WEIMAR GERMANY: by Jeffry BabbNews Weekly
Why art flourished and democracy perished
, March 31, 2012
Weimar Germany saw an intense flowering of almost every form of creativity, yet this vibrant culture ran head first into Nazi Germany, which set out to destroy it.
The Weimar Republic was born amid chaos in the provincial city of Weimar in 1919 and died largely unmourned when the Nazis seized power in 1933.
It gained a reputation for vacillation, incompetence and weakness in the face of oppression by the victors of the Great War. It was burdened with the taint of betrayal — that the brave soldiers at the front, who after all were still on French and Belgium soil at the end of the war — had been “stabbed in the back” by the civilian government. Amazingly, the reparations demanded from Germany under the Treaty of Versailles were only finally paid off in 2010.
Three invalids (c.1930),
by German artist Heinrich Hoerle (1895–1936).
courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.
At first instance, the Weimar Republic would seem to be an unpromising environment for creativity. The three years of hyperinflation between 1921 and 1924 bankrupted the middle class and instilled an enduring fear of inflation. Tales are told of currency speculators who would drink their winnings every night because by morning their speculative gains would be worthless. A loaf of bread that cost one mark in 1921 could be bought for “only” 100 million marks in 1924.
The streets were inhabited by impoverished veterans with horrific wounds and prostitutes who traded in the drug of loneliness. The Freikorps, a paramilitary militia formed of veterans that fought sometimes for the state and sometimes against it, dealt harshly with those with whom it was displeased.
Why then was the Weimar Republic so productive in ideas and art? Because its flowering, like a hothouse plant, was so intense and short-lived, it has often been overlooked in Anglophone countries.
Berlin has frequently been overshadowed by its continental rival, Paris. Paris had “the Lost Generation” — Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and other litterateurs drinking their books away. It had Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Cubists — Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. But with the revival of Germany as Europe’s cultural hub as well as its financier, many would argue that Paris’s pre-eminent reputation as the “between the wars” cultural capital of Europe is a triumph of publicity over substance. Berlin was the centre, but new creative movements sprang up all over Germany.
The depth and influence of Weimar culture was on show in Sydney and Melbourne recently in one of the most engrossing exhibitions in recent years, entitled “The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art, 1910–37”. Surprisingly, half the exhibits are from Australian collections.
Of the painting which lends it name to the exhibition, guest curator Jacqueline Stecker writes: “Painted during a period of intense political and intellectual polarisation, The Mad Square by Felix Nussbaum can be seen as a satirisation of the collapse of society during the years of the Weimar Republic and a forewarning of the cataclysm that was to ensue.”
Among the artistic movements which flourished in the Weimar period were Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism and New Objectivity. Of all the artistic and creative movements that thrived in the Weimar period, the one that has had the most influence on everyday life is Bauhaus. Or, as Tom Wolfe put it, “From Bauhaus to Our House.”
To understand the profound influence Bauhaus has had on architecture and design, you have only to look around you. Almost every postwar skyscraper you see in any city in Australia is pure Bauhaus. Almost every kitchen utensil you use is influenced by Bauhaus design principles. The ubiquitous steel tubing chairs are pure Bauhaus.
Bauhaus was essentially a design studio that worked from first principles. The founder, Walter Gropius, was an architect, but in the first instance Bauhaus did not teach architecture. Bauhaus was not always a winner. In fact, it inflicted some horrible buildings on the world, including what the Americans call “projects” that did so much to criminalise and pauperise the less well-off, particularly inner city African-Americans.
The whole Weimar creative enterprise was about modernism. Modernism came late to Germany. Under Chancellor Count Otto von Bismarck, the Germans gained pensions, but at the cost of their freedom. The first democratic ruler of Germany was Prince Max of Baden, whose short-lived government attempted unsuccessfully to save Germany from chaos after the fighting ceased in 1918.
The underlying theme of the modernist project — that humans are moral beings who have the power to create, improve and reshape their environment through experimentation, scientific knowledge and technology — had suffered a near fatal blow in the blood-soaked trenches, where science aided, rather than hindered, the slaughter.
The last blow for modernism was the Degenerate Art exhibition, held in Munich in 1937. Hitler’s offensive against the art of the Weimar Republic was intended to show the public that art that wasn’t Aryan was immoral and corrupt. Art was certainly intended to be revolutionary, as artists aimed to overthrow rather than enlighten. The interwar flowering of German art was dead.