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Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

Courtney Tenz
October 27, 2017

Germany’s Weimar Republic (1918-1933) was a colourful yet contradictory time marked by political, artistic and societal revolution. A new exhibition in Frankfurt showcases the art that stunningly captures the era.

Frankfurt - Schirn Kunstfalle - Weimar Republik Ausstellung: Otto Dix, Dame mit Nerz und Schleier, 1920
Image: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, Judy and Michael Steinhardt Collection, New York

The Weimar Republic, Germany's first attempt at democracy, came immediately on the heels of the First World War and ended with Hitler's rise to power in 1933. 

Amid these contradictions, the era is often noted for its decadence: women experienced a self-liberation they had never felt before, homosexuality was slightly less taboo, and alcohol was flowing in dancehalls and venues across Berlin.

Indeed, Berlin's reputation preceded itself. A restructuring of its boundaries combined with an influx of immigrants made it the third largest city in the world during the 1920s. These immigrants flooding the city — the war injured, members of high society, industrial workers as well as artists — brought with them a diversity of experience that quickly made Weimar Berlin a study in contrasts.

While women strolled the Ku'damm in fur stoles, over in the working class neighborhoods hungry people were crammed into dirty tenements. 

Berlin in 1919: Women go to the polls for the first time
Berlin in 1919: Women go to the polls for the first timeImage: ullstein bild

While the era has now been portrayed on the screen in Tom Tykwer's acclaimed "Babylon Berlin" series, a new exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, "Splendor and Misery in the Weimar Republic," showcases the contemporary artists that captured the moment.

Comprising 190 works by 62 different artists from the Weimar era, the exhibition focuses on the uneasiness felt at the time — something which is evidenced both in the content of the pieces, but also in their motifs and styles that were influenced by the rising Dada and Cubist art movements.

Ausstellung Richard Nagy Gallery London
George Grosz: "Fern im Süd das schöne Spanien" (1919)Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Richard Nagy Gallery

Read more: How German was Picasso?

As the exhibition's curator, Dr. Ingrid Pfeiffer, explains, the exhibition seeks to explore the ways in which, 100 years following the beginning of the Weimar Era, we can see how it constructed the foundation of our modern principles.

"We often read the history of the Weimar Republic from the end backwards—from its transition to National Socialism and World War II,” she writes. 

Industrial advancements and economic depression

Weimar era artists, writers and other cultural players were intent on capturing the turmoil and hubbub of the times — especially in the capital of the republic, Berlin. 

Alfred Döblin wrote of a street scene in his novel "Berlin Alexanderplatz," published in 1929, that is easy to envision:

"On Alexan­der­platz they are tearing up the road for the under­ground train. You walk on boards. The elec­tric trol­leys cross the square and go up Alexan­der­strasse through Münzstrasse as far as Rosen­thaler Tor. There are streets to the right and left. In the streets, the houses stand close together. They are full of people from the cellar to the attic. Below are the stores…But above and behind the stores are apart­ments, and at the back are court­yards, side build­ings, lateral build­ings, build­ings behind the tene­ments accessed via a court­yard, backs of build­ings.”

Read more: Weimar exhibition kicks off Bauhaus centennial

On the one hand, you see industrial advancement and a hint of wealth in the post-war country. On the other, the social inequality that came along with economic depression.

The new reality

Characterized by these social tensions and political struggles, the Weimar Republic proved fertile soil for artists working at the time. 

Otto Dix: "Nelly als Flora" (1940)
Otto Dix: "Nelly als Flora" (1940)Image: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

Berlin-born Jeanne Mammen returned to her birth city from France as refugee during World War I. During the Weimar years, she maintained a studio just off the Ku'damm that afforded her a front row seat from which to survey the wealthy, privileged elite whom she sketched at nightclubs and parties.

Otto Dix, himself a veteran of the First World War, likewise captured social milieus in the city, though his focus was on the rampant prostitution and war injured who filled the streets.

These artists and their contemporaries showcased the struggle for democracy, and reflected the reality of trying to build a life in a transitioning society that was sandwiched between crises. The new realism, or New Objectivity, art movement of the time was filled with political and societal criticism, art that revealed the economic divide underlining industrialization.

Through documenting the contradictions of the times, modern art was also coming of age, according to Pfeiffer. "In spite of the negative sociopolitical developments that the artists so succinctly describe in their works, it was during the Weimar Republic that modernism, which continues to shape our lives to this day, developed," she said.

"The Weimar Republic was a progressive era in which many pioneering ideas were formed—not only in art, architecture, and design. Besides the manifest misery, it is these tendencies that for me distinguish the splendor of the Weimar Republic.”

The exhibition runs from October 27, 2017 through February 25, 2018.