The Mad Square – Modernity in German Art
Friday, 25 November 2011
NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road , Southbank, VIC, 3004.
The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-1937 is a major international loan exhibition focussing on German Modernism. This important and insightful exhibition emphasises the legacy of innovation left by the Weimar Republic on art and culture over the decades.The range of artworks makes this the most comprehensive exhibition of European Modernism art ever to be shown in Australia.
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The New Objectivity (in German: Neue Sachlichkeit) is a term used to characterize the attitude of public life in Weimar Germany as well as the art, literature, music, and architecture created to adapt to it. Rather than some goal of philosophical objectivity, it was meant to imply a turn towards practical engagement with the world—an all-business attitude, understood by Germans as intrinsically American: “The Neue Sachlichkeit is Americanism, cult of the objective, the hard fact, the predilection for functional work, professional conscientiousness, and usefulness.”
The term was originally the title of an art exhibition staged by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, the director of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim, to showcase artists who were working in a post-expressionist spirit, but it took a life of its own, going beyond Hartlaub’s intentions. As these artists rejected the self-involvement and romantic longings of the expressionists, Weimar intellectuals in general made a call to arms for public collaboration, engagement, and rejection of romantic idealism.
The movement essentially ended in 1933 with the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis to power.
Although ‘New Objectivity’ has been the most common translation of ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’, other translations have included ‘New Matter-of-factness’, ‘New Resignation’, ‘New Sobriety,’ and ‘New Dispassion’. An introductory note by author Dennis Crockett in German post-expressionism explains that there is no direct English translation, and breaks down the meaning in the original German:
Sachlichkeit should be understood by its root, Sach, meaning “thing”, “fact”, “subject”, or “object.” Sachlich could be best understood as “factual”, “matter-of-fact”, “impartial”, “practical”, or “precise”; Sachlichkeit is the noun form of the adjective/adverb and usually implies “matter-of-factness”.
In particular, Crockett tries to argue against the view implied by the translation of ‘New Resignation’, which he says is a popular misunderstanding of the attitude it describes. The idea that it conveys ‘resignation’ comes from the notion that the age of great socialist revolutions was over and that the left-leaning intellectuals who were living in Germany at the time wanted to adapt themselves to the social order represented in the Weimar Republic. Crockett tries to ground the word to its original meaning as intended by Hartlaub, and points out that the art of the Neue Sachlichkeit was meant to be more forward in political action than the modes of Expressionism it was turning against.
Felix Nussbaum, The Mad Square, 1931
Felix Nussbaum was born in Osnabrück, Hanover, as the son of Rahel and Philipp Nussbaum. Philipp was a World War I veteran and German patriot before the rise of the Nazis. He was an amateur painter when he was younger, but was forced to pursue other means of work for financial reasons. He therefore encouraged his son’s artwork passionately.
Felix was a lifelong student, beginning his formal studies in 1920 in Hamburg and Berlin, and continuing as long as the contemporary political situation allowed him. In his earlier works, Nussbaum was heavily influenced by Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Rousseau and he eventually pays homage to Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà as well. Carl Hofer’s expressionist painting influenced Felix’s careful approach to color.
In 1933, Nussbaum was studying under scholarship in Rome at the Berlin Academy of the Arts when the Nazis gained control of Germany. Adolf Hitler sent his Minister of Propaganda to Rome in April, to explain to the artist elites how “a Nazi artist is to develop”, which entailed promoting heroism and the Aryan race. Nussbaum realised at this point that, as a Jew, he could not remain at the academy.
HideThe Entartete Kunst exhibit
By 1937, the concept of degeneracy was firmly entrenched in Nazi policy. On June 30 of that year Goebbels put Adolf Ziegler, the head of the Reichskammer der Bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of Visual Art), in charge of a six-man commission authorized to confiscate from museums and art collections throughout the Reich, any remaining art deemed modern, degenerate, or subversive. These works were then to be presented to the public in an exhibit intended to incite further revulsion against the “perverse Jewish spirit” penetrating German culture.
Over 5,000 works were seized, including 1,052 by Nolde, 759 by Heckel, 639 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and 508 by Max Beckmann, as well as smaller numbers of works by such artists as Alexander Archipenko, Marc Chagall, James Ensor, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh. The Entartete Kunst exhibit, featuring over 650 paintings, sculptures, prints, and books from the collections of thirty two German museums, premiered in Munich on July 19, 1937 and remained on view until November 30 before travelling to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria.
The exhibit was held on the second floor of a building formerly occupied by the Institute of Archaeology. Viewers had to reach the exhibit by means of a narrow staircase. The first sculpture was an oversized, theatrical portrait of Jesus, which purposely intimidated viewers as they literally bumped into it in order to enter. The rooms were made of temporary partitions and deliberately chaotic and overfilled. Pictures were crowded together, sometimes unframed, usually hung by cord.
The first three rooms were grouped thematically. The first room contained works considered demeaning of religion; the second featured works by Jewish artists in particular; the third contained works deemed insulting to the women, soldiers and farmers of Germany. The rest of the exhibit had no particular theme.
There were slogans painted on the walls. For example:
Insolent mockery of the Divine under Centrist rule
Revelation of the Jewish racial soul
An insult to German womanhood
The ideal—cretin and whore
Deliberate sabotage of national defense
German farmers—a Yiddish view
The Jewish longing for the wilderness reveals itself—in Germany the Negro becomes the racial ideal of a degenerate art
Madness becomes method
Nature as seen by sick minds
Even museum bigwigs called this the “art of the German people”
Speeches of Nazi party leaders contrasted with artist manifestos from various art movements, such as Dada and Surrealism. Next to many paintings were labels indicating how much money a museum spent to acquire the artwork. In the case of paintings acquired during the post-war Weimar hyperinflation of the early 1920s, when the cost of a kilo loaf of bread reached 233 billion German marks, the prices of the paintings were of course greatly exaggerated. The exhibit was designed to promote the idea that modernism was a conspiracy by people who hated German decency, frequently identified as Jewish-Bolshevist, although only six of the 112 artists included in the exhibition were in fact Jewish.
A few weeks after the opening of the exhibition, Goebbels ordered a second and more thorough scouring of German art collections; inventory lists indicate that the artworks seized in this second round, combined with those gathered prior to the exhibition, amounted to some 16,558 works.
Coinciding with the Entartete Kunst exhibition, the Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German art exhibition) made its premiere amid much pageantry. This exhibition, held at the palatial Haus der deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), displayed the work of officially approved artists such as Arno Breker and Adolf Wissel. At the end of four months Entartete Kunst had attracted over two million visitors, nearly three and a half times the number that visited the nearby Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung.