Avant-Garde Photography in Germany, 1919-1939
In October 1928, with The Threepenny Opera playing to full houses at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm and the Wall Street crash still a year away, Berlin’s public utility companies organized a week’s festivities to establish their city as the new ville lumière. Five composers, one of them Kurt Weill, were set to write pieces on the theme of “Berlin in the light” for a band concert directed by the eminent avant-garde conductor Hermann Scherchen on the Wittenbergplatz. Brecht wrote a text to inspire Weill, which has just been published for the first time and may be rendered roughly as follows:
We’ve got so much to show
Which can’t be seen at night.
Unless you have a thousand lamps
You won’t have that much light.
Berlin’s a fair-sized town
The sun is none too bright
But switch the arc-lamps on, and you’ll
See Berlin in the light.
It ain’t a meadow by the stream
With daisies all around.
It ain’t a nook to sit and dream
It is a fair-sized town.
Why is this vision of Berlin im Licht—the brilliantly lit Berlin of the late Twenties—so evocative to us today? Why for that matter is Goodbye to Berlin so much more powerful as a title for Christopher Isherwood’s stories of the dying Weimar Republic than would have been that of the more ambitious novel which he really meant to write about it: The Lost? Looking at modern England we may think we see some obvious reasons in our local echoes of pre-Hitler Germany: the unemployment, the frustration, the hooligan violence, the aimless sexual freedom, the growth of astrology and other nonsense cults, the creation of an intellectual proletariat, the outbursts of racism, and, alas, the new concept of war as national therapy, all of which give the very idea of Berlin in the 1920s an appeal and a relevance which it never had for us at the time. An almost visceral reaction now makes young Englishmen with no particular previous knowledge feel drawn to the old German capital and the electric culture which it stands for, until names like Bauhaus, agitprop, Alabama-Song, Heartfield, Grosz, Lehrstück, and Dada turn into enchanted words for the 1980s and signposts for our own pop culture. At the same time there has to be something more to account for the equally strong American curiosity about the same historical and geographical area. For whereas both the books under review originated in Germany, it is primarily the United States to whom their English-language editions are addressed; and here the echoes are not quite the same.
More important than specific parallels, then, is the interest that any advanced society must feel in a culture that faced so many of the problems we still have to solve. If the great Paris avant-garde before 1914 established the forms and values that now so largely guide us, Germany in the 1920s began to work out how these could be socially applied and communicated, and adapted to technically and organizationally more developed modes of production. Cubism, for instance, may have little fresh inspiration to offer the modern painter—having sunk into the mainstream; yet the effect of a Cubist vision on certain 1920s photographers and cameramen can still be stimulating, as is plain from Van Deren Coke’s book, Avant-Grade Photography in Germany, 1919-1939, and the exhibition on which it was based (as seen in New York last February and before that in San Francisco).
Moreover, the process of working out went with a desire to tackle some of the social problems which, rightly or wrongly, are of most concern to Western “progressives” today: women’s rights, for a start, abortion, prostitution, and the persecution of sexual minorities. Again and again we see in the themes of pre-Hitler art (whatever the medium) a reflection not of “period” persons and places but of something much closer to us. And at once underlying and overriding all this, there looms the impending disaster of Nazism which not only gave so many of the best artists their desperate energy and cutting edge but brought all their efforts apparently to nothing, leaving the world with a huge question. For we need to know just how this “Weimar culture” was related to its abominable sequel. Did it help it to go forward or hold it back?
Now that the campaign for the modern movement and its assorted isms has slid into history, this is the great unresolved problem of the Western arts, and it gives a particular urgency to all such studies of pre-Hitler Germany, whether or not their authors see it as central to their subject. There are, however, a number of different ways of approaching the period and much depends on which is adopted. The most familiar perhaps is the evocative quest for a febrile, slightly decadent image of “the golden Twenties,” a spiced-up German version of art deco, with the tophatted, long-legged young Marlene Dietrich as its sacred cow (or maybe calf); this is still the most popular view, with a particular appeal to writers and designers of book jackets, as may be seen from Eberhard Roters’s symposium Berlin 1910-1933, which has Kirchner streetwalkers on the front and Dietrich on the back. Then there is the formal, conventional approach to the history of the twentieth-century arts, which tends to lead critics to the view that all the really exciting developments had happened by 1914 (and the outside observer to conclude that in that case most of them were feeble by comparison with what was going on in France). The logical corollary is that Weimar culture was largely reactionary, like much else that was going on in Europe at the time aside from the Surrealist movement.
A quite different view, which I share, seen something vitally new in the concern shown by artists and intellectuals of the Weimar left with the audience for the arts, with communication, the use of popular forms (like jazz), and generally with questions of the arts’ social relevance and purposeful, economical application. But there is also the self-destructive sociologizing of the younger West German Marxists, who regard all bourgeois culture as objectionable and dismiss categories like reactionary and progressive (and presumably good and bad) as meaningless; in this interpretation NS equals NS: the Neue Sachlichkeit of the later 1920s leads to National Socialist art.
The trouble with Roters’s beautifully printed book is threefold. First of all, it is supposedly confined to Berlin, whereas one of the most interesting points about the modern movement in Germany (notably as against France) was that it was not confined to the capital but flourished with considerable local spontaneity in many of the big cities. Secondly, it blurs over much else that was special to the Weimar Republic by not only starting around the beginning of the century—even before its set date of 1910—but also carrying the story in some cases well into the Nazi period; thus in addition to one or two brave survivals of the modern movement (like Karl Hartung’s striking brass torso of 1939) we are shown Hitler’s Reich Chancellery itself and Breker’s incredible figure Die Wehrmacht outside it. The book, finally, is haphazardly planned, so that not only individual artists but entire aspects of the distinctive Weimar culture get passed over and no clear editorial line emerges.
Conceived by the Swiss firm Officer du Livre as an international copublication with nearly three hundred illustrations in color offset and fine gravure, this symposium was at first meant to deal with Berlin art and architecture in the 1920s only. Dr. Roters, the overall editor and writer of the major chapter on painting, then decided to extend its scope backward and forward in time, and outward to cover theater and movies. As a result not only are other equally important arts not dealt with at all—photography, literature, music, and the new opera—but the six writers themselves adopt somewhat different approaches, whether to the limits set them or to the subject as a whole. Thus Ulrich Gregor on film and Arno Paul on theater pay more attention than the others to works of social and political commitment (such as Kuhle Wampe and So ist das Leben) while at the same time defining the period they deal with more tightly: from the first Student of Prague (1913) to The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) in the former case, and from Sorge’s Der Bettler (1917) to Johst’s Schlageter (1933) in the latter. Only here does the story acquire a shape and the period an identity.
Roters himself, who is the director of the recently founded Berlinische Galerie, tends rather to concentrate on minor Berlin artists, preferably those with no social ax to grind; thus the Novembergruppe gets a fair exposure, but not so the communist artists’ association. Roters’s judgments are interesting, if not wholly logical, as when Willi Baumeister’s work is ignored and that of Malevich, the Soviet Suprematist who visited Berlin only briefly and too late to exert any identifiable influence there, is discussed at some length.
Much the same somewhat random eclecticism can be seen in the chapter on sculpture by Joachim Heusinger von Waldegg (the only contributor from outside Berlin itself), which appears to accept Archipenko, Arp, and even Alexander Calder as more relevant to “artistic accomplishment in Berlin” than those fine artists Schlemmer (who rates one small reproduction of a wire relief) and Mataré (who is unillustrated). Heusinger’s enthusiasm is rather for the modified classicism of sculptors like Marcks, Kolbe, and Blumenthal, which of course survived in more sentimentalized or brutalized form right into the Nazi period. And similarly too with the architecture, whose treatment by Janos Frecot and Sonja Günther, while embracing such non-Berlin developments as the Bauhaus and the Weissenhofsiedlung, is generally tilted away from the International Style and its social and economic implications.
Such inconsistencies do not make Berlin 1910-1933 by any means an unattractive book, for the main feature of both volumes under review is of course the illustrations, and here a certain unpredictability can be a positive advantage. Especially to those already familiar with the main achievements of the period, the work of second- and third-rank painters and sculptors is often fascinating—Georg Tappert’s nude of 1910 for instance, or Moriz Melzer’s laminated abstract painting of 1917 called Segnung—though it could be argued that the non-expert reader deserves something better. Once again the final chapters on movies and the theater are not so erratic, being illustrated largely from the West Berlin Kinemathek and the rich resources of the Cologne theater museum at Schloss Wahn. Here are the young Peter Lorre in Die Pioniere in Ingolstadt and some fine drawings by Caspar Neher for Brecht and by Ernst Stern for Max Reinhardt’s mass theater of 1919-1923. Compared with these, the architectural illustrations at the start of the book give a heavily conservative impression. But for anyone prepared to accept it not as cultural history but as a solid and entertaining medium-sized picture book, Roters’s compilation will be full of interest.
The writing is another matter. Far too often the translation leaves one gasping for the meaning like a stranded goldfish. German writers have a great fondness for massed abstractions, and you need a resourceful English stylist to attempt to cope with these at all faithfully; anyone else would be better advised to cut through them and make an intelligible paraphrase. The worst thing of all is to try to invent equivalents. This, alas, has been attempted here, resulting in such appalling neologisms as “massivity,” “promoterism,” and “motoricity,” to say nothing of adjectives like “equananimous” and “utopic”—my aging typewriter boggles at producing them. And when will translators learn that Pathos in German is not what is normally meant by “pathos” in English, but a term used to convey highly charged emotion of any kind? Here we get such gibberish as “the pathos that earmarked monument style” and “a terrifying pathos of fait accompli emerges.” It is difficult to believe that a native English speaker could have passed this.
In fact the detailed editing of the book has been altogether too sloppy. Max Ensor (for James), Paul Reich (for Wilhelm), Arnold Franck (for Fanck): errors like these, or the identification of the five-pointed star on Mies van der Rohe’s Spartacist memorial as the “star of David” can stop people from taking the text seriously. And how can Arno Paul (who after all knows English pretty well) be made to say that Macheath’s classic question in The Threepenny Opera, “Was ist ein Dietrich gegen eine Aktie?” means “What is Dietrich worth compared to a stock certificate?”—allegedly an illustration of Brecht’s “critical verity with regard to the system”? A Dietrich is a jimmy or picklock. If Professor Paul was not sent a proof of the translation it says little for the importance attributed to the writer in a book like this.
Aside from a handful of geniuses like Klee (who is not mentioned at all) the truly remarkable German achievements between 1910 and 1933 lay in those arts that demanded a collective and/or a highly mechanized approach: architecture (notably such collective enterprises as the Bauhaus and the Weissenhofsiedlung), the theater and movies, opera and music festivals, and photography. This was where Paris, which unquestionably still led the world in painting, had little comparable to show. It is unkind perhaps, but symptomatic, to quote what Dr. Roters has to say about the last of these arts, as mediated by his translator:
Photography was the first of the technological visual media to make home delivery of a secondhand reality to serve as a stereotyped surrogate for the original and, via film and television, it has radically changed our habits as spectators by disastrous manipulation….
Fortunately Avant-Garde Photography in Germany, 1919-1939 helps to set the record straight with its hundred-odd well-reproduced examples, taken almost entirely during the Weimar years. This book too is basically an import, printed in West Germany and with a patchwork of frequently repetitive text, copyrighted by Mr. Coke but derived from an essay by Ute Eskildsen of Essen. Once again, however, its point lies in the pictures, which include masterpieces by a wide range of names: Moholy-Nagy, Sander, Burchartz, Umbo, Sasha Stone, Bloss-feldt, Renger-Patzsch, the Feininger brothers, and so on. If this is manipulation it has all the stimulating effects of massage.
All the same, once the importance of German photography has been accepted (as it must be accepted by anyone with half an eye) there are still some crucial points to be debated here too: crucial not only for photography but also for our interpretation of the Weimar period. First of all there is the relationship between the photographers proper—like Sander, who was working as such well before the First World War—and those artists who followed the path of Moholy-Nagy and the Soviet artist Aleksandr Rodschenko through Dada and/or Constructivism to the camera. Some modern adepts now criticize the latter group of pioneers for introducing an unnecessary “art” component into an otherwise mundane and functional pursuit. Here Coke and his associates give a fair showing to both sides, though their own inclination seems to be toward the glossy still life or portrait such as became increasingly prominent in the 1930s, sometimes with a surreal twist, as in photographs of erotic dolls by Hans Bellmer or the photomontages of Herbert Bayer.
Then there were the social, technical, and commercial developments that opened up new possibilities for photography. These can be seen, for example, in the evolution of the miniature camera (most brilliantly exploited by Erich Salomon, who was to photojournalism what the famous reporter Blowitz was to foreign correspondence) and in the establishment by a band of remarkable publishers and editors of the first truly modern illustrated magazines. There is no point generalizing about this aspect of the story; it needs detailed exploration.
Finally—and badly neglected by the organizers both of the book and of last winter’s exhibition which occasioned it—there is the conscious use of photography as an instrument of social criticism, capable of being wielded by the underdog himself. Though the Russians also saw the point of this, it was primarily a German development, associated particularly with the Arbeiter-Internationale-Zeitung, and, through that unique journal, with the political photomontage practiced by John Heartfield.
Such issues are still in some measure controversial, and the fact that they can be paralleled across the whole range of the arts at that time and place is ultimately what makes Weimar culture so intriguing. At the end of the line lay the Holocaust; we know that now, and cannot shut our minds to it, but even in those days there were artists who sensed something of the kind, whose hatred and despair can still be felt like a current running through their work. Beyond that lies the highly developed world in which we now live, where so many of the ideas suggested by Weimar seem to have resurfaced with a new relevance.
For we have moved into a phase, like it or not, where the arts need to be interpreted as well as executed in accordance with factors that previously were passed over quite differently: time and cost, for instance (including such matters as overtime and union restrictions); the receptivity of the audience and the conditions of presentation (including lighting and acoustics); the size, level, and nature of the public addressed (varying from a small inbred group to several million telespectators). Dealing with all these formerly “inartistic” aspects of the chosen medium, as well as a continually evolving technology, is now part of the creative process, and the artist ignores it at his peril.
Half a century or so ago it was the Germans who made the bravest attempt to drag art onto this unfamiliar ground. At that time only a few of their experiments were taken up elsewhere and carried further; much of their most interesting work was suppressed after 1933, when the change in the creative climate was radical, going far beyond merely formal considerations. Today, however, there seems to be scarcely any field that they did not open up to new possibilities. Tragic as it is that the Weimar artists could not pursue these themselves, the wires are still live.