and to place it in the mainstream of the history of French art. Now that the movement had been founded and had become part of the fabric of French culture, it was possible to build on this foundation, which had presented the case for Cubism as being “classical,” not radical or aberrant. After the War, Cubism was defined as that which was quintessentially modern, related to the new machine in its logic and rational construction, understood as being “classical.” In other words, the rationality and logic of machine technology could be compared to the logic of classical French tradition in the arts and a post-war congruency was fused. Due to its intellectualism and because of the tireless efforts of its early interpreters to link it to French tradition, Cubism was now worthy of being historicized. The exhibitions at the respective Rosenberg galleries were often accompanied by small catalogs that had the accumulated effect of accruing both financial and symbolic capital to the artists and to the movement. Thus, was Cubism moved from the ranks of the disruptive “isms” to the status of “important” art, readying itself for the art historians.
Catalog for exhibition of Picasso’s Drawings at Paul Rosenberg’s Gallery in 1918
Like many of the artists showed by Rosenberg at L’Effort moderne, history has not been kind to the Salon Cubists, who have been neglected in favor of an emphasis on Picasso. The next post will discuss these post-Cubist Cubist artists in Paris between the Wars.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Cubism After Cubism
Paris Coming to Order, Part One
What happened to Cubism? Before the Great War broke out, the movement seemed to be dominant, even hegemonic in Paris, but after the War was over, Cubism was history. In other words, the Great War nothing would ever be the same, the culture had been moved, as if by a gigantic quake, out of the lingering nineteenth century. By 1918, almost twenty years too late, the shock of the modern pushed the decade into the early twentieth century. While the larger culture, the wider society adapted to the presence of technology and accelerated change, accepting the present and even the uncertain future, the art world in Paris turned inward and went backward and became conservative. The rising poet Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) coined a term that became the phrase for the retreat that characterized the 1920s in Paris. He called for a rappel à l’ordre, or a recall to order, a return to the order of classicism in his 1923 book Le Rappel à l‘ordre. As early as 1920, Cocteau discovered, while reading the poets. who lived before Baudelaire’s profound transformation of poetry, the virtues of rhyming, simplicity, and figuration rather than Symbolist evocation. Working with his creative partner, Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923), the poet sought to create a timeless style. The couple began a short-lived magazine Le Coq in 1920 and the goal of the six issues was a “return” to the past in reaction to the post-war fascination with the “machine.” “Return to Poetry. Disappearance of the Skyscraper. Reappearance of the Rose” was their slogan.
Jean Cocteau. Self-Portrait in A Letter To Paul Valéry (1924)
The “return to order,” sometimes termed the “recall to order,” was based upon the confused conviction on the part of the public that Cubism itself was German. The anti-Cubist wave was intensified during the War and, after the War, Cubism was stranded on the hill of anti-German sentiments. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) himself appeared to be adjusting to the new current and during the War, moved away from Cubism. The avant-garde artists held what historian Larry Witham termed “a patriotic exhibition” in 1916. As he pointed out in Picasso and the Chess Player: Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and the Battle for the Soul of Modern Art, although the former art audience was largely uninterested in art and consumed with the War itself, the exhibition “The Modern Art in France,” was notable for the first public appearance of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Those few who attended the show were uninterested in this now-famous work. After the war, the anti-Cubism sentiment was symptomatic of and part of a larger push towards conservative politics and Cocteau fashioned himself as “right wing.” While Cocteau was an odd messenger for conservativism— in 1915, he ingratiated himself to Picasso by dressing like a Harlequin for a studio visit—by 1920 he was a notorious and rebellious poet, whose demand for a “return” to poetic traditions summed up the post-war mood. After every war, there is always a sentiment of longing and nostalgia for the familiarity of the past before the world was irrevocably altered, and Cocteau’s sentiments seemed to be a recipe for healing. Based upon logic and order and rational thinking, the classicism of which he spoke was considered distinctly and uniquely French, the kind of classicism familiar in the Baroque paintings of Poussin.
Fernand Léger. Three Women (1921-2)
During the war, the Cubist artist Fernand Léger (1881-1955) had served in the engineering corps on the front at Verdun, where he was gassed. Hospitalized for two years, he worked through his battlefield traumas with art, which became more figurative and more conservative to graphically convey the horrors of the battlefield. By 1920, a calm seems to have descended upon Léger who smoothed the waters of his early agitated Cubism with a new and elegant classicism. The most famous work of this new direction was Le Grand Dejeuner of 1921, a direct homage to Ingres and the French tradition of the grande nu. Constructed on a frankly expressed grid, the painting is stilled and rational, imposing order upon a complex and cluttered modern interior where three inexplicably naked women are having lunch. The work of a wounded veteran recovering from battle, this painting exemplified Léger’s return to order and society’s slow settling into a period of peace following a time of turmoil. Picasso, however, was not impressed with this strange combination of the classical with the new Machine Aesthetic, and, almost as if he was frozen in transition, did very little painting during the War. Picasso was not alone and there were allies in Rome. As Charlene Spretnak related in The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present, Mario Broglio, a painter, began a magazine of “plastic values” called Valori plastici in Rome. Broglio demanded a return to realism, figuration, the timeless topics of still lives and landscapes based in the timelessness of classicism. The classicism referred to was literally a resumption of the antique classical art of the Greco-Roman tradition and Witham noted Picasso’s friendship with Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), the Italian Metaphysical artist. Their friendship had begun before the War while the Italian artist was living and working in Paris and resumed during the War when de Chirico returned, after escaping the clutches of the Italian army. The “returns” to classicism were, of course, different in France than in Italy. In Italy the term “valori plastici” meant exactly how it translates–“plastic values” referring the strong forms of the early Italian Renaissance, such as those of Giotto. If the reaction against the avant-garde in Paris was a rejection of Cubism and pre-war disorder, in Rome, the abandonment of Futurism was a refusal to accept the eclectic historicism and diluted and misused classicism of the Vittorio Emanuele wedding cake at the heart of Rome and the disorderly avant-garde art that sought to replace the past.
Giorgio de Chirico. The Soothsayer’s Recompense (1913)
Picasso’s move to classicism began as a slow turning away from Cubism even before the War, and it is generally conceded that Picasso and Braque were leaving atelier experimentation behind in favor of a version of Cubism that was more “decorative.” The last few months of their partnership was marked by a series of paintings that were delightfully dotted and frankly charming, in a rococo fashion. This final flourish of their partnership predicted that the real future of the second stage of Cubism would be the realization of its decorative potentials, played out in Art Deco. In 1917, Picasso began the exploration of Cubism as design or an applied art when he joined the group of outstanding performing artists participating in a revolutionary wartime production of the Ballets Russes in Rome. Presented by Sergei Diaghilev, based on a story by Jean Cocteau, with music by Eric Satie and choreography by Léonid Messine, Parade was a modern ballet made remarkable by Picasso’s set designs, his extraordinary stage curtain, and his inventive costumes. The Harlequin, once part of his Rose Period, returned as a building as if to announce a rethinking and the artist’s embarkation on a new style. Set in Paris, Parade was Picasso’s final farewell to Cubism, and his definitive parting from Braque, who was operating a machine gun on the Western Front. The costumes of the characters, human and animal, were Cubist collages manifested in three dimensions and set in motion. The revolutionary and whimsical play debuted on May 18, 1917, Théâtre de Châtelet and at a loss for words, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire termed the performance “surrealist.” For Picasso, Parade was a way out of Cubism, for the Salon Cubists, this new direction towards design was a way back into Cubism—Cubism could become an applied art.
Pablo Picasso. The American Manager (1917)
Before the war Cubism had been divided into parts: those artists who showed in the public salons, the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants, and were therefore called the “Salon Cubists;” and Picasso and Braque who used their dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler to sell directly to clients, usually in Germany or Russia. The Salon Cubists and Kahnweiler’s artists, whom he insisted were not “Cubists,” were separated from their colleagues by where they showed their art. Braque and Picasso showed in Kahnweiler’s small gallery and the Salon Cubists, as the name implies, exhibited in the large sprawling salons open to the public. Thanks to the ample newspaper coverage that accompanied the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indepenéants, in the pre-war years, the Salon Cubists were famous, even heroes, standing firm against critical disdain and public protest, but the War scattered them to the four winds. Fernand Léger and Georges Braque (1882-1963) both served in the French Army, engaged in active combat, while many of their colleagues were in the camouflage corps. Albert Gleizes served for one year and then spent the rest of the war in New York City where he joined Marcel Duchamp, who had earlier taken himself out of the art game. Duchamp’s brother, Raymond Duchamp-Villon was in the military and died of blood poisoning at the end of the war. His other brother, Jacques Villon, whose real name was Gaston Duchamp, also served in the army, as did Jean Metzinger. However, Henri le Fauconnier went to Holland and waited for the conflict to end, staying in the neutral nation well beyond the end of the War. Two major artists remained in Paris, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Like Juan Gris, who also remained in place, Picasso was from Spain and therefore outside the reach of the French draft. Matisse was simply too old for service. These artists continued their work, enjoying an uninterrupted stretch of creative development. Both Picasso and Matisse moved beyond Cubism and Fauvism, running ahead of the artists who were away at war. When the War was over, their former colleagues had to pick up their careers and put their lives back together, and they did so in the shadows of Picasso and Matisse, now major artists, stars who now outranked them and had moved on to new ideas. Picasso and Léger away from Cubism signaled the return to the order of classicism, while the Salon Cubists sought to revive pre-war Cubism and make it respectable. The route the rebirth of Cubism was a monetary one.
Georges Braque. The Round Table (1929)
The end of the war meant that the previous dissension over avant-garde art was now a settled matter and the once-unfamiliar art had acquired value. The idea that innovative art was valuable in the financial sense gave rise to a healthy art market in Paris after the War, and this was the real order that settled over the art world. Art should appeal to the now willing collectors, who wanted to invest in the avant-garde, but what they wanted was the work of a major artist that was recognizable, in other words, the signature style should be present, but what was disruptive before the war needed to be tamed for this growing audience. For the returning Cubist artists, modern art was Cubism and they carried on as they had before the War. Their stance may have seemed regressive, but their post-war Cubism continued with what was now a historical style. Their efforts were, in effect, a “return to order.” To return to order, post-war Cubism had to become more “classical” or more conservative to appeal to new patrons. When Georges Braque returned to the Parisian art scene, it was after serving on the front, being gravely wounded, and after undergoing a long recovery. The partnership with Picasso was broken, simply because the two men could no longer share their experiences. Their lives had gone in two different directions. The Cubism of Picasso and Braque no longer existed. While Picasso turned to the classical and conservative in the 1920s and Braque settled on a variation of Cubist collage, painting the elements instead of pasting paper on a support. As if seeking comfort in the familiar, for the rest of his life Braque painted endless variations on the still life on the guéridon, a small circular top table. It was Braque along with the Salon Cubists who inherited Cubism and carried it on to its new destiny in the years between the Wars. But this rescue was not the work of the artists on their own; they had the able help of the Rosenberg brothers–Paul and Léonce–the art dealers who knew how to market the past and make historical art valuable again.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
The Weissenhof Experiment in Stuttgart
Neues Bauen in 1927
The Nazis, newly in power and early simmering with racist hatred for all things un-German, didn’t know what to make of the shining white city on the hill. So utterly alien to the fascists was the blinding bright geometry of the houses and apartment buildings that they could only cast about to find the most insulting comparison possible–something not European, something “primitive,” something like an “Arab village.” Driven by their overriding desire for Teutonic authenticity, the political party that left no occasion to ridicule modernism unmarked, distributed a postcard of the new architecture. Sponsored by the Deutscher Werkbund, the Weissenhof, a showcase for the efforts and talents of Europe’s most advanced builders was ridiculed in a deliberately misreading of the simplicity, characterizing clarity as ignorance. The project, headed by architect Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), was marked as undesirable and the Nazis would not forget the affront of the Weissenhof settlement. They had to wait only a few years for the pleasure of closing the Bauhaus, headed by Mies by 1933, and had plans for the Weissenhof which they purchased. Revenge was sweet but brief for the Nazis. Considered a significant landmark in Modernist architecture, the project in Stuttgart was subjected to numerous indignities under the regime of Adolf Hitler. Towards the end of the Second World War, the Weissenhof was partially destroyed during the Second World War. Today, the site is considered a World Heritage, its buildings are being slowly restored, the vision of their creators shining through and beyond the dark memories of Nazi projects. It is saying a great deal to note that the functionalist moment for Nazi architecture–its high point of innovation–was the concentration camp, the built environment that was an assembly line of industrial murder, while the Weissenhof was a more modest achievement, an experiment in building modern housing for middle and lower class people.
The Nazi incursion into the Weissenhof: Arabs photomontaged into the streets of Stuttgart
Mies van der Rohr had experienced enough architectural success to realize that in order to transcend his humble beginnings from a working class family, he had to change his name. His new appellation had to be more suited to his elevated status. His real name was Maria Ludwig Michael Mies, a perfectly sensible designation, but avant-garde artists, such as Le Corbusier, often changed their names or gave themselves specific designations, so the stonemason’s son began to reinvent himself. Taking his mother’s last name, Rohr as his last name, he switched his original last name to his first name, Mies, giving the “e” an umlaut: ë, so the word would be pronounced “mee-ess.” The “van” and the “der” was pure Dutch and suggested some kind of vague nobility, reminiscent of the German “von,” adding an air of international distinction. And thus “Mies,” as he was commonly known, was born, as new as the architecture he designed. By the Twenties, Mies was a chancer, a comer in architectural circles, well known in Europe and in Germany. He was part of every significant organization in modern architecture, from the Deutscher Werkbund to the group of ten Berlin architects, known as The Ring, all dedicated to the promotion of the tenets of New Objectivity to architecture. The program, such as it was, for Neues Bauen was relatively simple–functionalism and straightforward matter of fact forms, determined by construction methods and technological advances. Hovering behind the scenes, off stage, was Adolf Loos (1870-1933) of Vienna, whose book, Ornament and Crime (1910), provided the manifesto for New Architecture, which would be stripped of ornament and decoration, and emphasize the unadorned “surface” of a geometrically formed block-like structure. But the road to Modernism was not as straightforward as the design itself.
Aerial View of Weissenhof
After the Great War, architecture in Germany was highly politicized, torn between progressive socialist parties that dreamed of utopian cities in the service of the working class and the more traditional contingent that wanted to honor historical precedents, i.e., middle-class domestic needs. With hindsight, the conceptual link between socialism and modernism could be juxtaposed by the Nazis to years of post-war class unrest and demonstrations in the streets. To the nervous bourgeois, the idea that the built environment could structure society was an alarming one and that perception would ultimately derail modernism in Nazi Germany. Take for example the Dächerkrieg (or Roof War) discussed in January 2017 by Jeff Reuben of Atlas Obscura, who wrote,
Sharp observers will notice something strange about the attractive residences lining Am Fischtal, a bucolic street in the Zehlendorf section of Berlin. On one side, the buildings have flat roofs, while on the other they are pitched: a situation that is less architectural happenstance than the result of a so-called “roof war,” waged in the Weimar Republic and which embodied many of the deeper conflicts that roiled Germany in the years before the Nazis came to power..The two sides met on Am Fischtal, which today survives as a literal and figurative monument to the Weimar Republic’s increasing political divide. The flat roof residences came first, part of a housing development built by a leftist housing cooperative between 1926 and 1932 known as Onkel Toms Hütte, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an unlikely moniker borrowed from a nearby tavern which was named after the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel. Across the street, GAGFAH, a housing cooperative supported by conservative white collar unions, built their response in 1928: a community called Fischtalgrund, which consists of 30 buildings with 120 housing units. The roofs, of course, were pitched.
Roofs at War
The Roof War roiled Berlin for four years, from 1924 when architect Bruno Taut, part of The Ring group, was hired and designed flat roofs, to the completion of the dueling dwellings in 1928. Today the rows of contending houses face each other across the street, co-existing in the peace of history. At the time, however, feelings ran too high to attribute the emotions of the opponents to their attitudes towards roofs–the roof was politicized and its slant or lack thereof symbolized a power struggle between left and right. But in the mid-1920s, the forces of the pitched roofs seemed to be fighting a rear-guard battle. Modern architecture appeared to be not just the style of the present but the approach that would also mold the future. The financial situation of the Weimar Republic was at last on a firm footing, America had come through with some aid thanks to the Dawes Plan, and municipalities, convinced of the need to build new urban housing for a new world, now had to means and the will to follow through. Enter Neues Bauen. At last, the new Germany could be built and, in 1927, with the most famous of the inter-war experiments, the city of Stuttgart would be crowned by the “village” (siedlung) of white buildings (weissenhof). The Weissenhofsiedlung was more than a village, it was an exhibition, a showcase for new building techniques, new technological advances in structure, and a strong statement about how people could live in a modern world.
Presiding over the Weissenhofsiedlung, Mies van der Rohe, who would later become the last head of the Bauhaus, was the vice-president of the sponsoring agent, the Deutscher Werkbund. Mies was the obvious choice to head the project. The proposed site was the top of a hill overlooking the city where a group of buildings would rise on a curved plateau according to the master plan configured by the director. Offending local architects of the somewhat provincial city, Mies appointed sixteen other architects, all modernists, true, but within that designation, he selected architects more or less purist about the rigors of modernism, with a span of generations. To his credit, Mies allowed each architect to design with freedom, stating, “In order to permit each one as much freedom as possible to execute his ideas, I have set neither guidelines nor given programmatic orientation,” as long as his rules of flat roofs and white as the color of all the buildings and, of course, no ornamentation, were followed. He also determined where each building would be sited, giving himself the place of pride–dead center and at the top of the hill–for his own apartment block. As a generous gesture, Mies gave the French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) first choice as to where his house would be placed. In his 2002 article, “Re-covering Mies van der Rohe’s Weeisenhof: The Ultimate Surface,” Mark Stankard noted that the architect designed according to the the concept of “rationality” and standardization that led to typification. Like all modernist architects of the period, the artists of the Weissenhof thought in terms of mass housing, where personal statements and non-rational shapes would be inappropriate for prefabricated and predetermined building materials. As Stankard pointed out, while Mies posited the need for Typisierung (the formation of a repeatable type), he allowed for “freedom of usage.” As he said in 1926, “The exterior shell of things, the crystallization of life processes remains standing..and exerts its influence long after its kernel has been hollowed out.” The distinction between inside and outside, the domestic and private and the public and exterior facing aspect of a building was one that Loos had written about at some length. The public face of the modernist building was a series of sharp-edged blocks, free of decoration, painted while and undisturbed by errant roofs, but the interior of these shells, the space Loos considered to be “female,” could be personalized by the owner. In his apartment block, Mies adopted another practice of Loos: the notion of the back of the home as facing a private garden, contrasting nature–private, facing inward–to culture–the unrelenting white wall, rising as a barrier, protecting the owners from the eyes on the street.
Mies van der Rohe. Apartment Building (1927)
The inversion of the Weissenhof, in all its innovation, was, in its time, a prime example of the “shock of the new,” a term popularized by art critic, Robert Hughes. The Great War had interrupted the development of modern architecture, which had been well underway before 1914. The idea of Machine Age architecture, or functionalism, was a credo that can be dated from the practice of Peter Behrens (1886-1940) and his apprentices, which included Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier. In his book The Master Builders: Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, historian Peter Blake explained that with his famous AEG factory building, Behrens ushered the modern era of architecture as function. As Blake noted, “Corbu and the others were driven to utilitarianism in building, because the doors to polite architecture were closed to them..The important thing to these men was the development of a new aesthetic language, and specifically, a language that could be used to deal with the problems of today. In utilitarian buildings and products, they found the aesthetic vocabulary–cubes, spheres, cylinders, cones, and so forth.” But for the early years of the twentieth century, the architecture of the Machine was more of a dream than a reality. As Blake stated, there were only two modern buildings in Germany when the War broke out. The first and the one that is still extant is the Fagus Factory (1911) by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and his partner, Walter Meyer, in Bonn. A factory with a curtain wall of glass, the shoe last factory, was an advance, in terms of modernity, upon Behrens’ Turbine Factory (1908). Sadly the curtain walled building Gropius designed for the Cologne exhibition of the Deutscher Werkbund was destroyed during the War, but its precedent loomed large in the architectural community.
The impact of Gropius upon the German architects was enormous, destroying the lingering of the influences of the exuberant modernism of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), who was far too fond of decoration. After the War, there was a pause in building as Germany recovered, gathered its collective soul and began to move forward. The German artists now had to permission and the financial opportunity to build Machine Age architecture. To the public, unaware of the architectural dialogue which had been thriving for a decade, the Weissenhof project would have been a revelation. The city of Stuttgart, ignoring its local traditionalists, decided to take a modern direction in its Die Wohnung (The Home) Exhibition of 1927. The apartment block of Mies loomed above the works of the other architects, presiding, as it were, over the “colony,” a group of buildings he regarded as “Medieval” in its clustering. The exterior of his horizontal building was uninterrupted, and Mies kept the horizontal ribbon of windows flat to the wall, denying the entryways any emphasis that might break the purity of the line of the flat white wall. In contrast to the unforgiving obdurate exterior, the interior of the building was free and undetermined. His “freedom of usage” could exist, because he used a steel frame for the first time to construct his apartment building, filling in the frame with masonry blocks, covering all these materials with white plaster.
Mies van der Rohe’s ribbon windows
Therefore, the steel structure carried the load, and there was no need for interior load bearing walls. Mies was able to open up the inside space and configure it as an open plan, free of obstructions. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the first to open up living spaces, eliminating the enclosed and specialized rooms beloved by Victorians. But Wright used fixed interior partitions, with placement decided by himself alone. Sensitive to the Art Nouveau concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, Wright designed the interior space, from stained glass windows to the furniture himself. Thinking of the blueprint as his blank canvas, Wright would often nail the chairs and tables to the floor. Mies gave up the total control of the private space and left decisions to the owners’ needs. Borrowing an idea from the Dutch Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), he installed movable partitions, allowing the resident to shape rooms and spaces as he or she needed. “As you know,” he said, “I intend to try out the most varied plans in this apartment house. For the time being, I am building only the outside and common walls, and inside each apartment only the two piers that support the ceiling. All the rest is to be as free as it possibly can be.” Although much of this pre-war work was still in the experimental stages, Mies had expressed a philosophy of Neues Wohnen or New Living. Because of the plumbing and wiring demands, only the bathroom and kitchen and elevators shaft were fixed on site. Although the other architects in the Weissenhof were tasked with installing furniture in their homes, Mies designed only two areas in his free plan, once again suggesting to the viewer the endless possibilities for furnishings that were personal choices. As Carsten Krohn noted, the apartment building was deceptively fragile, writing in Mies van der Rohe – The Built Work that “Without maintenance and renovation, the building would today be a ruin.” Plaster, rather than stucco, would always be a problem, white walls in a city experiencing pollution would be rarely clean, and, as was pointed out in the discussion on the homes of the Masters at the Bauhaus, the glazed walls let in cold air and the heat of the summer.
As soon as the Nazis assumed power in Germany, the thirty-three houses and sixty-three apartments were under threat and the innovative and significant work architects from Germany, France, Holland, Belgium and Austria barely escaped Hitler’s wrath. Writing in 1984 on the occasion of the project’s renovation, James M. Markham said, “In 1933, the year of the Nazi seizure of power, a counterdemonstration project of wood houses with gabled roofs was built nearby. The Nazis announced plans to raze the Weissenhof settlement and its creators slipped into the safety of exile in America and elsewhere.” In 1939, the city of Stuttgart sold the complex to the Nazi who planned to raze the structures and replace them with army barracks. Markham continued, “..the Luftwaffe established an antiaircraft battery on the strategically located hill. A military hospital for infectious diseases was also installed in a four- story apartment block designed by Mies van der Rohe. Allied bombing raids in 1945 destroyed about 40 percent of the settlement.” And the roof wars continued, even after World War II. The architects had intended the flat roofs to be used as gardens, intensifying the experience of terracing that was so consequential to the Weissenhof. However, as Markham pointed out in The New York Times, the inhabitants continued to have problems with the roof lines: “In the hungry postwar years, roaming bands plundered the settlement, stripping its wiring and removing its doors for firewood. As Germany began to rebuild, Everyman did finally settle in Weissenhof. The young West German state placed railroad and customs employees in its apartments. But some of them rebelled against the clean simplicities of the Bauhaus creations, putting pitched roofs on buildings of Behrens, Ludwig Hilbersheimer, and Hans Poelzig. Roof apartments were stuck on top of the double-family house designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret.”
During the exhibition in 1927, half a million visitors streamed into Stuttgart to see the novel housing complex. Today there is a handful of surviving buildings which have been restored and pilgrims still come and pay homage to the Weissenhofsiedlung.
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Walter Gropius, Junkerswerke, and Modern Architecture
Today the architecture of Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and his series of Bauhaus designed domestic dwellings for the Masters, the “Meisterhäuser,” at the art school are considered jewels in the crown of the modern built environment. But for the majority of their lives, these homes and the Bauhaus building itself existed in hostile territory. Less than ten years after the distinctive houses were completed in 1926, the Nazis closed the Dessau Bauhaus in 1932. The Nazis disapproved of modernism in the arts and favored a heavy-handed faux Neoclassicism in architecture, thus the white cubes of the seven pioneering buildings did not please the sensibilities of the followers of Hitler. The city of Dessau, now the owner of the famous Bauhaus building and the cluster of faculty housing, all designed by Gropius, rented the homes until 1939 when the Second World War began. But turning the masters’ unique modern white cubes over to unsympathetic tenants was not the end of the travails suffered by the concrete structures. The city subsequently sold the houses to the Junkers Works, a more careful and concerned owner, which had had a long and mutually satisfying union with the school. It was a former student, Marcel Breuer, who probably sought out Junkerswerke, which crafted metal shapes in steel. Inspired by curved bicycle handlebars, Breuer wanted to bend the base of his new chair from metal, foregoing straight wooden legs. If the proper industrial process could be created, his chair could cantilever and balance itself. In 1925 Breuer worked in the factory, tutored by Karl Körner, a locksmith, who taught him the craft of metalworking. His tubular steel chair, the Cassily, could be produced only by special bending machines, available at Junkers, and was the first of his many furniture designs utilizing curved metal.
By 1926, as a result of the partnership forged between Junkers and the Bauhaus, the school and the industrial manufacturer began a number of projects together, including a set of homes for the Bauhaus Masters. As part of his goal of fusing art with industry through modern design, Gropius arranged for the factory to install a series of what were termed new “thermotechnical” units in the new homes in order to model modern housing and modern living in an “organic” symbiosis. According to the Junkers factory website, the internal luxury items included wall ventilators, “gas appliances such as hot water flow-type calorifiers, gas stoves and gas ovens.” Such experimental conveniences, after the years of deprivation during the Great War, were from the future. The Bauhaus Masters’ Houses were, therefore, test houses, maintained by Junkers technicians, who not only made sure the modern equipment was functioning properly but also tested for technological performance. The association between Junkers and the Bauhaus extended to a rather odd building called the Pump Room or “house.” In Germany, a “pump house” or Trinkhalle is a refreshment stand, and as part of the general modernization of Dessau, a number of these stands were planned and constructed throughout the city. The Pump House with a Bauhaus connection was a modification of the wall built by Walter Gropius around his own residence. Although the austere white wall afforded the Gropius couple privacy, it also had the effect of blocking the view to an eighteenth-century estate built by the princes of Saxony with a Georgium, an English-style landscape garden, complete with fake Roman ruins. This cluster of elegant buildings, a guest house (Fremdenhaus), an Iconic temple (Monopteros) and the Flower House (Blumengartenhaus), all set in the lovely garden, were a strong contrast the white blocks designed by Gropius. His successor at the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe solved the problem of the blank white wall by inserting a window into the side on the corner of Ziebigker Strasse and Ebertallee, floating a roof over the opening for shading. By the simple means of breaking through the wall, a conceptual line of sight to the historical gartenriech was restored. Shortly after the Pump House was completed, the Nazis took over and the Bauhaus houses were sold to the Junkerswerke. Sadly, the only building in Dessau designed by Mies was demolished in 1970.
Mies van der Rohe. The Pump House (1932)
Junkers, headed by Dr. Hugo Junkers (1859-1935), was an aircraft and engineering works, specializing in the manufacture of steel and airplanes, thus immediately came under the control of the Nazis, who considered the staff to be full of communists and Jews. Junkers himself was arrested was exiled. He died in 1935, never knowing that his aircraft, bearing his name, would bomb Guernica two years later. According to the article, “Bauhaus, Brown Coal and Iron Giants,” Peter Marcuse, by 1932, the faculty and students had been driven from the Bauhaus in Dessau and retreated to their last stand in Berlin. Meanwhile, the Bauhaus building was turned into a girls’ school, where young women could study Kinder, Kirche und Küche, and then men moved in and the facility was transformed into a training center for Nazi officials. The school also provided offices and work space for Junkers personnel and their drafting operations. Even Albert Speer had a construction office on the premises. During the Second World War, Dessau lost three-fifths of its buildings to allied bombing and the masterwork of Gropius himself, the Bauhaus building, was badly damaged on March 7, 1945, right at the end of the War. As the headquarters for an important aircraft manufacturer, Junkers, the town was naturally targeted and almost was almost completely destroyed. In its ruined state, the site and what was left of the building was used as a camp, first for prisoners of war and then for refugees. After the War, ownership of eastern Germany and the town of Dessau was transferred to the Soviets, another regime that disliked anything European and avant-garde.
But the communist regime showed more respect for the idea of the Bauhaus than the Nazis who had their own artistic agenda. Immediately after the War, the Bauhaus archives were transferred to Berlin and a new building was commissioned to house the materials. The architect was none other than Walter Gropius. During 1946 to 1948, there were attempts to restore the building. However, unlike West Germany, East Germany did not have the resources to rebuild and it was not until 1961 that another restoration took place, followed by another phase in 1965. In 1974 the building became an official cultural monument, inspiring a yet another restoration in 1976. After the Wall came down, Germany was reunited, and the Bauhaus underwent its final and definitive restoration, a ten-year project, completed in 2002. The Masters’ Houses, being ancillary to the main building, did not have the iconic status of the school, but these houses, in their own way, were unique experiments in living. Collaborating with Junkers, Gropius was re-thinking what the modern home should be like and how modern people should inhabit it. He mused that “the organism of a house evolves from the course of events that have predated it. in a house it is the functions of living, sleeping, bathing, cooking, eating that inevitably give the whole design of the house its form… the design is not there for its own sake, it arises alone from the nature of the building, from the function it should fulfill.”
The forest-like environment for the Masters’ Houses
When the mayor of Dessau, Fritz Hesse, asked the Bauhaus to take residence in his industrial city, part of his promise was not only land for the school but also a site for faculty housing. The city provided Burgkühnauer Allee, quite close to the school itself, in a wooded and quiet area. In this tiny forest, Gropius designed a large free-standing home for himself and three double houses, paired and attached, for the Masters. The group of homes was built in a year, using mass produced materials, such as concrete blocks. Gropius was experimenting with the idea of prefabricated construction–not yet possible–with the post-war housing shortage in mind. The concept of the “large scale building set” can be best viewed in the masters’ homes, which were equal in size, but each structure was a variation on the basic cube, giving the cluster of modern architecture variation and rhythm, ruled by simplicity. As Gilbert Lupfer and Paul Sigel noted in their 2004 book, Gropius. 1883-1969. The Promoter of New Form, “Thus the Houses for the Bauhaus Masters served as a practical experiment with Gropius’s building block principle (Baukasten im Großen)..The building block principle was meant to allow, depending on the number and the needs of the inhabitants, for the assembly of different ‘machines for living.'” Gropius explained, “All six of these houses are the same but different in the impression they make. Simplification through multiplication means quicker, cheaper building.”
The Director’s Home of Walter Gropius
In the end, there were seven homes in all, but the home of the director had a few added features. As the home of the Director, the Gropius building was large, had a garage and rooms for servants’ quarters, all surrounded by a tall white wall. In the kitchen, there was, compliment of Junkerswerkes, a hot water pressure spray. Such a spray would be a standard feature in any home today, but in 1926, such an item would have been a novelty. The Bauhaus-designed furniture in this home included a sofa that opened up and converted to a bed. Next door to Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, his right-hand man, lived with his wife, the Bauhaus photographer Lucia Moholy. Lyonel Feininger and his wife and two children occupied the other half of the joined homes. The next duo was occupied by Georg Muche and Oskar Schlemmer and their families. Completing the triumvirate of Masters’ Houses, long time friends and close collaborators, Vassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee abutted one another. The Gropius designed buildings, based upon cubes, were simple, flat-roofed, white faced and marked only by the large black framed windows, touched with markings of bright primary colors. The equality of each duplex was guaranteed by simply rotating the design for the first segment and then building the second half at a ninety-degree angle.
Muche-Schlemmer House with an external restoration that retained internal changes done to the homes by subsequent owners
In northern Europe, large expanses of glass, which, at that time, could not be double-paned, would be quite cold. In the winter, these beautiful homes were uncomfortable and the open rooms needed to be warmed by some form of space heaters. Feininger used a coal stove, while Klee and Kandinsky demanded a refund for their heating bills from the city of Dessau. In the summer, the temperatures swung in the other direction and the sun streamed in through the glazed walls, baking the unfortunate inhabitants. These open spaces were the studios where the artists worked, with all the other rooms arranged around the central ateliers. There were even rooftop terraces where the artist could sunbathe in warm weather. The interiors of each home were different. Only Gropius and Moholy-Nagy used Bauhaus designed exclusively, and other Masters brought their own furniture with them. As lovely and as advanced in avant-garde modernist design, the Masters’ Houses were hard to maintain and, in their own way, were fragile, requiring constant upkeep. Although the homes were demanding of their residents, the artists, in turn, attempted to impose their will upon these experiments in modern living.
Klee and Kandinsky used their white-walled homes as blank canvases for the color experiments, painting their interior spaces in almost two hundred colors, an abandonment of the austerity preferred by Gropius that came to light only upon restoration. All of the homes used built-in closets, wardrobes, and cabinets, eliminating the need for all but the most basic furniture. Nevertheless, the Kandinsky home mixed the famous “Vassily chairs” with their own old-fashioned Russian furnishings. For all their exterior simplicity, the luxury of these houses was quite at odds with the Marxist sympathies of the inhabitants. Nevertheless, the original faculty and those who followed them, enjoyed living in these novel experiments in domestic living, but the coming of the Nazis and then the Second World War scattered the Masters, who would never return.
A photograph of the modified Masters’ Houses before restoration
The now hostile city of Dessau, hewing the Nazi line, instructed the new owner, Junkerswerke, to eradicate the “alien” architectural style from the structures, stating that “the outer form of these houses should now be changed so that the alien building forms are removed from the town’s appearance.” There is little indication that the leaders of the industry were interested in altering the homes, after all, Junkers himself was banished by the Nazis and the corporation had better things to concern themselves with. However, the occupants themselves organically altered the houses to suit their more middle class needs and bourgeois expectations. They bricked up the huge and drafty windows, threw up partition walls to enclose the open spaces, added chimneys, and, over time, the original cubes were swallowed up by modifications. And then came the bombings. The Gropius home was completely destroyed down to its foundation and the Moholy-Nagy section of the duplex next door was severely damaged and torn down. For years, no one was concerned about the lost work of a distinguished architect, and what was left of the complex was rented out and allowed to deteriorate. The Feininger home became a doctor’s office. Finally, after the Fall of the Wall, the architectural importance of the Masters’ Houses was recognized and restoration began in the early 1990s.
The Klee-Kandinsky Houses
As indicated by the cautious restorations of the Masters’ Houses, recovering the iconic exteriors while retaining interior modifications, the role of history and the meaning of the lost “original” becomes an exchange. The Bauhaus building and the homes of the Masters, as we see them now, are not the original buildings; they are replicas. Philosophical questions arise when considering how to respect the entire history of a building: does one restore/rebuild a replica or does one respect a past, no matter how checkered, and allow historical alterations to remain? The questions are really ones of authenticity versus honoring the original intent of the architect, which are actually, in this case, at odds with one another. To solve these genuinely unsolvable problems, the final restorations of the destroyed home for Gropius and the Moholy-Nagy section of the duplex were reconciled as “ghost houses” in 2014. As Connor Walker explains in Arch Daily, “Rather than restore the buildings to their original appearance, the renovation architects reconstructed the meisterhäuser to re-emphasize the spartan qualities that were championed by Bauhaus Modernists. In addition, the windows of both houses were covered in an opaque wash, giving them an ethereal appearance.” Described as “minimalist arrangement of geometric shapes” by Alyn Griffiths in Dezeen, the “ghosts” of the destroyed homes were reinterpreted by Bruno Fioretti Marquez. The result is a novel solution, resulting in a new building that is both material and immaterial, a memory and a reality, an homage and reconstruction, and, above all, a healing of architectural wounds.
Bruno Fioretti Marquez. Ghost of the Walter Gropius House (2914)
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
George Grosz as “Hanswurst”
Even thought Dada dissolved in Berlin and the Dada perpetrators went their separate ways, one of the former members, George Grosz (1893-1959) never lost his disgust for Germany and for the German people. His art and his autobiography indicate little joy or satisfaction in his post-war life. Grosz did not celebrate his good fortune at surviving the Great War intact and unharmed, instead, he railed against those who profited from going to war–the industrialists–and those who supported the drive to conflict–the clergy and the press–without considering the ramifications. Grosz turned his baleful eye towards to German people who had blindly stumbled into a disaster that destroyed their honor. A left-wing artists, he considered Germans ugly, fat and stupid, turning away from the very real social issues confronting the Weimar Republic and giving in to the decadent pleasures made possible by a relaxing of Wilhemine restrictions. The targets of George Grosz are the “ordinary Germans,” the average bourgeois man, who is more likely than not to be involved in some kind of nefarious business deal, and his female companions, usually the lowest of prostitutes. Both are carriers of corruption and are metaphors for the internal rot within the German heart.
Nowhere does his horror for the sights and scenes he witnessed on the streets of Berlin rise to the fore than in George Grosz’s masterwork, Ecce Homo. This scathing series of eighty-four prints in color and in black and white was published by Malik-Verlag in 1923. The press founded by Grosz and John Heartfield became the target for more than one lawsuit over the merciless art of Grosz, who, along with Heartfield were the two most single-minded and remorseless critics of the pretensions of the Weimar Republic. Ecce Homo left no pillar of German society untouched; in the eyes of Grosz all were guilty and all were implicated in the ugly war and its aftermath. From its earliest days, the Weimar Republic had grappled with revolutions, a political coup, economic upheaval, dissident complaints on the left and right, and was, therefore, short tempered when it came to disturbing the peace. And George Grosz was a deliberate disturber and a serial disturber. The prints had short descriptions–two or three words–indicating that Grosz was speaking to an audience of fellow Germans, probably Berliners, who would recognize his “types” of immoral humanity, as the people they passed on the streets. The title, Ecce Homo, suggested a Biblical seriousness to the collection of prints, with a reference to the Suffering Christ, dragged before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, beaten and whipped and publically humiliated, crowned with a circle of mocking thorns. Thus, the question is raised–who is the Christ that is referred to? It is known that the phrase “ecce homo” means “Behold, the man!” both words and a gesture from Pilate, who appealed to the mob baying for a death. It is unclear, however, what Pilate meant. Was he mocking the would-be god who suffered like a mortal human or was he pleading with the crowd to show some pity and some mercy towards a harmless misguided country boy who had come to the big city with outsized ideas? Historically speaking, it is unlikely such a drama took place, for the Roman Empire routinely crucified any subject who, in any way, threatened its power. The Empire ruled through terror and terror is not effective unless it is complete and sweeps up all in its path, from major political opposition to minor Jewish men claiming to be a “son of God.”
Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo: The Presentation of Christ (1498)
The meaning of Ecce Homo in the work of George Grosz was more than likely related, not to the Bible, but to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), whose autobiography was titled Ecce Homo. Neither Nietzsche nor Grosz takes the role of Pilate, and, under Nietzsche, for whom God is dead, the idea of “behold, the man” shifted from a man who is suffering to a man who disrupted the status quo. In section 25 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche wrote with his characteristic exaggerations and flourishes,
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God!”… “Whither is God?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers.”.. “ God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
Nietzsche and his nihilism inspired the Dada artists in Zurich and in Berlin to accept a wartime loss of faith and hope. But Nietzsche himself regarded the realization that God was dead, except in the minds of traditionalists, could be liberating. The individual had no purpose, no reason for being: he or she simply exists without teleology or direction. No longer living for a “greater good,” the person is both innocent and liberated, beholding to no values and owning no morals, except those that one chooses to accept or to create. In other words, the philosopher embraced life, a life freed from belief systems that had once constructed and constrained it. Nietzsche rejected all that was morbid or obsessed with death and suffering and embraced the spirit of joy or Dionysus, the emotional and the alternative to reason. According to Ray Furness in his introduction to Nietzsche’s three works, Twilight of the Idols with the Antichrist and Ecce Homo, Ecce Homo was written in three weeks in 1888. In effect, the philosopher is saying “look at me” “behold” and claims to be the fool whose carnivalesque literary antics disrupt the foundations of German culture and philosophical reason. Nietzsche is some kind of holy fool, who refuses to be a saint or someone who thoughtless goes along with the received wisdom and adds to the blinding of society to its true nature. He is an outsider, a jester, and the fool, suggesting that these performers and certain child-like figures are the truth tellers of society. There is an inversion in Nietzsche that harkens back to Ecce Homo, suggesting that the powerless have the power of revelation and that the powerful can never reveal and are, therefore, powerless.
When George Grosz decided to do a series of prints, he was not only taking advantage of modern mass media and the possibilities of wide distribution he was also following the tradition of printmaking that was quintessentially German. Borrowing from Durer and Schongauer and even from his immediate predecessors, the Expressionists from Dresden, Grosz found the medium of printmaking to be an answer to the religious images of the Renaissance artists and the hopeful hedonism of the young Die Brücke artists. In an interesting presentation for the Tate Museum in 2010, Christine Battersby wrote “The Sublime Object ‘Behold the Buffon:’ Dada, Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo and the Sublime.” The “buffoon” she referred to is a character from German theater, not the high or artistic theater but the Teutonic equivalent of vaudeville. This character was named “Hanswurst,” a low peasant character, a Medieval buffoon, named after a sausage. In her article, “Fools Festooned with Foods,” Henriette Kassay-Schuster wrote that Hanswurst was the counterpart to Pickelhering come from the carnival culture. The Sausage, freely eaten before Lent must give way to the Herring during the season of waiting and fasting. Thus sausage and herring were “typical carnival foods” and were on the “side of excess and pleasure.” Hanswurst possessed a “Bakhtinian grotesque body” and embodiment of the “temptations of the flesh.” “Hanswurst manifests in the emergent seventeenth-century professional German theater as a specific German adaptation of Italian performance traditions, channeled through the theater style of the professional commedia dell’arte ensembles.” As Kassay-Schuster pointed out in the 2016 book, Food and Theatre on the World Stage, “Hanswurst” is a combination of a first name and a cheap and common food, and that “obscenities (both verbal and physical), acrobatics, physical comedy, and musical interludes” were the key ingredients that made improvisational comedy of this character so popular in presenting “man as animal.”
By the eighteenth century, “Hanswurst” “gained a very specific profile..As he is largely known today, in his brightly colored peasant clothing consisting of the trademark baggy yellow trousers, red suspenders, red jacket, and pointy green hat, offset by a white ruff, a broad leather belt, and the signature wooden sword.” It was the Austrian performers who pioneered the character and passed the buffoon on to the German culture, which also had a fifteenth-century folk tradition of the “Hanswurst” caricature that made the Austrian theatrical creation familiar and easy to assimilate. One hundred years later, Nietzsche wrote in Ecce Homo: “I have a terrible fear that one day I will be pronounced holy. I do not want to be a holy man; sooner even a buffoon (Hanswurst).–Perhaps I am a buffoon.” In his book, No Hamlets: German Shakespeare from Friedrich Nietzsche to Carl Schmitt, Andreas Höfele suggested that the buffoon is a role, played by both Hamlet and Nietzsche as a sort of disguise, concealing their ultimate goals. Hanswurst and suffering are combined with cynicism. Höfele noted that Nietzsche wrote that Ecce Homo was a kind of “cynicism that will make history.”
George Grosz. “In Memory of Richard Wagner.” Ecce Homo (1923)
As Battersby noted, “Hanswurst was a licensed fool who spoke ironically and openly about contemporary affairs.” George Grosz, she stated, “positions himself as a Hanswurst and a counter to the wounded Christ.” In the series of prints, Grosz referred directly to Nietzsche twice, in the Plate “Dämmerung” (Twilight) and to their shared hatred of Wagnerian nationalism and German militarism in the Plate “In Memory of Richard Wagner.” Battersby called “Grosz’s portfolio” “a vicious satire on Germany society, German militarism, and the hypocrisy (especially the sexually driven duplicity) that was acted out on the city streets of Berlin during these years.” She quoted Grosz himself as saying, “All moral codes were abandoned.” Towards the end of her article, which is reprinted as a condensation on the website of the Tate Museum, Battersby remarked that Grosz did not share the affirmation of life that enlivened Nietzsche and his exuberant prose. Instead when he viewed the people of the streets and their public lives, Grosz asked, “What do I see?…only unkempt, fat, deformed, incredibly ugly men and (above all) women, degenerate creatures (although a fat, red, plump, lazy man is here considered to be a ‘stately gentleman’), with bad juices (from beer) and hips that are too fat and short…”
George Grosz. “Dämmerung” (Twilight) Ecce Homo (1923)
Grosz was making art at a very different time in German life–after a humiliating defeat. But the state of German society was far worse than a mere military defeat. Also defeated, as I pointed out in earlier posts, was German Kultur, their sense of identity, of being special, of having a mission born of ethnic superiority. Kultur was discredited and lay in ruins and ashes, like the battlefields where it died. Left without moral and ethnic guides, the Germans acted out, abandoning, as Grosz observed, their Kultur. The 1972 film, Cabaret, based upon Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (Goodbye to Berlin and Mr. Norris Changes Trains) (1945), the main character, Sally Bowles, an American expatriate adrift in Berlin, sang, “Life is a cabaret, my friend, life is a cabaret.” The director and choreographer, Bob Fosse, studied George Grosz and Otto Dix for their iconic images, raided their art and inserted their portraits and their colors into the scenes in the “Kit Kat Klub,” surely a play on KKK. The cabaret is the theatrical version of the carnival, a season in the year when society is given permission to relax and give free rein to their deviant impulses. Those days are a period of inversion: the high are brought low through satire and the low are elevated as the fools and the jesters who are given official and customary permission to speak out about the injustices in society and to point out the faults of the rulers. One of the great scenes in Cabaret is a spontaneous gesture from Joel Gray, the Oscar-winning “Master of Ceremonies,” who was referring a female mud-wrestling contest at the cabaret. The actor dipped into the mud and fittingly swiped his upper lip with mud, mocking Hitler’s mustache, a gesture allowed, briefly, at the lawless domain of the cabaret, the carnival. It is no accident that Adolf Hitler swept through Berlin with a fascistic and authoritarian broom, wiping away all of the establishments where the carnival was in full swing.
But in 1923, Ecce Homo is an illustrated guide to what was an inverted social system, where the war profiteer and the prostitute, the immoral survivors climbed triumphantly from the wreckage. Grosz depicted himself on the cover, suggestively turning his fedora into the hat of the holy fool or the buffoon “Hanswurst’s “pointy green hat.” In a color print featuring Grosz as the disgusted observer, the green is made clear. From his vantage point as the Dada artist who recoiled from his fellow Germans, George Grosz paradoxically produced the definitive group portrait of the Weimar Republic. As he himself wrote of the Republic, “All this had to end with an awful crash. It was a completely negative world, with gaily colored froth on top that many people mistook for the true, the happy Germany before the eruption of the new barbarism. Foreigners who visited us at that time were easily fooled by the apparent light-hearted, whirring fun on the surface, by the nightlife and the so-called freedom and flowering of the arts. But that was really nothing more than froth. Right under that short-lived, lively surface of the shimmering swamp were fratricide and general discord, and regiments were being formed for the final reckoning. Germany seemed to be splitting into two parts that hated each other, as in the saga of the Nibelungs. And we knew all that; or at least we had forebodings.”
The Weimar Republic dragged Grosz into court, accusing him of defaming the German military and of distributing pornography. Although certain plates were destroyed, Grosz and Malik Verlag were eventually acquitted. By 1932, an ascendant Hitler and the Nazis had already taken notice of the acerbic qualities of the artist and, being an excellent observer of his fellow human beings, George Grosz took his family and they all left for America, where he would be teaching at the Art Students’ League in New York City. Grosz would not return to his native Germany until 1959, where he died five weeks later.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
The Likeness as Blank Parody
Portraiture had its greatest days in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries–think of Thomas Gainsborough’s proud aristocrats and of Thomas Romney’s posed nobility–consider the magnificent likenesses by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, whose female sitters wore the most stylish gowns of their time–recall the causal bravura brushwork of John Singer Sargent uplifting the nouveau riche into mortality. One might even consider the merits of a photographic likeness, which, when well done, could be iconic for the subject. But what all these examples have in common is the goal of establishing a place in society. Portraiture was always a joint project, between the artist and the client, in which the pair collaborated on a project of self-fashioning. There was no reason why modern portraiture could not have continued in this vein during the early decades of the twentieth century. In Paris, Tamara de Lempicka, one of the great portrait artists of the century, gave new identities to the displaced aristocrats set adrift by the Great War, living precariously in France. But, in Germany, the question of, indeed, the very need for portraits was in question. After a war which was lost, the nation became a Republic and the long-suppressed demand for socialism emerged and the client base for traditional portraiture, the ruling class, was damaged by defeat and shame. And yet, it was during the Weimar Republic that modern portraiture emerged, shorn of its traditional raison d’être.
Tamara de Lempicka. Portrait Of S.A.I. Grand Duke Gavriil Kostantinovic (1927)
In one of those odd coincidences that remind one of the futility of war, at the Battle of the Somme, there was a gathering of luminous minds and talents, albeit on the opposite sides of no-man’s land. English writers, Siegfried Sassoon, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein faced the German artist, Otto Dix (1891–1969). Another day and another time, these soldiers would have been friends. Dix spent almost ten years after the Great War purging his system of his memories, of his suffering as a soldier while expressing his sympathies towards his fellow veterans. He evolved from the brave patriot who had served his nation honorably to an artist of this new and novel post-war period. The last great painting of his recovery period was Gross Stadt (Metropolis) of 1928 in which Dix shows the Weimar Republic in all of its dubious glories. The work is a triptych, mocking an ecclesiastical altarpiece, which used to reveal religious truths to the illiterate. The truth of Gross Stadt is that life has moved on, leaving the war and its casualties aside. On the left and right panels, the war wounded, still not cared for a decade later, still wearing their uniforms, are begging in the streets. But dogs bark and the crowds pass on with distaste and indifference. The central panel is full of the full-blown cultural explosion that enlivened the dark days of the Republic. One could get lost in the pleasures of a jazz band from America and dance to the music, mingling with an exotic cast of characters. Despite the gravity of his paintings, Dix himself loved to go dancing with his wife and the two were so good with the modern dances that they toyed with the idea of becoming professionals. Clearly, the painting as a whole is an indictment of a careless society which has decided who to throw away–honorable soldiers–and who to celebrate–sexual adventurers and hedonists. The “cast of characters” referred to earlier provide a clue to the future direction of Dix: his self-imposed mission of portraying the new people populating the Weimar Republic.
Otto Dix. Metropolis (1927-28)
In his review of Peter Gay’s seminal book Weimar Culture. The Outsider and Insider, Walter Laquer wrote, “There was no place like Berlin in the 1920’s. The capital of the modern movement in literature and the arts, pioneering in the cinema and theater, in social studies and psychoanalysis, it was the city of “The Threepenny Opera” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the cradle of the youth movement and the haven of unheard-of sexual freedom. The Mecca of a whole generation of Isherwoods, it has entered history as the center of a new Periclean age.” As Laquer noted in his 1968 article “Berlin, Brecht, Bauhaus and a Whole Generation of Isherwoods,” the achievements of the culture was not appreciated by the “ordinary” Germans. “The advocates and the enthusiastic followers of this avant-garde movement came from a small unrepresentative layer of German society; left-wing or liberal, largely Jewish, it was concentrated in Berlin and a few other big cities. It had no popular success at the time; in the list of contemporary best sellers one looks in vain for the famous names of the twenties..” In a memorable sentence opening his book, Peter Gay described the Republic in terms of “Its tormented brief life with its memorable artifacts, and its tragic death–part murder, part wasting sickness, part suicide–have left their imprint on men’s minds, often vague perhaps, but always splendid.” Speaking of the remarkable achievements of this post-war wounded world, Gay stated, “But it was a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano.”
In other words, the outstanding individuals of the Republic, the artists and writers, who fabricated the post-war society, were new people, who, in earlier years, would have been marginalized and on the fringes or even suppressed and locked away in a closet. With non-traditional ethnicities and origins, these strong-minded highly individualistic Berliners came from the middle class where a nice photograph would serve as a family portrait. Otto Dix seemed to have decided to update portraiture, pulling the practice away from gentle flattery and aggrandizement and pushing the exercise towards the period proclivity for “New Objectivity.” The meaning of this umbrella phrase which covers unrelated but like-mind artists brought together in a 1925 exhibition in Mannheim. The director of the Kunsthall, Gustav F. Hartlaub, coined the term “Neue Sachlichkeit” to describe what he saw as a tendency towards a new modern realism that stressed objectivity. But Felix Roh found a term he thought better fit the disconcerting loss of the familiar when ordinary objects were subjected to prolonged scrutiny: “magic realism.” The term, then, was a curator’s creation, designed more to provide an alternative to Expressionism and to hopefully to call attention to a new movement than an attempt to describe a new era or a new way of thinking. Since then art historians have struggled with the translation and its meaning, and a long list of possibilities unfolded. In her book, All Consuming: The Tiller-Effect and the Aesthetics of Americanization in Weimar Photography 1923-1933, Lisa Jaye Young provided some of the scholarship on this topic, with descriptions of “function,” “thingness,” “practical,” “straightforward,” “conceptual rationalism” or “impartial.” In 1927, George Waldemar linked the movement to a particular kind of modernism: “The Neue Sachlichkeit is Americanism, the cult of the objective, the hard fact, the predilection for functional work, professional, conscientiousness, and usefulness.” A few years later, Fritz Schamlenbach, a contemporary of Hartlaub, insisted that the curator was referring to a “mental attitude.”
Dix was a native of the old Baroque of Dresden, where he spent most of his artistic life. Many of his portraits were of the citizens who were his friends and colleagues. But the artist also went to Berlin and lived there from 1925 and 1927 in the cultural capital of the Weimar Republic. How could he not? It was Berlin, not Dresden, that defined the period. In the exhibition catalog, Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s, Sabine Rewald noted that Dix came to Berlin to paint the Weimar Republic as its people. Upon seeing the journalist Sylvia von Harden “when she left the Fomanisches Café, Berlin’s foremost literary hangout, one night in 1926.” “I must paint you,” he shouted because she “represented their era.” Von Harden, a woman, a lesbian and a journalist, a rather aggressive profession but perfect of the New Woman (with a new name), wrote of the encounter she had with the artist who made her famous in 1959, while she was living in England. Dix was fascinated with what Von Harden described as her “dull eyes, ornately adorned earlobes, long nose, thin mouth, long hands, short legs, and large feet..” In her oddities, Sylvia von Harden represented the Neue Frau simply because, as her monocle implied, she made her way in a world hostile to her through the power of her will and her intelligence. Many Germans disapproved of the New Woman, newly liberated after the War. Already emboldened by wartime work, these women began to push into mainstream society, leaving home and all of its domestic comforts behind and granting herself freedom from marriage by using birth control. Crossing her legs like a man, asserting herself in a red-checked dress, von Harden sports an Eton cropped hair cut (bubikopf) and flaunts her large and handsome hands, one of which is wearing a handsome ruby ring and holds a cigarette. She smokes, she drinks and she hangs out at cafés, wears hard red lipstick, accented by her dress the interior of her cigarette case and the corner walls of the bar. The only relief from the sea of red is the white marble table top and the yellow box of matches. Von Harden’s hose are rolled above the knees, just above her skirt, and would be invisible when she stood up, but Dix reveals her well-groomed and well-dressed knees, with a glimpse of a stocking.
Otto Dix. Sylvia von Harden (1926)
Although this is the most famous portrait that Dix made in his efforts to depict the times in which he lived, von Harden is unique in that she is the only respectable New Woman he painted. More often than not, for Dix, the New Woman inhabits the world’s oldest profession, prostitution. These are the women that fascinate Dix, who, like an early twentieth century Toulouse-Lautrec, must have spent a great deal of time in houses of ill repute. The viewer could be excused for concluding that, for Otto Dix, the New Woman was the prostitute, however, with the exception of his wife, all of the women studied by the artist were, by definition, on the margins and the fringes. In a society that regarded women suspiciously, the line that separated von Harden from prostitutes was a thin one. A professional woman, such as von Harden, were perceived as threats, looked up with resentment, as sources of destabilization. In a country where millions of men died, women filled one-third of the jobs in Germany: she was working, he was dead, she was taking a job that “belonged” to the now absent male. But as Dix recognized, these women were victims of the War as well as the men who would never come home or never recover. Many of these women were prostitutes, walking the streets freely and with great visibility because they had no male protector, no father, no brother, no husband. Fresh out of domesticity, forced on their own devices, without sufficient education to own a livelihood, women were soliciting. Had their lives gone the way they planned, these women would have never become prostitutes. It is with these women that Dix ventured into another phase of portraiture, group portraits, but his series of paintings of women who had fallen on hard times becomes an accumulation that coalesced into a critical mass.
Today Otto Dix’s Three Prostitutes (Drei Dirnen auf der Strasse) (1925) is part of a private collection and rarely on public view. In 2014 the Courtauld Institute of Art posted a short article “The Neue Frau and Fashion in Otto Dix’s Three Prostitutes (1925)”, quoting the distrust with which women were viewed in the Weimar Republic:
Thomas Wehrling, a Weimar cultural critic. His essay ‘Berlin is Becoming a Whore,’ first published in Das Tage-Buch in 1920, explicitly aligns women’s interest in fashion and entertainment with moral debasement: “A generation of females has grown up that has nothing but the merchandising of their physical charms in mind. They sit in the parlors, of which there are a dozen new ones every week; they go to the cinema in the evenings, wear skirts that end above the knees, buy Elegant World and the film magazines…The display windows in the delicatessens are filled for these females; they buy furs and shoes at the most-extravagant prices and stream in herds down the Kurfurstendamm on Sunday mornings.”
Otto Dix. Three Prostitutes (1925)
It has been estimated that, after the War, Berlin had at least twenty thousand female prostitutes, who were a common sight. A contemporary publication put the figure at one hundred thousand, possibly an exaggeration born of the sudden openness with which the women plied their trade. As can be seen in Metropolis, Dix portrayed Berlin as a site of prostitution. Like the wounded and crippled soldiers, the women were the visible signs of the cost of War, and their visible blandishments towards their customers, their blatant immorality all signifiers of a society in shreds. It seemed as if everything was for sale and the “RM” inscribed on the shop window which frames the women, like a splendid portrait, indicated the 1924 introduction of the Reich Mark as the new currency for the Republic. The issuing of a new currency resulted in a re-evaluation of the value of money, and investors and those with savings accounts lost money. The hanging female leg clad in a green high heel shoe is hard to decode but its presence in a shop window almost certainly stressed the theme of commodification, condemning the streets as sites of exchange of flesh. Barbara Hales wrote an interesting article “Blond Satan: Weimar Constructions of the Criminal Femme Fatale” in which she related the way in which the female, both the middle-class shopper (the respectable woman) and the lower class commodity (the prostitute) were both representatives of the Americanized consumer society. “The German press often referred to Berlin as a whore..Berlin as sensual metropolis was a dangerous space where crime and death were associated with the prostitute. It was also a space in which money transactions, political struggles, industrial development, and perceived sexual perversions tore at the fabric of traditional bourgeois German society. The prostitute’s body represented this excess and chaos..” The Glitter and Doom catalog essay on the painting noted that many women dressed in an apparently average fashion in order to avoid being conspicuous but the prostitutes carried and wore recognizable items as codes, conveying specialties and services to their alert customers.
With cheerful vulgarity, Dix seized upon these and other telltale details. The prostitute on the right clutches a large, red phallus like umbrella handle that points to the vulva-shaped ornament on her green hat. Her emaciated colleague in the center trails a long transparent red widow’s veil, an accessory that had become a popular trademark of her profession during World War I, grasps a matching red pocketbook, and cups her hand provocatively on her hip, causing one of the straps of her chemise to slip off her shoulder. The older woman holding a tiny, ugly dog on the left has just passed hem; her disapproving smirk still distorts her sharp features. She is identified as a prostitute by little except her red leather gloves, which perhaps signal some special service.
The portraits by Dix of women have all the signs of a man observing women with fear and loathing, a gaze of the man who is both socially powerful and sexually intimidated. According to all accounts, he was also a man who loved his wife who encouraged his career, despite the controversial topics. If we put Dix in his own cultural context, his portraiture is typical of the period. In Germany, the 1920s was a golden age of portrait painting, as many artists, such as Christian Schad, sought to understand modern life in Europe through studies of those who inhabited the most advanced elements of society. None of the portrait painters of the Weimar period attempted to beautify their subjects. In keeping with the sobriquet “objective,” in all its many meanings, Dix was merciless. In some cases, it is possible to compare contemporary photographs of his subjects with his portraits. Working in tandem the same time as Dix, photographer August Sander also found Sylvia von Harden as an interesting representative of modern Germany. Like Dix, Sander focused on intriguing individuals, mostly of the artistic class, and, like Dix, Sander used the group approach to the lower classes.
August Sander. Sylvia von Harden (1920s)
Dix exaggerated the journalist as a character, a player in the theater that was the Weimar Republic, but, at the same time, as with his prostitutes, he captured the mood and feel of uncertain and disruptive times.Sander makes von Harden seem far less noticeable and far more assimilated into society, calling attention to the many shades and moods of “objectivity” as a mode of expression and examination and as a means of cataloging and classifying the people of Germany. In 1927, Dix was offered a job at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden and he returned home, ending his Berlin adventures. Out of an apparently simple genre, portraiture, a number of categories developed in the Weimar Republic. In the next post, the artist George Grosz explored the idea of portraiture as a study of type and as an expression of hate and disgust.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF INFORMATION
The PhotoEssay in the Weimar Republic
In 1919 Austrian artist Raoul Haussmann (1886-1971) found an image in the Berlin Illustrated News (Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung), a seemingly innocuous photographic portrait of the defense minister (Reichswehrminister) of the newly formed Weimar Republic, Gustav Noske. The Noske photograph, a man in a suit seated in an ordinary chair, became the placeholder for Haussmann’s Dada interventions. The head was removed and replaced with an assemblage of machine parts and the torso, the shirt front, was cut away and replaced by an anatomical illustration of the human lungs, covered in brachial tubes circulating air. Noske, himself, was a particularly unsavory character, certainly deserved the dismemberment. On the surface, he was ordinary enough, a man who could vanish into a crowd, anonymous. The jowls of Noske were drooping, his wavy hairline receding, his uninteresting face distinguished by a small short mustache, like the one Hitler grew, and a pair of round spectacles. In other words, his was a face tailor-made for the Dada artist to photomontage into mechanical oblivion.
Gustav Noske (1868-1946)
But Noske was also an excellent target for Haussmann who, like his colleagues was left wing and sympathetic to the causes of socialism and communism. Noske was a member of the Social Democratic Party, the party in power, and he protected the newly formed Republic from an outbreak of rebellions in January of 1919. This month, barely two months after the Armistice was signed was one of unrest, food shortages, deflating currency, lack of food and fuel, and a lively two-day meeting of the Communist Party of Germany ended. But the match that lit the streets on fire was the refusal of the Berlin police chief to resign. His supporters sprang to his defense and the Spartacist Group, rose up to oust the recalcitrant leader of the police. Arising against the government like Spartacus led the slave revolt, battling the Roman Empire, the Spartacist movement, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, was a workers’ party, dedicated to installing a Russian style revolution in Germany. Starting on January 5th, Bloody Week gravely threatening the future of the Republic and events spiraled out of control. The revolutionaries could not agree as to what to do next, and the government called for volunteer army veterans to defend it. The President of the Republic, Friedrich Ebert, ordered the revolt to be put down and Noske was able to organize a paramilitary right-wing organization called the Freikorps, more soldiers, to quell the unrest in the streets. It is important to note that the Army itself never surrendered, only the German government signed the relevant documents, and, as a result, the military was no friend to the government. In fact, there were mutinies at the sea ports, and sailors and soldiers were a free-ranging danger that also needed to be dealt with. However, the Freikorps was eager and willing to fight for whatever cause or reason that gave it the opportunity to display aggression, and it went about its business with efficient brutality.
Raoul Haussman. Self-Portrait of the Dadasoph (1920)
The leader of the Freikorps was none other than Gustav Noske. Noske installed searchlights and swept the streets of Berlin at night, searching out anyone violating his curfew. Armed with military equipment, field guns, howitzers, machine guns, hand grenades, and trench mortars, the Freikorps retook the buildings seized by the Spartacists and their worker allies, mowed down street demonstrators, ending the Week with the blood that gave the days of rage their definitive name. Noske gave his demobilized “soldiers” equipment for hand-to-hand fighting and positioned his regiments to turn machine guns the protesters on Linden Boulevard. For a left wing inclined artist, such as Haussmann, the defense minister was a particularly unpleasant character–willing to deploy thugs to quash a peoples’ rebellion. By January 13th, the Spartacists and their leaders are in hiding. But the Freikorps tracked down Liebknecht and Luxemburg and dragged them back to the authorities. Somehow they were both murdered. The body of Liebknecht was “delivered” to the morgue with bullet holes in is forehead, and, five months later, the body of Luxemburg surfaced from the Landwehr Canal, where it had been dumped. On the 24th, a public funeral was held for the leaders and the nearly forty other members of the Group. The government moved to Weimar, out of reach of any further uprisings. This horrible ending to a doomed uprising would not be forgotten, either by militant nationalists, like the Freikorps, which would soon be replaced by the Nazis, or the vanquished, the German Communists. The days of Noske were numbered. After another uprising a year later in March of 1920, the Kapp Putsch, the defense minister was removed from power.
George Grosz. In Memory of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (1919)
In the midst of street protests, the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung or BIZ, as it was known, continued to publish, just as it had since 1892. The publication was the first to inform its readers of current events, not through words, but through pictures, creating the photo-essay. The photo-essay became the standard means of conveying the news to the general public which might want an easier and more legible way to keep up with events, without plowing through rows of gray print, marching up and down tall newspaper pages. The layout was unique for the time, combining photographs and a text which explained the images, foregrounding the picture and its entertainment value over an in-depth study of current events. The editor during the 1920s, Kurt Korff, stated that “Life has become more hectic and the individual has become less prepared to peruse a newspaper in leisurely reflection. Accordingly, it has become necessary to find a keener and more succinct form of pictorial representation that has an effect on readers even if they just skim through the pages. The public has become more and more used to taking in world events through pictures rather than words.”
Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung layout
BIZ remained apolitical, a wise course during the Weimar Republic, but its appearance of normal times in the midst of political and quasi-military demonstrations laid it open to critique. The power of these periodicals–and by the 1920s most of the large German cities had an illustrated news publication during the Weimar Republic–was enormous. The illustrated news outlets were accessible and omnipresent and read by everyone in Germany. This media proved to be a bonanza for German photographers who suddenly had an outlet for work as photojournalists. In the late twenties, Erich Salomon concealed his Ermanox and photographed diplomats conferring and trials deliberating. Felix Man showed a typical day in the life of an up and coming dictator, Benito Mussolini. In his book, The Photography of Crisis: The Photo Essays of Weimar Germany, Daniel H. Magilow noted that the combination of photos and text was not necessarily new in the 1920s but these publications “used photographs in new ways–in novel essayistic forms that did more than just illustrate the text. As sites of political debate changed, so too did the forms in which those struggles unfolded.” The photo essay was, Magilow asserted, characterized by “the sequencing or arrangements of photographs to tell stories, make arguments, communicate ideas, elicit narratives, evoke allegories, and persuade listeners to accept new ways of seeing and thinking had accompanied the medium since its origins in the early nineteenth century.” The photo-essay took a novelistic approach, and, in doing so, assumed a power over the story and over the images, turning the photographs from unique images to “film stills” in the service of the words. Like a mini-novel or short story, the photo essays followed a traditional structure of beginning, middle, and end, or beginning, crisis, and resolution. Life does not wrap itself up in such a neat and convenient fashion and the dramatic format, driven by the need to entertain the reader and to retain her attention could shape the “news” in profound ways.
Raoul Haussmann. Dada Siegt (1920)
This new power for the mass media meant that, for the Dada artists who used photomontage, the illustrated news magazines were ripe targets. The carefully non-political stance during the Weimar Republic maintained by the publications would have been difficult, perhaps shifting the slant, or the kind of stories published, towards the conventional or status quo outcome, while skipping over the unsavory aspects of a Republic under siege by crosswinds. That said, the Dada artists and the illustrated news magazines shared something in common: they both lived in the present, or a mental and cultural phenomenon called “presentism” by Maria Stavrinaki in her book, Dada Presentism: An Essay on Art and History. She quoted Raoul Haussmann saying, “The Dada person recognizes no past which might tie him down. He is held up by the living present, by his existence.” Being published daily, the news magazine, such as BIZ, had to make the most of the present, today. The people of Germany were also forced to live in the present: the past was one one of shame and defeat, the present was unpleasant and uncertain, and the future seemed grim. There was nothing to look back to and little reason to ahead into the future. There was only the present. The Dada artists, reveling in the moment, lacking any interest in making “universal” art or art that would appeal to the ages, pounced upon the pages of BIZ with their scissors and razor blades. Tearing into the neatly arranged layouts, disrupting the flow of the story, removing characters from the novel, excising certain words and phrases, the Dada artists, especially the leading photomontage engineers, Hannah Höch and Raoul Haussmann, dismembered the plot lines as succinctly as a surgeon would carve into a body.
Hannah Höch. Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1920)
Dada collages or photomontages are usually assumed to be meaningless or random, but, if as Stavrinaki stated, they are evidence of “presentism” then each melange has a meaning or multiple meanings. True, unlike its arch enemy, the photo-essay, the photomontage has no center or unity or organization, but its copious surplus does not indicate that absence of meaning. Those scholars, who have painstakingly investigated the images used and the words cut out, have uncovered meanings, plural. Hannah Höch, in a neat twist, actually worked for the Ullstein Press, a publishing empire that owned BIZ, and collected photographs from her employer, using them for her photomontages. In The Visual Arts in Germany 1890-1937: Utopia and Despair, Shearer West wrote that “Cut with the Kitchen Knife is replete with references to both Wilhelmine Society and Weimar culture, and it includes hundreds of photographs carefully juxtaposed for ironic or satirical effect. To make her satire most effective, Höch included mechanical illustrations, architecture, words cut out from newspapers, animals and photographs of over 50 individuals, many of them recognizable. The odd title of the work outlines its agenda. Höch chose the image of a “kitchen knife” as a way of giving herself, as a woman, the power to expose the male-dominated society of Weimar Germany. She metaphorically used a domestic implement to cut open the ‘beer belly culture’ of Weimar. Beer, both a German drink and an integral part of male society, was chosen as a way of emphasizing the bloated and heavy quality of German militarism; the word ‘culture’ (Kultur) is used in its fullest sense to indicate the society’s whole artistic, political, and educational profile.” West gave a partial list of what was a cast of thousands, divided into “Dada” and “anti-Dada” sections that included Ebert, Hindenberg, Noske, Wilhelm II, Crown Prince William of Prussia, and Haussmann, Grosz, Baader Herzfelde, and herself, also bringing in Marx and Lenin.
Vast, on its own terms, this impressive photomontage dwarfed those of her male counterparts, but its debut in 1920 at the Dada Messe in Berlin was its last appearance for decades. Höch, in her own time, was not considered significant to the movement (she was a woman) and had so little importance in the mind of Richard Huelsenbeck (1892-1974) that he failed to include her in his book on Dada. He declared Dada in Berlin to be “dead” in 1920, and Höch drifted away from the non-movement. Cut with the Kitchen Knife, over-sized and fragile, was kept in her studio, while she showed more up to date photo-collages, in other words, their content was timely and contemporary to the exhibition in question. For her, Cut with the Kitchen Knife was not of the “present.” In Objects as History in Twentieth-century German Art: Beckmann to Beuys, Peter Chametzky wrote of all the exhibitions in which she participated. She sent the photomontage, Cut with the Kitchen Knife, to none of them. As Chametzky said, “Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada’s close association with Berlin Dada may have made Höch see it as dated.” By 1961, Chametzky reported, after the photomontage was purchased by the Berlin National Gallery, “she feared people would not spend enough time looking at it or know enough about Berlin in 1919-20 and Berlin Dada’s mission to appreciate its complex references and technique.” It seems clear that the Dada montages were making deliberate political statements about the now, and that their destructive techniques–cutting, disrupting, destroying continuity and flow–were deliberate counter-measures, designed to undercut their sources, the illustrated mass media. As revolutionaries, the Berlin Dada attacked the present, tearing its smug stories into pieces and re-presenting the carefully chosen images and selected words in chaotic anti-compositions without centers. If we accept Richard Huelsenbeck’s claim in his 1920 book, The History of Dadaism, that the movement ended with his book, then Dada in Berlin was part of one of the worst years in the history of Weimar Republic. The photomontages were, in their own way, a form of “news,” always new, always pertinent, but never laid out in easy linear narratives. Parasitic upon the enemy host, illustrated news, the Berlin photomontages robbed photo essays of their claims to truth and exposed the existing turmoil of the real world by a strategy of invade and disarrange.
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
AFTER THE GREAT WAR
John Heartfield: The Social Critic
One might ask, if there was a Third Reich, when were the first two Reichs and where does the Weimar Republic fit in? It’s an interesting question because in answering it, one comes to realize that the Republic is an odd, and perhaps, doomed interval, wedged in between centuries of absolutist regimes. The First Reich, which was never called the “First Reich,” only the Reich or the kingdom, was the revived Holy Roman Empire, brought back to life first by Charlemagne in 800, according to some. But other historians date the beginning of the First Reich by Otto I. By the middle of the tenth century, Otto had managed to bring much of northern Europe under his control. His military might and territorial domination meant that Otto was the temporal equal to Pope John XII, who needed the King’s protection. In return for the mutually beneficial partnership, the Pope crowned Otto the new Emperor of the now “Holy” Roman Empire in 962. At its peak, Otto’s Empire stretched north to south, from the North Sea, reaching down to absorb all of Italy, with the exception of the Papal States. Setting a precedent that would last for centuries, Otto I was strong enough to later depose John, install his chosen Pope, and take over the “holy” aspect of the Empire by controlling the Papacy. Otto II and Otto III, the son and grandson of the first emperor, used the title “Emperor” and their successors carried on the tradition of deciding who should be Pope for hundreds of years.
The title passed from family to family, through advantageous marriages: the Hohenstaufen and the Habsburg families ruled until modern times. For a thousand years, this Reich, which officially became “German” in 1452 and called the Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation. Under this new designation, the Empire continued for four more centuries, only to finally be dissolved during the Napoléonic Wars in 1806. By that time, the capital of the Reich, a shell of its former self, was located south and east of the Germanic states, in Vienna; and out of this dissolution, the embryonic modern Germany began to emerge. It was Napoléon who divided the Germans from the Austrians and turned the Germans into the Confederation of the Rhine, a geographic and governmental creation, later ratified by the congress of Vienna. Emerging from the shards of the long-dead Empire, this Confederation consisted of a cluster of thirty-five monarchies and four free cities. The Deutscher Bund or German Confederation was dominated by Austria and Prussia, and the two powers vied with one another for power well into the nineteenth century. The prolonged struggle between two German-speaking cultures held back both the modernization and the consolidation of both sides. While England and France were building overseas Empires and significant navies, the Germanic factions wrestled with each other, intent on establishing internal European “empires,” to dominate north-eastern Europe. The Seven Weeks War of the mid-1860s ended with Prussia, under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, vanquishing Austria. Prussia rose out of a long power struggle as threateningly militaristic and ambitious to expand, anxious to catch up with the nations seen as its new rivals. In less than ten years, Prussia subdued France, ending the Napoléon III’s Second Empire with the French surrender in 1871. In an act designed to humiliate France, Germany, the modern state, the Second Reich, was declared in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the former palace and home of the French kings.
George Grosz. The Engineer Heartfield ()
A united Germany, seeking “living room,” was a danger to Europe and the older powers kept wary eyes on this possible adversary. These mutual animosities almost certainly led to the disastrous Great War, a war into which Russia, Italy, France, and England fell, pulled down by the gravity of German desire to rule. The Second Reich ended when German finally recognized it could fight the Great War no longer and surrendered to the Allies. The Armistice in 1918 and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm in November was the final and complete end to a short and ill-fated empire. A full thousand years under some form of autocracy and absolute rule had passed and suddenly, by Treaty, Germany was transformed into a Socialist Democratic Republic, an utterly alien political condition for the German people. The Weimar Republic lasted less than two decades and was wiped away by the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler who was “elected” in 1933. Hitler’s dream of another “Thousand Year Reich” was a mirror image of the First Reich, started by Otto I. It is also interesting to note that, less than a century after the Seven Weeks War, an Austrian once again ruled the German speaking people.
The Weimar Republic, a coalition government, was threatened from within and destabilized by the Allied powers from the very beginning. Unused to self-governance, the German people were locked into left-wing and right-wing power struggles politically, while the Treaty of Versailles saddled the nation with crippling reparations that had to be paid back. While the new nation fought to survive frequent incursions from the vengeful French, the sudden freedom from a repressive Empire allowed a surge of creativity in the arts. Under the most unlikely of circumstances, a new and modern cultural blossomed under what was surely a pale and baleful light. Minds now liberated from censorship, lives that had once been stunted by social disapproval enjoyed free reign, as Berlin became the European capital of sexual freedom, open to all tastes and needs and proclivities. Artists were allowed a certain level of freedom of expression, but the insecure Weimar Republic kept a wary eye on restive artists who dared to be too critical. And the most critical artists, whose sharp eyes and cynical minds, honed by a Dada sensibility, were the old friends John Heartfield (1891-1968) and George Grosz (1893-1959). They could not have foreseen the future, a period when the political unrest would prove to be the proving ground for a dangerous group of thugs, who would style themselves in elegant uniforms as “Nazis.” They attacked what was in front of them, not knowing that what lay ahead was much worse. As Patrizia C. McBride explained, the main weapon of Dada art with critical intent, photomontage, took on a different sensibility in Berlin:
While in a German context the initial inspiration for experimentation with visual and verbal collage may well have come from cubism’s “pasted-paper revolution,” it is significant that terms like Klebebilder and geklebte Bilder (pasted images) were soon supplanted by the generic term montage. To the radical artists associated with Dada and Constructivism, montage appeared preferable to the clumsy translations of the French collage because it directly evoked the world of machines, industrial production, and mass consumption, thus emphasizing the constructed quality of artifacts and their reliance on found materials and ready-made parts. The iconoclasm and antiestablishment streak of interwar montage practices have long been associated with an all-out assault on traditional notions of representation and narrative. In undermining the integrity of the artistic object, montage challenges the idealist premises that governed aesthetic dis- course in the nineteenth century, first and foremost the requirement that the artwork display a character of unity and organicity and thus allow for a hermeneuticc mode of reception based on the congruence between the whole and its component parts. Montage hinges on yanking elements out of their trusted environments and inserting them into new contexts.
In her article, “Weimar-Era Montage. Perception, Expression, Storytelling,” McBride stressed the formal impact of photomontage, but, when one is discussing Heartfield especially, it is equally important to establish the political context. The Weimar Republic was rent with competing factions that kept the government from effectively gaining control, and Heartfield was an unrelenting gadfly, stabbing at the heart of the new democratic Germany. During the 1920s, the Weimar Republic seemed a sinking ship run by fools and incompetents and their critical art was aimed towards the government and the favored and corrupt few who were prospering while the rest of the nation could not get out from under the animosity of the victors, especially France. In his book on The Weimar Republic, Stephen J. Lee explained the internal weakness within the government which prevented it from heading off fascism. The SPD was the most powerful of the coalition parties, but deliberately kept its interests narrow, directed to the working class, refusing to expand its appeal to the middle class. According to Lee, the Center Party (Zentrum or Z), mainly a Catholic party was uninterested in a Protestant constituency and would move to the hard right in the 1930s. The liberal parties, the DDP (Democratic party) and the DNVP (German Nationalist Party or the DVP), were “fundamentally divided between its progressive and conservative wings,” but were also not interested in the middle class. As Lee pointed out, “..after 1928, the DDP and DVP lost almost all their electoral support from the Nazis.”
Obviously, the government consisted of a variety of interests, none of which would seek support from the broad middle and build a support system for the Republic, leaving the vast unallied voters open for a hostile takeover. The fact that the Nazis moved into this vacuum of power was perhaps less a factor of political parties that pulled apart instead of pulling together and more about the nation’s lack of experience with self-governance. John Heartfield (once Helmut Hertzfeld) was a bitter opponent of the SPD and much of his work during the 1920s was directed against the Socialists. Like many adherents of the hard-left, he blamed the SPD for betraying the Left by lending a hand in crushing the Revolution in 1919. As a result of what seemed to be a failure of political nerve, Heartfield, along with most artists and intellectuals in the Republic were either sympathizers of or members of the German Communist Party. Lee explained the position of the party of Heartfield, the KPD (Kommunistisch Partei Deutschlands), in relation to the Weimar Republic:
The far left also had a role in the destruction of the Weimar Republic. In the crucial period after 1931, they refused to collaborate with the moderate parties to save the Republic; there was, in other words, no coalition of the left and center to hold back the advancing right. Why did this not happen?..the KPD had strong reasons for not doing this. In addition to their bitter memories of 1919, they had an ideological perception of the future which could not include the Weimar Republic. Stalin instructed the KPD not to collaborate in any way with the rest of the left, regarding the SPD as ‘social fascists,’ who gained ‘the trust of the masses through fraud and treachery.’ In the case of Thälmann, the leader of the KPD, saw Nazism as a catalyst for the eventual triumph of Communism. It would shake up bourgeois capitalism before collapsing in its turn–having cleared the way for a Communist revolution. According to this logic, it made no sense to help prolong the Republic..the KPD were therefore indirectly, but knowingly, involved in the rise of Hitler by 1933.
Heartfield claimed, incorrectly, that he joined the Communist party in 1918 during the founding congress but that congress did not take place until the end of December 1918 and the first of January in 1919. The assertion was one of emphasis–he was a strong and loyal member of the KPD from the start and identified so thoroughly with the working class that he wore overalls, styling himself as a Monteuranzug, an engineer or someone who assembles. As one of the first members of Berlin Dada, Heartfield and Grosz separated themselves and their art from the other members in their insistence that art had to be not only revolutionary as art but revolutionary as political art. The artists Raoul Haussmann and Richard Huelsenbeck and Hannah Höch, according to Dawn Ades in Dada and Surrealism, were more apolitical, focusing on an artistic revolution and steering clear of confrontation. Heartfield and Grosz, in contrast, put their art in the service of Communism and supported the working class and its struggles against the ruling powers.
Rudolf E. Kuenzli’s article, “John Heartfield and the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung,” noted that “the new photojournalism of illustrated magazines with circulations of up to two million copies greatly determined the interpretation of social reality in Weimar Germany. Although the use of photo-essays was a powerful innovation, it served the interests of the middle and upper classes by never questioning the social and political structures of the Weimar Republic.” In other words, because photography had a claim on the “truth,” that is what the camera’s eye captured, the public would never question the authenticity of the photograph itself. However, this very public, even after decades of manipulation by the Second Reich, still did not understand that the photograph constructed a “reality” that could be completely disconnected from the truth. Coupled with explanatory text, the photo-essay was a powerful new discursive weapon.
Heartfield and his younger brother, Wieland Hertzfelde (the “e” was added when he was an adult) set up a radical press Malik Verlag, which published left-wing literature. They published, for example, the German translations of the novels of American writer Upton Sinclair, another champion of the workers and of the truth from the perspective of socialism. With Heartfield designing the book covers, the press set new standards for artistic designs that not only caught the viewer’s eye but also sent out a political message, even to those who were just passing by a bookseller’s stall on a German street. Even more innovative these book covers were meant to be removed from the book so that the owner could see how the message–words and images–flowed beyond the front cover to the back cover.
John Heartfield. Der 9. Januar (1926)
Once opened flat, a complete picture or message was revealed on the dust jacket. The purpose of these publications, as Kuenzli noted, was to provide a counter-narrative to the mainstream flow of “information.” To that end, many of these covers had an apparently three-dimensional effect. The flat silhouette of George Grosz on the cover of Gesellschaft, Künstler und Kommunismus (1921) by Wieland Herzfelde was unusual. Heartfield turned the rather staid design of paper covers into an art form in their own right in which text played with picture and photography was sliced and diced and redeployed to jolt the passive reader.
In fact, the Weimar Republic was a golden age for book cover design. The back-to-front innovation was used by other artists and strong eye-catching or Blickfang work was not uncommon. However, the cover designs by Heartfield were, for the most part, far more complex and contained a great deal of information, as the artist wasted no opportunity to communicate. Although other designers also used photography, the use of the photograph, cut up and severed from its original context, was hostile and subversive to the status quo. By combining apparently “truthful” segments into a new assemblage (the artist as an engineer), Heartfield literally under-cut the meaning of the photograph by demonstrating just how easily and effectively the “truth” can be manipulated.
John Heartfield. Cover for Franz Jung’s Die Eroberung der Maschinen (1925)
After his early experiments with photomontage for Berlin Dada, Heartfield took his new political weapon, photomontage, and dedicated it to the promotion of the Communist Party and socialist ideals, an unwavering quest that divided his oeuvre during the Republic into two main bodies, one design oriented and the other politically directed. His book covers for Malik were works of layout and design, and although he also created montages for The Red Flag, a communist newspaper, his magazine covers for AIZ, also a communist publication, are more well-known. The next post will discuss Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung in relation to the mainstream photo essay and the work of pioneering editors such as Stefan Lorant and the power of illustrated news.
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
AFTER THE GREAT WAR
Otto Dix and the Broken Soldiers
To understand the Treaty of Versailles, everyone should read Magaret MacMillian’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. If reading a very long book on a treaty written one hundred years ago does not sound tempting, Paris 1919 is not so much about a century old past but about the future and the present. In 2007, MacMillian laid out a road map that explained how we got from there to here. A few years earlier, in 2000, historian David Fromkin published, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, which focused on the impact of the Treaty of Versailles and how the new world order came into being, and, for better or worse, created the Middle East we are grappling with to this day. In actions reminiscent of the “Scramble for Africa” in the previous century, France and England proceeded to carve the former Ottoman Empire like a great prostrate turkey between them like the practiced empire builder these nations were. The victors also began to slice off pieces of Germany, while hardly as large as the Middle East, was at least the size of a game bird, tracked down and brought to the kitchen table for dismemberment.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the way in which the Paris Peace Conference mistreated Germany led to the Second World War. The victors, France and England, were in no mood for reason much less mercy; they sought revenge and vengeance. After all, Germany had started the War and after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, victorious Prussia occupied France and forced it to pay reparations. The same fate was the least Germany deserved. The Great War was fought upon a deliberate German policy of bleeding the enemies–France and England–white, never realizing that that very strategy would also unleash a flow of casualties from its own body, which bleed its way to defeat. As MacMillian pointed out early in her book:
Millions of combatants— for the time of massive killing of civilians had not yet come— died in those four years: 1,800,000 Germans, 1,700,000 Russians, 1,384,000 French, 1,290,000 from Austria-Hungary, 743,000 British (and another 192,000 from the empire) and so on down the list to tiny Montenegro, with 3,000 men. Children lost fathers, wives husbands, young women the chance of marriage. And Europe lost those who might have been its scientists, its poets and its leaders, and the children who might have been born to them. But the tally of deaths does not include those who were left with one leg, one arm or one eye, or those whose lungs had been scarred by poison gas or whose nerves never recovered.
For the combatant nations, “recovery” meant that a generation needed to be replaced. For France and England, the loss of those expected to inherit and built upon the foundations of their parents was a devastating trauma. Revenge was not just about the past but about the lost future as well and in 1940 France preferred surrender to a new Germany rather than re-fight the Great War. But in 1919, France was eager to force Germany to pay reparations—132 billion gold marks–that would cripple the fledgling nation and to recover its “lost” territories of Alsace-Lorraine, the site of significant iron ore deposits. Other sections of Germany went to Poland. It should be noted that one nation was absent during this long Conference, Germany, which was confronted in May by the Treaty only when it was written. The nation reacted with shock over the so-called “War Guilt Clause” or clause 231: “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.” The next clause, 232, demanded reparations which the Allies recognized in writing that the Germans did not have the resources to pay. These two sections alone, coupled with the Treaty’s insistence that Germany have only a small army and no air force, set the stage for the next war.
There are few heroes in this tangled tale, but the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, might have had the best political instincts about how to conclude the Great War. Another prescient participant, the economist John Maynard Keynes, clearly foresaw the economic consequences. In his 2015 book, Britain, France and Germany and the Treaty of Versailles: The Failure of Long-Term Peace, Nick Shepley quoted Keynes, writing in 1920: “The Treaty includes no provision for the economic rehabilitation of Europe–nothing to make the defeated Central Powers into good neighbours, nothing to stabilize the new States of Europe, nothing to reclaim Russia..It is an extraordinary fact that the fundamental economic problem of a Europe starving and disintegrating before their eyes, was the one question in which it was impossible to arouse the interest of the Four. Reparation was their main excursion into the economic field, and they settled it from every point of view except that of economic future of the States whose destiny they were handling.”
Simplissimus (June 3, 1919) This German cartoon was published a few weeks before the Treaty was signed.
We understand today that Woodrow Wilson, a Southern President, was a racist who resisted what was the first demand of the newly organized NAACP–block the release of The Birth of a Nation. Instead, Wilson, along with his friend, the director, D. W. Griffith, screened the film in the White House and endorsed the inflammatory movie. Once shown in theaters, The Birth of a Nation led to a revival of the Klu Klux Klan and allowed racism, never far below the surface, to rise up and bubble over. But, that said, Wilson, a former President of Princeton, was an intellectual visionary who arrived, as the leader of one of the victorious nations, in Paris with a dream of “self-determination.” There were vast territories unleashed when the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian and the German Empires all fell, and Wilson commendably felt that these fledgling “nations” should have the right to determine their own destinies. However, he faced his allies which would have none of his idealism, took what they wanted, and left the remaining territories to their own devices. But Wilson did little to check the mood of vengeance towards Germany and said, a few weeks before the Treaty was signed, “I have always detested Germany. I have never gone there. But I have read many German books on law. They are so far from our views that they have inspired in me a feeling of aversion.” The League of Nations could be said to be Wilson’s consolation prize, but the American also rejected his hopes for a more peaceful future. The United States had never wanted to become entangled in the dark affairs of Europe and pulled back into isolation, leaving Germany to its fate, betraying Wilson’s Fourteen Principles, his proposal for a lasting peace. The world’s largest creditor nation had exited the global stage.
The humiliation of Germany by the Allies was complete down to forcing the German delegation to sign the Treaty in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, paralleling the same shame inflicted upon France by the Germans in 1871. To the French people, which had been invaded, its lands wasted when they became the Western Front, these acts of vengeance were they least they could do to their ancient and prone enemy. To the German people, who had been lied to for four years, the surprise at losing the War was as great as the shock of being blamed for the War. They rejected Clause 231, which had established Germany as the aggressor and allowed the allies to demand land and reparations in return. There were reasons for the Germans to be surprised at their loss, for they had never been invaded. But it was the French command that decided that to invade Germany, as the American general John Pershing suggested, would result in needless loss of further French lives. After all, for all intents and purposes, Germany was soundly defeated, and a solution Wilson called “peace without victory” was more sensible. But from the German perspective, what tipped the scales towards surrender were mutinies in the military and political unrest at home. With the nation spiraling out of control and hurtling towards a Russian type revolution, the next move to conserve Germany was to end the war. The inexplicable surrender was never accepted by the German people, who were forced to accept this unexpected defeat and found themselves struggling to rebuild a nation deliberately disarmed and intentionally humiliated.
The Kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland where he would live long enough to see the rise of Hilter and another World War. A socialist Republic, teetering on warring factions that attempted to be a government, was founded with hopes of a democratic Germany. Psychologically wounded and financially destroyed, this new version of Germany made its way into the modern world. Given the unpromising beginnings of the post-War Republic, the Weimar years were marked by a blossoming of the arts in a nation that was in a constant state of turmoil until the Nazi party seized power and snuffed out the renaissance of creativity out of the ashes. Dada was an important Berlin expression of the collective anger and disgust of the intelligentsia with the German plunge into a destructive war, but, as a viable movement, Dada could not exist for long. Therefore, for the purposes of this series on post-War Germany, it is convenient to divide the post-War art into two parts: the immediate response to the aftermath of the War, Dada, and the art of the very soldiers who had witnessed its horrors; and then, some years later, the art that emerged, called “New Objectivity” or the artistic reaction to the culture of the Weimar Republic.
Stormtroopers during a gas attack, from Der Krieg (1924)
In his book, German Post-Expressionism: The Art of the Great Disorder 1918-1924, Dennis Crockett made something of the same case. There is a short period, coinciding with Dada, in which artists were using the pre-war style of Expressionism. Those Expressionists artists who returned from the War regrouped and, as with Cubism in France, Expressionism went from being a radical challenge to the establishment to a historical and accepted artistic style. Leading artists, Oskar Kokoschka, Otto Mueller, and others, became teachers in German academies and museums began collecting Expressionist works and filmmaker began incorporating the mood and feelings of the artists into their sets and stories. As Crockett noted,
Expressionism seemed to have become fashionable..The debate regarding the vitality of Expressionism reached its peak with the largest Expressionist exhibition to date during the summer of 1920. German Expressionism Darmstadt, arranged by the Darmstadt Secession, included 673 works by artists from all over Germany. In his lecture at the opening of the exhibition, president of the Secession, Kasimir Edschmid..condemned the superficial and commercial aspects of Expressionism: “What once seemed a daring gesture has today become ordinary. The advance of the day before yesterday became the mannerism of yesterday and the yawn of today..In a lecture delivered in Munich in October 1920, Wilhelm Worringer, one of the most distinguished Expressionist theorists before the war, added his voice to the eulogizing of Expressionism. He too criticized the many pseudo-Expressionists, “who know nothing about art.” But he observed a crisis of greater historical importance. According to Worringer, art had lost any sociological function it may have had before the modern era..Expressionism’s loss of vitality, its disintegration into “peaceful wall decorations,” represented for Worringer not only the death of Expressionist art, but the death of art itself.”
The question at the end of a war and the beginning of a peace was one of an appropriate language for the arts. On one hand, Expressionism was understood, quite rightly, to be part of a time that had come and gone. But on the other hand, Expressionism was, perhaps, for a brief time, the best style to explain the war and its consequences.
The constant bombing turned the landscape into lunar craters, from Der Krieg (1924)
One of those soldiers who returned haunted by what he had experienced was Otto Dix (1891-1969) and the series of prints he made of life in the trenches needed the excess that was such an important element of pre-war Expressionism. His memories of his time as a machine gunner during the four years of the war were turned into a Goya-esque sequence of fifty prints, titled The War (Der Krieg). This series is graphic and horrific, without color, drained of life, printed out in the black and white of engrained memory and dark dreams. Dix was an unimpeachable source and entitled to show to the German public that which the authorities were attempting to deny: he had been wounded five times and was awarded the Iron Cross in 1915. His was a voice that could neither be silenced nor denied.
Germany both invented gas warfare and launched the first attacks in 1916, but soon their soldiers also became victims, from Der Krieg (1924)
In writing A War of Images: Otto Dix and the Myth of the War Experience, Ann Murray wrote of how Dix defied the nationalistic ideals for the Germanic male, images that began to emerge as part of a propaganda effort to deny the outcome of the war. As she wrote,
Dix challenged the popular, romanticizing imagery of the heroic, militarized male, his pictures tracking attempts to nullify the mythologizing of the war experience that pervaded popular media..In 1924, Dix exhibited his cycle of etchings, The War, for the first time in Berlin. Based largely on the artist’s numerous wartime drawings..as a unit they form a pictorial record of the daily trials of the frontline soldier, recording the close contact and intimate knowledge of the subject that only one who had experienced war could hope to achieve. The catalogue produced for the launch of the series contained a foreword written by French pacifist writer and fellow veteran, Henri Barbusse, with whose novel, Under Fire (1916), Dix associated his etchings. The historical moment, the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the so-called ‘anti-war’ year, when furious debates between Left and Right on social and political issues directly related to the consequences of the war reached a peak, was crucial to the exhibition’s message.
Corpses could not be buried and the dead and the living co-existed in the trenches, from Der Krieg (1924)
Given that Dix was a patriot who volunteered and fought bravely for four years, his series was not necessarily anti-war but it was definitely pro-reality when it came to the actual conditions of the War. As he explained in 1963, “I had to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly. I wanted it. I’m therefore not a pacifist at all – or am I? Perhaps I was an inquisitive person. I had to see all that myself. I’m such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it’s like that. I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself.”
An all too common sight made into a still life, from Der Krieg (1924)
War was a testimony of an eye witness, and the viewer should understand each image as the truth, based on sketches the artist had executed in the trenches. As shall be seen in the next post, Dix, a veteran, was disturbed by the way in which the wounded and maimed soldiers were treated in post-war Germany, where they lived, not as heroes, but as pathetic reminders of defeat. The public wanted to look the other way, and it was Dix who made them remember and, perhaps, feel some pity and responsibility. Even though Dix faced an audience increasingly reluctant to recognize the costs of the war and the sufferings of those who had fought, a decade later, these prints were still potent. It had been one hundred years since Goya’s Disasters of War, but in the time of Hitler, Dix’s War was confiscated and not viewed by the public again until 1983.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.