Edited by Ingrid Pfeiffer

Hirmer. 300 pages. £45/$55. ISBN 978-3-7774-2933-5 (distributed by Chicago University Press)

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There is a popular image of life in the Weimar Republic which largely revolves around nightclubs and cafés, and somewhat shady activities involving sexual adventures and misadventures. I suspect that a lot of people imagine that there was a general atmosphere prevalent in Berlin that is to be admired for its openness to experimentation and freedom in gender relations, and their expression in the arts. That may have been true, but it was more than likely limited to certain areas of society. Berlin and its artists and intellectuals were not necessarily representative of Germany in general. When a reaction set in, the traditional opposition to what was seen as looser social and moral behaviour proved to be more powerful than the attitudes of the advocates of sexual and artistic tolerance.

It was a fact that the young democracy established in 1918 after Germany’s defeat in the Great War, the abdication of the Kaiser, and the first free elections in which a much-expanded electorate could participate, was under threat from its inception. Elements from both the Left and the Right launched attacks on it, sometimes in the form of attempted armed uprisings. Intellectuals criticised it because it didn’t seem to move fast enough to meet demands made on it by groups with specific interests. And the effects of the sanctions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles took their toll. Germany in defeat had to pay massive reparations, deal with social chaos, unemployment, devastating inflation, the impact of the number of dead and wounded the country had suffered, and other factors.

Even when things began to improve, and there was a degree of stability established, a kind of nervousness and unease pervaded the wider social mood.  It only required a major upset in the economic system to bring about the downfall of the Weimar Republic. The onset of the Depression in 1929 started the process whereby the Nazis came to power. They had the opportunistic backing of big business and other influential groups (police, elements of the armed forces), and eventually enough popular support to give their ideas an appearance of legitimate authority. And they proved to be extremely effective in establishing that authority against a divided opposition. The socialists (SPD) and communists (KPD) were usually at loggerheads, with the latter often more intent on attacking the SPD as “social fascists” than in combating the real fascists. And there was little that well-meaning liberals could do when faced with the brutal behaviour of Nazi streetfighters.

In the arts, especially those concerned with the visual, the immediate post-war years saw a move to “a new form of realism or naturalism”. Expressionism’s status had declined. The “New Objectivity”, as it was referred to, employed “a linear style based on clear contours and plastic and static form elements, coupled with a painting technique reminiscent of the Old Masters, with several layers and glazes”. Ingrid Pfeiffer in her informative introduction to Splendour and Misery in the Weimar Republic makes it clear that it “focuses on topics which revolve around the political and social tensions and hence tend to apply to the left wing”. But she also points out that the New Objectivity could include artists who represented a “New German Romanticism” which incorporated “an uncritical, pseudo-idyllic basic attitude”.

She draws a useful comparison between portraits by Christian Schad and Werner Peiner, both of which, on the face of it, would appear to satisfy traditional requirements (as laid down by the art establishment, and also the Nazis ) in terms of their techniques. But Schad “chose subjects that were far too decadent to fit in with the new worldview” and, for obvious practical reasons, mostly retreated from art to manage a brewery when Hitler came to power. It’s hard to imagine his 1928 “Two Girls”, who both seem to be masturbating, or his graphic 1929 “Boys in Love”, being acceptable to the puritans among the Nazis, or to many among the general public. None of Schad’s women would fit to the blonde Aryan image.   As for Peiner, he “did indeed develop during the 1930s to become a successful Nazi painter”. It’s worth noting Pfeiffer’s comment that, in the period concerned, “the traditional genre” in art production far outweighed that of the avant-garde.

Some of the best-known images of the 1920s were probably produced by George Grosz and Otto Dix. Their representations of disabled war veterans, prostitutes, pimps, bloated businessmen, and others symptomatic of a corrupt and decadent society, have perhaps shaped our ideas about Weimar Germany, or at least Berlin. Grosz was associated with Berlin Dada which was far more political in its practice and purpose of art than its counterparts in Zurich, Paris, and New York. His work was satirical, savage, and suggestive of a moralist with an eye for the follies of his society. The faces in his 1925 “Street Scene” seem sufficiently distorted to make them provocative in terms of what they represent (an ex-serviceman, an indifferent passer-by, a cigar-smoking bourgeois), whereas those in the 1931 “Berlin Street” are, on the whole, less severe. It is suggested, in Dorothy Price’s essay on “Germany’s New Woman”, that by the early-Thirties there was a noticeable shift in artistic portrayals “toward an increasingly dangerous conservatism”. Could it be that this is similarly evident in the Grosz painting? He may have sensed the way the wind was blowing and tempered his work accordingly before he left Germany when the Nazis took over.

Otto Dix was less overtly-political than Grosz, though his 1923 “Pimp and Girl” may have been making an oblique point by having the pimp look not unlike Hitler, with his little moustache and flattened-down hair. The man was not yet completely dangerous in 1923, and could still be made fun of. Other artists could be equally critical of the Nazis, as in Georg Scholz’s 1923 “Patriotic Education”, and even as late as 1929 in Gerd Graetz’s “Jeering National Socialists”. But Dix was not  inclined to make direct political comments. His art often focused on the grotesque, as in the 1923 “Whore with War Invalid,” which shows a woman whose face is marked with syphilitic sores alongside a man whose face has been ripped apart on one side from his mouth towards his right ear. It is a truly disturbing drawing, and directs the viewer’s thoughts to a consideration of both social decay and military disaster.

One of the notable things about this book, and the exhibition it was designed for, is that it features work by a number of women artists. And it usefully devotes attention to the material that some of them produced for magazines and newspapers. Jeanne Mammen was one of the most prominent among them, and she could combine illustration with social comment. Her 1928 “She Represents” and the 1931 “Tranvestite Hall” might focus on the seeming openness of Weimar society, but what are we to make of the 1933 “Glimpse into the Future”, which could, on the surface, be about a scene of frivolity and fun, but in which nobody looks particularly happy. 1933 was, of course, a fateful year.

Some women artists used their work to highlight protests about “Paragraph 218” of the Criminal Code which made it a crime punishable by a prison sentence for a pregnant woman who attempted to have an abortion and for the person who carried out the abortion. Kathe Kollwitz produced posters for the Communist Party which called for the abolition of the law, and Hannah Hoch, who had been associated with the Dadaists at one time, painted “Misery (Mother and Child)” in 1930/31, while Hannah Nagel created several striking works around the same time. According to Karoline Hille’s essay on the subject, ideological differences between the SPD and the KPD hampered the campaign to repeal Paragraph 218, and there was widespread opposition to reform from religious and Nazi sources.

Another succesful woman artist, at least for a time in the 1920s, was Dodo (Dörte Clara Wolff) whose “interests as an artist lay in sophisticated scenes of big-city life, bars, dance cafés, theatres, and revue stages”. Her illustrations, many of them for a magazine called Ulk, show the fashionable at play, though there may be some satirical intention in one called “The Hero”, which has a top-hatted, cigar-smoking complacent man with his arm around an attractive woman. It’s significant that she is displaying what looks like an expensive ring on a hand that is at the forefront of the picture. It could be a case of “diamonds are a girl’s best friend”.  Dodo left Germany in 1936 and came to live in London, where she made a living by creating illustrations “for greetings cards and Christmas cards for the publishers Raphael Tuck & Sons”,

If many of the paintings and drawings appear to focus on people in the cafés and clubs of the artistic and sexual avant-gardes, or on the indulgences of the wealthy, what of the workers?  Even at the best of times during the Weimar years there was unemployment and the misery that went with it. Heinrich Ilgenfritz’s 1928-32 “The Breadwinner” is shocking in its implications. It shows a naked woman, clearly working as a prostitute, and in the background her obviously hungry family.

There are other illustrations that demonstrate that it wasn’t all “splendour” in the Weimer Republic. Grethe Jürgens’ 1929 “Unemployed Workers”, and Karl Hofer’s 1932 painting with the same title, point to the “misery”. Hainz Hamisch’s 1932 “Unemployed Shipyard Worker” has an angry-looking man scowling at the viewer. The dates of these pictures may tell a story in that, in hard times, people are as likely, perhaps even more so, to turn to the right as to the left. Hitler’s rise to power wasn’t founded solely on support from businessmen and the banks, as communists liked to suggest. There is a connecting line between Otto Dix’s 1923 “We Want Bread” (banners seen from inside a café full of well-fed people) and Hans Grundig’s 1932 “Hunger March (Café Republik)”, and it suggests that perhaps not much had changed for many people in the intervening years,

There were artists in Germany in the Weimar years whose work could be identified as belonging in the New Objectivity category, but who weren’t either political or inclined to picture the lives of those who frequented gay or lesbian or transvestite clubs. Lotte Laserstein’s 1929 “Tennis Player” is straightforward enough and might be an example of the “healthy bodies” philosophy that some people believed in. Her 1929 portrait of “Polly Tieck” is very striking and does more than simply provide a photographic image of its subject. There is character created in both the pose and the face. I was curious about Tieck, and a brief search on the internet indicated that she was a journalist who lost her job when the National Socialists moved in. She left Germany in the 1930s and spent the rest of her life in Chile. Richard Birnstengel’s 1927 “Laboratory Assistant” might be taken for a socialist realist painting if seen in another context, and it may be relevant to note that he survived the war years and later worked in East Germany, where he produced conventional landscapes and paintings of workers.

The government in the Weimar Republic did try to make some social advancements while struggling to deal with disorder on the streets. There were schemes to incorporate workers on to the boards of large companies, and attempts to improve the infrastructure of cities and towns, along with plans to ensure the smooth running of traffic. But as well as being under pressure from those, including artists and intellectuals, who didn’t think the government was doing enough, there was opposition from many who thought it was perhaps attempting to do too much. “Liberalism” was looked on as a dirty word, and there was often a desire for a more-traditional kind of government, even sometimes an authoritarian one, to take over. It needs to be remembered that, prior to 1918, Germany had never had a democratic system of government. Voting rights had been limited, and social control strictly applied on the whole. The Weimar years were not welcomed by everyone.

Splendour and Misery in the Weimar Republic is an exciting survey of a subject that never fails to be interesting and provocative. It succeeds partly because it incorporates a wide variety of artists, many of them probably little known outside Germany, other than to specialists. It mostly doesn’t attempt to give the impression that the clubs and cabarets catering for those with esoteric and/or erotic  interests were dominant in the 1920s. Observe the swastika badge in the jacket lapel of the man in Georg Scholz’s 1921 “Café (Swastika Knight)”, or the one painted on the helmet of the determined-looking individual dominating Horst Naumann’s 1928/29 “Weimar Carnival”, for a taste of the future.

The catalogue was published in conjunction with the exhibition, Splendour and Misery in the Weimar Republic at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 17th October, 2017, to 25th February, 2018.