The Weimar Wind Tunnel

The period between 1917 and 1933 in Germany, Austria, and most other countries of Central Europe seems today like some terrible subsidence of history, a grand canyon. At the bottom of this canyon we see a life going on that was particularly active in literature and all the arts. Centered on Berlin it radiates outward over the rest of Germany during the years of the Weimar Republic.

Several exhibitions held in West Berlin in 1977 were devoted to the theme of the arts in Germany during the Twenties—not only painting, music, and literature but also architecture, design, theater, cinema, books, printing, posters, periodicals, and manifestoes (particularly of the Dadaists). There was a wealth of photographs and documents illustrating the social and cultural background—often a violent and obtrusive one—to these civilized activities. In 1978 the Paris-Berlin exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris brought much of this and other additional material to Paris and exhibited it side by side with examples from the French arts done contemporaneously with the German exhibits. The title of the Paris exhibition was “Rapports et Contrastes.”

The painting exhibits, interesting and important as they were, did not remove the impression that during the period entre deux guerres rapports between French and German artists were few and far between. In painting the influences were one way, the French on the German, not the German on the French. In Paris, there were few exhibitions of work by Germans—or indeed any non-Ecole de Paris contemporaries—between 1917 and 1933. On the other hand, modern architecture was an international style in which Germany played a leading and exemplary part largely because it was sponsored by the state and local authorities on a far greater scale than in France, where Le Corbusier was a leader of the movement.

The true internationalism in the arts of the time was in architecture and design of furniture, ceramics, utensils, rather than in painting, music and poetry, even when painters in different countries had common aims—such as that of making the world of machinery the center of their art. In the theater and, cinema Germany was, as André Gide remarked, “thirty years ahead of France.” The Weimar Republic, with all its defects, has to be understood, as Count Harry Kessler put it, “as a new way of living, a new assessment of what life is for and how it is lived.”

Going to the 1977 West Berlin exhibitions and carrying away in a bag provided for that purpose brick-weight catalogues crammed with highly informative illustrations and articles, one felt oneself to be bearing away something like a mausoleum of names of doomed artists; their works last appeared in Germany, until after the war, at the Exhibition of Degenerate Art held in Hitler’s Munich in 1937. John Willett was in Germany at that time. In Dessau he saw the Bauhaus buildings of Gropius, and in Stuttgart the famous thirty-three houses by “outstanding modern architects from Behrens to Corbusier.” After hearing a friend describe an afternoon…

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