Art of the Weimar Republic: The German People as Subjects, Part Two

PORTRAITURE REBORN

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.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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Design in the Weimar Republic: Photomontage and Photo Essays

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.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

German Artists in the Aftermath of the Great War, Part Three

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.

Thank you.

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Podcast 53: Nazi Art, Part One

THE OXYMORON OF NAZI “ART”

Long sequestered and rarely viewed, recent art historical writings have begun to examine the art of Fascism. This series of podcasts, in four parts, attempts to answer a series of questions: what were the goals of Nazi art, who were the Nazi artists—the painters and sculptors—and what was the impact of Nazi art? The first segment will examine the aesthetic ideology of the Nazis and how they attacked avant-garde Modernist art in a series of exhibition of “degenerate” art.

 

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Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 52: Otto Dix—The War Protester

THE GERMAN ARTISTS BETWEEN THE WARS, PART ONE

OTTO DIX

In the period between World War I and World War II, Otto Dix dedicated his art to demonstrating with frank brutality the cost of war. While George Grosz leveled his attacks on self-satisfied bureaucrats, Dix concentrated on those who had borne the brunt of the Great War—the wounded and maimed veterans and the women lost to prostitution.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

The Frankfurt School, Part One

THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL AND CRITICAL THEORY

PART ONE

“A categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind; to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”

Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 1966

While Karl Marx did not seem to foresee the importance of commodities in restraining the social revolution he predicted, the early decades of the twentieth century opened well for Marxism. If one defines” Marxism” as the political manifestations of his theories the surely the Russian Revolution was the culmination of his predictions. The lower classes rose up against their oppressors and the former Empire became one nation, under Communism. The Great War accelerate the revolt against hereditary powers and broke up the aging empires, freeing a number of new nations to make their own destiny—choosing between communism or democracy—in acts of what Woodrow Wilson called “self-determination.” The choice was not clear-cut. Democracy, to people used to autocratic rule, was tempting but dangerous, and old habits of dependence and obedience often resulted in the replacement of one ruler for another. As would be seen in the new Soviet Union, the high hopes for a Communist utopia were quickly dashed by the resumption of a totalitarian rule under Lenin and then Stalin.

Like Russia, Germany had a long history of powerful rulers and when the Great War ended in the nation’s defeat, the people had no experience of democracy. After the abdication of the Kaiser in November 1918, socialism seemed like a middle ground for a nation unaccustomed to self-rule and in need of state administration. The replacement for a militaristic regime was a coalition government, the Weimar Republic. Early on, there were struggles to establish some kind of Communist rule, as in the Soviet Union, but the left-wing revolutionaries were assassinated. The dream that Karl Marx had of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” had run aground as the forces of socialism and fascism struggled for power. The working class had less interest in social change than the intellectuals, who were dedicated activists. One can assume that in Germany there had been enough change: a war had been lost, a Kaiser had been deposed, a nation had to be rebuilt, and many of the restraints of centuries of political oppression and bourgeois repression were lifted. No one wanted another social disruption. There were other diversions afoot.

Berlin became the site of an outbreak of widespread social indulgence and experimentation in once-forbidden pleasures against the backdrop of a corrupt and ineffectual government that struggled to manage a modern nation in a modern world. Crippled by war reparations and haunted by the traumas of the War, the German people appeared to have little taste for more social disruption. It is against this backdrop of the promise and the failure of a revolution that would liberate the working classes that the famed Frankfurt School was launched. Disillusioned by the failure of left wing concerns to have any resonance, Felix Weil, the son of a wealthy German industrialist, Hermann Weil, received the funding from his father to found an institute to study contemporary society.

Weil brought together an event called the First Marxist Work Week in the summer of 1922 in Thuringia. This “week” was attended by Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, Richard Sorge, Friederich Pollock, Karl August Wittfogel, Bela Fogarasi, Konstantin Zetkin, and so on. The stimulating success of the gathering of intellectuals inspired Weil to establish a permanent institute. The chosen site was Frankfurt. Frankfurt was an island of intellectualism during the 1920s, due in no small part to the recent establishment of the University in 1914. With a loose affiliation with the University, the Institut für Sozialforschung was founded in 1923. The first director was Kurt Albert Gerlach but he died, then for a brief period the Institut was directed by Carl Grünberg, an Austrian Marxist who edited the first European journal of labor and socialist history. Under Carl Grünberg, the Institut was led by a traditional orthodox Marxist, whose old fashioned “vulgar” Marxism was not shared by his colleagues. Conventional Marxism would not be the direction of the group of scholars who gathered in Frankfurt.

After Grünberg had a stroke, he was forced to resign and from 1931 on the Institute was directed by Max Horkheimer. Under Horkheimer, the Institut took a different direction, away from orthodox or “vulgar” Marxism and towards a new understanding of society—a sociology of the modernist culture. If one term characterizes the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, it would be “assimilated Jew” from a privileged upper middle class intellectual background. This description comes up over and over in the writings on the School, from Martin Jay to Zoltán Tar to Thomas Wheatland, and the ambivalent social position of being “assimilated Jews” would seal the fate of the Institut and its members. Max Horkheimer and his associate, Frederick Pollock, were joined by Leo Lowenthal, Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno, Hermann Marcuse, Franz Neumann, Otto Kirchheimer, and Erich Fromm, all of whom were Jewish (Adorno was half-Jewish). Indeed, Jews were very assimilated in Germany and that nation was where the most Christian-Jewish intermarriages took place in Europe. Although there were signs of intolerance and anti-Semitism in Germany, the scholars of the Institut insisted that there was no “Jewish question.” Because of a cultural heritage they though little of, these scholars would be forced to leave Germany and live in exile for over a decade. Working in New York and Los Angeles, the members of the Frankfurt School would forge a new form of neo-Marxism, Critical Theory. Most of these émigrés would never return to Germany, the nation that had persecuted them. They would remain in their adopted country, the United States of America.

Although there was interest in the Weil family of understanding prejudice, when it was founded, the main goal of the School was more broad. Sociology was a relatively new academic discipline and was, at that time, mostly based upon empirical research. The only means of examining society from a theoretical perspective was Marxism. The question was now, which Marxism? The older and now discredited Marxism which reduced society to a “mode of production?” Or a new approach to the ideas of Karl Marx, based upon his early works? The Institut returned to the young Marx in his more Hegelian position, in other words, the scholars revisited dialectical materialism. The goal was to develop a theory that would allow the appropriate kind of study for this new modern society. Modernism, as it existed after the Great War, was out of the intellectual reach of traditional Marxist thinking. What these intellectuals would retain from Marx is the concept of “critique,” which means to analyze and to study social conditions from the inside. Thus the Frankfurt School began to develop Critical Theory, a means whereby contemporary society in post-war Germany could be examined through a combination of empirical research linked to a theoretical hypothesis, a new combination—Hegelian-Marxism.

From the beginning, the Frankfurt School maintained its independence from any and all institutions, the University of Frankfurt and later Columbia University. In a politically unstable era, the Institut wisely decided to take a non-political position. Even though the scholars maintained neutrality, as individuals they were politically committed to change. The School was able to avoid local controversies by articulating a unique methodology. Although in its early years, the members accepted the traditional Marxist, base-superstucture mode of analysis from traditional Marxism, later, after 1930, the notion of the base was jettisoned and the scholars concentrated on the superstructure or culture. In addition to returning to the beginnings of Marxist thinking, the Institut employed another innovative element as the basis of its studies, Freudian theory, or psychoanalysis. Society has its own psychology and different groups in society have their own particular mindsets. People was moved by their social and economic conditions, but they are also moved by the ways in which they think which are based in the individual and his or her psyche.

Sigmund Freud, just coming into wide acceptance, in the 1920s, considered the family to be the basis of a person’s psyche which formed certain reactions to childhood training. The psychic forces constructed by the parents would then play themselves out in the social arena. The members of the Frankfurt School adapted Freudian theories to their studies of contemporary society. The result of this new methodology was an integration or fusion among various disciplines, philosophy, sociology, psychology to form an interdisciplinary approach to better understand the current political situation in Germany. The uniqueness of the Frankfurt School is this mixture of a multiplicity of approaches to understanding the individual within the group. As time went on, it became more and more clear that the “individual” or “subject” was a “convenient fiction,” and that people are constructed by their environments and by instrumental societies. The Frankfurt School studied a sociology of knowledge or a materialist theory of society which was buttressed by empirical research in order to achieve a synthetic view of culture. All knowledge and all thinking was conditioned by concrete historical situations. There was, therefore, no fetishization of the individual who could not be transcendent, nor of culture itself, because it could never be autonomous.

For these philosophers in this changed society, Marxism was no longer the philosophy of social revolution. But why not? Why had the German working class not taken advantage of the opportunity to forge a strong alliance that would impact government policies? One of the most important studies undertaken by the Institut was an examination of the German working class, supervised by Erich Fromm. In order to determine the social consciousness of the laborers, Fromm used questionnaires in which the answers were taken down verbatim. Horkheimer analyzed the answers through keywords and the conclusion of the study was that the working class was not only passive, rather than revolutionary, but also receptive to the message of the new rising political force, fascism. For a variety of reasons, the Institut chose not to publish the depressing findings. But what they learned from their research was precinct and predictive of things to come. Although Fromm would drift away from Freud and the Institut when it moved to America, this study was the first of similar studies of social attitudes and their root causes that would come from the Frankfurt School.

Once Hitler was elected in 1933, the Institut für Sozialforschung was in a precarious position, and Horkheimer was not blind to the rising tide of fascism and its dangers to a group of left-thinking Jews. The funds of the Institut were transferred to a bank in Holland and the Frankfurt School prepared to decamp. The Nazis closed down the Institut as quickly and as ruthlessly as they had shuttered the Bauhaus. Indeed, by the time Herman Marcuse joined the School in 1932, he was assigned to its new outpost, Geneva. The School also opened branches in Paris and London and in these cities, the preferred form of publication, the Zeitschrift, or short essay, rather than long book, could continue. When the Nazis came to power, most of the members were already on the move, leaving behind a magnifcant 60,000 volume library to be seized by the fascists. Horkheimer was among the first faculty of the University of Frankfurt to be dismissed because he was Jewish, and he left for Geneva. Adorno went to London, and Walter Benjamin, who was loosely associated with the Institut, went to Paris. Those who stayed behind, such as Wittfogel, were simply thrown in a concentration camp.

In Germany, fascism had taken over the revolutionary position once held by Marxism. The Frankfurt School now had new goals. First the Institut had to save itself. Switzerland could not be a permanent home, as Horkheimer already sensed the coming sympathies for fascism in that neutral nation. Second, the Institut had to preserve German culture and remove German intellectual heritage and contemporary intellectual thinking to a site where it could not be tainted by Nazi philosophy. This self-imposed mission was deeply important to the members of the Institut. The Nazis were already appropriating German culture for their own ends and in the process was polluting the history of German intellectual and artistic culture, from Nietzsche to Wagner. It was important to continue an uninterrupted strain of German thinking and the only place to do this was in New York City. Opportunities in London were limited and the intellectuals in Paris were decidedly unwelcoming to German scholars, so the Institut moved towards another alliance with another institution, Columbia University.

Over time, all the members of the Frankfurt School gathered together in New York. In continuing their determination to carry on German culture, the Institut members decided to write and publish in German. During the early years of Nazi rule, the School worked to rescue and fund European scholars on the run. Although some two hundred intellectuals were indebted to the well-funded School, Horkheimer and Adorno were unable to save their close associate, Walter Benjamin who simply did not want to emigrate to New York. Benjamin was finally persuaded to leave France after the Nazi takeover and made his way to the Spanish border. Once in Spain, he had passage to New York, thanks to the Institut. Unfortunately, in a now famous tragic tale, the border between France and Spain was closed on that day at that point and Benjamin, in despair, committed suicide. The members of the Institut were horrified and devastated. In contrast, Wittfogel was freed and found his way to the safety of America.

The now-common term “critical theory” actually stems from the work done by the Frankfurt School in these post-Weimar years. It is customary to think of Critical Theory as an analysis of authority and a study of power and how totalitarian forces manipulate society, but this was a relatively new position for the School. In America, the scholars shifted their foci. While in Germany, the Frankfurt School had concentrated on interdisciplinary studies attempting to understand the German working class. As the impact of fascism upon society became more apparent, it was clear that there were psychoanalytical aspects to the acceptance of Hitler by the Germans. In American the studies of the Institut led to an investigation into the “authoritarian personality,” or the kind of mind-set that would accept a totalitarian leader. The studies began, not in politics, but with the bourgeois family and how the passive acceptance of leadership had led to Hitler.

When Horkheimer managed to relocated the Institut to Columbia University in New York, the social and political theories of the School was impacted by the pragmatism and empirical methods of American scholars. It is America that the scholars began to shift their attention from the failures of communism and the willingness of the working class to follow fascism to the growing importance of technological communication in shaping social responses. Mass media and mass spectacle had come of age, and the power of art forms could be used for good or for evil. The scholars of the Frankfurt School were among the first to understand the importance of mass media and national culture. They were among the first to sound the alarm and among the first to delineate the consequences of new communication technologies upon culture and society.

But the critique of a culture shaped by technology was also a critique of the Enlightenment. Indeed, it can be said that the Frankfurt School initiates the study of the consequences of the Enlightenment through the critique of philosophy by philosophy. The ideas of the Enlightenment had been working themselves out for two centuries, but, until the Frankfurt School, Reason and Rational Thinking as concepts had not been examined in terms of their social consequences. Certainly, Nietzsche had railed against the kind of reason that resulted in nihilism, but, unlike the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, he did not have the vantage point of observing the unintended consequences of “Enlightenment,” such as the Holocaust. Totalitarian governments and “authoritarian” personalities and blinded obedience were seen as direct consequences of reason gone wrong.

The effects of totalitarian thinking became one of the primary concerns of the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School shifted Marxism into the Twentieth Century by observing contemporary culture, its ideologies and how these belief systems impacted society through this new technological world of mass communication. The Frankfurt School and its associates were be hard hit by the increasing oppression of fascism and were dislocated during the Second World War. As intellectuals, they were in grave danger; as Jews their lives were in peril. Some went into exile, some survived, some did not. Those that lived survived to continue their roles as defenders of Marxism as a mode of critique that revealed the true intentions of ideology, laying the groundwork for what would eventually be called “post” or “neo” Marxism.

The next post on The Frankfurt School, Part Two, will examine the work of the Institut in America.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Bauhaus: The Founding

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

Founding the Bauhaus, 1919-1923

Historically as an art school and as a design movement, the Bauhaus stands as a counterweight to the solipsism and Surrealism in Paris and the anger and turmoil in Berlin. To a certain extent, the Bauhaus can be linked to New Objectivity in its rejection of Expressionism, but the school set itself apart from the mainstream art world in Germany by redesigning the world for the twentieth century. The goal of the Bauhaus was to create the kinds of design that would lend itself to mass production and that would be accessible to the masses. To a certain extent, the Bauhaus also shared the post-war utopianism that clean modern design would have a beneficial impact on society, but the goals were more practical than dreamy. From the beginning the school was split among factions—art versus craft—and individual creation and corporate ownership—hand work verses factory production. The school also reflected the tensions in early twentieth century society, controversies over the Jewish members of the faculty and the dis-ease over having so many female students. Divided at its heart, the Bauhaus nevertheless created the “modern.”

As an art school, the Bauhaus was the continuation of a long-held dream of reforming the bad design and bad taste unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. Its precedents were the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movements in England and the Art nouveau styles in Europe and America and, more locally, the Deutscher Werkbund, founded in Munich in 1907. In their desire to return to the integrity of medieval craft, these predecessor movements were flawed in their core, for the products, hand-crafted by artists, were far too expensive and rarified for the ordinary person to afford. Only the Werkbund, fully engaged in the twentieth century, was positioned to join art and craft and industry. In contrast, the nineteenth century reform movements, for all their good intentions, were expressions of luxury, and the Werkbund established the most immediate precedent for the Bauhaus.

In fact, it was one of the founders of the Werkbund, Henry van der Velde, who was head of the School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, and it was his post that Walter Gropius took over. Van der Velde was forced to leave Germany and return to this homeland of Belgium, but, after the war, it seemed clear that his medieval sensibilities had become obsolete. By the time the Bauhaus was formed by Walter Gropius in 1919 in Weimer it was clear that it was impossible to return to an imagined medieval paradise and that design needed to express the modern industrial world that had come so horribly into fruition during the Great War. Gropius combined arts and crafts into one school, under one roof, combining all the arts under one roof in the name of architecture: Bauhaus or “house of building.” Gropius stated,

“Let us collectively desire, conceive and create the new building of the future, which will be everything in one structure: architecture and sculpture and painting, which, from the million hands of craftsmen, will one day rise towards heaven as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith.”

Although we tend to think of “the Bauhaus” as an organic unity that created a “look” that is read as “modern,” the school actually went through numerous stages. Existing during the span of the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933, the Bauhaus lived a precarious existence, and, like the wider German art world, evolved out of Romanticism and Expressionism into the modern era. Far more than any other movement in the period between the two wars, the Bauhaus was actively engaged in an attempt to redefine “art” and “artist” for the modern period of mass production and mass communication for mass audiences.

The school went through its founding phase from 1919 to 1922, shifting to a more rational and less medieval approach to design, only to be disrupted by the move to Dessau in 1925, where Gropius brought in László Moholy-Nagy, who had a profound impact on the philosophy of the Bauhaus. Gropius was succeeded by Hannes Meyer in 1928, but he was considered politically unsuitable and was removed in favor of Mies van Der Rohe in 1930. After that final transition, the Bauhaus went into survival mode and Mies presided over its final demise in Berlin in 1933.

Other Bauhaus posts on this website include: Bauhaus, The Founding, Bauhaus: Modern Design, Bauhaus: Internal Tensions, Bauhaus the End, and Bauhaus: the Fate of the Bauhaus

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New Objectivity in German Art

New Objectivity

New Theories of Painting in Germany, 1920s

The Great War ended with the notorious Treaty of Versailles, a treaty, which inflicted humiliating reparations upon the German peoples, leaving them with feelings of despair and anger and a stunned disbelief. Germany had not been invaded, Berlin had not fallen, there had been no victory parades by the allies down the wide expanse of the Unter den Linden—so how could the war have been lost? The fact that there were few young and fit men left to fight was not nearly as resonant as the notion that somehow Germany had been sold out. Instead of fighting on, the reasoning went, powerful forces negotiated with the allies and made a peace that the German people would never have wanted. Just who was responsible for this horrifying turn of events was unclear but the favorite theory was that the Jews were responsible for the defeat.

Regardless of why Germany lost the war, the Kaiser went into exile and a new Republic, based in the university city of Weimer, was formed. The Weimer Republic emerged after the November Revolution of 1918 and presided over one of the most brilliant creative periods of artistic activity of the century. A weak and divided government, riven with clashing factions, uprisings, assassinations and economic chaos, nevertheless held the country together until the final victory of Nazi rule in 1933. Had Charles Dickens been writing of this tumultuous period he surely would have repeated, “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” On one hand, the streets of major German cities were marked by the presence of disabled and maimed veterans, desperate women, prostituting themselves in order to earn a living, businessmen grown fat with profiteering, and disaffected malcontents of all kinds. But, on the other hand, in the face of the adversity and the corruption and downright decadence, especially in Berlin, this city became the mecca for what was left of the avant-garde as a provocative protest movement.

It was noted in an earlier posts that first, the avant-garde impetus had been quelled in Paris by the sentiments of Recall to Order and second, that Surrealism was a conservative movement that went inward into the subconscious. The innovative impulse shifted to literature and jazz. Because the history of art in the twentieth century has been largely a formalist one, the avant-garde in Berlin was often neglected due to its insistence on representation. But it was here in Berlin that painting became confrontational to the point of artists being censored and put on trial by the government. It was here in Berlin that a tired and discredited Expressionism migrated into a thriving and exciting film industry nurturing the talents of Fritz Lang. It was here in Berlin that the concept of “theater” was severed from its connection to illusionism through the work of Bertold Brecht. It was here that German philosophy reinvented itself for a modern era based upon mass communication in the writings of Walter Benjamin. And it was here that the visual arts had an unexpected and unprecedented flowering as a “New Objectivity.”

As a counterweight to the Expressionist romanticism and internalized and dramatized subjectivity, German artists, disillusioned and sickened by the carnage of the Great War, turned towards an art that was clear and clean, objective and cool, utilitarian and functional—a “New Objectivity.” As painter Ludwig Meidner said in 1919, “What will matter tomorrow, what I and all the others need, is a fanatical, fervent naturalism.” “Naturalism,” “realism,” and the increasingly heard phrase, “rappel à l’ordre,” were the key words of the era. The new path towards representation, or to be accurate, the use of representation to recreate an imagine “reality” had already been evident with the Italian movement, Pitture Metafisica and the works of Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà as early as 1917, and by the artists of the Novecento group (Achille Funi, Mario Sironi, Udaldo Oppi, Felice Castoraati), founded in Milan in 1922. The Italian magazine, Valori Plastici supported the return of neoclassicism, combined with traditional realism and mixed together to provide a taste of dreams. But in Germany, this new objective approach to art had a particular urgency. The representation of reality had to take a different path. The truth had to be told. If artists simply reveled the true state and conditions of everyday life, then the nation would never again be misled into another futile, life-wasting war.

While Italian artists were reacting to the chaos of Futurism which evolved into Fascism, the German artists were responding to the end of the War with a mixture of cynicism and hope for a better future and focused their goals on the obtainable ones of the here and now. The result of the new scrutiny of the everyday, whether pleasant or unpleasant, was a movement located and named in 1922 by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, the director of the Kunstalle in Mannheim, who sent out a survey inquiring as to whether there is “Ein neuer Naturalismus?” In May, 1923 he began informing his fellow art critics of the new exhibition he was planning to form under the title of Neue Sachlichkeit in Mannheim. Hartlaub arranged the artists of this new movement into bipolar groups: the conservative, classical right wing and the truth-telling Verist group on the left that came to the New Objectivity from Dada and Expressionism. Hartlaub’s exhibition in 1925 was paired by a book on Post-Expressionism and Magic Realism by Franz Roh. Writing in Nach-Expressionismus – magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europäisches Malerei, Roh coined the term “magic realism.”

Although “magic realism” was almost immediately adapted by Latin American writers for their own purposes, Roh described the term as being deeply rooted in “objects.” Roh stated,

“We will indicate here, in a cursory way, the point at which the new painting separates itself from Expressionism by means of its objects…it resorts to the everyday and the commonplace for the purpose of distancing it, investing it with a shocking exoticism…if a picture portrayed a city, for example, it represented the destruction produced by volcanic lava and not just a play of forms the booty of an agitated cubism…We recognize this world, although now—not only because we have emerged from a dream—we look on it with new eyes…we are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world, that celebrates the mundane…instead of the remote horrors of hell, the inextinguishable horrors of our own time (Grosz and Dix)…”

Roh seems to veer toward some of the ideas offered by Dada when he uses the term “convulsive life,” but he was actually looking back to the long traditions in German art of imbuing ordinary objects with meaning, a kind of symbolic knowledge, and the heritage of extreme expressionism as a mechanism for telling the truth, no matter how terrible. The Isenheim Altarpiece comes to mind, and Roh states,

“…the new art does not belong to the series of initial artistic phases that includes Expressionism. It is a moment of decantation and clarification that was fortunate enough to find right at the start an almost exhausted artistic revolution that had begun to discover new avenues…Post-Expressionism sought to reintegrate reality into the heart of visibility. The elemental happiness of seeing again, or recognizing things, reenters. Painting becomes once again the mirror or palpable exteriority.”

Despite the strength of the new movement, few galleries and art dealers in Berlin, Herwarth Walden’s Sturm Galerie and the galleries of Bruno Cassirer and Alfred Flechtheim were not particularly interested in the emerging art style. Only the gallery Neumann-Nierendorf, run by Karl Nierendorf, favored New Objectivity. As examination of the art by the New Objectivity artists quickly reveals that there would be few buyers for art that brutally depicted the ugliness of the world of prostitutes and their customers, Otto Dix, or the attack on ineffectual bureaucrats, George Grosz, or the decadence of the upper classes in Berlin, Christian Schad and Max Beckman, not to mention the fevered murder scenes of Rudolf Schlichter and the paintings of torture and torment by Max Beckmann. These artists constructed a portrait of an era that blazed up and was quickly doused by the icy waters of the Nazis. And yet, it is these paintings that come to mind when one says the words “Weimer Republic.” The portraits of Otto Dix appear throughout the film, Cabaret, and the metamorphosis of George Grosz to a war dissenter to a Dada agitator to a scathing critic of the inept regime to an exile in New York, waiting for the end of Hitler, tell the story of these “best of times, worst of times.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]