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Arts

Old Berlin comes to life in New York exhibition

Berlin's 'moment' has arguably come and gone, but in the US people are flocking to an exhibition of art from a relatively obscure time and place: Berlin between the world wars.

In one room of the latest exhibition at the Neue Galerie in New York City, dozens of people are circling a macabre mannequin with German military garb and a startling pig's head. The figure, John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter's "Prussian Archangel," reigns over walls covered in Dada art and grotesque dolls from the era.

"I didn't know she would do bizzaro puppets," one visitor, Diane Smook, enthuses about Hannah Hoech's "Dada puppets." "It's really cool."

Upstairs, a 1927 film about daily life in Berlin plays on a continuous loop. Patrons cram five rows of benches to take in the black-and-white scenes of railroad tracks, streets and factories in Walter Ruttman's "Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis."

Another patron has a hard time tearing herself away.

"I would love to watch the whole thing," said Marilyn Gordon, who was visiting from Michigan. "It's intriguing to me to see what life was like then and what it ended up being, and to think of all the turmoil that went on in between."

As Berliners wonder whether years of limelight and gentrification have dulled the city's luster, people in New York are flocking to a show focusing on a short chapter from the German capital's past - about 400 works of painting, sculpture, photography and other mediums made between the world wars. On a recent visit to the Neue Galerie on Manhattan's Upper East Side, dozens of people waited in line to see the show, "Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933," and you could barely move once inside.

Lasting relevance

So what gives? Have New Yorkers contracted a strange case of 'Sehnsucht' (longing)? Or is something else at work in the US fashion and financial capital?

George Grosz' painting 'Diablo Player,' from 1920. Copyright: 2015 Estate of George Grosz/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

George Grosz' painting 'Diablo Player,' from 1920

During a tour of the show, museum spokeswoman Rebecca Lewis pointed out there are more similarities between Weimar Germany and the contemporary US than first meet the eye.

"In the same way they were sort of dealing with the modern metropolis, that's kind of how we're dealing with technology now," Rebecca Lewis said in front of Ludwig Meidner's "I and the City," a claustrophobic 1913 portrait of a face circled by hostile-looking buildings.

"Everything is changing so quickly, we don't really know how to make sense of it," she continued. "It feels like everything is outpacing itself constantly. That angst that they were feeling is something we can relate to today.

Meidner's oil-on-canvas work is a kind of set piece to the show. In a room the museum has called "The New Woman," samples of 1920s fashion intersperse acerbic interpretations of the family. In one example, Hoech's "The Bride (Panorama)," a man mindlessly clutches the arm of a woman whose head has been supplanted by a gigantic baby face. The child gasps at a circle of symbols that seem to represent the matrimony to come - a heart in chains, a weeping eye, a ravenously suckling babe.

Paintings by George Grosz, Christian Schad and Rudolf Schlichter, among others, tackle more aspects of the tumult Germany experienced after World War I ended and as the rise of Nazism loomed. Grosz's decadent cityscapes and Schad's frank treatment of sexuality give visitors a new perspective on Germany in the first half of the 20th century.

"I've never seen anything like this before from that period," said an Indiana man who gave his name as Elliot. "It's very interesting, what was going on in Berlin."

The Klimt factor

He and his wife had come to "Berlin Metropolis" on a recommendation from friends. Others were in town to see the museum's main attraction, a permanent exhibit of paintings by Gustav Klimt.

A recent pair of films touching on the artist has given a major boost to the Neue Galerie. Admission jumped from 92,091 visitors in 2013 to 180,032 last year, when "Monuments Men" came out, according to the museum. The film is about the efforts to recover artwork stolen by the Nazis - including Klimt masterpieces that changed hands during World War II.

This year's "Woman In Gold," about the effort to recover one of the main works currently at the Neue Galerie, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," have put the institution on track to draw even more visitors, according to a spokesman.

A reproduction of Herbert Bayer's 1932 'Lonely Metropolitan' Montage. Copyright: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

A reproduction of Herbert Bayer's 1932 'Lonely Metropolitan' montage

Several who came to the museum for Klimt were quick to draw lessons from works in the "Berlin Metropolis" show. Gordon said conditions depicted in the turbulent paintings by Grosz, Otto Dix and others reminded her of her home state's struggling hub of Detroit.

"The biggest relevant factor is we don't want that to happen again today," she said.

Looking for lessons

Olaf Peters, a Germany-based professor who organized the exhibit, cited more technical reasons as his inspiration for the show. "I was interested in avant-garde techniques like montage and collage," he said.

But he added that works from interwar Germany, known as the Weimar Republic, have a broader interest, too.

"We are also in these days taking about a economic crisis, a political crisis, the crisis with the refugees and wars all over the world," Peters said in a phone interview from the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Saxony-Anhalt. "Weimar was to some degree a state in crisis. Therefore I think it was interesting to have a look back in history to understand the present in a more appropriate way."

The last room in "Berlin Metropolis" features works dealing with the rise of Nazism. "Adolf the Superman Swallows Gold and Spouts Rubbish," by John Heartfield, shows Hitler as a money-eating monster. Several Nazi posters exemplify the movement's stark propaganda. A large painting by Schlichter called "Blind Power" provides a frightening, critical interpretation of the Nazis' violent vocabulary and methods.

Elliot and a companion said they were surprised to find "so much life" in such works.

"It's got some mysterious draw," he said. "I think that's why you see all these people here."

"Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933" runs until January 4 at New York's Neue Galerie.

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