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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 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.”

Mr. Willett stresses the aims of objectivity among German artists in the early and mid-Twenties onward and he relates them to the failure of the left. After the anticipated communist revolution did not take place, and after the Kapp Putsch, the Russian leaders no longer counted on the inevitability of a German communist state. Moreover many of the artists were bourgeois at heart. Willett quotes from an account by Franz Jung of a meeting of a party formed by Aktion editor Franz Pfemfert. Those present were told by Pfemfert that “it was for each of them to make the revolution.” At this, records Jung, “there was silence. The meeting, where a moment before everyone had been shouting at one another, dispersed as if touched by an icy breath.”

As the hopes of the left were brutally shattered by the ruthless violence of the right, the “Expressionist Utopia” of “lofty fraternal sentiments” withered. So did confidence that the power of passionate sympathy for victims could be expressed in art and allied to socialism so as to change the world. Reacting against Expressionism (which still remained a dominant force in the theater), many painters and poets sought to create works which were impersonal, objective, and which referred to the logic of machinery rather than the feelings of individuals. This fascination with the objectivity of machinery was of course an international phenomenon in the art of the Twenties—prominently so in the painting of Leger, but it had been obvious also in the earlier work of the Futurists and the Metaphysical schools in Italy. What is peculiar to German art of the period is how many different, even seemingly opposed, activities and tendencies can be connected under the heading “new objectivity.”

In the early Twenties, for example, the director of the Mannheim Municipal Gallery became interested in a new naturalism in painting, the aim of which he called “a positively tangible reality.” This tendency was also reflected in the plays of Brecht, which were more realist than Expressionist. In 1925 Hartlaub put together an exhibition of pictures of what he called “tangible reality” under the heading “Die neue Sachlichkeit,” which suggests to Mr. Willett the title of his book. “Sachlichkeit,” he points out, is inadequately translated by the English word “objectivity.” Its meaning might partly be suggested by “thingishness” or perhaps “objectness.” The significance lies in the emphasis on the thing, the external reality seen by spectators out there, separate from their feelings, resistant to any impulse to identify their emotions with it.

The new “Sachlichkeit” brought together a great many tendencies, perceptions, doubts. The stoniness of a stone has impersonal thingishness. But so does a mathematical symbol or a primary unit multiply reproduced, out of which many objects can be constructed. Thus if the “neue Sachlichkeit” looked forward to “magic realism” and even surrealism, it also looked back to Russian constructivism, and recalled Moholy-Nagy’s remarks in the magazine Ma on the Soviet art exhibition, held in Berlin in 1922:

technology, machine, Socialism… Constructivism is pure substance. It is not confined to picture-frame and pedestal. It expands into industry and architecture, into objects and relationships. Constructivism is the socialism of vision.

With hindsight, one can see that these remarks (and there are many like them), if they avoid the sentimental fallacies of Expressionism, are charged with other illusions—if we assume they were made in the belief that “neue Sachlichkeit” would provide the core of aesthetic vision needed for the socialist society. One illusion was the assumption that the workers would like the products of constructivism. Another was that the leaders of the socialist state would give constructivist art continuous and confident support.

John Willett traces the collapse of such assumptions in the history of the relationship between the Soviet government and Soviet artists and writers from 1917 until the early Thirties. This began as a love affair between the revolutionaries of politics and a good many of the revolutionaries of the imagination—happily at first because Lenin, though academic in his own artistic taste, had colleagues who during the period of exile had interested themselves in modern European art, notably Lunacharsky, Lenin’s commissioner of enlightenment, who encouraged the avant-garde. Lenin also saw the possibilities of using the arts, particularly the movies, for the purposes of propaganda. The artists at first had their own organizations, but these were one by one taken over by the state, until finally they lost all independence and became agencies for the propagation of the Communist Party doctrine of socialist realism—however the Party, at particular moments in its history, chose to interpret this.

Willett takes as the turning point the death of Mayakovsky, who committed suicide in April 1930 after a series of setbacks in his private and public life, one of the worst being the attack on his play The Bath House—staged by Meyerhold—in an article exposing “some manifestations of petty-bourgeois ‘leftism’ in literature.” After this all the Soviet arts became official.

One might ask then whether the constructivists and those influenced by the ideas of the neue Sachlichkeit proved better judges of the relationship between art and politics than the despised Expressionists. The answer I think is that if they didn’t, their ideas were still more suggestive and imaginative. In the first place, it would be appropriate for the symbols for a socialist state to take the form of abstractions grounded in human experience yet open to unknown possibilities of invention—not a sentimental figure of a worker who never stops working, as seen through the eyes of the director of his fate. Secondly, the architects and artists working with constructivist ideas did, during the short period of German prosperity and much public spending, achieve in works of art, architecture, theater, films, literature, photographic images, what John Willett calls “a new civilization,” “a closely interlocked modern culture, ranging from Chaplin to Le Corbusier.” The essential characteristics of these works were impersonality, abdication of individualism, consciousness of the masses, and of machinery, sport, socialism.

Either architecture or revolution,” an architect is quoted here as saying. Implicit in this is the idea that buildings provide an enveloping environment which, if it is beautiful and in a beautiful setting, will civilize the inhabitants. “New styles of architecture, a change of heart.” Not only of architecture but also of functionally designed interiors of apartments in working-class tenements. Above all, the new architects argued, each apartment must have a triumphantly clean, pleasant, economical kitchen. Moreover, everything that the occupant of pristine architecture sat in, or at, or touched and handled—furniture, cups and saucers, and cooking utensils—should be of a pattern that had its own socializing design upon the user. “Sermons in saucepans” might have been the motto of the Weimar Republic, which did indeed communicate its own atmosphere of individual freedom for those who could be satisfied by useful objects in a setting of democratized humanism.

Mr. Willett in his book makes much of all this, as did also the organizers of the Berlin Twentieth Century and Paris-Berlin exhibitions. Social democrats in Germany and Austria conducted what might be called a politics of the planned environment, of which there were wonderful manifestations in Frankfurt at Ernst May’s Bruchfeldstrasse housing development—small houses and flats with, unit furniture and including the famous “Frankfurt kitchen”—as well as in Berlin in the development supervised by Bruno Taut, and in Stuttgart where one could see the beautiful double house designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. During the same years of the Weimar Republic’s prosperity there were achievements corresponding to those of architecture in theater, film, and photography. Architecture is really the keynote to all this; the most interesting stage sets, for example, were conceived of as architecture and, indeed, often designed by architects like Moholy-Nagy and Gropius.

The Bauhaus is often taken as the symbol for the splendor and misery of the Weimar Republic, and John Willett has rightly made it central to his theme. Walter Gropius, the first director of the Bauhaus, planned it as a school combining the social concept of art with freedom for the expression of individual genius. Gropius became chairman in February 1919 of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (one of those organizations for the cooperation of artists from all fields of art which sprang up at this time). He argued that “the arts must be brought together under the wing of a great architecture,” that this architecture moreover was “the business of the entire People.” When the Bauhaus (renamed State Bauhaus) was given the support of the Socialist coalition in Thuringia, Gropius declared that all the arts must be learned in the workshop: “Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all go back to the crafts.” Each of the crafts was put under two teachers: one of whom taught the technical aspects, the other, “form.”

Under these arrangements there lay considerations that were really those of politics. The emphasis on craft was a blow against the prejudice that the “artist” is of a superior class to the “craftsman,” even when the “artists” happened to be Feininger, Kandinsky, and Klee. Graver political considerations arose from attacks by local nationalists on the school for harboring Jews and for its left-wing tendencies. John Willett cites an answer by Gropius to a questionnaire, in which he seems to stick his neck out.

Since we now have no culture whatever, merely a civilization, I am convinced that for all its evil concomitants Bolshevism is probably the only way of creating the preconditions for a new culture in the foreseeable future.

After the rightest Kapp Putsch of 1920 against the Republic, students from the Bauhaus attended the burials and some socialist workers shouted leftist slogans. Gropius did not attend this ceremony but designed a very beautiful monument for the workers who had been killed. But the Bauhaus was by no means just leftist. It reflected all the tendencies of the democracy of the Weimar Republic, including mysticism and vegetarianism. Oskar Schlemmer, director of the wallpaper workshop, noted in 1921:

On the one hand, the influence of oriental culture, the cult of India, also a return to nature…also communes, vegetarianism, Tolstoyism, reaction against the war: and on the other hand, the American spirit (Amerikanismus), progress, the marvels of technology and invention, the urban environment.

These words seem to mirror in miniature the spirit of the Weimar Republic (or of those who supported it). The nature-loving Utopians were, it seems, driven out by the Constructivists, when Moholy-Nagy took over the Basic Course in 1923. At the same time, the Bauhaus was under pressure from the Thuringian government to demonstrate its usefulness. Hence the Bauhaus exhibition of 1923 (at the height of the inflation) under the slogan “Art and Technology—A New Unity.” The aims of the Bauhaus became functionalist. But then in 1923, after a failed communist rising, the provincial assembly of Thuringia was dissolved, and there were elections followed by a right-wing coalition. The Bauhaus lost all support from Thuringia. It was threatened with bankruptcy and moved to Dessau where it achieved its great successes in architecture and design. During the final Weimar years the Bauhaus, now under the control of Mies van der Rohe, moyed to a disused factory in Berlin, where it was finally closed in 1933 by the Nazis.

Mr. Willett ends his book with some rather curious conclusions:

I would be glad if this book persuaded readers of two things: first that the arts are very closely interwoven with socio-political influences and ideas, and secondly that this is not to be regretted but can at times so stimulate the artists concerned as to produce results that from any point of view are highly original.

Both these remarks are of course unexceptionable; in fact they are truisms. But Mr. Willett surely cannot mean here that Cézanne’s art is as closely interwoven with social and political influences and ideas as that of George Grosz. The important thing to note is that in some situations social and political influences and ideas are quiescent so that the artist getting on with his art hardly notices them and can concentrate, or seem to concentrate, entirely on rendering the world of his visual experience into pictorial values. In turbulent social situations he is constantly interrupted by politics, and in order to paint may feel he has within the painting (or perhaps outside it) to deal with social and political forces. While reading Mr. Willett’s book I happened to be reading Meyer Schapiro’s volume of essays, Modern Art, and I was greatly struck by the following passage, which has to do with a discussion of Cézanne’s paintings of apples:

The still life comes to stand then for a sober objectivity and an artist who struggles to attain that posture after having renounced a habitual impulsiveness or fantasy, can adopt the still life as a calming or redemptive task, a means of self-discipline and concentration; it signifies to him the commitment to the given, the simple and dispassionate—the impersonal universe of matter.

To translate this passage into the language of socially immersed or committed art along the lines of Mr. Willett’s argument one might substitute the word “expressionism” for “impulsiveness or fantasy.” From this one would conclude that the “calming or redemptive task” was that of painting in a way which had political implications. Although Meyer Schapiro uses the term “sober objectivity” (so close to a “new sobriety”), I simply cannot relate the attitude of George Grosz to the society in which he lived with that of Cézanne to life in Aix-en-Provence.

Again, I cannot disagree with Mr. Willett’s opinion that social and political concerns can at times produce highly original results. Who could possibly dispute this? But the remark would only be worth making if Mr. Willett were really implying that in some way the paintings of Grosz, Beckmann, Otto Dix, Christian Schad, and other German painters in the Paris-Berlin exhibition are better or more original than works by Matisse, Picasso, Braque, etc., because the German artists were working under far greater pressure of political events than were the French. Mr. Willett does indeed write:

…there are today growing numbers of people who are drawn to the intensely committed art of the Weimar period: it was purposeful, respectful of the urgent issues of the time and productive of original forms and methods which remain in many ways exemplary for societies like our own. Never in our century has the gale of history blown so strongly as it did down the windtunnel of those fifteen years, and to those sensitive to it, the artists whom it so buffeted and tested are more rewarding to encounter than others who lived in more sheltered areas; Grosz than Picasso, Brecht than Aragon, Tucholsky than the Bloomsbury group.

At first this reads as though it meant that Grosz is a greater artist than Picasso because he was more deeply immersed in events and Picasso less than Grosz because he led a more sheltered life. But on examination it turns out that all that Mr. Willett is saying is that if you happen to be sensitive to the wind-tunnel of the fifteen years of the Weimar Republic you will find Grosz more rewarding than Picasso. It is as though one were to say that if one is interested in insane asylums one will find Van Gogh more rewarding than Cézanne.

I am baffled by this conclusion. It seems to me enough that Mr. Willett has produced extensive evidence of the tremendous energies that certain German artists put into work of great interest, done at a time when it was impossible for them not to be immersed in the destructive element of Germany at that time. The question whether such immersion makes for greater art than that of masters for whom their life is their art remains unanswered. To attempt to answer it one would perhaps have to go deeper into the history of German art than is possible in a discussion of work produced during the years of the Weimar Republic. Then one might note that there is something traditional both about German Expressionism and German objectivity: that Mathias Grünewald is on the Expressionist side and that there is much sobriety in Dürer. During some periods of German history, at least, German painters have seemed more likely to be brought back to a reality consisting of the subject observed in all its horror and boredom than the French, who use the subject as the starting point beyond which they explore the values of the medium which is the paint.

It seems part of the difference between the German and the French tradition that in the catalogues of the Berlin exhibitions (and in the exhibitions) there were some photographs of such hauntingly appalling horror—of corpses on the Western front—that once seen one can never forget them. The Paris-Berlin catalogue of the exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou only contains photographs which are beautiful examples of this art.

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