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 spent listening to the then banned music of Kurt Weill at one of the Stuttgart houses, Willett decided to begin his researches into the German art movements during the Weimar Republic. For him, the result of these was to correct the view held by many major critics until recently “that the modern movement in the arts had its home in Paris and that the Weimar Republic had been of no real importance.”
The story of the interrelationship of politics and the arts in Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic is a complex and varied one. Politically it concerns the effects on the Germans of revolution, inflation, the British and French policies of making Germany “pay till the pips squeak” (to cite the phrase of the Rothermere press), the contagion of the Russian revolution, the eruption within Germany itself of reactionary forces as dark and fanatical as the forces of terrorism today, and the graph of the growing power of the Nazis. The pressure and the effects of all these constantly shifting forces in Germany produced the feeling of living in a perpetual crisis: a feeling which, in its perverse way, was democratic—in the sense of a democracy of the nerves, of the effects of sensational events, shared deprivations, and anxiety upon the senses.
John Willett traces the influence of these external political events upon the artists, writers, architects, theater directors, makers of films, photographers, editors: he examines the movements and groups they formed, beginning with Dadaists and Russian constructivists, and ending with, in Moscow, the 1932 first plenum of the central organizing committee of Soviet writers, and, in Berlin in 1933, the shutting down of the Bauhaus and the organization by the Nazis of a Kulturbolschewismus exhibition. For Mr. Willett the German experience cannot be understood apart from the often-ignored revolutionary struggle at the end of the war when the savage reaction of the Freikorps rightists was accompanied by assassinations like those of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. There followed some years of comparative but deceptive calm, leading to the great building boom of the mid-Twenties during the Stresemann era; and, finally, political life swerved downward through the Wall Street crash and Hitler’s takeover of power.
Mr. Willett guides us through all this, supplying us with a cultural map of middle Europe in the 1920s. He has made charts of the main artistic movements, together with their political links. He gives a chronological table listing the background of political events and developments in art and architecture, theater and film, music, ballet and opera, writing and publishing.
Reading through his ambitious taxonomy, one may demur that, although there have been many art movements in this century, the history of art is not really the history of movements but of artists who, whether or not they belong to such groups, break beyond their boundaries. However, an art movement can be equivalent to a political party, and one might say that the stronger the pressure of politics on the lives which are the material of the artist’s work, the more probable it is that artists will join together in movements, especially if the art movement has at some points a revolutionary aim which it shares or seems to share with politics. At any rate only by regarding Central European art through the conspectus of art movements can Mr. Willett provide a scheme relating the passion of art to politics.
His book is written with a kind of organizational passion. By this I mean a power of focusing directions, movements, tendencies, individual artists, into a unity of vision. This unity is finally the unity of tragedy: the tragedy of the destruction of an immensely vital and productive period of art which was swamped by politics. One aspect of—and indeed perhaps a reason for—the tragedy was the tendency of artists to identify the transforming power of the imagination with the hope for the transformation of society by the political forces of revolution.
In the early stages of the Russian revolution this dream of the fusion of political exigency with poetic imagination doubtless affected the revolutionary leaders. This would certainly be true in the case of Trotsky and some other brilliant and inflammatory Russian leaders. But in the long run “the recognition of necessity” became the supreme consideration which destroyed any and every poetic impulse standing in the way of the fulfillment of the revolution’s organizational goals. This tragedy first overtook the Russian artists (who had so much influence on their German colleagues), becoming complete with the consolidation by Stalin of his dictatorship. When the German artists later became victims of Hitler, he in fact borrowed many of the methods of Stalin. An ironic postscript is added to the tragedy by the emigration of German writers like Anna Seghers, Johannes Becher, and others into the Soviet Union in the early Thirties, to be regurgitated many years later in the East German Democratic Republic.
Mr. Willett’s drama opens with the Expressionists E.L. Kirchner, Erich Heckell, Schmidt-Rottluff, Otto Dix, László Moholy-Nagy, George Grosz, all at the front in 1917. There many of these artists formed attitudes that were antimilitarist, pacifist, and sympathetic to the Bolsheviks—and often remained so until 1933. Erwin Piscator—then aged twenty—later to become the communist producer with a genius for applying new technology to the mechanics of theater used as propaganda, wrote later that he had acquired all his political views in the trenches.
The Russian revolution was a very palpable specter haunting the Germany of postwar revolution and chaos, the Weimar Republic, the period of inflation, outbursts and skirmishes of revolution and counterrevolution in Berlin and Munich. Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders looked to Germany as the place where their own revolution in an industrially backward land of peasants would be fulfilled along the prophesied Marxist lines: the collapse of the capitalist imperialist society, the taking over of industry by the industrial proletariat.
Russia itself was in so intense a state of ferment that the ideas of leaders, the revolutionary masses, the agitation of soldiers and sailors and workers in factories all seemed scenarios for the Expressionist theater of later German producers of plays by Georg Kaiser, Ernst Toller, and Brecht. The idea of a conductor directing a concert of which the instruments were factory whistles seems perfectly appropriate to this period: whistles ushering in the dawn of the Soviet industrial revolution. At the same time the esoteric art of Suprematists like Malevitch and the constructivist Rodchenko did not seem alien to mass culture. It has the look of forms enfolded in machined acorns that might burst into a mighty technical forest. And however much the work of individuals, such creations were also the products of movements, with the now very visible pathos of the politics of art yearning toward the politics of revolution.
Tatlin’s famous model for a tower commemorating the Third International, exhibited in Moscow in 1920 (where Ilya Ehrenburg saw in it “a glimpse of the twenty-first century”), has, with its upward-twisting spirals pointed toward the stars, become perhaps a monument of the tragedy of the artists who confused political revolution with the revolution of the imagination. Their names could be chiseled on its base, and Shelley’s line “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of Mankind” be modified to “Poets are the buried legislators of the imagination in the twentieth century.”
As Mr. Willett points out, the Germany of the Weimar Republic, put in purdah by France and England, was almost forced to turn toward Russia. This greatly influenced the arts. Delegations of German artists (one of them led by George Grosz) went to Moscow. Russians came to Germany, some of them (like Kandinsky) to stay. They brought with them Russian ideas of constructivist art. There were also Russian émigrés in Berlin, of whom Vladimir Nabokov became the most famous (while firmly rejecting as illusory any suggestion that the revolution would bring a new freedom). There was a Russian trilingual journal called Veshch (“Object”) planned by Ehrenburg and Lissitzky in Berlin which, besides fostering Russian-German interchanges in knowledge of each nation’s art, would stand for “constructive art, whose task is not to decorate our life but to organize it.”