Dancing on the Volcano
Art from the Weimar Republic in Frankfurt and Bielefeld

How topical are Expressionism and the art of the Weimar Republic today? This question is examined by two large-scale exhibitions supported by important loans from Deutsche Bank. At Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Der böse Expressionismus (The Evil Expressionism) is on view. The title already indicates that the show takes a fresh look at a popular art movement. And Schirn in Frankfurt is showing Glanz und Elend in der Weimarer Republik (Splendor and Misery in the Weimar Republic), an exhibition devoted to art from a time that was full of upheavals and not so different from the present. In George Grosz’ 1920 drawing Der Agitator (The Agitator) from the Deutsche Bank Collection and the eponymous 1931 painting by Curt Querner, we encounter a type of politician that is omnipresent today: populists and nationalists who fight for votes with platitudinous slogans and simple truths.

With 190 paintings, prints, and sculptures, as well as films, newspapers, posters, and photographs, Schirn is presenting a panorama of German art between 1918 and 1933. Alongside well-known names such as Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, the show features some exciting rediscoveries, including many women artists such as Hanna Nagel with her shocking depictions of the consequences of section 218 of the German constitution, which outlawed abortion.

The exhibition paints a picture of a society in crisis. Numerous artists mirror reality in an unadorned manner. Such realism characterizes most of the exhibits, which range from Rudolf Schlichter’s Margot, a typical portrait of the self-assured “New Woman” of the 1920s, to Karl Hofer’s Arbeitslose (Unemployed People, 1932). The five men in the painting from the Deutsche Bank Collection suffer a similar fate. Yet Hofer does not show them as a  supportive community: each one looks absently in a different direction and is alone with his destiny.

The exhibition deals with life on the streets of the big city and political unrest, as well as social changes caused by industrialization and the growing enthusiasm for sports, which is expressed in Rudolf Belling’s great bronze portrait of boxing star Max Schmeling and in Max Oppenheimer’s dynamic painting Sechstagerennen (Six Day Race). Hedonism and mechanization, conflicts between poor and rich, city and country—the works reflect a fragmented society whose ambivalence shows parallels with the present day.

While Verism and New Objectivity are at the center of the show at Schirn, the exhibition at Kunsthalle Bielefeld focuses on Expressionism, the avant-garde of the preceding generation. Once scandalous outsiders, the Expressionists are audience favorites today. Their landscape paintings have been reproduced millions of times on postcards as well as in calendars and illustrated books.

Yet the Expressionists actually viewed themselves as fighters against conventions. “We do not want to entertain citizens, we want to demolish insidiously the bourgeoisie’s comfortable, solemnly elevated view of the world,” declared Herwarth Walden’s journal Der Sturm, the mouthpiece of the Expressionists that was launched in 1910. They reacted to a backward Wilhelminian social order geared to feudal and militaristic ideals that was overwhelmed by the rapid social changes taking place, by industrialization and rural exodus, fast-growing big cities, housing shortages, and massive poverty. This system began to collapse after the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914.

Young Expressionist artists and poets rehearsed rebellion against conventions. “Antipathy toward everything that from afar looked like bourgeois feelings or habits,” noted Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in his diary. They searched for a new, more primeval life in harmony with nature. This is attested to by their landscape paintings, as well as by works such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s  sketch Kniende Frauen (Kneeling Women) from the Deutsche Bank Collection, which he executed in 1912 on the island of Fehmarn in the Baltic Sea. Like Erich Heckel’s naked bathers, these motifs stand for a longing for physicality and freedom beyond societal norms.

For his part, the big-city artist Kirchner reflects himself in his Selbstbildnis im Morphiumrausch (Self-Portrait under the Influence of Morphium,1917), in which the artist’s head almost seems to burst. Oskar Kokoschka’s Female Nude Seated on the Ground (1913) from the Deutsche Bank collection is just as radical. The sitting woman can be seen as symbolizing existential need and doubt. Among the highlights of the show are George Grosz’s caricature-like café and street scenes, as well as pictures by lesser-known artists: Gert H. Wollheim’s exploding Head, Hans Richter’s ecstatic Visionary Portrait, and Jakob Steinhardt’s Pogrom. On the eve of the First World War, Steinhardt depicts the pogrom mood as expressing a profoundly inhumane society. As in Frankfurt, the artists in Bielefeld also serve as seismographs for the crises of their day, a time that in some respects shockingly resembles our own. 

Der böse Expressionismus. Trauma und Tabu
Until 3/11/2018
Kunsthalle Bielefeld

Glanz und Elend in der Weimarer Republik
Until 2/25/18
Schirn, Frankfurt am Main