Ocean Liners: Speed and Style @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This is one of the most spectacular and dramatically staged exhibitions I’ve ever been to.

Normandie in New York (1935-39) Collection French Lines

Normandie in New York (1935-39) Collection French Lines

The golden age of the ocean liner from the turn of the twentieth century to the Second World War coincides with the evolution of key decorative trends of the 20th century – Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modernism. This exhibition takes a systematic approach to showcasing not only the decorative arts movements but a whole range of elements connected to the rise of the great ocean liners. To name a few:

  • national prestige – European nations competed to have the biggest, most luxurious ocean liners
  • technical competition to, for example, cross the Atlantic in the quickest time and win the Blue Riband
  • engineering – with a room devoted to black and white films of liners being built, models of steam turbines and other technical aspects
  • quite a number of very big models of classic liners, some with cutaway views so you can see into everything from cabins and dining rooms down into engine rooms and cargo holds

But where the exhibition really impresses is in the extraordinary thoroughness with which the entire environment has been conceived, and the scale of some of its key rooms.

For example, the first room has a wall with a big wall label introducing the history and art of ocean liners. It took me a while to realise that the wall itself is painted black with a red line along the bottom and slopes gently outwards like the hull of an actual liner. In front of it is a metal bollard of the kind the liner would tie mooring lines onto, and down at ground level was a concealed light projecting the shimmering as of water onto the lower part of the wall. It is the hull of a ship. Next to it is a wall of posters, and some monitors showing footage of people getting on to old liners – and then, to continue the exhibition, you walk through a doorway cut into this imaginary hull. It’s clever and stylish.

The wall of stylish Art Deco posters at Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

The wall of stylish Art Deco posters at Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

The next room wonderfully recreates the dark wood feel of a pre-Great War liner, heavy with wood panelling and Art Nouveau glass, both which featuring motifs derived from Versailles Palace of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

Another room examines smaller aspects of shipboard design as it developed from the 1920s through to the 1960s. This features a wonderful mural by English artist Edward Bawden (soon to be the subject of an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery), as well as a monitor with footage showing how the stylish evening dress of the 20s and 30s declined into the relaxed casual wear of the 50s and 60s.

The Art Deco objects are thrilling and sleek – it is a style which never goes out of fashion – whereas the wall lamps and mounts from the 50s and 60s look tacky and dated.

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)

On a similar scale is the room about Engineering and the War. The engineering element is conveyed by cutaway models of ships highlighting the enormous coal-powered turbines, by highly evocative black and white footage of shipbuilders working in the Clyde or Belfast shipyards.

But the attention to detail, to creating a total sensory and visual experience which I mentioned re the sloping hull-wall, comes out in the way the engineering ‘room’ has a deep thrumming sound in it, the sound engines actually beneath the ship’s decks – and by the way the floor changes from parquet to metal plate decking with chevron mouldings, giving just this room a more industrial feel. In one corner is an enormous model of a ship’s funnel painted black and red which also forms part of the wall of the next room. This room contains one of Stanley Spencer’s inspirational paintings of shipworkers on the Clyde.

Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Sir Stanley Spencer (early 1940s)

Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Sir Stanley Spencer (early 1940s)

It also contains a wall describing ocean liners in war, with a focus on the horrific sinking of the Lusitania by German U-boat on 7 May 1915 with the loss of 1,201 people. This section includes photos of the ship, a film recreation of the event, and the stirring patriotic poster which resulted.

'Enlist' by Fred Spear (1915)

Enlist by Fred Spear (1915)

This feel of a ‘sensaround experience’ – the opening room with its curving ship’s hull wall, the engine room with its humming engines – is reinforced by a wonderful Art Deco room adorned with strong vertical lights and displaying the enormous interior panel from the Smoking Room of the French liner, Normandie, created by leading Art Deco lacquer artist Jean Dunand. Photos show it in situ but none of them can convey the sheer scale of the thing itself.

Interior panel from the Smoking Room of the French liner, Normandie by Jean Dunand

Interior panel from the Smoking Room of the French liner, Normandie by Jean Dunand

But impressive though all these rooms are, they turn out to be mere foreplay for the stunning centrepiece of the show.

The V&A has converted a large room in the North Court into a kind of night-time fantasia of the gracious living to be found on the classic ocean liners. The high ceiling of this huge space has been covered in black felt and dotted with lights to recreate the sparkling stars to be seen at night-time far out in the light-free ocean. Reaching up into this night sky is a tower of huge video screens onto which are projected time lapse footage of a man in evening dress and a woman in an elegant gown stylishly descending imaginary stairs down to our (ground level).

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

This central column is surrounded on three sides with display cases showing all aspects of the luxury of life on a cruise: a whole load of evening gowns and dresses in beautiful Deco fashion, studded with pearls and jewels; earrings, necklaces, jewellery that would have been worn; and an entire wall dedicated to food with footage of the famous chef Auguste Escoffier preparing meals for his lucky passengers alongside luxury sets of plate, the cutlery and tea services you would have found in tip-top VIP accommodation.

But that isn’t all. You enter this enormous space by walking around a mock-up of a typical ocean liner swimming pool made of coloured glass, around which and in which are shop window mannekins wearing stylish swimsuits from the era. Behind them, and the length of one wall, is an enormous wide-screen projection of a liner sailing slowly across a panoramic view of a beautiful calm tropical sea.

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Wow! Just wow! I’ve never seen something so ambitious and overwhelming as this one huge display. You go around looking at the tea services and dresses and so on, but keep returning to just gaze in awe up at the tower of stylish evening-wear models or across at the stately liner in the blue sea, and are continually gobsmacked at the size and ambition of the whole space.

There are panels about the importance of class distinctions on the liners, about the difference in conditions, food and facilities for first, second or third-class passengers. There is another room full of the art inspired by ocean liners, including paintings by the likes of Albert Gleizes and Charles Demuth and some great black and white photos by Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray.

There are objets de luxe to coo over, like a precious Cartier tiara recovered from the sinking Lusitania in 1915 or the Duke of Windsor’s sumptuous 1940s Goyard luggage. There’s a little corner devoted to the wonderful Marlene Dietrich, including footage of her posing onboard a liner and a case containing a Christian Dior suit worn by the lady herself.

The show also includes what the museum describes as one of the most important flapper dresses in the V&A’s collection – Jeanne Lanvin’s ‘Salambo’ dress – a version of which was displayed at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. The dress belonged to Emilie Grigsby, a renowned wealthy American beauty, who regularly travelled between the UK and New York aboard the Aquitania, Olympic and Lusitania throughout the 1910s and 1920s.

The silk georgette and glass-beaded Salambo dress designed by Jeanne Lanvin of Paris (1925)

Silk georgette and glass-beaded Salambo dress designed by Jeanne Lanvin of Paris (1925)

And for anyone (like my Dad) who likes big scale models of ships, this exhibition is nirvana.

But after looking at display cases showing all these items or explaining all the industrial, technological and social history of the ocean liner, from Isambard Kingdom Brunel to the Queen Mary, you keep returning to the Big Room, and the sheer scale of its awesome display of swimming models, night gowns, the moving footage, all unfolding under the mocked-up night sky.

This really is an amazing and dazzling exhibition.

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Curator: Ghislaine Wood


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33 edited by Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann (2015)

This awesomely big, heavy hardback book is the catalogue published to accompany a major exhibition of Weimar Art held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015.

It contains some 150 glossy, mostly colour reproductions of a huge variety of works (mostly paintings and drawings, but also quite a few stunning art photos from the period) by nearly 50 artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity movement. The main text is followed by 28 pages of potted biographies of all the main artists and photographers of the time. All very useful.

Die Begegnung by Anton Räderscheidt

Die Begegnung by Anton Räderscheidt

I had only gleaned hints and guesses about many of these artists from the two books on the Weimar Culture by John Willetts which I read recently, and this book is exactly what I wanted – it goes to town with a really comprehensive overview of the different types of Neue Sachlichkeit and then – crucially – gives you plenty of examples so you can understand their common themes but diverse styles for yourself.

As I’d begun to figure out for myself in my post about New Objectivity, the phrase Neue Sachlichkeit was never a movement in the way Impressionism, Fauvism, Futurism or Dada were, never a self-conscious tag used by a cohort of allied artists. As so often, it was an attempt by critics to make sense of what was going on, in this case in post-war German art.

Weimar art came in a lot of varieties but what they all had in common was a rejection of the strident emotionalism and deliberately expressive style of German Expressionism, and a return to figurative painting, generally done to a meticulous and painterly finish. A rejection of utopian spiritualism, or apocalyptic fantasies, or the deep existential angst of the artist – and a sober, matter-of-fact depiction of the actual modern world in front of them.

Self-portrait with Ophthalmological Models by Herbert Ploberger 91928)

Self-portrait with Ophthalmological Models by Herbert Ploberger (1928)

The term Neue Sachlichkeit (as we are told in virtually every one of the book’s 14 essays, pp.6, 17-18, 105, 126, 203) was coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, the director of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim. He used it as the title for a 1925 exhibition which for the first time brought many of the new artists working in the Weimar Republic bringing together in the same exhibition space. (The introduction explains that the new trend had already been spotted by, among others, critic Paul Westheim who labelled it Verism in 1919 and tried again with New Naturalism in 1922, by Paul Schmidt who suggested Sachlichkeit in 1920, and by the critic Franz Roh whose 1925 book, Post-Expressionism: Magic Realism (which was sold to accompany Hartlaub’s exhibition when it went on tour of German galleries) presented two possible terms.)

Roh included in his book a table with two columns, in one an Expressionist characteristic, next to it its post-Expressionist equivalent. There were 22 qualities in all. According to Roh Magical Realist paintings were notable for their: accurate detail, smooth photographic clarity, painterly finish, and portrayal of the ‘magical’ nature of the rational world. They reflect the uncanniness of people and our modern technological environment. In all these ways Roh’s phrase is arguably a better descriptor for the majority of the hyper-accurate but subtly distorted and unnerving paintings of the period. But Neue Sachlichkeit stuck.

Self-portrait by Christian Schad (1927)

Self-portrait by Christian Schad (1927)

In fact this book makes clear that the terminology has gone on being debated, refined, rejected and refreshed right down to the present day. Maybe a word cloud or, more precisely, a phrase cloud summarise some of the ways various writers have sought to characterise it. According to various writers, New Objective paintings display:

an alienated relationship to the real… a disenchanted experiential world…detached alienated people…anti-human… treating humans like objects… lack of empathy…. excessively German objectification… a cold passion for the exactness of clichés… an aesthetics of the ugly… [according to Roh] abstraction instead of empathy… [according to critic Wilhelm Michel] the rediscovery of the ‘thing’ after the crisis of the ‘I’…

The nine essays

Of the book’s 14 essays, nine on specific academic subjects, while the last five are about the five themes which the exhibition was divided into. The nine essays are:

1. New Objectivity – by Stephanie Barron introducing us to the timeframe, the basic ideas, the origins of the term and so on.

2. A Lack of Empathy by Sabine Eckmann – looking back at 19th century Realism to conclude that the New Realism turned it inside out, concentrating on surfaces but deliberately lacking old-style empathy for the subjects.

3. Hartlaub and Roh by Christian Fuhrmeister – a dry, scholarly examination of the working relationship between the museum director Hartlaub who organised the famous 1925 show and the art critic Roh, who wrote the book which introduced Magical Realism.

4. New Women, New Men, New Objectivity by Maria Makela – Makela describes the prominence of gay and lesbian people in many Weimar portrait

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

I enjoyed this article hugely for the sheer unimaginative repetitiveness of its ‘ideas’. Here are choice snippets:

a mannish lesbian who cares little for the traditional codes of femininity… images of women who blurred clear-cut gender boundaries…women’s participation in sport undermined traditional gender roles… the 1920s independent young woman who undermined traditional gender roles… the prevalence of caricatures about New Women in the illustrated mass media considerable anxiety about the breakdown of traditional gender roles… the transgression of traditional gender codes was more threatening in Germany than elsewhere… clear-cut gender boundaries were being eroded in all industrialised countries… the horrible physical and psychic maladies [caused by the war] were intolerable for many German men whose gender identity was in tatters… sex, sexual alterity and gender ambiguity… an era of gender confusion… multiple and mobile gender positionalities…

5. The Politics of New Objectivity by James A. van Dyke. Van Dyke examines this potentially huge subject via the rather small example of the 1927 exhibition of 140 New Objective art works put on by the Berlin art dealer Karl Nierendorf for which the ubiquitous art critic, Franz Roh, wrote the programme. What comes over is that as early as 1927 both left-wing and right-wing critics had begun to turn against the style, accusing it of shallowness, fashionableness and petit-bourgeois crowd-pleasing.

6. New Objectivity and ‘Totalitarianism’ by Olaf Peters – A look at how the artists and idioms of New Objectivity lived on into Hitler’s Reich and then into the East German communist dictatorship. The left-wing artists fled Hitler immediately – Grosz most famously of all, managing to flee the country only weeks before the Leader’s accession. But plenty stayed behind and Peters shows how some of the blander ‘classicists’ managed to sustain careers, some even garnering commissions from powerful Nazi figures. Politicians and some artists for a while cooked up a new movement called New German Romanticism…

The situation in post-war East Germany was even more complex, as artists attempted either to deny their Objectivist pasts or to rehabilitate Objectivism as a precursor of the state-favoured style of Socialist Realism. Peters shows artists, critics, historians and scholars bending over backwards to try and rehabilitate some of the more extreme Objectivist works with the narrow Party line. In practice this seems to have been done by examining the artists’ origins: if he was the son of working class parents his art must be proletariat, and so on. It occurred to me that one reason why Weimar is such a popular period to write about is because it was the last time German writers and artists didn’t have to lie and feel compromised about their political beliefs. It was (briefly) a vibrantly open society. Post-war both East and West Germany were more crippled and constrained by their historical legacies.

7. Painting abroad and its nationalist baggage by Keith Holz looks at the way New Objective art was perceived abroad, by the neighbouring Czechs, by the French, but mostly by the Americans.

8. Middle-class montage by Matthew S. Wittkovsky – Wittowksy suggests that montage, among many other things, can be a way of allowing the real world back into a medium torn up by modernist experiments. In other words, a cubist effect is created but with elements which are hyper-realistic (photographs).

Metropolis by Paul Citroen (1923)

Metropolis by Paul Citroen (1923)

Wittowksy points out that both Christian Schad and Otto Dix made collages during their Dada years and tries to show that the collage mentality – conceiving the painting as an assemblage of disparate elements – underpins their oil paintings. He uses Schad’s self portrait (shown above) to suggest that 1. the two human figures are disconnected. 2. They are separated from the Paris skyline by some kind of gauze. 3. Even the body of the main figure is distanced by the odd translucent chemise he’s wearing. He pushes the idea of layers into history, suggesting that  there is a collage-like superimposition between Schad’s painterly finish, derived from Northern Renaissance painters, and the 20th century subject matter.

9. Writing photography by Andreas Huyssen – This essay is not at all about Weimar photography but about the conflicted opinions about photography of a couple of Weimar-era writers and critics, namely the super-famous (if you’ve studied critical theory) Walter Benjamin, his colleague Siegfried Kracauer, the right-wing warrior and writer Ernst Jünger, and the Austrian philosophical novelist, Robert Musil. It’s always good to be reminded how culturally right-wing even Marxist sociologists and theorists are: thus both Kracauer and Benjamin thought that photography was just one of the mass media, or instruments of distraction, which were undermining older human skills and values. Huyssen is concerned with the fact that all these writers wrote collection of short pieces, short feuilletons, prose pieces and fragments, which they published in various collections, to try to convey the Modernist notion of the fragmented quality of life in the ‘modern’ city. (Wonder what any of them would make of life in Tokyo 2018.)

Like Benjamin’s buddy, Theodor Adorno, their brand of Marxism amounted to a continual lament for the good old values which were being overthrown by the triviality and vulgarity of the ‘entertainment industry’ promulgated by the hated capitalist system.

And yet…. when Hitler rose to power they all emigrated to the heart of capitalism, America, where they spent the war in exile happily slagging off the vulgarity of American culture while 300,000 American boys died in combat to liberate their culturally superior Europe.

Once Europe had been made safe again for Marxist philosophers they went back to Germany and set up the Frankfurt School for Social research where they spent the rest of their careers criticising the economic and legal system which made their cushy, professorial lives possible.

Criticisms

1. I have tried to make these essays sound interesting, and they certainly address interesting topics, but in every case the authors are more interested in the work of curators, critics, gallery owners, art dealers and so on than in the art. This means you have to wade through quite a lot of stuff about particular critics and how their views changed and evolved. Thus the art scholar Keith Holz gives us his interpretation of the German curator Fritz Schmalenbach’s essay on the changing ways in which the German curator Gustav Hartlaub used the expression Neueu Sachlichkeit. Which is of, well, pretty specialist interest shall we say.

The essay on how New Objectivism was perceived abroad, maybe inevitably, is more about galleries and curators and critics than about the work or ideas or style of particular artists.

The essay about New Objectivity in Eastern Germany is mainly about the efforts of various critics and theorists to incorporate it into narratives of German art which would be acceptable in a communist regime.

After a while you begin to wish you could read something about the artworks themselves.

The Dreamer by Heinrich Maria Davringhausen ( 1919)

The Dreamer by Heinrich Maria Davringhausen ( 1919)

2. You get the strong sense most of the essays are not written for a general public, for us who know little or nothing about the twists and turns of abstruse debates among art historians for the past forty years. They are not written in a spirit of introducing and explicating the art or the artists, or of giving a history of the reception of Weimar paintings abroad to the likes of you or me. No, the dominant feeling is that the essays are overwhelmingly written by art historians and scholars for other art historians and scholars.

3. Therefore all of the essays are written in the kind of semi-sociological jargon which is uniform among art scholars and historians these days, a prose style which rejoices in ‘projects’ and ‘negotiations’ and ‘situating’ debates and ‘transgressing gender norms’, the tired critical theory style which makes them not exactly incomprehensible, but simply boring.

The prose often sounds like the annual reports of company accountants, like the kind of corporate brochures I helped to write and distribute when I worked in the civil service. Here’s a sliver from Olaf Peters describing how difficult East German art historians found it to include New Objectivity in their orthodox Marxist narratives of German art.

The fear of the so-called bourgeois formalist tradition in art history indeed made it impossible for art historians in East Germany to appropriately analyse the artistic potential of New Objectivity. The GDR was hardly prepared aesthetically or theoretically to reflect adequately on the phenomenon of New Objectivity as an all-encompassing presence in the interwar period. (p.86)

Maybe that’s not long enough to give you the taste of crumbling concrete which so many of these essays leave behind on the palate. Here’s a slice of Keith Holz.

The comparative manoeuvres that art historians are enticed to make between New Objectivity and its apparent variations (or influences) outside Germany are not new, nor are they likely to subside. A more comprehensive approach might ask what is at stake in such comparisons by noting similarities between, say, American, Czech, French or Italian paintings of the 1920s and early 1930s and paintings associated with German New Objectivity. On the German-American front, this ground is well traversed, nowhere more critically or richly than in recent work by Andrew Hemingway. Based on substantial original research, Hemingway has recently reconstructed the careers of Stefan Hirsch, George Ault, and Louis Lozowick in relation to German art of the 1920s. Relating the German-born Hirsch to the public face of Precisionism, Hemingway stations the artist’s incipient career within a history of the promotion and reception of New Objectivity in the United States. For Hemingway, the link between these Precisionist-allied artists and German New Objectivity is the representational function of their artworks within international capitalism, particularly the reification of people and objects within this system. (p.93)

You will be thrilled to learn that Hemingway’s ‘trenchant interventions’ represent a ‘methodological paradigm shift’ in historical research. Phew.

My point is – I can read and understand the words, and I understand that these essays are (disappointingly) snippets and excerpts from long and specialised scholarly conversations about the historical interpretation of Weimar art among scholars and historians, living and dead, but — hardly any of it takes me one millimetre closer to the actual works of art.

Quite the opposite, fairly often as I waded through this prose I had to remind myself that the authors were talking about art at all, and not production figures for concrete pipes.

The Parents by Otto Dix (1921)

The Parents by Otto Dix (1921)

4. Repetition. Lots of short essays means lots of generalising introductions and lots of vapid conclusions. This helps to explain why they feel very repetitive. For example, the passage here the curator Hartlaub distinguished between left or verist painters (who use harsh satire, fierce colours and ugly caricature to make a political point) and right or classical artists (who take a more cool and detached view of the world) is explained in detail at least five times (pp.17, 29, 42, 126, 263). The idea that the Weimar era was one of political and economic turmoil is repeated in some form in most of the essays. The idea that capitalism is nasty and exploitative is repeated in almost all of them. The following quote from Walter Benjamin, about Albert Renger-Patzsch’s photo album, The World is Beautiful, is repeated three times:

In it is unmasked the posture of a photography that can endow any soup can with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists. (p.213)

In one long text like Walter Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture (which reads like a masterpiece of calm authority next to many of these works) basic ideas and events need only be mentioned once. In these dozen or more essays you find the same basic ideas (1920s city life was faster and more disorientating than ever before, women had more rights than before the war) being stated again and again and again.

In the wake of the war and in light of the rapid modernisation of working life, increased gender equality and sexual emancipation, and ongoing political uncertainty, artists sought to redefine their role in society. (p.260)

I wonder which decade from the last hundred and fifty years that hasn’t been true of.

Conclusions are hard enough to write at the best of times: it’s difficult to sum up the content of an essay without repeating it. It’s bad enough reading the conclusion of a single book, but reading 15 essays means reading 15 conclusions which, by their nature, tend to be very generalised: again and again they say that ‘more work’ needs to be done to properly understand or fully explore or adequately decode the multiple streams of art of the time. Just like any other time, then.

5. The fourth really irritating aspect about the essays is how many of these scholars appear to live in the 1970s as far as ‘capitalism’ is concerned. They all breezily refer to the evil affects of ‘capitalism’ as if we’re all a bit silly for not choosing one of the countless other economic systems we could be using, like… like, er… And quite a few deploy the word ‘bourgeois’ as if it still means anything. Witkovsky in particular is lavish with the expression:

  • The new realism could continue the avant-garde attack on bourgeois subjectivity while simultaneously addressing the incipient subjugation of all subjectivity by the seductions of capital and by political dictatorship. (p.106)
  • [Schad’s subjects] belong to a decadent social space removed from the normative bourgois economy of labour and domestic comforts. (p.106)
  • [Schad’s paintings] are montages of different social spaces. They mask the materiality of that conflict [between the different social spaces] which the photograms laid bare, but they also suggest its social dimension more directly, through the illusions of figuration. This scrambling of the separations effected by bourgeois society makes the paintings discomfiting. (p.108)
  • Sander, like the artists of the New Objectivity, fully inhabited the bourgeoisie. His chosen portrait locations likewise emanate a degree of comfort and intimacy typically associated with the private home, the single most vaunted bourgeois setting. (p.112)
  • [The photographer August Sander embarked on a project to photograph all possible job types in 1920s Germany, a project he never completed.] In the necessary incompleteness of Sander’s project lies, perversely, its greatest promise of enlightenment – a realisation that modern society is grounded in accumulation without end. Infinitude may be implicit in the foundational bourgeois idea of capital accumulation, but to put such an idea on display – and to depict it, moreover, through portraiture of the citizenry – forces a rupture with the equally bourgeois ideals of closure, separation and control. (p.113)

In short, if you like your Marxism shorn of any connection with an actual political party or programme i.e. any risk of ever being put into practice, but you still want to enjoy feeling smugly superior to ‘bourgeois’ society with its vulgar ideas of ‘capital accumulation’ and its ghastly ‘gender stereotyping’, then being a white, middle-class art historian in a state-funded university is the job for you. Your sense of irony or self-awareness will be surgically removed upon entry.

It’s not just that this anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist view seems so rife among these art scholars now, in 2018, thirty years after the collapse of communism – it’s that they’re all based in America. America. The centre of global capitalism for the past century. Do they not own private property, cars and houses and mobile phones? Are the art galleries and colleges they work for not funded and supported by big banks and finance houses (as most exhibitions are). If they’re so disgusted by capitalism and the revolting bourgeoisie why don’t they go to a country where neither exist. North Korea is lovely this time of year. The people there are wonderfully free of the reification and alienation and objectification which make life in Southern California so unbearable.


The five thematic essays

The second part of the book consists of five thematic essays, each of which is nine or ten pages long and followed by 40 or so full colour, full page reproductions. This, then, is the visual core of the book. I hoped the essays would be a bit more general and informative. Alas no.

1. Life in the Democracy and the Aftermath of War by Graham Bader. Bader invokes the usual suspects among contemporary Marxist thinkers (György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer) to declare that the art of the period reflected a new level of capitalism (‘this process of capitalist rationalisation appeared to have triumphed in the interwar period’ it was ‘rationalisation run amok’, p.125). Capitalism depersonalised people, reducing them to objects with no centre, to collections of surfaces. Bodies were ‘colonised and deformed’. Lukács lamented:

capitalist rationalisation’s penetration and capture of the human body, its dismissal of the ‘qualitative essences’ of the individual subject in the process of transforming human beings into abstractions, mere numbers for a general’s war plans or a pimp’s balance sheet. (p.131, 182, 228)

Like Lukács, Kracauer:

understood industrial capitalism’s ‘murky reason’ – its faith in a totalising abstractness that has ‘abandoned the truth in which it participates… and does not encompass man‘ – as having come to colonise rather than liberate the subjects it ostensibly served.

Among all this regurgitation of 100-year-old communist rhetoric Bader makes a simple point. The war and the crushing post-war poverty left highly visible marks on people’s bodies. The streets were full of maimed soldiers and the impoverished unemployed, and also a flood of women driven by poverty to prostitution. Hence the huge number of sketches, drawings and paintings of prostitutes and war cripples among Neue Sachlichkeit artists.

Two victims of capitalism by Otto Dix (1923)

Two victims of capitalism by Otto Dix (1923) According to Bader, ‘the paradigmatic couple of the age’ (p.130)

It doesn’t occur to Bader, any more than it occurred to any of the Weimar artists, that this situation wasn’t brought about by capitalism; it was the result of Germany losing the war. Their idiotic military leaders decided to take advantage of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to implement their long-cherished plan to knock out France in a few weeks and then grab loads of lebensraum off Russia. That resulted in a social and economic cataclysm. If lots of men were war cripples it was because they fought in a stupid war. If lots of women became prostitutes that is because Germany’s economy was brought to its knees by its leaders’ stupidity, by the fact that they were undergoing a military blockade because they lost the war.

If capitalism was always and everywhere so utterly exploitative and destructive how do you account for the experience of the 1920s in the world’s most capitalist country, America – the decade they called ‘the Roaring Twenties’, a decade of unparalleled economic growth and a huge expansion in consumer products and liberated lifestyles?

In fact the Weimar Republic experienced its golden years (1924 to 1929) precisely when it was at its most capitalistic, when it received huge loans from capitalist America and its capitalist factory owners were able to employ millions of people.

Art historians cherry pick the evidence (using a handful of paintings to represent a nation of 60 million people), quote only from a self-reinforcing clique of Marxist writers (Benjamin, Kracauer, Lukács, over and over again) and ignore the wider historical context in way which would get any decent historian sacked.

2. The City and the Nature of Landscape by Daniela Fabricius. Fabricius quotes the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch who pointed out the fairly obvious idea that different groups of people live in different ‘nows’ i.e. city dwellers live in a more technologically and culturally advanced ‘now’ than isolated country dwellers. This leads her into a consideration of different types of ‘space’, inparticular the new suburbs which sprang up outside German cities, generally of modernist architecture, which lent themselves to stylish modern photography by the likes of Arthur Köster, Werner Mantz and Albert Renger-Patzsch.

St Georgs-Garten Housing Settlement 1926 by Arthur Köster

St Georgs-Garten Housing Settlement, 1926 by Arthur Köster

Albert Renger-Patzsch published a photo album called the World is Beautiful which the egregious Walter Benjamin disliked for showing the world as beautiful and therefore not ‘problematising’ it, not subjecting it to the kind of dialectical analysis which would have shown that in fact the World Needs a Communist Revolution. Renger-Patzsch stayed in Germany during the Nazi years and was commissioned to do idealised studies of the German regions by the Nazis.

Fabricius ends her essay with a rare piece of useful information about a specific artist rather than an analysis of other art historians – by telling us a little about George Schrimpf, a self-taught painter who spent his early years bumming round south Germany, eventually getting involved with artistic and anarchist circles in Munich. All this is completely absent from his naive paintings of women in interiors with views of perfect landscapes or outside among the perfect landscapes.

On the Balcony by Georg Schrimpf (1929)

On the Balcony by Georg Schrimpf (1929)

3. Man and Machine by Pepper Stetler. Stetler explores the way the word Sachlichkeit was used as early as 1902 (by architect Hermann Muthesius) to describe a no-frills, functionalist aesthetic derived from the way machines are designed, built and work. The architecture critic Adolf Behne in the 1920s tried to shift the term to refer not to a visual style but to a way of working with machines, a way for humans to interact via machines. These were just some of the people debating this word when Hartlaub used it as the title for his famous 1925 exhibition. As well as Muthesius, Hartlaub and Behne, we are also introduced to the art historian Carl Georg Heise, the art critic Wilhelm Lot, the art critic Kurt Wilhelm-Kästner, the art critic Justus Bier, the critic Walter Benjamin and the Marxist philosopher, György Lukács. Again. Maybe the editors stipulated that Benjamin, Kracauer and Lukacs had to be referenced in every essay.

Stetler doesn’t mention it but the Dadaists had already conceived all kinds of man-machine combinations, and Dix and Grosz produced some grotesque caricatures of maimed war veterans who were more false limbs, artificial eyes, springs and contraptions, than men.

But the main thrust of this piece is to introduce a selection of wonderful paintings and photos of machinery. They demonstrate the way the machinery is 1. painted in punctiliously accurate engineering detail. 2. Is often depicted isolated, clean, often seen from below, as if it is an art work placed on a plinth for aesthetic enjoyment. 3. No people, no workers, no mess. Frozen in time. The star of the machine artists is Carl Grossberg, who trained as an architect and draftsman.

The paper machine by Carl Grossberg (1934)

The paper machine by Carl Grossberg (1934)

It is interesting to  learn how systematic and methodical these German artists were: Albert Renger-Patzsch’s project was to take 100 photographs of the modern germany for The World Is Beautiful. August Sandler’s Face of our Time (1929) contains a selection of 60 portraits from the larger project, People of the 20th Century which he intended to include 600 portrait photographs. Grossberg set out to do a series of twenty-five monster paintings which would provide a survey of Germany’s most important industries (p.209). Grosz published his drawings in themed portfolios.

4. Still Lifes and Commodities by Megan R. Luke. Luke scores full marks for mentioning Walter Benjamin early on in her essay about the New Objectivity’s use of still lives, and for slipping in a steady stream of Marxist terminology: in Weimar ‘the commodity reigned supreme’; there was a ‘general cultural anxiety’. She quotes the historian Herbert Molderings who, if not a Marxist, is happy to use Marxist terminology, on the still life photos of Neue Sachlichkeit:

‘They are the modern still lifes of the twentieth century: the expression of exchange value incarnate, the detached form of the fetish character of commodities.’ (quoted p.231)

She also takes the time to explain that photographs in adverts are designed to make us want to buy the products.

Advertising seeks not to show products of our labour or need but rather to excite and choreograph a desire that has the power to overwhelm us. (p.231)

Where would we be without art scholars to guide us through the confusing modern world?

This is the third essay in a row to tell us that the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch’s produced a photo album titled The World is Beautiful (p.236).

The only useful idea I found was that objects were somehow cleansed of all significance, hollowed out, and subjected to ‘suffocating scrutiny’. Now wonder the Walter Benjamins of this world were so deeply ambivalent about photography: it revealed the complexity of the world in a way the human eye isn’t designed to (something pointed out by Moholy-Nagy in his book on photography) and yet this new type of image runs the risk of claiming to capture or depict reality and thus – as Benjamin and Brecht emphasised – completely erasing the web of human relationships it appears amid.

If Expressionist paintings screamingly overflowed with the artist’s distraught emotions, Sachlichkeit still lives seem to have been magically drained of all passion or emotion. It is this erasure of human presence, of human touch and context, which makes so much of the photography and painting of buildings and machinery both powerfully evocative, charged with mystery and yet bereft: all at the same time.

Insulated High Tension Wires from Die Welt Ist Schon by Albert Renger-Patzsch (1928)

Insulated High Tension Wires from Die Welt Ist Schon by Albert Renger-Patzsch (1928)

5. New Identities: Type and Portraiture by Lynette Roth. Amid the politically correct commonplaces (Dix’s portrait of Sylvia von Harden ’embodies the masculinised woman whose appearance challenged norms of sexual difference’), Roth brings out how a notable aspect of Neue Sachlichkeit was the interest in types. August Sander’s project to photograph 600 ‘types’ of profession and trade is the locus classicus, but the painters Grosz or Dix also offered combinations of the same ‘types’ over and again (war cripples and prostitutes throng their works).

She suggests the use of types and sterotypes was a way of addressing, sorting out, the post-war chaos. Thin ice, because the Nazis also were keen on types, notably the good Aryan and the bad Jew. And Roth definitely doesn’t mention this, but one of the easiest stereotypes in the world is the bad capitalist and the poor innocent proletarian ‘alienated’ from his work.

I am astonished how from start to finish all the art historians and scholars in this book make extensive and unquestioning use of Marxist terminology based on a fundamentally anti-capitalist worldview. On the last page she is quoting a fellow ‘scholar’ who suggests that some of Sanders’s photographs ‘challenge hegemonic bourgeois structures’.

Quite breath-taking.


Painterly finish

In 1921 Max Doerner published a popular handbook The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting which provided information and guidance for artists wishing to use the techniques of the Old Masters, info about oil, tempera, fresco and other methods of artists like Jan van Eyck, Holbein, Rembrandt and Rubens.

Doerner’s book helped artists who were committed to painting works with hyper-realistic attention to detail and smooth invisible finish (compared to the deliberately obvious brush strokes of the impassioned Expressionists). The emphasis on portraiture of so many works of this era recall the portraits of Northern Renaissance painting.

It can be summed up in one word – painterliness – what Roth lists as ‘careful finish, attention to detail and smooth finish’ (p.263).

The current Van Eyck show at the National Gallery is focused round his wondrous use of a concave mirror, showing how this motif was picked up by later painters. I wonder if Herbert Ploberger is deliberately referencing it in the convex reflection in the powder case, middle left, in this painting.

Dressing Table by Herbert Ploberger (1926)

Dressing Table by Herbert Ploberger (1926)

Kanoldt and O’Keeffe

Doesn’t Alexander Kanoldt’s Olveano II from 1925…

… look like Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Mesa Landscape (1930)?

The spirit of the age. A parallel tendency towards cartoon simplification, of both landscape and colour.

Last words

While both an aesthetics of the ugly and modernist innovation dovetail with nineteenth-century Realism, interestingly enough it is the specific German mentality and political context that is seen as necessitating a new form of realism characterised by unconditional attack, excessive exposure, and radical critique transgressing the paradigm of empathy. (Sabine Eckmann, p.35)


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George Grosz: The Berlin Years by Ralph Jentsch (1997)

This big heavy paperback is the glossy catalogue to a comprehensive exhibition of Grosz’s work held in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection back in 1997. The long and detailed text was written by Ralph Jentsch, who is ‘managing director of the Grosz Estate, author of a number of catalogues and books on George Grosz, and a well-known expert in German Expressionism.’

It is a massive compendium of works by Grosz in all media – cartoons, caricatures, book illustrations, oil paintings, watercolours, sketches, drawings, collages and so on, not just from his mature years but starting with his earliest surviving sketches of cowboys and Indians and the heroes of boys’ own adventure stories which he loved as a lad.

There’s also plenty of evocative black-and-white photos of Grosz during the first 40 years of his life (1893 to 1933), featuring lots of semi-private shots of him messing about in his studio or playing the banjo – and also photos which give context to the story, from a typical German pub interior of the 1890s of the sort his dad ran, to street scenes in Berlin, where he made the first half of his career.

In total there are 410 numbered works and photos in the main text, plus an additional 67 b&w photos in the 16-page potted biography at the end. Lots and lots of pictures. It’s a visual feast, as they say, giving you a real sense of the visual universe he inhabited and the one he created.

(This book is the first volume of a two-volume and two-exhibition project – this one covers the Berlin years, the second one covered his time in exile in America, 1933-1959. Later, they were combined into one portmanteau book, link below.)

I’ve summarised Grosz’s life story in my review of his autobiography, A Small Yes and a Big No, no need to do it again. Instead, I’ll just mention half a dozen or so themes, issues or ideas which arise from a careful reading of this big book.

Transition from soft to hard lines

The first thirty or so pages include still life sketches done in conventional pencil or charcoal using multiple lines and hatching to create light and shade. These go alongside a consciously different style he developed for caricatures but still very formal and multi-lined with an Art Nouveau feel. He had a different style again for the pictures he was hoping to use to start a career as a book designer. Among the multitude of early sketches there are pub scenes, brawls in the street, and some gruesome (imaginary) murders. The point is – they’re all done in a much scribbled over, blurry, multi-line style.

What’s fascinating is to see how, during the war, he quickly and decisively changed his style to one of spare, scratchy single lines. Stylistically, it’s the decisive move: before – smudgy, obscure, feverishly drawn and overdrawn figures; after – scratchy, one-line figures, buildings, objects.

Evening in Motzstraße (1918)

Evening in Motzstraße (1918)

 

And so it’s fascinating to read his own account of how and why the change came about.

In order to attain a style that reproduced the hardness and insensitivity of my subjects, I studied the most direct expressions of art: I copied the folkloristic drawings in the urinals; they seemed to me the expression and most immediate rendering of strong emotions. I was also stimulated by the unequivocalness of children’s drawings. So I gradually reached my knife-hard style that I needed to draw what I saw. (Art in Danger, 1925)

I wonder if any other major artists, anywhere, ever, has credited their style as being derived from the drawings in public lavatories?

This is just one revealing quote from the many which Jentsch gives us  from Grosz’s own autobiography, from the prefaces to the books, to the justificatory notes he prepared for each of his court cases, and to the countless letters he wrote to all his friends. We learn that Grosz wrote a vast correspondence to all his friends and acquaintances, kept copies of it all (which survive) and expected long and detailed replies – or else the friends were liable to get a none-too-polite reminder.

For Grosz is a really fluent and enjoyable prose writer – his descriptions of holidays on the Baltic or the lowering atmosphere in Depression Berlin are a joy to read in their own right.

America

Jentsch’s quotes very liberally from Grosz’s autobiography (it is, after all, extremely jocular and readable) in bringing out Grosz’s obsession with America and its pop culture. As a boy he devoured the Leatherstocking novels, as well as the pulp westerns of Karl May, the detective hero Nick Carter, and loved everything American.

Having just read John Willett’s two books about Weimar art and culture, I can see that Grosz’s enthusiasm was part of a much broader cultural trend: the Germans loved American culture. Not only was there jazz which took everyone by storm, but the radio and gramophone were American inventions and everyone round the world fell in love with Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedies. Later, for the avant-garde designers and architects which Willett’s book describes, America remained the beacon of all things modern, particularly the staggering efficiency of its industry and design. Henry Ford’s many books were bestsellers in Germany, as were the innovations of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s time and motion and efficiency studies.

I always think the most incongruous fan of America in this milieu was the Marxist playwright Brecht, who wrote loads of poems about a fantasy America, devoted a play to Chicago gangsters, as well as setting a number of plays and oratorios there, like the oratorio about Lindbergh’s famous solo flight across the Atlantic. American jazz, cars, fashions and technology all stood for the exciting and new, liberated from the dead hand of Old Europe and its defunct empires.

Towards the end of his Weimar career (and in the depths of the Great Depression) Grosz’s attitude towards America (like Brecht’s) had become a good deal more satirical and critical. Now he sees all mankind as blindly greedily chasing after the consumer capitalism which America has perfected and exported to the world. But although the attitude has hardened – it’s still America at the centre of his thoughts.

Dreams, romantically dispensed and advertised a thousand times over: comfortable living, bath-tub, sports, utility car, and at best a weekend with cocktails and beauty queen. America has shown the way, we’re following after – due to war somewhat behind – in our naturally slow way. Even in Marxist Russia, America is the model and ardently desired goal. The goal is: rational exploitation of all raw material sources so as to procure comfort for the little man on the basis of mass machine production. (quoted page 135)

And the following year Grosz was himself in America, beginning the long struggle to make a new career, which is described in his autobiography and in the second of these two volumes.

Alas, several of Grosz’s biggest most colourful fantasias on American themes (from the end of the Great War and featuring cowboys with sixguns, wizened old trappers, gold miners and saloon whores) were confiscated by the Nazis and have never been found, so we only know them from old photos.

Misanthropy

Boy, Grosz hated people, he always hated people, he really hated people. Jentsch’s book clarifies that Grosz never saw action during the Great War, he had a nervous breakdown before he reached the front and ended up back in Berlin making sketches, caricatures and paintings which expressed his virulent hatred for people, for men, and for Germany in particular, for the state which had committed its young men to this suicidal folly and which, in particular, had wanted to force him into the meat grinder.

It was a combination of lathing Germany and obsessing about America which made him change his name from the original Georg Groβ to the Anglicised George Grosz (just as his close friend and collaborator Helmut Herzfeld changed his name to the Anglicised John Heartfield).

Grosz’s misanthropy makes a mockery of his so-called communist beliefs. He joined the German communist party the day it was set up in November 1918 and played a role in the 1918 Berlin revolution – he signed the declaration published by a collective of revolutionary artists – but after his trip to the USSR in 1922 (where he actually met Lenin), he quickly lost any political faith and lapsed into a universal contempt for mankind.

Hatred for humanity drips from the hundreds and hundreds of drawings and watercolours in particular, which show a relentless parade of corrupt and ugly old men, apparently surrounded by grim half-naked prostitutes.

Before sunrise (1922)

Before sunrise (1922)

As Grosz wrote to his friend J. B. Neuman:

My drawings will naturally stay true – they are fireproof. They will later be seen as Goya’s work [is]. They are not documents of the class struggle, but eternally living documents of human stupidity and brutality.

Red

In 1916 to 1918 he went through a red phase, lots of paintings done almost entirely in shades of blazing red. The house is on fire, the city is going up in flames. It didn’t last too long, but while it did it was very very red.

Metropolis (1917)

Metropolis (1917)

A painting like this displays a raft of his characteristics. The knife-hard outline styling of all the figures is well established. Humans are caricatures with hardly any attempt at naturalistic shading or modelling. Perspective has been thrown away in preference for a crazy vortex of planes which gives the sense of a crashing chaos of urban architecture. Women are more often than not half or completely naked, with a little pubic bush in sight just to ram home the point. Corruption, sex, seediness. Everywhere.

Nudes

Grosz did a surprising number of nude studies, almost all of them unflattering or verging on the grotesque. More surprisingly he did a large amount of pornographic sketches and drawings, pornographic in the sense that they show men and women very explicitly and enthusiastically engaging in sexual practices, his misanthropy coming over loud and clear in the fat ugliness of everyone involved – but also something haunted, obsessive, about portraying men and women again and again at the feverish, obsessive, pleasure filled but somehow empty, tragic, futile copulations which obsess humanity, and to what end. The obsessive reworking of the same theme (he like women bending over with big wobbly buttocks) give the sense of a man questing, searching, trying to find the answer to the reason – why? Why are we animals? Why do we behave like farmyard beasts? What is behind this absurd farce?

The sex drawings cross over with a set of disturbing sketches and paintings of a cartoon character called ‘John the slayer of women’, who was much in his thoughts in 1917 and 1918. He claimed the set was inspired by a notorious murder of the time – or was it just a misogynist way to let off steam and vent the huge amount of anger he had permanently burning inside?

John, The Lady Killer (1918)

John, The Lady Killer (1918)

Dada and collage

Grosz was a central figure in the Berlin branch of Dada which got going about 1918. He formed a close working partnership with the Herzfeld brothers who set up a publishing house for avant-garde work – the Malik-Verlag – where Grosz was able to publish a series of ‘albums’ of lithographs throughout the 1920s (nearly all of which were confiscated and banned by the authorities).

He collaborated with Helmut Herzfeld aka John Heartfield in the invention and development of photo-montage i.e. cutting out objective pictorial elements like photos or text or headlines from newspapers or magazines and pasting them in grotesque and satirical places on paintings.

Grosz considered the painting below as one of his most important, and it had pride of place at the Dada exhibition in June 1920. You can see the way any idea of perspective has been completely abandoned in the name of a potentially endless collage of objects, images and planes. The collage element of newspaper cuttings and magazine images is made particularly obvious on the table. There is characteristically bitter satire of the so-called ‘pillars’ of the establishment at the bottom. And there is a naked woman with boobs and the characteristic hint of pubic hair to the left of the main figure.

Apart from anything else, there’s a ‘Where’s Wally’ pleasure to be had in deciphering all the visual elements in these, the most cluttered works of his career.

Germany: A Winter's Tale (1918)

Germany: A Winter’s Tale (1918)

Watercolours

The thing about Grosz is he had a number of styles – or a number of ways of deploying his basic vision. Thus the book juxtaposes the intense oil paintings with the just as savage watercolours, but the latter have a very different feel. Watercolour makes them lighter and Grosz has a very stylish way of letting the colour leach and bleed around the central subjects, something not possible in oils.

Waltz dream (1918)

Waltz dream (1918)

The nipples and bush of a scantily clad woman are probably the most obvious visual element, but what I like is the variety and inventiveness of the colour and the way it is arranged in patches or facets. Surprisingly decorative, isn’t it?

De Chirico vistas and mannekins

In 1919 and 1920 Grosz experimented with a series of works which combined the disappearing vistas of perfect multi-story buildings as developed by the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, with the photo-montage he’d been developing with Heartfield. The result is uncanny, weird and grotesque objects out of material cut from newspapers and magazines. The final element is the omission of faces from the human figures, their heads instead the blank ovals of the shop-window mannekins of the day.

Republican Automatons (1920)

Republican Automatons (1920)

In a completely different style from the raging red fractured cityscapes, here Grosz presents man as a faceless automaton, a characterless shop window dummy in a soulless landscape of factories and houses, a heartless automaton made up of interchangeable parts (as Jentsch puts it, on page 122).

To ram the message home Grosz stopped signing these automaton paintings and had a stamp made which said GEORGE GROSZ CONSTRUIERT, emphasising their machine-like quality.

Portfolios and collections

Drawing can be an effective weapon against the brutal Middle Ages and stupidity of man of our time, provided that the hand is trained and the will is clear.

As early as 1916 Grosz had a plan for a vast three-volume collection of drawings to be titled The Ugliness of the Germans. In the event he managed to get published the First George Grosz Portfolio and The Little George Grosz Portfolio in small editions. As you can imagine, original copies of these are worth a fortune today.

One of the great virtues of this book is that it includes nearly all the drawings from all his major collections, including the later ones which caused such a scandal – Gott mit uns (1920), In the shade (1921), The Brigands (1922), Ecce Homo (1923), The Mirror of the Bourgeoisie (1925) The New Face of the Ruling Class (1930).

This allows you to see what all the fuss was about and judge for yourself. It also lets you see the series in context of each other, building up a cumulative effect.

Jentsch goes into detail about each of the trials, giving dates and places where Grosz and his publishers were arraigned and their punishments on each occasion (fines and confiscations). He devotes quite a few pages to a chronology of one of the longest court cases in the history of the Weimar Republic, the prosecution of Grosz and his publisher Herzfeld for just some of the illustrations created for a stage adaptation of the classic novel, The Good Soldier Svejk, which started in 1928 and went through four separate trials on into 1932.

Grosz really was a thorn in the side of respectable society and it’s worth buying the book for the portfolios alone, which in their spare directness brutally convey seething his seething anger at man’s inhumanity to man.

Lions and leopards feed their young from The Brigands (1922)

Lions and leopards feed their young from The Brigands (1922)

He was lucky, so lucky to be offered a job in New York in 1932, and to persuade his wife and children to join him early in 1933, just two weeks before Hitler came to power. He’d been taking the mickey out of Hitler, in person, for over ten years. On the day of Hitler’s accession SA troops broke into both Grosz’s flat and Berlin studio. If he’d been there he would have been taken off for interrogation, torture, and almost certain prison. Lucky man.

Siegfried Hitler by George Grosz (1922)

Siegfried Hitler by George Grosz (1922)

And he was right. To later ages, to our age, his drawings and paintings are comparable with Goya’s, as ‘eternally living documents of human stupidity and brutality’.


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The New Sobriety: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-33 by John Willett (1978)

Willett was born in 1917. He attended Winchester public school and then Christ Church, Oxford (one of, if not the, poshest Oxford college). He was just beginning a career in set design when the Second World War came along. He served in British Intelligence. After the war he worked at the Manchester Guardian, before becoming asistant to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, writing scores of reviews and articles, until he went freelance in 1967.

He had travelled to Germany just before the war and become fascinated by its culture. He met and befriended Bertolt Brecht whose plays he later translated into English. As a freelance writer Willett authored two books about the Weimar period. This is the first of the pair, published by the well-known art publisher Thames and Hudson. Like most T&H art books it has the advantage of lots of illustrations (216 in this case) and the disadvantage that most of them (in this case, all of them) are in black and white.

The New Sobriety is divided into 22 shortish chapters, followed by a 30-page-long, highly detailed Chronological Table, and a shorter bibliography. There’s also a couple of stylish one-page diagrams showing the interconnection of all the arts across Europe during the period.

Several points:

  • Though it has ‘Weimar’ in the title, the text is only partly about the Weimar Republic. It also contains lots about art in revolutionary Russia, as well as Switzerland and France. At this point you realise the title says the Weimar Period.
  • The period covered is given as 1917 but that’s not true: the early chapters start with Expressionism and Fauvism and Futurism which were all established before 1910, followed by a section dealing with the original Swiss Dada, which started around 1915.

Cool and left wing

The real point to make about this book is that it reflects Willett’s own interest in the avant-garde movements all across Europe of the period, and especially the politically committed ones. At several points he claims that all the different trends come together into a kind of Gestalt, to form the promise of a new ‘civilisation’.

It was during the second half of the 1920s that the threads which we have followed were drawn together to form something very like a new civilisation… (p.95)

The core of the book is a fantastically detailed account of the cross-fertilisation of trends in fine art, theatre, photography, graphic design, film and architecture between the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany.

In the introduction Willett confesses that he would love to see a really thorough study which related the arts to the main political and philosophical and cultural ideas of the era, but that he personally is not capable of it (p.11). Instead, his book will be:

a largely personal attempt to make sense of those mid-European works of art, in many fields and media, which came into being between the end of the First War and the start of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933. It is neither an art-historical study of movements and artistic innovations, nor a general cultural history of the Weimar Republic, but a more selective account which picks up on those aspects of the period which the writer feels to be at once the most original and the most clearly interrelated, and tries to see how and why they came about. (p.10)

‘Selective’ and ‘interrelated’ – they’re the key ideas.

When I was a student I loved this book because it opened my eyes to the extraordinary range of new avant-garde movements of the period: Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and then the burst of new ideas in theatre, graphic design, magazines, poetry and architecture.

Although Willett doesn’t come across as particularly left wing himself, the focus on the ‘radical’ innovations of Brecht and Piscator in Germany, or of Proletkult and Agitprop in Soviet Russia, give the whole book a fashionable, cool, left-wing vibe. And if you don’t know much about the period it is an eye-opening experience.

But now, as a middle-aged man, I have all kinds of reservations.

1. Willett’s account is biased and partial

As long as you remember that it is ‘personal’ view, deliberately bringing together the most avant-garde artists of the time and showing the extraordinary interconnectedness (directors, playwrights, film-makers travelling back and forth between Germany and Russia, bringing with them new books, new magazines, new ideas) it is fine. But it isn’t the whole story. I’m glad I read Walter Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture just before this, because Laqueur’s account is much more complete and more balanced.

For example, Laqueur’s book included a lot about the right wing thought of the period. It’s not that I’m sympathetic to those beliefs, but that otherwise the rise of Hitler seems inexplicable, like a tsunami coming out of nowhere. Laqueur’s book makes it very clear that all kinds of cultural and intellectual strongholds never ceased to be nationalistic, militaristic, anti-democratic and anti the Republic.

Also Laqueur’s book also plays to my middle-aged and realistic (or tired and jaundiced) opinion that all these fancy left-wing experiments in theatre (in particular), the provocations by Dada, the experimental films and so on, were in fact only ever seen by a vanishingly small percentage of the population, and most of them were (ironically) wealthy and bourgeois enough to afford theatre tickets or know about avant-garde art exhibitions.

Laqueur makes the common sense point that a lot of the books, plays and films which really characterise the period were the popular, accessible works which sold well but have mostly sunk into oblivion. It’s only in retrospect and fired up by the political radicalism of the 1960s, that latterday academics and historians select from the wide range of intellectual and artistic activity of the period those strands which appeal to them in a more modern context.

2. Willett’s modernism versus Art Deco and Surrealism

You realise how selective and partial his point of view is on the rare occasions when the wider world intrudes. Because of Willett’s compelling enthusiasm for ‘the impersonal utilitarian design’ of the Bauhaus or Russian collectivism, because of his praise of Gropius or Le Corbusier, it is easy to forget that all these ideas were in a notable minority during the period.

Thus it came as a shock when Willett devotes half a chapter to slagging off Art Deco and Surrealism, because I’d forgotten they existed during this period, so narrow is his focus. It is amusing, and significant, how much he despises both of them. The chapter (18) is called ‘Retrograde symptoms: modishness in France’ and goes on to describe the ‘capitulation and compromise’ of the French avant-garde in the mid-1920s. 1925 in particular was ‘a year of retreat all down the line’, epitomised by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes exhibition which gave its name to the style of applied arts of the period, Art deco. Willett is disgusted that dressmakers sat on the selecting committees ‘alongside obscure establishment architects and rubbishy artists like Jean-Gabriel Domergue’. Not a single German artist or designer was featured (it was a patriotic French affair after all) and Theo van Doesberg’s avant-garde movement, de Stijl was no represented in the Dutch stand.

Willet hates all this soft luxury Frenchy stuff, this ‘wishy-washy extremely mondain setting’ which was the milieu of gifted amateurs and dilettantes. It was a hateful commercialisation of cubism and fauvism, it was skin-deep modernism.

What took place here was a diffusing of the modern movement for the benefit not of the less well-off but of the luxury consumer. (p.170)

It’s only because I happen to have recently read Andrew Duncan’s encyclopedic book about Art Deco that I know that there was a vast, a truly huge world of visual arts completely separate from the avant-garde Willett is championing – which built buildings, designed the interiors of shops and homes, created fixtures and fittings, lamps and tables and chairs and beds and curtains and wallpapers, all in the luxury, colourful style we now refer to as Art Deco. Thousands of people bought the stylish originals and millions of people bought the affordable copies of all kinds of objects in this style.

Which is right?

When I was a student I also was on the side of the radical left, excited by Willett’s portrait of a world of hard-headed, functional design in homes and household goods, of agit-prop theatre and experimental film, all designed to mobilise the workers to overthrow the ruling classes and create a perfect world. Indeed the same chapter which dismisses French culture and opens with photos of elegant titled French aristocratic connoisseurs and patrons, ends with a photo of a parade by the Communist Roterfront in 1926. That’s the real people, see, that’s real comitment for you!

But therein lies the rub. The radical, anti-traditionalist, anti-bourgeois, up-the-workers movement in architecture, design, film and theatre which Willett loves did not usher in a new workers’ paradise, a new age of peace and equality – the exact opposite.

The sustained left-wing attacks on the status quo in Germany had the net effect of helping to undermine the Weimar Republic and making the advent of Hitler easier. All the funky film innovations of Eisenstein and the theatrical novelties of Meyerhold failed to create an educated, informed and critical working class in Russia, failed to establish new standards of political and social discourse – instead the extreme cliquisness of its exponents made it all the easier to round them up and control (or just execute) them, as Stalin slowly accumulated power from 1928 onwards.

Older and a bit less naive than I used to be, I am also more relaxed about political ‘commitment’. I have learned what I consider to be the big lesson in life which is that – There are a lot of people in the world. Which means a lot of people who disagree – profoundly and completely disagree – with your own beliefs, ideas, convictions. With everything you and all your friends and your favourite magazines and newspapers and TV shows and movies think. And they have as much right to live and think and talk and meet and discuss their stuff, as you do. And so democracy is the permanently messy, impure task of creating a public, political, cultural and artistic space in which all kinds of beliefs and ideas can rub along.

Willett exemplifies what I once read to be the central idea of Modernism: that there is only one narrative, one avant-garde, one movement: you have to be on the bus. He identifies his Weimar Germany-Soviet Russia axis as the movement. The French weren’t signed up to it. So he despises the French.

But we now, in 2018, live in a thoroughly post-Modernist world and the best explanation I’ve heard of the difference between modernism and post-modernism is that, in the latter, we no longer believe there is only one narrative, One Movement which you simply must, must, must belong to. There are thousands of movements. There are all types of music, looks, fashions, lifestyles.

Willett’s division of the cultural world of the 1920s into Modernist (his Bauhaus-Constructivist heroes) versus the Rest (the wishy-washy degenerate French fashion) itself seems part of the problem. It’s the same insistence on binary extremes which underlay the mentality of a Hitler or a Stalin (either you are for the Great Leader or against him). And it was the same need to push political opinions and movements to extremes which undermined the centre and led to dictatorship.

Whereas the fashionably arty French world (let alone the philistine, public school world of English culture) was simply more relaxed, less extreme. They had more shopping in them. The Art Deco world which Willett despises was the world of visual and applied art which most people, most shoppers, and most of the rich and the aspiring middle classes would have known about. (And I learned from Duncan’s book that Art Deco really was a lot about shops, about Tiffany’s and Liberty’s and Lalique’s and the design and the shop windows of these top boutiques.)

On the evidence of Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture and Duncan’s account of the Art Deco world, I now see Willett’s world of Bauhaus and Constructivism – which I once considered the be-all and end-all of 1920s art – as only one strand, just one part of a much bigger artistic and decorative universe.

Same goes for Willett’s couple of pages about Surrealism. Boy, he despises those guys. Again it was a bit of a shock to snap out of Willett’s wonderworld of Bauhaus-Constructivism to remember that there was this whole separate and different art movement afoot. Reading Ruth Brandon’s book, Surreal Lives would lead you to believe that it, Surrealism, was the big anti-bourgeois artistic movement of the day. Yet, from Willett’s point of view, focused on the Germany-Russia axis, Surrealism comes over as pitiful play acting.

He says it was unclear throughout the 1920s whether Surrealism even existed outside a handful of books made with ‘automatic writing’. When Hans Arp or Max Ernst went over to the Surrealist camp their work had nothing to tell the German avant-garde; they were German, it was more a case of the German avant-garde coming to the rescue of a pitifully under-resourced French movement.

There was in fact something slightly factitious about the very idea of Surrealist painting right up to the point when Dali arrived with his distinctively creepy academicism. (p.172)

Surrealism’s moving force, the dominating poet André Breton, is contrasted with Willett’s heroes.

Breton’s romantic irrationalism, his belief in mysterious forces and the quasi-mediumistic use of the imagination could scarcely have been more opposed to the open-eyed utilitarianism of the younger Germans, with their respect for objective facts. (p.172)

I was pleased to read that Willett, like me, finds the Surrealists ‘anti-bourgeois’ antics simply stupid schoolboy posturing.

As for his group’s aggressive public gestures, like Georges Sadoul’s insulting postcard to a Saint-Cyr colonel or the wanton breaking-up of a nightclub that dared to call itself after Les Chants de Maldoror, one of their cult books, these were bound to seem trivial to anyone who had experienced serious political violence. (p.172)

All in all, although the Surrealists bandied around the term ‘revolution’ they didn’t know what it meant, they had no idea what it was like to live through the revolutionary turmoil of Soviet Russia or the troubled years 1918 to 1923 in post-war Germany which saw repeated attempts at communist coups in Munich and Berlin, accompanied by savage street fighting between left and right. Although the Surrealists pretentiously incorporated the world revolution into the title of their magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, none of them knew what a revolution really entailed, and

Breton, Aragon and Eluard remained none the less bourgeois in their life styles and their concern with bella figura. (p.172)

There were no massacres in the streets of comfortable Paris, and certainly nothing to disturb the salon of the Princess Edmond de Polignac, who subsidised the first performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or to upset the Comtesse de Noailles, who commissioned Léger to decorate her villa at Hyères and later underwrote the ‘daring’ Surrealist film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, L’Age d’Or (1930).

In this, as in so many other things, French intellectuals come across as stylish poseurs performing for impeccably aristocratic patrons.

3. Willett’s account is clotted and cluttered

The text is clotted with names, absolutely stuffed. To give two symptoms, each chapter has a paragraph-long summary of its content which is itself often quite exhausting to read; and then the text itself suffers from being rammed full of as many names as Willett can squeeze in. Almost every sentence has at least one if not more subordinate clauses which add in detail about the subject’s other activities, or another organisation they were part of, or a list of other people they were connected to, or examples of other artists doing the same kind of thing.

Here’s a typical chapter summary, of ‘Chapter 16 Theatre for the machine age: Piscator, Brecht, the Bauhaus, agitprop‘:

Middlebrow entertainment and the revaluation of the classics. The challenge of cinema. Piscator’s first political productions and his development of documentary theatre; splitting of the Volksbühne and formation of his own company; his historic productions of 1927-8 with their use of machinery and film. The new dramaturgy and the problem of suitable plays. Brecht’s reflection of technology, notably in Mann ist Mann; his collaboration with Kurt Weill and the success of the Threepenny Opera; epic theatre and the collective approach. Boom of ‘the theatre of the times’ in 1928-9. Experiments at the Bauhaus: Schlemmer, Moholy, Nagy, Gropius’s ‘Totaltheater’ etc;. The Communist agitprop movement. Parallel developments in Russia: Meyerhold, TRAM, Tretiakoff.

Quite tiring to read, isn’t it? And that’s before you get to the actual text itself.

So Eisenstein could legitimately adopt circus techniques, just as Grosz and Mehring could appear in cabaret and Brecht before leaving Munich worked on the stage and film sketches of that great comic Karl Valentin. In 1925 a certain Walter von Hollander proposed what he called ‘education by revue’, the recruiting of writers like Mehring, Tucholsky and Weinert to ‘fill the marvellous revue form with the wit and vigour of our time’. This form was itself a kind of montage, and Reinhardt seems to have planned a ‘Revue for the Ruhr’ to which Brecht would contribute – ‘A workers’ revue’ was the critic Herbert Ihering’s description – while Piscator too hoped to open his first season with his own company in 1927 by a revue drawing on the mixed talents of his new ‘dramaturgical collective’. This scheme came to nothing, though Piscator’s earlier ‘red Revue’ – the Revue roter Rummel of 1924 – became important for the travelling agit-prop groups which various communist bodies now began forming on the model of the Soviet ‘Blue Blouses’. (p.110)

Breathless long sentences packed with names and works ranging across places and people and theatres and countries, all about everything. This is because Willett is at pains to convey his one big idea – the astonishing interconnectedness of the world of the 1920s European avant-garde – at every possible opportunity, and so embodies it in these chapter summaries and even down to the level of individual sentences.

The tendency to prose overstuffed with facts is not helped by the key aspects of the subject matter, for example the tendency of left-wing organisations to endlessly fragment and reorganise, specially in Russia where revolutionary excitement slowly morphed towards totalitarian bureaucracy, all tending to give rise to countless initialisms.

Becher, Anor Gabór and the Young Communist functionary Alfred Kurella, who that autumn [of 1927] were part of a delegation to the tenth anniversary celebrations [of the October Revolution] in Moscow, also attended the IBRL’s foundation meeting and undertook to form a German section of the body. Simultaneously some of the surviving adherents of the earlier Red Group decided to set up a sister organisation which would correspond to the Association of Artists of the Russian Revolution, an essentially academic body now posing as Proletarian. Both plans materialised in the following year, when the new German Revolutionary Artists Association (or ARBKD) was founded in March and the Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers’ League (BPRS) in October. (p.173)

4. Very historical

Willett’s approach is very historical. As a student I found it thrilling the way he relates the evolving ideas of his galaxy of avant-garde writers, artists and architects – Grosz and Dix, Gropius and Le Corbusier, Moholy-Nagy and Meyerhold, Rodchenko and Eistenstein, Piscator and Brecht – to the fast-changing political situations in Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, which, being equally ignorant of, I also found a revelation.

Now, more familiar with this sorry history, I found the book a little obviously chronological. Thus:

  • Chapter six – Revolution and the arts: Germany 1918-20, from Arbeitsrat to Dada
  • Chapter seven – Paris postwar: Dada, Les Six, the Swedish ballet, Le Corbusier
  • Chapter eight – The crucial period 1921-3; international relations and development of the media; Lenin and the New Economic Policy; Stresemann and German stabilisation

And so on.

5. Not very analytical

The helter-skelter of fraught political developments in both countries – the long lists of names, their interconnections emphasised at every opportunity – these give a tremendous sense of excitement to his account, a sense that scores of exciting artists were involved in all these fast-moving and radically experimental movements.

But, at the end of the day, I didn’t come away with any new ideas or sense of enlightenment. All the avant-garde artists he describes were responding to two basic impulses:

  1. The advent of the Machine Age (meaning gramophone, cars, airplanes, cruise ships, portable cameras, film) which prompted experiments in all the new media and the sense that all previous art was redundant.
  2. The Bolshevik Revolution – which inspired far left opinions among the artists he deals with and inspired, most obviously, the agitprop experiments in Russia and Piscator and Brecht’s experiments in Germany – theatre in the round, with few if any props, the projection onto the walls of moving pictures or graphs or newspaper headlines – all designed to make the audience think (i.e. agree with the playwright and director’s communist views).

But we sort of know about these already. From Peter Gay’s book, and then even more so Walter Laqueur’s book, I came away with a strong sense of the achievement and importance of particular individuals, and their distinctive ideas. Thomas Mann emerges as the representative novelist of the period and Laqueur’s book gives you a sense of the development of his political or social thought (coming round to support the Republic) and his works, especially the complex of currents found in his masterpiece The Magic Mountain.

Willett just doesn’t give himself the space or time to do that. In the relentless blizzard of lists and connections only relatively superficial aspects of the countless works referenced are ever mentioned. Thus Piscator’s theatre projects moving pictures, graphs and statistics onto the backdrops. That’s it; we don’t get a sense of the specific images or facts used in any one production, rather a quick list of the productions, of the involvement of Brecht or whoever in the writing, Weill or Eisler in the music, before Willett is off comparing it with similar productions by Meyerhold in Moscow. Thus there is:

6. Very little analysis of specific works

I think the book would have benefited from slowing down and studying half a dozen key works in a little more detail. Given the funky design of the book into pages with double columns of text, with each chapter introduced by a functionalist summary in bold black type, it wouldn’t have been going much further to insert page-long special features on, say, The Threepenny Opera (1928) or Le Corbusier’s Weissenhof Estate housing in Stuttgart (1927). Just some concrete examples of what the style was about, how it worked, and what kind of legacy it left would have significantly lifted the book and left the reader with concrete, specific instances. As it is the blizzard of names, acronyms and historical events is overwhelming.

The Wall Street Crash leads to the end of the Weimar experiment

In the last chapters Willett, as per his basic chronological structure, deals with the end of the Weimar Republic. America started it, by having the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. American banks were plunged into crisis and clawed back all their outstanding loans in order to stay solvent. Thus businesses all across America went bankrupt, but America had been the main lender to the German government. it had been an American, Charles G. Dawes who chaired the committee which came up with the Dawes Plan which in 1924 arranged for loans to Germany, which it would invest in industry, which would raise taxes which it would use to pay off the punishing reparations to France, which would use the money to pay off the large debts to America which France had incurred during the war.

The guarantee of American money stabilised the currency and enabled the five years of economic and social stability which followed, 1924-29, the high point for Willett of the Republic’s artistic and cultural output. All funded, let it be remembered, by capitalist America’s money.

The Wall Street Crash ended that. American banks withdraw loans. German industry collapses. Unemployment shoots from a few hundred thousand to six million at the point where Hitler takes power. Six million! People voted, logically enough, for the man who promised economic and national salvation.

In this respect, the failure of American capitalism, which the crash represented, directly led to the rise of Hitler, to the Second World War, to the invasion of Russia, the partition of Europe and the Cold War. No Wall Street Crash, none of that would have happened.

A closed worldview leads to failure

Anyway, given that all this is relatively well known (it was all taught to my kids for their history GCSEs) what Willett’s account brings out is the short-sighted stupidity of the Communist Party of Germany and their Soviet masters. Until the end the Communists (the KPD) refused to co-operate with the more centrist socialists (the SPD), and often campaigned against them. Willett quotes a contemporary communist paper saying an SPD government and a disunited working class would be a vastly worse evil than a fascist government and a unified working class. Well, they got the fascist government they hoped for.

In fact, the communists wanted the Big Crisis to come because they were convinced that it would bring about the German Revolution (which would itself trigger revolution across Europe and the triumph of communism). How could they be so stupid? Because they lived in a bubble of self-reaffirming media. I thought this passage was eerily relevant to discussions today about people’s use of the internet, about modern digital citizens tending to select news media, journalism and art and movies and so on, which reinforce their views and convince them that everyone thinks like them.

To some extent the extreme unreality of this attitude, with its deceptive aura of do-or-die militancy, sprang from the old left-wing tendency to underrate the non-urban population, which is where the Nazis had so much of their strength. At the same time it reflects a certain social and cultural isolation which sprang from the KPD’s own successes. For the German Communists lived in a world of their own, where the party catered for every interest. Once committed to the movement you not only read AIZ and the party political press: your literary tastes were catered for by the Büchergilde Gutenberg and the Malik-Verlag and corrected by Die Linkskurve; your entertainment was provided by Piscator’s and other collectives, by the agitprop groups, the Soviet cinema, the Lehrstück and the music of Eisler and Weill; your ideology was formed by Radványi’s MASch or Marxist Workers’ School; your visual standards by Grosz and Kollwitz and the CIAM; your view of Russia by the IAH. If you were a photographer, you joined a Workers-Photographers’ group; if a sportsman, some kind of Workers’ Sports Association; whatever your special interests Münzenberg [the German communist publisher and propagandist] had a journal for you. You followed the same issues, you lobbied for the same causes. (p.204)

And you failed. Your cause failed and everyone you knew was arrested, murdered or fled abroad.

A worldview which is based on a self-confirming bubble of like-minded information is proto-totalitarian, inevitably seeks to ban or suppress any opposing points of view, and is doomed to fail in an ever-changing world where people with views unlike yours outnumber you.

A democratic culture is one where people acknowledge the utter difference of other people’s views, no matter how vile and distasteful, and commit to argument, debate and so on, but also to conceding the point where the opponents are, quite simply, in the majority. You can’t always win, no matter how God-given you think your views of the world. But you can’t even hope to win unless you concede that your opponents are people, too, with deeply held views. Just calling them ‘social-fascists’ (as the KPD called the SPD) or ‘racists’ or ‘sexists’ (as bienpensant liberals call anyone who opposes them today) won’t change anything. You don’t stand a chance of prevailing unless you listen to, learn from, and sympathise with, the beliefs of people you profoundly oppose.

A third of the German population voted for Hitler in 1932 and the majority switched to Führer worship once he came to power. The avant-garde artists Willett catalogues in such mind-numbing profusion pioneered techniques of design and architecture, theatre production and photography, which still seem astonishingly modern to us today. But theirs was an entirely urban movement among a hard core of like-minded bohemians. They didn’t even reach out to university students (as Laqueur’s chapter on universities makes abundantly clear), let alone the majority of Germany’s population, which didn’t live in fashionable cities.

Over the three days it took to read this book, I’ve also read newspapers packed with stories about Donald Trump and listened to radio features about Trump’s first year in office, so it’s been difficult not to draw the obvious comparisons between Willett’s right-thinking urban artists who failed to stop Hitler and the American urban liberals who failed to stop Trump. American liberals – middle class, mainly confined to the big cities, convinced of the obvious rightness of their virtuous views on sexism and racism – snobbishly dismissing Trump as a flashy businessman with a weird haircut who never got a degree, threw up their hands in horror at his racist, sexist remarks. And utterly failing to realise that these were all precisely the tokens which made him appeal to non-urban, non-university-educated, non-middle class, and economically suffering rural, small-town populations.

Also, as in Weimar, the left devoted so much energy to tearing itself apart – Hillary versus Sanders – that it only woke up to the threat from the right-wing contender too late.

Ditto Brexit. The liberal elite (Guardian, BBC) based in London just couldn’t believe it could happen, led as it was by obvious buffoons like Farage and Johnson, people who make ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ comments and so, therefore, obviously don’t count. Because only people who talk like us, think like us, are politically correct like us, can possibly count. Well, they were proved wrong. In a democracy everyone’s vote counts as precisely ‘1’, no matter whether they’re a professor of gender studies at Cambridge (which had the highest Remain vote) or a drug dealer in Middlesborough (which had the highest Leave vote). Dismissing Farage and Johnson as idiots, and anyone who voted Leave as a racist is simply a way of avoiding looking into and trying to address the profound social and economic issues which drove the vote.

Well, the extremely clever sophisticates of Berlin also thought Hitler was a provincial bumpkin, a ludicrous loudmouth spouting absurd opinions about Jews which no sensible person could believe, who didn’t stand a chance of gaining power. And by focusing on the (ridiculous little) man they consistently failed to address the vast economic and social crisis which underpinned his support and brought him to power. Ditto Trump. Ditto Brexit.

Some optimists believe the reason for studying history is so we can learn from it. But my impression is that the key lesson of history is that – people never learn from history.


Related links

Related reviews

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974)

The term ‘Weimar culture’, while generally accepted, is in some respects unsatisfactory, if only because political and cultural history seldom coincides in time. Expressionism was not born with the defeat of the Imperial German army, nor is there any obvious connection between abstract painting and atonal music and the escape of the Kaiser, nor were the great scientific discoveries triggered off by the proclamation of the Republic in 1919. As the eminent historian Walter Laqueur demonstrates, the avant-gardism commonly associated with post-World War One precedes the Weimar Republic by a decade. It would no doubt be easier for the historian if the cultural history of Weimar were identical with the plays and theories of Bertolt Brecht; the creations of the Bauhaus and the articles published by the Weltbühne. But there were a great many other individuals and groups at work, and Laqueur gives a full and vivid accounting of their ideas and activities. The realities of Weimar culture comprise the political right as well as the left, the universities as well as the literary intelligentsia (Publisher’s blurb)

Laqueur was born into a Jewish family in 1921 in Prussia. He emigrated to British-controlled Palestine in 1938, where he graduated from school then worked as a journalist till the mid-50s. In 1955 he moved to London, and then on to America where he became an American citizen and a leading writer on modern history and international affairs.

Laqueur is still going strong at the age of 96 and has had a prodigious career – his first book (a study of the Middle East) was published in 1956 and his most recent (a study of Putinism) was published in 2015.

This book is about twice the length of Peter Gay’s 1968 study of the culture of Weimar. It is more urbane and expansive in style, and less tied to a specific thesis. Gay’s aim was to show how, in a range of ways, the intelligentsia of Weimar failed to support, or actively sought to overthrow, the young German democracy.

The overall tendency of Laqueur’s book is the same – the failure of the arts and intelligentsia to support the Republic – but his account feels much more balanced and thorough.

Geography

I appreciated his description of the geography of post-war Germany and how it influenced its politics. It’s important to remember that, under the punitive Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost all her overseas colonies, 13% of her European territory and a tenth of her population (some 6 million people) who now found themselves living in foreign countries (France, Poland, the new state of Czechoslovakia).

Much more than France or Britain, Germany had (and still has) many cities outside the capital which have strong cultural traditions of their own – Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden.

Laqueur emphasises the difference between the industrial north and west and more agricultural south and east. He points out that the cities never gave that much support to Nazism; on the eve of Hitler’s coup, only a third of Berliners voted for the Nazis. Nazism was more a product of the thousands of rural towns and villages of Germany – inhabited by non-urbanites easily persuaded that they hated corrupt city life, cosmopolitanism, rapacious capitalists, Jews, and the rest of the Nazi gallery of culprits.

The left

I benefited from his description of the thinkers based around the famous Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, founded in 1923. The aim of the Institute was to bring together Marxist thinkers, writers, philosophers in order to work on a cultural critique of capitalist society. The idea was to analyse literature, plays, the new form of cinema – to show how capitalism conditioned the manufacture and consumption of these cultural artefacts.

To us, today, this seems like an obvious project, but that’s because we live in a culture saturated with an analysis of culture. Newspapers, magazines, the internet, blogs, TV shows, books, university courses by the thousand offer analyses of plays, art, movies and so on in terms of their construction, hidden codes, gender stereotyping, narrative structures, and so on and so on. The Frankfurt School thinkers – men like Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin – more or less invented the language and approach to do this.

With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, all these Marxist thinkers were forced into exile. Did they flee to the Workers’ Paradise of the Soviet Union? No. They may have been Marxists but they weren’t stupid. They fled to the epicentre of world capitalism, America. New York at first, but many passed on to California where, among the palm trees and swimming pools, they penned long disquisitions about how awful capitalism was.

What Laqueur brings out from a review of their different approaches is the complete impracticality of their subtle and sophisticated critiques of capitalist society, which were more or less ignored by the actual German Communist Party (the KPD). In fact it only slowly dawned on these clever men that the Communist Party merely carried out Moscow’s foreign policy demands and that clever, individualistic Marxist thinkers like them were more of a liability to its demands for unswerving obedience, than an asset. In the eyes of the Party:

Since they lacked close contact with the working class few of them had been able to escape the ideological confusion of the 1920s, and to advance from a petty-bourgeois, half-hearted affirmation of humanist values to a full, wholehearted identification with Marxism-Leninism. (p.272)

Their peers in the USSR were rounded up and executed during Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s. Life among the tennis courts of California was much nicer.

The right

Surprisingly, Laqueur shows that this political impractibility also goes for thinkers of the right, who he deals with at length in a chapter titled ‘Thunder from the Right’.

The right had, probably, a higher proportion of cranks than the left, but still included a number of powerful and coherent thinkers. Laqueur gives insightful pen portraits of some of the most significant figures:

  • Alfred Rosenberg the Nazi propagandist, thought that the Bolshevik revolution symbolised the uprising of racially inferior groups, led by the Asiatic Lenin and the Jew Trotsky, against the racially pure Aryan élite (the Romanov dynasty). Rosenberg wrote The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), the myth being ‘the myth of blood, which under the sign of the swastika unchains the racial world-revolution. It is the awakening of the race soul, which after long sleep victoriously ends the race chaos.’ Despite this feverish support for the Nazis, Laqueur points out that Hitler and the Nazi leaders didn’t bother to read this long work. Rosenberg was in fact, seen as ‘plodding, earnest, humourless,’ a figure of fun even on the right.
  • Oswald Spengler‘s famous tome The Decline of the West (1922) had been drafted as early as 1911, its aim being to describe the 19th century as a soulless age of materialism, which had led to rootless immoralism in the arts. According to Spengler history moves in enormous unavoidable cycles of birth and decay. The age of kings and emperors was over, a new age of mass society and machines was at hand. (Although Spengler attacked the Republic for being a business scam, he also had some hard words for the Nazis who in reply criticised him. But they let him live and he died a natural death, in 1936.)
  • Moeller van den Bruck wrote The Right of Young Peoples and The Third Reich, the latter arguing that the key to world history was the conflict between the new young nations (Germany, Russia, America) and the old imperial ones (Britain and France). He thought Germany’s leaders needed to adopt a form of state ‘socialism’ which would unite the nation in a new Reich, which would become a synthesis of everything which came before. Laqueur comments that van den Bruck’s two books are almost impenetrably obscure, but nonetheless full of high-sounding rhetoric, ‘poetic visions, enormous promises and apocalyptic forebodings’ (p.96). It is in this hyperbole which he represents the overwrought spirit of the times.
  • Edgar Jung was a leader of the Conservative Revolutionary movement who lobbied long and hard against the Weimar Republic, whose parliamentarian system he considered decadent and foreign-imposed. Jung became speech writer to the Vice-chancellor of the coalition cabinet, Franz von Papen. He wrote a 1934 speech which was fiercely critical of the Nazis for being fanatics who were upsetting the return to Christian values and ‘balance’ which is what he thought Germany required. With the result that Hitler had him arrested and executed on the Night of the Long Knives, at the end of June 1934.
  • Carl Schmitt was an eminent legal philosopher who developed a theory based around the centrality of the state. The state exists to protect its population, predominantly from aggression by other states. To function it has to be a co-ordinated community of interests. Liberalism undermines this by encouraging everyone to go their own way. Parliamentarianism is the (ineffectual) reflection of liberalism. The state exists to make firm, clear decisions (generally about foreign policy), the opposite of the endless talking-shop of parliaments. Schmitt was yet another ‘serious’ thinker who prepared the minds he influenced for the advent of a Führer. But what I enjoyed about Laqueur’s account is that he goes on to bring out nuances and subtleties in the positions of all these people. Despite being anti-parliamentarian and soundly right-wing, Schmitt wasn’t approved of by the Nazis because his theory of the strong state made no room for two key Nazi concepts, race and Volk. Also – like many right wing thinkers – his philosophy was temperamentally pessimistic – whereas the Nazis were resoundingly optimistic and required optimism from their followers.
  • Ludwig Klages was, after the Second World War, nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work in developing graphology, the study of handwriting. But during the 1920s he was a pessimist of global proportions and a violent anti-Semite. His key work was The Intellect as Adversary of the Soul (1929) which claims that the heart, the soul, the essence of man has been trapped and confined ever since the beastly Jews invented monotheism and morality, twin evils which they passed on to Christianity. His book was a long review of the way Western morality had trapped and chained the deep ‘soul of Man’. Although the work was ripe in rhetoric, fiercely anti-rational and anti-democratic in tone and purpose it was, once again, not particularly useful to the Nazis.

To summarise: There was a large cohort of eminent thinkers, writers, philosophers, historians, of intellectuals generally, who wrote long, deeply researched and persuasive attacks on liberalism and democracy. Laqueur’s account builds up into a devastating indictment of almost the entire intellectual class of the country.

But all these attacks on Weimar democracy begged the central question: What would become of individual freedom when there were no longer human rights, elections, political parties or a parliament? The answer was that many of these thinkers developed a notion of ‘freedom’ completely at odds with out modern, UN Declaration of Human Rights-era understanding of the term. But notions which came out of deep German traditions of philosophy and religion.

Spengler, for example, maintained that, despite its harsh outer discipline, Prussianism – an epitome of core German values – enabled a deeper, inner freedom: the freedom which comes from belonging to a unified nation, and being devoted to a cause.

Protestant theologians of the era, on the other hand, developed a notion that ‘freedom’ was no longer (and never had been) attached to the outdated, liberal concept of individual liberty (which was visibly failing in a visibly failing ‘democracy’ as the Weimar Republic tottered from one crisis to the next). No, a man could only be ‘free’ in a collective which had one focus and one share belief.

In numerous thinkers of the era, a political order higher than liberalism promised freedom, not to individual capitalists and cosmopolitans, but to an entire oppressed people. The Volk.

What emerges from Laqueur’s summary of Weimar’s right-wing thinkers is that they were responding to the failure of democratic politics in just as vehement a fashion as the Marxists. The main difference is that invoked a much more varied selection of interesting (often obscure, sometimes bonkers) ideas and sources (compared with the communists who tended to be confined, more or less, to slightly varying interpretations of Marx).

To summarise, common features of Weimar right-wing thinking included:

  • the favouring of German Kultur (profound, spiritual, rural, of the soil) against superficial French Zivilisation (superficial, decadent, urban)
  • a focus on deep cultural values – Innerlichkeit meaning wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness
  • fierce opposition to the ‘ideas of 1918’:
    • political liberalism, social democracy, socialism, parliamentarianism
    • sexual lascivious dancing, jazz, nudity, immorality, abortion, divorce, pornography
    • cultural arts which focused on corruption and low moral values instead of raising the mind to emulate heroes
    • racial against foreigners, non-Germans, traitors and Jews

But just as the actual Communist Party didn’t think much of Weimar’s Communist intellectuals and were as likely to be repelled by avant-garde art as the staidest Berlin banker (as Stalin’s crack down on all the arts in favour of Socialist Realism was soon to show) – so Laqueur shows that the Nazis weren’t all that interested in most of the right-wing intellectuals, some of whom (as explained above) they even executed.

One of the themes which emerges from Laqueur’s long account of intellectuals of all stripes is that none of them seem to have grasped that politics is not about fancy ideas, but about power.

The Nazis had a far more astute grasp of the realities of power than the other right-wing leaders; they did not think highly of intellectuals as allies in the political struggle, and they made no efforts to win them over. (p.88)

The Nazis realised (like Lenin) that the intellectuals who supported them would rally to their cause once they’d won power; and that those who didn’t… could be killed. Simples.

The politically negative impact of the arts

As to the arts, Laqueur echoes Gay in thinking that every one of the left-wing plays and movies and pictures, all the scabrous articles by Kurt Tucholsky and the searing drawings of George Grosz – didn’t convert one conservative or bourgeois to the cause. Instead, their net effect was to alienate large sectors of the population from an urban, predominantly Berlin-based culture, a milieu which the conservative newspapers could all-too-easily depict as corrupt, decadent, immoral and unpatriotic.

Conservatives said: ‘Why do all paintings, plays, cabarets and movies seem to focus on criminals, prostitutes, grotesques and monsters? Why can’t artists portray ordinary decency and German virtues?’

Laqueur gives a long account of Weimar literature, the main thrust of which is that a) it was more varied than is remembered b) Thomas Mann was the leading writer. Indeed, Mann’s career, writings and changing political attitudes weave in and out of the whole text.

Weimar had possibly the most interesting theatre in the world with the innovations of Erwin Piscator standing out (projection of film onto the stage, facts, statistics, graphs; stylised stage sets; stage workings left exposed to view, and so on). But he, like the most famous playwright of the era, Bertolt Brecht, appealed ultimately to an intellectual, bourgeois audience (as they do today). There’s no evidence that ‘the workers’ saw many of these avant-garde plays. Instead ‘the workers’ were down the road watching the latest thriller at the cinema. Film was well-established as the populist art form of the era.

Art is much more international than literature or theatre, and Laqueuer makes the same point as Gay, that what we think of as Modern art was mostly a pre-war affair, with the Fauves, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism all named and established by 1910, let alone 1914. In 1918 the survivors of these movements carried on, but Laqueur shows how the Expressionist impulse in all the arts – the harrowing sense of anguish, the apocalyptic visions, the strident imagery – was exhausted by 1923 or 4, and the more conservative, figurative (if still often stark and grotesque style) of Otto Dix and George Grosz was prevalent enough to be given its name of Neue Sachlichkeit well before the famous 1925 exhibition of that name.

Laqueur covers a lot more ground than Gay. There’s an entire chapter about German universities, which proceeds systematically through each of the subjects – sciences, arts, humanities, social studies and so on – explaining the major works of the era, describing the careers of key figures, putting them in the wider social and historical context. For example, art history emerges as a particular strong point of Weimar scholarship, from which America and Britain both benefited when Hitler came to power and all the art scholars fled abroad.

The main take home about universities is how shockingly right-wing the authorities and the students were, with plenty of learned scholars spending all their energy undermining the hated republic, and students forming all sorts of anti-Semitic and nationalist groups. I was genuinely surprised by this.

There’s a section on Weimar theology describing the thought of famous theologians such as Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and the Jewish thinker Martin Buber. As so often throughout the book there is often a strong sense of déjà vu, as the reader realises that ideas first promulgated during the 1920s have, in essence, echoed down to the present day:

The religious socialists, best-known among them Paul Tillich, preached ‘socialism derived from faith’, attacking soulless capitalist society, the free market economy and the alienation of man in which it had resulted. (p.210)

This sounds like the more outspoken Anglican bishops since as far back as I can remember (the 1970s).

Comparisons with our time

In fact one of the book’s great appeals is the way it prompts the reader to stop and draw comparisons between the Weimar years and our own happy times. Here are some thought-provoking similarities:

  • The left was full of utopian dreams, often about advanced sexual morality (divorce and abortions in the 1920s, LBGT+ and trans people in our time), which alienated a good deal of broader conventional opinion from their cause.
  • The left was characterised then, as now, by bitter internecine fighting (in our time the splits in the Labour Party between Momentum+young people supporting Jeremy Corbyn against the Labour MPs and left-wing commentators [e.g. The Guardian] who bitterly opposed him). The net effect of all this in-fighting, then as now, was to leave the way clear for the right to take and hold power.
  • The Weimar left was overwhelmingly urban and educated and made the fundamental mistake of thinking everyone was like them and shared their values. But, now as then, the majority of the population does not have university degrees, nor live in big cities full of talk about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘racial diversity’. This seems to be what took Vote Remain campaigners in the UK and Clinton campaigners in the US by surprise: the discovery that there are tens of millions of people who simply don’t share their views or values. At all.

Reading about: the obscene gap between rich and poor; the exploitation of workers; homelessness and dereliction; the in-fighting of the left; the irrelevance of the self-appointed avant-garde who made ‘revolutionary’ art, films, plays which were sponsored by and consumed by the bourgeois rich; while all the time the levers of power remained with bankers and financiers, huge business conglomerates and right-wing politicians — it’s hard not to feel that, although lots of surface things have changed, somehow, deep down, the same kind of structures and behaviours are with us still.

Reading the book tends to confirm John Gray’s opinion that, whereas you can definitely point to objective progress in the hard sciences, in the humanities – in philosophy, politics, art, literature and so on – things really just go round and round, with each new generation thinking it’s invented revolutionary politics or avant-garde art or subversive movies, just like the previous ones.

On a cultural level, has anything changed since the Weimar Republic produced Marxist culture critics, avant-garde movies, gay nightclubs, gender subversion and everyone was moaning about the useless government?

The peril of attacking liberal democracy

For me the central take-home message of both Gay and Laqueur’s books is that — If left wingers attack the imperfect bourgeois democracy they’ve got, the chances are that they won’t prepare the way for the kind of utopian revolution they yearn for. Chances are they will open the door to reactionaries who harness the votes and support of people which the left didn’t even know existed – the farmers and rural poor, the unemployed and petty bourgeoisie, the religious and culturally conservative – and lead to precisely the opposite of what the left hoped to achieve.

All across the developed world we are seeing this happening in our time: the left preaching utopian identity politics, supporting mass immigration and bickering among themselves – while the culturally and socially conservative right goes from strength to strength. I’m not saying there’s a direct comparison between Weimar Germany and now; I’m just pointing out that, reading this long and absorbing book, it was striking how many times the political or artistic rhetoric of the era sounded identical to the kind of thing we hear today, on both sides.

German values

Like Gay, Laqueur is German. Therefore his occasional, generally negative, comments about the German character are all the more noteworthy.

The esoteric language they [the members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research] used made their whole endeavour intelligible only to a small circle of like-minded people. This, incidentally, applied to most of the writings of the German neo-Marxists; the German language has an inbuilt tendency towards vagueness and lack of precision, and the Frankfurt School, to put it mildly, made no effort to overcome this drawback. (p.63)

The new trend [Modernism in all its forms] was in stark contrast to German innerlichkeit, wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness. (p.85)

[Thomas Mann was] Weimar Germany’s greatest and certainly its most interesting writer. But he could not be its spokesman and teacher, magister Germaniae. For that function someone far less complex and much more single-minded was needed. With all his enormous gifts, he had the German talent of making easy things complicated and obvious matters tortuous and obscure. (p.124)

[The heroes of the most popular writers of the time, neither left wing nor modernist, not much known outside Germany] were inward-looking, mystics, men in search of god, obstinate fellows – modern Parsifals in quest of some unknown Holy Grail. They were preoccupied with moral conflicts and troubled consciences, they were inchoate and verbose at the same time, very German in their abstraction, their rootedness and sometimes in their dullness. (p.139)

Something that comes over very powerfully is that the Germans don’t appear to have a sense of humour. They have bitter sarcasm, biting satire and harsh irony – but lightness, wit, drollery? Apparently not.

[Before The Captain of Köpenick by Carl Zuckmayer] the German theatre had been notoriously weak in comedy. (p.152)

It is easy to think of many tragedies in the annals of German theatre and opera; the comedies which have survived can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There was no German operetta, not a single composer who could even remotely be compared to Johann Strauss or Offenbach, to Milloecker or Gilbert and Sullivan. (p.226)

Quite a few patriotic films dealing with heroic episodes of Prussian or German history were produced. Von Czerèpy’s Fridericus Rex, perhaps the first major film of this genre, was done so crudely, with such a total lack of humour, that it was acclaimed outside Germany on the mistaken assumption that it was anti-German propaganda. (p.231)

The absence during the 1920s of good comedies and adventure films helps to explain the tremendous popularity in Germany not only of Charlie Chaplin, but also of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, later, Jackie Coogan. (p.243)

These are just a few examples, but Laqueur repeatedly describes the writers, thinkers, intellectuals and so on who he summarises as humourless, earnest, heavy and serious. I thought the notion of Germans being ponderous and humourless was a dubious stereotype, but reading this book goes a long way to confirming it.

The Weimar revival of the 1960s

In his final summary, Laqueur presents another very important piece of information, when he explains how and why the reputation of Weimar culture underwent a revival.

This, he says, happened in the 1960s. For 40 years the period had been forgotten or brushed aside as a shameful failure which preceded the Great Disaster. It was during the 1960s that societies across the Western world saw a swing to the left among intellectuals and the young, a movement which became known as the New Left.

It was as a result of this revival of interest in far left thought that much of Weimar’s experimental and left-wing achievements were revived, that saw an upsurge in interest in of Piscator’s modernist theatre stagings, Brecht’s theory of epic theatre, and the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School. This revival has never gone away. The Marxist theories of the Frankfurt School – a kind of communism-without-tears – has gone on to take over the thinking of most humanities departments in the Western world.

But, as Laqueur points out, the revival of interest in left wing and ‘radical’ thinkers, artists, writers of the period, systematically ignores both the conservative or right-wing thinkers of the period, as well as the middle ground of run-of-the-mill but popular playwrights, novelists or film-makers – the kind that most people read or went to the theatre to enjoy. These have all been consigned to oblivion so that in modern memory, only the radicals stand like brave heroes confronting the gathering darkness.

Laqueur argues that this has produced a fundamental distortion in our understanding of the period. Even the opinions of non-left-wing survivors from the Weimar years were ignored.

Thus Laqueur reports a conference in Germany about the Weimar achievement at which Golo Mann accused the Piscator theatre of being Salonkommunisten (the German equivalent of the English phrase ‘champagne socialists’), while Walter Mehring criticised Brecht’s Threepenny Opera for abetting Nazi propaganda by undermining the Republic. These kinds of criticisms from people who were there have been simply ignored by the generations of left-wing academics, students and bien-pensant theatre-goers and gallery visitors who have shaped the current Weimar myth.

The utopian left-wing 1960s sought for and boosted the thinkers and artists who they thought supported their own stance.

Just like Gay, Laqueur thinks that the latterday popularity of the novelist Hermann Hesse would have been inexplicable to those who lived through Weimar when he published most of his novels. Back then he was seen as an eccentric and peripheral figure, but in the 1960s he suddenly found himself hailed godfather of the hippy generation, and his books Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund became bestsellers. In his final years Hesse was in fact driven to declare that his writings were being misinterpreted by the younger generation. But then, in 1962, he died and the hippies and their successors were free to interpret him according to their own needs and fantasies.

After the Second World War Bertolt Brecht’s plays and productions became the toast of champagne socialists everywhere.

The Bauhaus brand underwent a great efflorescence, the architects who had settled in America (particularly Mies van der Rohe) having a huge impact on American skyscraper design, while the works of Kandinsky and Klee were revived and made famous.

In the humanities, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of capitalist consumer culture fit perfectly with the beliefs of the ‘New Left’, as it came to be known in the 1960s. The obscure essays of Walter Benjamin were dusted off and are now included in all literature, culture and critical theory courses. (I was struck by how Benjamin was referenced in almost every one of the 14 essays in the book about Weimar Art I recently read, The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33. I wonder if you’re allowed to write an essay in a humanities subject which doesn’t mention Saint Walter.)

Laqueur’s point is that the New Left of the 1960s, which has gone on to find a permanent home in humanities departments of all universities, chose very selectively only those elements of Weimar culture which suited their own interests.

Right here, at the end of the book, we realise that Laquer has been making a sustained attempt to present a less politicised, a more factual and inclusive account of Weimar culture than has become popular in the academy – deliberately ranging over all the achievements in pretty much every sphere of cultural endeavour, whether left or right, popular or avant-garde, whether it had undergone a golden revival in the 1960s or slumped into complete obscurity – in order to present a complete picture.

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 is a big, rich, thorough, sensible and thought-provoking book, which prompts ideas not only about the vibrant, conflicted culture of its time, but about how the Weimar legacy has been appropriated and distorted by later generations.


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From Weimar to Wall Street 1918-1929 (1993)

This book is volume three in Hamlyn’s History of the Twentieth Century. It’s a fun, Sunday afternoon coffee-table book, nice and big – 28 cm tall by 22 cm wide – with plenty of space for full-page reproductions of photos, posters, film stills, art works and so on. It also includes timelines for each sector or topic, useful maps and ‘datafiles’, giving facts and figures about populations, industrial production, election results and so on.

One of its appeals is that it doesn’t restrict itself just to Europe and America, but ranges right around the world, describing social and political history in Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Asia, China. It’s divided into four big topic areas – Politics, Economics, Society and Culture – and these main chapter headings are interspersed with special features about, for example, Bolshevism, Hollywood, modern medicine, jazz, air travel and so on.

It looks rather like one of my daughter’s school textbooks, with its busy layout of pages, text, Fact Boxes, maps, graphs and graphics – all designed to retain the interest of the hyperactive teenager.

A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

It includes this striking painting by William Orpen, an Anglo-Irish painter who fought during the Great War and did some paintings of the Front, before moving on to portraits of key political players of the day. Here you can seee the leaders of the victorious allies – thin Woodrow Wilson at centre front, sitting in the red chair; to his right, with the big white moustache, Clemenceau, Premier of France; and to his right David Lloyd-George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with the mane of white hair.

In the full-page reproduction of this painting what really stands out is the way Orpen handles the immense amount of gold decoration, shaping and moulding it in thick impastos of gold paint, alive with catchlights.

A flavour of the 1920s

  • 11 November 1918 end of World War One. Collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire and creation of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s colonies in Africa handed over to Britain (Tanganyika), France (Cameroon) and Belgium (Rwanda). Britain maintains its blockade on German seaports leading to thousands of civilian deaths from starvation over winter 1918, until Germany signs the Versailles Treaty in June 1919.
  • The Versailles Treaty imposes punishing reparations on Germany. Successive treaties see the creation of new countries from the collapsed European empires e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Establishment of the League of Nations which, however, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify in 1919.
  • The Ottoman Empire is dismembered by the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920). Mustafa Kemal, who has led the Turkish nationalist revolution, becomes Turkish president in 1920. the Allies encourage Greece to invade mainland Turkey which leads to the bitter Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). France and Britain take over ‘mandates’, controlling newly created countries across the Middle East in what had been the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

  • Economic boom in America. Political confrontations between Left and Right in Italy climax with Mussolini’s seizure of power for the Fascist Party in 1922. In 1923 Germany experiences hyper-inflation, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France for failing to keep up with war reparations.
  • By 1920 Japan’s population has doubled since 1868 and it seeks new markets for its economy. This quest will lead to the creation of the Far East Economic Sphere i.e. the Japanese Empire, in the 1930s, to the invasion of Manchuria in 1937 and, eventually, war with America.
  • The Bolsheviks win their civil war against the Whites (1922) but catastrophic economic collapse forces Lenin to introduce the New Economic Policy, reintroducing limited business and trade. Lenin dies in 1924 giving way to a joint leadership which includes Josef Stalin. Only in 1928, with the exile of Leon Trotsky, does Joseph Stalin take full control of the USSR and impose the first Five Year Plan for full industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture.
  • In 1921 the Chinese communist party is created, in 1925 the Vietnamese Nationalist Party is established by Ho Chi Minh (among others). Both of which will have massive long term repercussions in the 1940s and 50s.
Young Ho Chi Minh

Young Ho Chi Minh at the Communist Congress in Marseilles, 1921

  • A succession of British government reports fail to satisfy calls for independence from Indian politicians and the 1920s see the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi with his strategy of peaceful non-cooperation.
  • Cinema evolves in leaps and bounds with Hollywood stars led by Charlie Chaplin becoming world famous. 1927 sees the first part-talking movie (the Jazz Singer). Jazz evolves rapidly with Louis Armstrong emerging as one among many star performers. Jazz becomes more sophisticated in the hands of arrangers like Duke Ellington and gives its name to the entire era in America. It spawns dance crazes not only across America but in Europe too (the Charleston, the Black Bottom etc).
  • America imposes Prohibition in 1919. This swiftly leads to the creation of organised crime across the country, running bootleg booze production and a network of illegal nightclubs. Gangsters like Al Capone become notorious and a world-wide symbol of American’s ‘criminal capitalism’.
  • Radio becomes global. In 1920, in a radio first, Nelly Melba broadcasts from London to listeners all across Europe. In the US radio explodes into commercial chaos; in the USSR radio is strictly controlled, like all the arts, by the Communist Party. Britain invents the BBC in 1922, funded by a compulsory licence fee paid by every owner of a radio.
  • The spread of affordable birth control (not least via the educational books of Marie Stopes) liberates women, many of whom had for the first time worked during the Great War. Many take jobs in the new light industries which are springing up around major cities – the spread of the phenomenon called ‘suburbia’, all facilitated by the enormous growth in car ownership. Women around the world get the right to vote: in the UK women over 30 got the vote in 1918, over 21 in 1928 – with some countries (the Nordics) ahead of this, some (France) lagging behind.
Constructing the Empire State Building

Constructing the Empire State Building

Some thoughts

I liked the way the book restricts itself to the period 1918 to 1929. It scrupulously avoids the Wall Street Crash because that economic catastrophe in fact rumbled on into 1930 and, of course, its economic consequences were chiefly felt in the following decade.

By limiting itself to just the 1920s, the book conveys the chaos and excitement of the Jazz Decade in itself, of itself, without the shadow of the Depression looming over it, let alone the Nazis. All too often histories of the period skip through the 1920s to get to the Crash and then to Hitler, who then completely overshadows everything that came before, whereas the 20s are quite fascinating in their own right.

Stepping back, the two Big Political Themes which resonate through the decade are:

  1. The Repercussions of the First World War, namely:
    • The collapse of the four empires, Germany, Russia, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, which gave rise to a host of new independent countries, generally with very fragile new political systems and unhappy ethnic minorities,
    • The economic consequences of the peace – the tough reparations on Germany lead to hyper-inflation, but Britain ended the war deeply in debt and never regained the worldwide power she enjoyed in the 1900s. By contrast, America clearly emerged as the world’s most advanced industrial, technological and financial centre.
  2. The Repercussions of the Russian Revolution. New communist parties were set up in virtually every country in the world, promising freedom, justice, equality and so on, especially appealing to developing countries and colonies seeking their freedom.

Consumer culture

All these political changes were obviously important but the bigger message is that the 1920s were also a major step down the path towards a consumer capitalist society, as the practical notions of convenience and home comforts took precedence over older ideas of nationhood, morality and so on.

The populations of Western societies wanted to benefit from the invention and widespread distribution of gas, electricity, lamps and lights, hoovers, sewing machines, telephones, radio and gramophones, and so on, not to mention the huge growth in car use.

And accompanying all this were the posters, adverts, hoardings, design and branding, huge developments in the layout of magazines and ads, of fonts and styles. All these had existed in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s and each of these decades had seen the steady growth in number and sophistication of all the media of consumer culture. But the 1920s saw the arrival of major new technologies – led by gramophones and sound movies, which promoted whole new forms of music (jazz) and new types of personality (the movie star) as never before.

Even if they didn’t all personally enjoy it, more people than ever before in the industrialised nations could see what a good standard of living – with a car, a home of your own and foreign holidays – looked like, bombarded through newspapers, magazine and billboard hoardings with compelling images of astonishing luxury.

Just flicking through the book shows that the imagery of consumer capitalism was more vivid, stylish, ‘liberated’ and ubiquitous than ever before. It’s lots of fun!


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A Small Yes and a Big No by George Grosz (1946)

What I saw made me loathe most of my fellow men… (p.80)

A Small Yes and a Big No is the autobiography of the German artist George Grosz (1893-1959). It was first published in German in 1946. The version I’ve got is copyrighted 1955 and I think this was a later edition, with additional material, namely a long chapter describing a farcical visit to revolutionary Russia in 1922 during which the keen young Communist George met Zinoviev, Lunacharsky, the impressive Trotsky and the obviously sick Lenin.

There have been several translations of the work. I’ve got the excellent 1982 one, by Arnold J. Pomerans, which is in clear and colloquial English.

Grosz and Neue Sachlichkeit

Grosz emerged after the First World War as a merciless satirist of post-war Germany in the harsh new style which became known as Neue Sachlichkeit or ‘New Objectivity’. His brutal cartoons and paintings emphasised the corruption, greed and sexual depravity of post-war Berlin, highlighting the immorality of war profiteers, counting their cash and paying ugly courtesans while the streets outside were littered with grotesquely damaged war veterans.

The Pillars of Society (1926)

The Pillars of Society (1926)

Grosz had played a lead role in the Berlin wing of the Dada movement (1917-20), though this was known only to a relatively small number of art cognoscenti.

It was the popular albums of drawings he published in the 1920s which brought him fame and notoriety. In 1921 his withering collection Gott mit uns (‘God with us’), a scathing satire on German society, led to the artist being accused of insulting the army. He was taken to court, convicted and fined 300 Marks and all copies of the collection ordered to be destroyed.

In 1923 Ecce Homo, a volume of 100 lithographs depicting the seething corruption that had grown out of hyper-inflation and the political turmoil of the early 1920s, prompted the authorities to arrest Grosz again and charge him with offending ‘the moral sensibility of the German public’. Most of the original drawings were destroyed and Grosz and the publishers handed large fines. In 1928 he was again prosecuted for blasphemy after publishing anticlerical drawings.

He was, in other words, a notorious social irritant. Surprisingly, he doesn’t describe any of these trials in this autobiography.

Politics

In the last months of 1918 Grosz joined the so-called Spartacist League just as it renamed itself the Communist Party of Germany. He was arrested during the Berlin Communist uprising in January 1919, but escaped, using fake identification documents. None of this is in the autobiography either, which only mentions the deaths of the movement’s leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, famous events in their own right.

Instead his autobiography, looking back from middle age in American, glosses over the fierce political engagement of the young communist Grosz as naive.

Soon I, too, was making political speeches, not out of any conviction, but because everyone was expected to add his pennyworth, and because I had not yet learned better. All my political pronouncements were a jumble of cheap progressive phrases I had picked up from others, and which seemed to pour like honey from my lips. No wonder that I was quite often taken in by my own nonsense, by all the noises, spluttering, the twittering and braying I gave tongue to. (p.91)

In 1922 Grosz travelled to Russia with the writer Martin Andersen Nexø, the idea being the latter would write a book which Grosz would illustrate. They took an unconventional route, travelling by fishing boat across the Baltic with the result that, upon their arrival in Murmansk, were promptly arrested as spies. After some dicey moments with some thuggish local officials, their credentials were finally authenticated, and they were allowed to travel on to Petersburg. Here they met Soviet leaders like Grigory Zinoviev, Anatoly Lunacharsky, and Vladimir Lenin, who Grosz cheerfully dismisses as that ‘manipulator of the masses’.

This adventure takes up the 20 pages of chapter 11, and Grosz uses it to make abundantly clear how unimpressed he was with the abject poverty and ignorance of Russian peasants, and of the bullying brutality of the commissars they met.

In 1923 Grosz ended his membership in the KPD (also not mentioned in the book), though he continued to be bitterly critical of the bourgeoisie, the rich and, of course, of the growing right-wing in Germany.

In 1932 Grosz accepted an invitation to teach at the Art Students League of New York and spent the summer doing just that. He had always fantasised about America and it lived up to all his dreams. At the end of the term he sailed back to Germany long enough to persuade his wife that they should emigrate to the promised land and, in January 1933, he set sail with her back to New York. He departed just a week before Hitler came to power.

For years after wards friends and colleagues praised him for being so shrewd and timely, but he always insisted it was an incredibly lucky coincidence.

In America, Grosz determined to make a clean break with his past, and tried to completely change his style and subject matter. This explains why:

  1. The illustrations in this book (which are in black and white and on poor quality paper) are heavily skewed towards his post-German work. Of the 11 illustrations, only two are from the 1920s i.e. his best period. All the work which made him famous is absent from this book.
  2. There is no precise or detailed mention of the Communist Party nor his membership of it in the book. The Cold War was just kicking off when he wrote it. This explains why he either glosses over his political beliefs or dismisses them as idle student gibberish.

Throughout the book, from his earliest childhood, he reiterates his lifelong dreams about America, his love of Wild West cowboy stories, the fact he was nicknamed Leatherstocking for his love of the James Fenimore Cooper Mohican novels, and so on. This may well be true, but it has the net effect of making him seem like a good Republican all along, who only needed to sample the joys of capitalist New York before completely dropping all his schoolboy communism and becoming a fully paid up capitalist.

In this he reminds me of the famous composer Kurt Weill, who worked closely with Bertolt Brecht to create a series of fiercely left-wing musical pieces in Weimar Germany but, once he had fled to America, in 1935, also dropped all political involvement and sought to reinvent himself as a non-political composer of popular musicals.

Childhood

Given the notorious misanthropy of Grosz’s oeuvre the opening of the book comes as a surprise. The early chapters are a touching portrayal of life in the little Pomeranian town of Stolp where Grosz grew up, living close to nature and playing with the boys of his own age. I was very taken with his enthusiasms for comic books and adventure stories featuring Red Indians or soldiers, a taste which endured into adult life.

(Later there is a sad-comic account of his pilgrimage as an adult to the house of the legendary Karl May, author of the countless Westerns featuring the boys adventure hero, Old Shatterhand. Inevitably, the creator of this towering Western hero turns out to be a little old man shuffling round in carpet slippers.)

I was fascinated by the glimpses he gave of a provincial German childhood before the war, including the blood-curdling peep shows and ‘panoramas’ (i.e. models) of battlefields available at travelling fairs. A page is devoted to the once-in-a-lifetime arrival of Barnum and Bailey’s famous circus to the nearby town, complete with a wide range of ‘freaks’.

And there are evocative memories of watching the big trans-Europe express from Berlin to Petersburg stopping off at their provincial station to refuel, of glimpsing the rich people inside their luxury Pullman carriages, of being a small boy fantasising about their wonderful lives.

This background in pulp fiction, newspaper cartoons, collectible magazines, the provincialness of his life, all goes a long way to explaining the attitude of his work. His Dad looked after the local masonic Hall till he died when Grosz was 8, and his Mum became keeper of the local Hussars’ officers mess. It was not a comfortable middle-class family. There weren’t many books in the house (only as a student did he discover literature), little or no music of any kind, and his parents brought him up in a plain and devout Lutheran faith.

Plain, simple, no bullshit, no frills, no mystical hocus-pocus, young George grew up determined to depict life how he saw it – and he was unfortunate to live through some very ugly times.

The Academy

It’s all downhill from these childhood memories, as the very young (17) Grosz manages to get scholarships to attend stuffy art academy in Dresden (1909-11), then the School of Arts and Crafts in Berlin (1912-14).

The anecdotes from this period give a strong flavour for the lifeless academic teaching imposed by a load of bearded old men who forced their students to arrive precisely on time in order to spend eight hours a day meticulously drawing tatty old plaster casts of busts or classical statues.

He calls the teachers ‘caricatures, misfits and failures’ (p.29) and gives terrifying/comic descriptions of them, their imposing presences, their swearing and violence, their ultimate ineffectualness.

What really comes over is Grosz’s interest in characters, the more grotesque the better.

  • Such as his friend Heini Blume who dreamed of travelling to Brazil solely on the basis of his stamp collection, because Brazilian stamps were the most colourful.
  • The ex-soldier in the local pub who got drunk and talked about the war he fought in against the Herero people in South-West Africa, but whose real talent was flicking spent cigarette butts so that they stuck to the ceiling of the bar like stalactites.
  • Herr Kuhling who Grosz roomed with in Dresden, and whose strapping buxom daughters haunted his dreams for years.

At art school Grosz describes the martinet Professor Müller, famous for his foul mouth: ‘That van Gogh is a right shit’ (p.53). He tracks down Professor Wehle who is slated to give ‘composition’ lessons, though he mostly locks his classroom door and drinks the days away. Grosz persists in seeing him and is given the task of painting ‘The Flood’ in the manner of Delacroix i.e. as a vast Romantic masterpiece – which he turns out to be unable to do. He remembers this failure because it taught him something about his talents.

The result of this conflict [between his Romantic ideals and his limited abilities] was caricature and distortion. The ‘greatness’ Professor Wehle sought, his exalted classical and religious ideals, were not in me, simply because they were not in my age. That age was one of cheap and arrogant pseudo-intellectual ideas, of prisms and science, of naive socialist faith in man’s perfectibility, of vulgar bowing before everything ugly and proletarian and, on the other hand, of the ravings of demagogues out to kick those who are down, and to destroy socialism, Christianity and humanity in the process. (p.50)

Grosz’s bitter misanthropy could hardly be more unlike the lofty spiritual ambitions of the Expressionist painters I’ve been reading about – Macke, Marc and Kandinsky – and he’s as withering about them as he is about the Impressionists or the more recent Fauves and Orphists. Kandinsky’s paintings he dismisses as ‘coloured foam and nacreous vapours’ (p.54).

Grosz knows himself and knows that he prefers ‘Protestant plainness’ to all the arty-farty spirituality in the world.

The First World War

Grosz describes himself getting to grips with Berlin in the early 1910s, with its astonishing nightlife, its great art galleries, theatres, its cabaret and bars. He had even begun to get paid work submitting caricatures and cartoons to the Berlin newspapers, and there’s an interesting little section on the development of German illustration art since the middle of the 19th century, giving names I’d never heard of (for example, Hermann Vogel-Plauen).

Coming from his poor, hard-headed and practical background, Grosz had no illusions about the importance of money.

Modern art is a kind of merchandise to be sold with shrewd publicity just like soap, towels and brushes. (p.85)

He liked selling his work and spending the proceeds on fine food and drink, especially drink – Berlin blonde ale and schnapps. He describes the low bars of Berlin and their colourful clientele, including a hilarious account of the first ‘jazz’ band in Berlin, a palm court trio at the Café Oranienburger Tor which simply acted berserk with no understanding of the new music whatsoever.

His career and social life were just beginning to pick up when – along came the First World War, which for Germany began on 1 August 1914 – and that was that.

As the geo-politicians stepped into the shoes of the humanists, the enlightened age that had begun with the Renaissance ground to a halt, and the age of the blind, ironclad ant, completely indifferent to the fate of individuals, the age of numbers without names and of robots without brains, came into being. (p.73)

Grosz volunteered, hoping this way to get away with a relatively short spell of service. The blurb on the back says the book includes an account of army life during the Great War but this isn’t really true. He bitterly conveys the impact of the war on him – with an especially angry depiction of life in a hospital ward full of disfigured soldiers half of whom have gone mad – but there’s none of the usual stuff in war memoirs about basic training, the officers or other men, and no description whatsoever of battle. Instead the war confirmed Grosz’s already low opinion of humanity.

For me war had none of the liberating effects it had on so many others, releasing their deep inhibitions and freeing them from the slavery of humdrum jobs. As long as men will continue to feel that way, they will never turn their backs on organised mass slaughter. (p.79)

Grosz was invalided out with sinusitis in 1915 and made his way back to Berlin where he began to make violently anti-war works, drawings and paintings attacking the social corruption of Germany (capitalists, prostitutes, the Prussian military caste, the middle class). The war is really the starting point for his brutally cynical view of human nature. In a famous passage from the book, he writes:

I drew men drunk, men vomiting, men with cursed fists cursing the moon, men playing cards on the coffins of the women they had murdered. I drew wine drinkers, beer drinkers, schnapps drinkers and a frantic man washing blood from his hands.

I drew lonely little men rushing insanely through empty streets. I drew a cross-section of a tenement building: behind one window a man belaboured his wife with a broom, behind another two people were making love, in a third a man was hanging from the cross-bars of the window, surrounded by buzzing flies.

I drew soldiers without noses; war-cripples with crab-like limbs of steel; two medical orderlies tying a violent infantryman up in a horse blanket; a one-armed soldier using his good hand to salute a heavily-bemedalled lady who had just passed him a biscuit; a colonel, his fly wide open, embracing a nurse; a hospital orderly emptying a bucket full of pieces of human flesh down a pit. I drew a skeleton dressed up as a recruit taking his medical. (p.80)

He is a people person. No fancy ideas – instead an endless parade of teeming, violently caricatured and repulsive humanity. Similarly the book isn’t very interested in big ideas or issues, whether the spiritualism of the Expressionists or whatever guff the war was being fought for.

His account is a steady succession of anecdotes about odd, interesting, sometimes hilarious people – for example Theodor Däublin, known as Fat Theo, the poet and author of some vast epic, but who is mainly described as an eater of epic proportions, the anecdote in question concerning the evening when Grosz’s wife set down a huge dish of spaghetti and a dish of bolognaise for a dinner party of eight people – only to watch Fat Theo pull both dishes towards him, and eat it all, laughing and talking all the time while the other diners watched him open-mouthed.

Berlin Dada 1917-20

There had never been anything like Dada before. It was the art (or the philosophy) of the dustbin. (p.104)

It was during this period that he got involved with the Berlin wing of Dadaism, from 1917 to 1920. Again, his account of Dada (chapter 9) tends to focus on people and attitude, giving next to no detail about the timeline or works involved.

In those days we were all ‘Dadaists’. If that word meant anything at all it meant seething discontent, dissatisfaction and cynicism. Defeat and political ferment always give rise to that sort of movement. In a different age we might easily have become flagellants. (p.103)

In much the same style as he had described schoolboy adventures or student pranks, he now describes how he, Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst and John Heartfield put on a cabaret which largely consisted of shouting filth and abuse at the audience. After all, they deserved it.

We ridiculed everything, for nothing was sacred, and we spat on everything, because that was what Dada was about. Dada was neither mysticism nor communism nor anarchism, all of which had some kind of programme or other. We were complete, pure nihilists, and our symbol was the vacuum, the void. (p.102)

If you look up Berlin Dada you come across all kind of scholarly articles pointing out how Schwitters invented a new form of collage, while Grosz and John Heartfield collaborated in the invention of photo-montage. None of that is mentioned here. Instead we have more stories – about Baader, the Dada-in-chief and author of the Dadacon, the greatest book of all time, which consisted of thousands of pages of cut-up newspaper articles. Grosz was the ‘Propagandada’, who came up with such catchy slogans as ‘Dada Dada über Alles’ which they had printed on small cards and littered all over Berlin. While Communists and Right-wing militias fought in the streets and inflation hit 1 million per cent, the Dadaists held a race between six typewriters and six sewing machines.

One of their rich backers (Grosz seems to have been lucky in his life with rich patrons) had a huge wine cellar, the barrels and racks arranged in rows which were so wide apart that the eccentric owner could ride a motorbike between them. Each of these passages was given a name, for example George Grosz Alley ran between the sherry caskets.

There is almost nothing about how they came up with the new forms of art or the political engagement of himself or his fellow Dadaists. Just lots of funny stories:

  • about the occultist Dr Stadelman who invited them all to witness a midnight apparition which, despite all his best efforts, fails to come off
  • the artist Ben Hecht who emigrated and went on to become Hollywood’s most successful scriptwriter
  • about the leader of the Saxony Communist Revolution, Max Hoelz, a big brash natural leader of men who dwindled into insignificance
  • about Bertolt Brecht’s love of fast cars
  • about ‘Manners Fox’, the collector of erotica
  • Joseph von Sternberg the film director who made Marlene Dietrich an international star
  • about the wealthy Dr Felix Weil who founded the Frankfurt Institute for Social research which went on to have a vast influence on the development of Western Marxism and cultural studies

And so on.

Berlin Dada ended around 1920 but the crisis in Berlin never really ended and Grosz continued painting his bitter paintings and drawing his satirical drawings, selling them to newspapers, to wealthy patrons, or binding them into themed collections like Ecce Homo, which were promptly banned and cost him a small fortune in fines. There is nothing, nothing at all in this account about the various court cases he was involved in because of Ecce Homo or Gott mit uns.

Sample works

There’s quite a lot more gossip and stories about his Berlin circle, before he finally reaches the rise of the Nazis in chapter 13. To quote Indiana Jones, ‘Nazis? I hate those guys.’ And so does Grosz. Readers up to this point have been made quite aware of Grosz’s very low opinion of human beings, especially when seen as a mass or crowd. Hitler catered to precisely the kind of mass hysteria Grosz loathed.

The masses were once again clamouring for blood, no doubt to seal their own subjection, albeit they put it in different words. The vicarious pleasures of fear, subservience, humiliation and bondage affected almost an entire nation at the dawn of the so-called new age. (p.175)

But it’s typical of the book that he barely mentions the Nazis or Hitler by name (the index – characteristically – is solely of names, of people, and gives Hitler precisely 10 mentions).

In fact, in a surprise move, the chapter which ought to cover the ‘rise of the Nazis’ is nothing of the sort: Grosz makes the unexpected (and slightly Dada?) decision to cover the entire topic by using a fairy tale or fable. It describes a freethinking artist named Schultze who goes to live in the idyllic countryside near the Baltic but finds himself increasingly intimidated by the local peasants and workers, as they fall under the spell of rabble-rousing right wingers. It’s actually quite a hypnotic little tale, which gives an atmospheric sense of an artists colony or village on the remote coast of Germany,and a claustrophobic sense of the somehow unstoppable rise of violence and thuggery.

Then again, why should he give dates or scholarly analysis – he’s not a historian. In fact, considering that he was one of the inventors of Berlin Dada, it’s maybe to be wondered that there are any facts or coherent narrative at all.

America the beautiful

The last 60 or so pages (pp.180-240) describe Grosz’s emigration to New York and his struggles to make a go of it in the new world.

It was pure fluke that he was invited to teach at a New York summer school in 1932 but being there was a dream come true for Grosz who, ever since he was a boy, had fantasised about America. He returned to Germany in the winter of 1932 just long enough to persuade his wife to accompany him back, leaving the country just weeks before the Nazis came to power. He was on their wanted list. He reports that a week or so after Hitler gained power (30 January 1933) the Gestapo came to ransack his flat and studio. Grosz would without a doubt have been arrested, at best beaten up, maybe sent to an early concentration camp, in all probability ended up dead.

These last chapters give a frank account of how difficult he found it to make a new life in America. He abandoned all his political pretensions and wanted to become a good honest American illustrator, drawing shiny new appliances or light-hearted jokes for up-market magazines, whatever would make money, but found it very difficult, both to adopt an American style, and to get any work from the fiercely competitive New York magazines, Vogue, Esquire, the New Yorker.

There’s a long anecdote about an over-excited trip to Hollywood where, like so many émigrés before and since, he dreams of making a fortune – but gets no work.

Various friends and contacts help him out (there are even more anecdotes about colourful individuals and late night carousing) but it’s only when he opens his own private art school that he finally hits pay dirt. New York is full of rich ladies who would simply love to learn to paint and are happy to pay nice Mr Grosz to help them.

In the closing sections Grosz goes out of his way to distance himself from his left-wing past. He now loves money. He loves the rich. They are so much more interesting than the poor. He focuses on individuals, the quirkier the better, like the rich old lady who attends his class with her chauffeur, who she gets to open each paint tube and squeeze the paint onto the palette she daintily holds in her white-gloved hand.

One day Salvador Dalí turns up at Grosz’s life model class and spends a few hours drawing the model’s foot. Grosz goes for lunch with him and the redoubtable Gala, two visionary artists who have escaped mad Europe to the land of freedom and fridges.

The final chapter turns into a roll call of the famous people he’s met: John dos Passos, Thomas Mann (who he had a notable argument with, Mann and his wife insisting the guttersnipe Hitler would only last six months, Grosz angrily saying they underestimated the stupidity of the Germans and that Hitler would be there ten years or more [12, as it turned out]), the urbane Surrealist patron and collector Edward James, Giorgio de Chirico notable for his big nose, and so on.

When I read this as a student I was disappointed at the complete absence of a) fierce Marxist analysis or in fact any social analysis to match the incandescent anger of his paintings b) any real insight into the motivation behind either Dada or the 1920s works.

Now, thirty years later, I read it as the candid story of an actual human being man, a real character with flaws and shortcomings as obvious as his gifts. Looking back he thinks of his firebrand youth as naive spouting. Looking back he sees Berlin Dada as a series of escapades and jokes. Looking back he sees mass madness in the rush to war and then the pointlessness of revolutionary rhetoric, underneath all of which lies a horrifying Will to Bully and Humiliate, no matter what cause it’s done for.

So instead of all that, looking back he prefers to record the positives: his fondness for individuals, for people who rose above the rabble and pack, and he records moments of comedy, candour and warmth which counter-balance the hateful times.

And lastly he pays fitting tribute to America, the one country that stood really free of the madness that drowned Europe, Russia and China in tsunamis of human blood, where the rich had chauffeurs and pet poodles, where writers drank and chatted late into the night, where you had to fight hard to find work but if you did, were well rewarded, and found yourself on the verandah of a holiday home in Cape Cod, smoking a cigar alongside John dos Passos, looking out over the moonlight on the shimmering sea.

After such a long strange trip you feel he has made his contribution to society, staked a place in art history, and earned his contentment. The final mood reminds me of a poem by another wartime exile to America, the English poet W.H. Auden, describing life ‘on the circuit’ of American universities, flying from one campus to the next to lecture and sign autographs.

Another morning comes: I see,
Dwindling below me on the plane,
The roofs of one more audience
I shall not see again.

God bless the lot of them, although
I don’t remember which was which:
God bless the U.S.A., so large,
So friendly, and so rich.


Related links

Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-45 by Ruth Brandon (1999)

Surrealism is not a new or better means of expression, not even a metaphysic of poetry; it is a means of total liberation of the mind. (Surrealist declaration, January 1925, quoted page 233)

Born in 1943, Ruth Brandon will turn 75 this year. She’s written four novels and seven biographies of figures from the turn of the century (Houdini, Sarah Bernhardt). This big book (524 pages) is a long, detailed and very accessible account of the origins, rise and spread of the Surrealist movement, from its sources in the Great War through the 1920s and 30s when it was, arguably, the dominant art movement in Western Europe.

However, Surreal Lives is, as the title suggests, more a story about the people than about their writings or art. And when it does touch on the latter, it’s mostly about the writing than the paintings. Around page 325 Brandon briefly refers to the core Surrealist painters – Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Joan Miro – and I realised that we’d heard almost nothing about them in the preceding pages.

No, the central thread of the book is the life and career of the ‘pope’ of Surrealism, the writer, poet, critic and organiser, André Breton. Each of the nine longish chapters focuses on a key figure in the history of Surrealism – the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire who first coined the word ‘Surrealism’, joint founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara, inventor of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp, Breton’s partner in crime the poet Louis Aragon, the Catalan phenomenon Salvador Dalí – but the text always reverts back to their effect on Breton, their threat to Breton, how Breton managed them, alienated them, dismissed them from the movement, and so on.

Along the way we meet plenty of colourful characters, such as the the experimental writer Raymond Roussel, Breton’s close friend Jacques Vaché who committed suicide aged just 25, the American photographer Man Ray, the millionaire socialite Nancy Cunard (who had an affair with Aragon), the domineering Gala Eluard who became Salvador Dali’s lifelong muse and protrectress, the young psychiatrist Jacques Lacan whose collaboration with the Surrealists made his name and who went on to become one of the most influential French intellectuals of his day. All these and many more.

The book is full of stories of scandalous behaviour, passionate affairs, casual sex, drug addiction, madness and suicide, in the best bohemian manner (I was particularly struck by the ‘open marriage’ of Paul and Gala Eluard, both of them enjoying multiple partners. It blossomed into a ménage à trois with the painter Max Ernst, and I enjoyed the anecdote of the three of them travelling to Rome to lure the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico into the Surrealist camp, using Gala as bait. All four of them went to bed together, though de Chirico later said he didn’t enjoy it, and he didn’t join the movement.)

But, as I’ve mentioned, in its focus on the writers, on their manifestos, questionnaires, articles and reviews, their letters and diaries, Surreal Lives tends to be very text-based and so doesn’t shed much light on the art of Surrealism (the first Surrealist exhibition, La Peinture Surrealiste, was held at Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925 and I don’t think Brandon mentions it.)

This reflects the historical reality, since Surrealism was first and foremost a literary movement, founded by three poets (Breton, Aragon and Philippe Soupault) and dedicated to writing volumes of verse, manifestos, publishing a succession of magazines (La Révolution surréaliste 1924-29, Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution 1930-33, Minotaure 1933-39), and so on.

It was only towards the end of the 1920s that the Surreal painters came to prominence – in 1928 Breton wrote Surrealism and painting to reflect this. But it was especially with the arrival of Salvador Dali in their midst in 1929 that the visual arts side of the movement began to vie with the writing and then, arguably, dominate it.

So Brandon’s focus on the writers doesn’t really reflect the Surrealist legacy as we experience it today. Most of the Surrealist writings have disappeared, a lot was ephemeral anyway, a lot was never translated into English.

Instead Surrealism’s enduring impact has been via the bizarre and striking paintings of Dali, Max Ernst, Magritte and many others. The Surrealist heritage is almost entirely visual and Brandon doesn’t have a lot to say about the visual arts (or sculpture). The only visual artist she describes in any detail is Dalí (although the chapter about him is actually about the trio of talented Spaniards, Dalí, Luis Buñuel the film-maker and the poet Frederico García Lorca).

I can imagine a completely different book which would cover the exact same period of time, but focus on the relationships between Arp, Miro, Masson, Tanguy and so on, trying to clarify their relationship to the artists who came before them and how they thought of and interpreted ‘surrealism’. None of that is here.

For this reason, and because the influence of Surrealism becomes considerably more diffuse in the 1930s, with a bewildering cast of hangers-on, artists and writers all showing its burgeoning influence – I felt the first half of the book was the most compelling. I particularly enjoyed the detailed description of the character and importance of Apollinaire, of Duchamp’s trips to New York and his early friendship with Man Ray, and the riveting account of Dadaism which, for the first time, really explained the origin and history of that movement to me, made it real in terms of the people and personalities involved.

I’ve known the names of many of these people – Tzara, Aragon – for decades. Brandon’s book for the first time brought them vividly, fascinatingly, to life. It’s a great read.

Left to right: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Hans Arp, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel, Man Ray

Left to right: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Hans Arp, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel, Man Ray (Paris, 1930)

I made brief notes on the first four chapters or so, before my review began to feel too long. For what it’s worth, here they are:

1. A bas Guillaume

We start with Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet, writer and art critic who was gifted with an uncanny sense for the new and important, who had championed cubism in the early 1910s and is here because of his role as patron to the young and ambitious André Breton, the humourless bully who would become the pope of Surrealism. Apollinaire encouraged Breton and introduced him to the other ‘musketeers’ of the movement, Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. And it was Apollinaire who coined the world ‘Surrealist’, in a review of Parade, an avant-garde show put on by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, premiered in May 1917, based on a one-act scenario by Jean Cocteau set to music (and experimental noises) by Erik Satie. Cocteau had himself described the ballet as ‘realistic’ but, with its experimental music and highly stylised costumes, Apollinaire described Parade as sur-realistic, the French word ‘sur’ meaning on or above. Above-realism. Beyond-realism.

This new alliance – I say new, because until now scenery and costumes were linked only by factitious bonds – has given rise, in Parade, to a kind of surrealism, which I consider to be the point of departure for a whole series of manifestations of the New Spirit that is making itself felt today and that will certainly appeal to our best minds. We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness, for it is only natural, after all, that they keep pace with scientific and industrial progress.

As with all the other characters in the story – Duchamp, Tzara, Dali and so on – this is a very personal history and Brandon gives full descriptions of the characters’ height and build, their faces, eyes, mannerisms, ways of speaking, their charisma and presence. The aim is on getting to know these people, feeling as if you were being introduced to them at a party. Brandon deals with their theories about literature and art as they emerge from the personalities, but is thankfully lacking in the jargon-heavy theoretical interpretations of an art scholar like the feminist, Whitney Chadwick. It’s a people-first account.

The most remarkable event in the remarkable man’s life was that, despite being the doyen of the avant-garde, he made strenuous attempts to volunteer for the French Army (despite being Polish by birth) and surprised everyone by loving the Army and fighting bravely. He was invalided out in 1916 with a shrapnel wound to the head, but died suddenly of the Spanish flu which swept the world in 1918.

2. The death of art

The next chapter focuses on the life and early career of Marcel Duchamp. Since reading the World of Art account of Duchamp by Dawn Ades and Neil Cox I have a much better sense of the overall shape and purpose of Duchamp’s career. It’s very interesting to have loads of details added in about his time in New York during the War, how he made fast friends with the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Emmanuel Radnitzky, soon to be known as Man Ray, and also the bull-like connoisseur of fast living and high life, Francis Picabia.

They got to know the circle around the photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his art gallery and magazine, titled ‘291.’ Duchamps was invited to stay in the vacant apartment of business millionaire Walter Arensberg, who became a lifelong patron and sponsor. The descriptions of the drunken parties they attended, of drunken debauchery, through which shine Duchamp’s icy detachment, his addiction to chess and bad puns, are all super-readable.

Brandon takes the incident when Duchamp’s wonderful Nude descending a staircase was rejected by the organisers of the 1912 Cubist Salon des Indépendants as the moment when Duchamp decided to abandon painting with oils on canvas (which he didn’t enjoy doing, anyway). Duchamp vowed to abandon ‘retinal art’, which appeals only to the eye, and try and evolve an art of the mind, founding – in the process – the idea of ‘conceptual art’.

3. The celestial adventure of M. Tristan Tzara

Next we jump to Zurich during the Great War where I found Brandon’s account of the birth of Dada extremely illuminating. She describes how a disparate gang of emigre artists (Emmy Hennings [Germany], Tristan Tzara [Romania], Jean Arp [Alsace], Marcel Janco [Romania], Richard Huelsenbeck [Germany], Sophie Taeuber [Switzerland] and Hans Richter [German]) crystallised around the tall blonde figure of Hugo Ball, who founded the Cabaret Voltaire in February 1916.

Here they staged their epoch-making anarchic, nonsensical performances, shouting nonsense poetry through megaphones or to the accompaniment of a bass drum, wearing cardboard costumes, playing random instruments, packed with schoolboy pranks and silliness. The Cabaret had been going for several months before they came up with the word Dada, precisely who was responsible and what it means continuing to be a subject of argument to this day. Anti-art, anti-reason and logic, anti-bourgeois, anti everything which had led to this slaughterous war.

While Zurich was a kind of playground of irresponsible émigrés, Berlin at the end of the war witnessed the collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire (November 1918) leading to street fighting between Communists and police and army militias to decide the future of the country (featuring the notorious murder of the Communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in January 1919). Berlin Dada was founded by John Heartfeld, the inventor of photomontage, and the satirical painter George Grosz.

The fiercely political Richard Huelsenbeck had argued with Tzara back in Zurich – Tzara saw Dada as a new movement which would propel him to superstar status in the European art world, whereas Huelsenbeck saw it as a tool in the life or death struggle for Europe’s political future. ‘Dada is German communism,’ he said, simply.

Tzara proved himself the most feverishly active of the Zurich Dadaists, pouring out provocative manifestos, sending out invitations to contribute to Dada magazine to all the avant-garde artists he’d heard of anywhere in Europe, so that Duchamp, Picabia et al got roped in. His invitations found their way to Apollinaire, and so on to his acolyte Breton, along with wartime pals Louis Aragon and his closest friend Soupault. The ‘three musketeers’ invited him to Paris.

Brandon gives a hilarious account of the anticipation on both sides as they waited for the Great God of Dada to make his pilgrimage to Paris – only to be seriously disillusioned by the short, dark, nervous figure who materialised.

4. Dada comes to Paris

The three very young friends, Breton, Aragon and Soupault, had already published the first number of their magazine Littérature, in Paris in March 1919, with financial help from the grand old man of letters, André Gide. In 1920 they published a joint work by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), the result of days of ‘automatic writing’, unfiltered and set down just as it came to them.

Although they tried to muster enthusiasm for madcap Tzara and his notion of Dada happenings, the Parisians are depicted as more intellectual, detached and sceptical than the original Dada gang.

It turned out that Dada was a product of the unique war-time conditions in Zurich, of a mood of hysteria amid the bloodshed. Post-war Paris on the contrary, quickly returned to being a battlefield only of avant-garde sophisticates, determined not to be impressed. Jean Cocteau, refused a place on the editorial board of Littérature, complained in his new journal that the Dada events were boring. He complained that ‘not a single Dada has killed himself or even a member of the audience.’ Dull, eh.

It began to be clear that Paris Dada might shock the bourgeoisie – or those members who bothered to turn up to their rather tame happenings – but not many of the over-sophisticated Paris élite. What next?Brandon pinpoints this as the crux: Dada didn’t lead anywhere because it wasn’t meant to lead anywhere, it was against the whole idea of leading anywhere. But the Paris contingent thought it should lead somewhere.

They had been experimenting with ‘automatic writing’ just before Tzara arrived, and Brandon gives a fascinating account of what that meant in practice, namely the poet Robert Desnos, who had the ability to be put into a trance or half sleep and then write, actually write poems, while in this dream state.

Tzara’s arrival led to several years of Dadaist outrages, performances and feverish manifestos, few of which had the drive to really épater les bourgeoisie. It was after one particularly disappointing performance in 1923 that the group and its various hangers-on and associates made the decisive split which led to the founding of a new movement, named by Breton ‘Surrealism’, after the word Apollinaire had introduced seven years earlier.

And so, in June 1924 the final edition of the Dada-era Littérature appeared; and in December 1924, the first edition of La Révolution surréaliste was published, inaugurating the first phase of Surrealism (p.229).

The word ‘revolution’was used right from the start but, as Brandon points out, at this stage none of the Surrealists were politically revolutionary; the revolution they had in mind was purely cultural and all they really knew about it was that it would involve dreams.

‘Only dreams offer man real liberty’ (quoted page 230).

They set up a ‘Bureau de recherches surréalistes’ at 15 Rue de Grenelles, opening hours 4.30 to 6.30, in order to ‘gather all the information possible related to forms that might express the unconscious activity of the mind’. Breton liked questionnaires. Littérature contained many, La Révolution surréaliste even more.

Other themes

That’s a thumbnail summary of the first 230 or so of the book’s 458 pages of text, taking us up to about 1925. The rest of the book continues in the same vein: introducing new characters as they arrive on the scene, with long chapters devoted to Louis Aragon, Buñuel and Dali, and so on.

Apart from the lengthy excursions into the private lives and writings of these lead figures (the chapter on Aragon was particularly interesting in explaining the appeal of his early lyrical poetry and prose [Paysan de ParisTraité du style 1928, and Irene’s Cunt] and how this airy fluency was squeezed out of him by Breton’s fiercely policed movement – Breton banned novels and lyrical writing from the movement, two things Aragon excelled at – in September he made an attempt at suicide) I’d say three big themes emerge in the rest of the book:

1. The pope of Surrealism

The steel grip Breton exerted in ‘his’ movement in a whole host of ways, including kangaroo courts which held ‘trials’ of anyone accused of betraying Surrealist values or bucking Big Breton’s authority. The first of many were his old colleague Philippe Soupault and radical dramatist Antonin Artaud, expelled after a ‘hearing’ into their crimes, in November 1926. In 1929 a dissident group of Surrealists based round the writer Georges Bataille began publishing a rival magazine, DOCUMENT. In its nihilism Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1929 reflects the bitterness of these schisms, plus the turmoil in his own personal life. This is the one which contains the notorious line that the most Surrealistic act conceivable would be to run out into the street with a loaded gun and start firing at passersby (p.265).

Writers who were expelled from the ‘movement’ and who often took their revenge in vituperative criticism of Breton, included Robert Desnos (him of the automatic writing experiments), the pornographic fantasist George Bataille, experimental writers Raymond Queneau and Michael Leiris and, in the deepest cut of all, his closest compadre, Louis Aragon. In 1931 Breton went ahead and published criticism of the way French Communist Party officials had given Aragon the third degree over a piece of pornography by Salvador Dali which was published in the fourth number of the magazine Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. Aragon had begged him not to include criticism of the Party, to which he was becoming passionately attached. Breton did so anyway, and the one-time musketeers never spoke again.

2. The impact of Dalí

How the arrival of Dali, and to a lesser extent Bunuel, at the end of the 1920s, was a much-needed shot in the arm to a movement which was running out of steam. Dali not only crystallised his own peculiar style of painting in the early 1930s but helped to cement a Surrealist visual identity, the one posterity now remembers it by. Brandon’s extended chapter about Dali, Buñuel and Lorca is absolutely riveting on everything from the backward culture of 1920s Spain, through their collaboration on the famous Surrealist movies Le Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, to the collapse of Buñuel’s fortunes during the Second World War just as Dali was rising to fame and fortune in America.

And the stories about their bizarre sex lives. According to Dali Lorca was in love with him and tried to sodomise him on two occasions. However, Dali was not gay although he was not exactly a ‘normal’ heterosexual, being obsessed with masturbation and voyeurism. The closes Lorca could get to having sex with Dali, who he was obsessed with, was by hiring a (flat-chested and therefore boyish) woman, who he had sex with while Dali watched. It’s worth buying the book for this extraordinary chapter alone.

Dalí dominates the story till the end of the book. the final chapter relates the opposite fortunes of Dali and Breton who were both compelled to spend the Second World War in new York. Dalí thrived, gaining enormous publicity through a series of ever-giddier publicity stunts. He was on the front cover of Time, he sold everything he painted and began to get seriously rich. Breton, in sharp contrast, refused to learn English, refused to give interviews, struggled to make a living delivering broadcasts on the French-language part the Voice of Liberty radio service.

Breton was disgusted that, for Americans, Dalí did succeed in becoming the face of Surrealism. The final pages in the book are devoted to a thought-provoking debate about who, in the end, had the most lasting legacy, Dalí the showman, or Breton the thinker and doctrinaire.

3. Surrealism and communism

In the later 1920s and then throughout the 1930s Breton’s rule became more dictatorial and more overtly political.

Breton’s relationship with the Communist Party of France was troubled (he was formally expelled from it in 1933) and fraught with paradox. He decided he wanted to put his movement at the service of the Party and the proletariat at precisely the moment – the late 1920s – when Stalin was cementing his grip on the Soviet Union, expelling Trotsky in 1928 and introducing the doctrine of Socialist Realism (in 1932).

Insisting that Surrealism was a revolutionary movement, and larding his manifestos with references to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but excluded from alliance with the official Soviet Party line, Breton sought out the leading exponent of World Revolution, travelling with his wife, the painter Jacqueline Lamba, to Mexico to meet Trotsky (staying as the guest of Diego Rivera’s former wife Guadalupe Marin), though even here, as Brandon shows, he couldn’t stop himself from lecturing Trotsky (of all people) just as he harangued all his colleagues back in Paris.

Surrealism’s relationship with Communism is a vast topic, the subject of countless books. It of course varied from one Surrealist writer and painter to another, and also varied with individuals over time. What comes over from the book is that their vexed and troubled relationship with Communism became more central to the movement in the 1930s. Whenever Communist commissars or officials of the French Communist Party appear in the narrative, it’s hard not to sympathise. Compared to the fratricidal stresses they were having to negotiate and the fraught power politics at the end of the 1930s, the Surrealists must have seemed like spoilt schoolboys.

Footnote – surreal suicide

Early in the Second World War Albert Camus wrote his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus to address what he saw as the most pressing issue facing intellectuals, the issue of suicide. The immediate context was France’s catastrophic defeat and occupation by Germany which, for many ordinary people, had overthrown all their values and made them wonder if there was any meaning or purpose in the universe.

But reading this book about often quite hysterical artists made me realise that quite a lot of Continental artists and writers were afflicted by suicidal thoughts between the wars. In fact Breton included the question ‘Suicide: Is It a Solution?’ in the very first issue of La Révolution surréaliste in 1925 (to which the Surrealist writer René Crevel had answered ‘Yes, it is most probably the most correct and most ultimate solution.’)

Later on, the writer Jacques Rigaut said: ‘Suicide should be a vocation… the most absurd of acts, a brilliant burst of fantasy, the ultimate unconstraint…’ (quoted page 375) before he, also, killed himself.

It sheds light on Camus’ work to read it against the wave of artistic suicides in the previous twenty years.

  • January 1919 Andre Breton’s bosom buddy Jacques Vaché takes an overdose of opium
  • December 1925 Russian and Soviet poet Sergei Yesenin hangs himself
  • July 1928 Greek poet Kostas Karyotakis shoots himself
  • September 1928 Louis Aragon takes an overdose of sleeping pills, but survives
  • November 1929 Surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut shoots himself through the heart
  • April 1930 Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky shoots himself through the heart
  • December 1931 American poet Vachel Lindsay poisons himself
  • March 1932 English artist Dora Carrington shoots herself
  • April 1932 American poet Hart Crane jumps overboard an ocean liner
  • December 1935 German-Jewish journalist, satirist and writer Kurt Tucholsky takes an overdose
  • February 1937 Uruguayan playwright and poet Horacio Quiroga drinks a glass of cyanide
  • October 1938 Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni drowns himself
  • August 1941 Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself
  • September 1940 German literary critic and culture theorist Walter Benjamin took a morphine overdose
  • March 1941 English novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, drowned herself
  • February 1942 Austrian novelist and playwright Stefan Zweig takes a barbiturate overdose

Read in this context, Camus’s notion of ‘the Absurd’ seems like a belated attempt to catch up with and define a mood of nihilism which began during the Great War itself and became more oppressive during the 1930s well before France’s humiliating defeat.


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Symbolism by Michael Gibson (1995)

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. (p.35)

This is an enormous coffee-table book, some 31.5 cm tall and 25 cm wide. The hardback version I borrowed from the library would break your toes if you dropped it.

Its 227 pages of text contain a cornucopia of richly-coloured reproductions of symbolist paintings, famous and obscure, from right across the continent, with separate chapters focusing on France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic countries, the Mediterranean countries and so on. The main body of the text is followed by eight pages giving potted biographies of the key symbolist artists, and a handy table of illustrations – all of this textual paraphernalia as well as the end covers and the incidental pages are lavishly decorated with the evocative line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is a beautiful book to have and hold and flip through and relish.

Symbolism was a literary movement

So what is Symbolism? A big question which has stymied many art historians. Gibson approaches the problem from a number of angles. For a start Symbolism was a literary movement before it was an art one: the Symbolist manifesto published in 1886 was written by a poet, Jean Moreas, and referred to poets of the day such as Verlaine or the young Mallarmé. Moreas suggested that these writers were aiming ‘to clothe the idea in perceptible form.’ In looking for ways to illustrate this point he mentioned the similar aim in several contemporary artists, most notably Gustave Moreau.

What idea? Well, there were eventually hundreds of symbolist painters and, arguably, every single one of them had a different ‘idea’.

Symbolism against the modern world

Gibson takes a different tack and offers a sociological explanation. What they almost all had in common was a rejection of the scientific rationalism and the industrial pragmatism of the age (the late nineteenth century). These latter movements were represented by a writer like Émile Zola, who embraced the modern age in its dirt and squalor and poverty and drunkenness, developing an approach he called ‘Naturalism’. The influential philosopher Auguste Comte preached a social philosophy called ‘Postivism’, which thought we could use scientific and technological advances to create a new society – a technocratic and utopian ideal which finds its fullest flood in the English-speaking world in the scientific utopias of H.G. Wells.

Symbolists hated all this. They thought it was killing off all the mystery and imagination in life. They went in search of the strange, the obscure, the irrational, the mysterious, the barely articulatable.

Symbolism a legacy of lapsed Catholicism

Gibson makes the profound point that symbolism flourished in a) Catholic countries b) affected by industralisation. So not the less-industrialised Catholic countries of the Mediterranean (Spain or Italy) – the northern Catholic parts of France, Germany and Belgium.

He then goes on to explain how the Industrial Revolution, coming later to these countries than Britain, seriously disrupted the age-old beliefs, traditions and customs of Roman Catholicism. In particular, huge numbers of the peasant population left the land and flocked to the cities, to become a new industrial proletariat (or fled Europe altogether, emigrating to the United States). In the second half of the nineteenth century Europe saw social disruption and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

Urban intellectuals in Catholic countries felt that the age-old sense of community and tradition embodied by continent-wide Catholicism had been ruptured and broken. Many lost their faith in the face of such huge social changes, or the intellectual impact of Darwinism, or the triumph of science. But they regretted what they’d lost.

  • The Great Upheaval by Henry de Groux (1893) Gibson reads this dramatic painting as representing the disruption of traditional values in a society undergoing rapid change – note the broken crucifix in the middle of the composition.

Symbolism, to some extent, represents the mood right across northern Europe, of artists and intellectuals for whom traditional Catholicism has died, but who still dreamed of transcendental values, of a realm of mysteries and hints from ‘the beyond’. As Gibson eloquently puts it, Symbolism is:

the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. (p.24)

Some of them set up clubs, new religious ‘orders’, hermetic societies, cabbalistic cults, turned to spiritualism, clairvoyance, and a wide range of fin-de-siecle voodoo.

  • Portrait of Péladan (1891) by Alexandre Séon Péladan was one of the founders of the mystical Salon de la Rose+Cross which aimed to support Symbolist art, and changed his name to Sâr (or ‘Magus’) Mérodak. Stop sniggering at the back.

Mention of voodoo prompts the thought that, up till now I’ve made it sound like harmless replacement for lost religious certainties. I haven’t brought out the widespread sense of anxiety.

Symbolism and the femme fatale

There’s a lot of threat in Symbolist paintings. In Monet women walk through fields with parasols, in Renoir women are laughing partners in sunlit gardens. But in Symbolist painting women tend to be depicted as extremes, either as muses dreaming of another world or as sexually threatening and voracious demons.

  • Salome (1909) by Julius Klinger The Biblical story of Salome who persuades King Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded, haunts the fin-de-siecle era. Wilde wrote a play about it, Strauss an opera, and there are scores of paintings. In most of them Salome represents the femme fatale, the woman who uses her sexual attraction to lure men into dangerous or fatal situations. Dr Freud of Vienna would have said the real terror lying hidden in these paintings was the male castration complex. Surely the idea was never made more explicit than in this painting by Julius Klinger which shows Salome carrying – not the traditional head of John – but a severed set of testicles and penis drooling blood, along with the blood-red knife which just cut off a man’s penis.

Why this anxiety? Why, above all, did it present in sexual form?

Maybe because Symbolist artists were almost all men (there were several successful women Impressionists but no female Symbolists that I can see), they were dedicated to exploring the irrational aspects of human nature, and not much is more irrational than people’s sex lives, fantasies, desires and anxieties.

And so these men, psyched up to explore the strange, the fantastical, the edgy the socially taboo – projected onto the blank canvas of ‘woman’ a florid range of their own longings and fears. The irrational is not the friend of feminism.

  • Sin (1893) by Franz von Stuck The alluring half-naked woman with her pink nipples and her mild smile almost distracts you from the enormous snake draped round her and ready to bite off your… your what? (‘Paging Dr Freud’ as they used to say in Hollywood screwball comedies.) A very Catholic image since,after all, the basis of Catholicism is the snake tempting Eve who tempted Adam into the Fall. In this image Snake and Woman once again tempt the (male) viewer.

Symbolism and death

If Symbolist art often portrays Woman (with a capital W) as femme fatale, it just as often betrays anxieties about Death (with a capital D). But death not as we experience (hooked up to beeping machines in a soulless hospital ward), instead encountered like a seductive figure in a folk tale, himself often handsome and alluring, and the person doing the confronting often a handsome young hero.

Symbolism and decadence

Fin-de-siecle art is often identified with ‘Decadence’, the cult of etiolated aristocrats reclining on velvet divans, in an atmosphere heavy with incense and debauchery, as epitomised in the classic novel, Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

Gibson sheds light on this, too, by saying the Decadence wasn’t fuelled so much by a sense of decline, as by a resolute opposition to the doctrine of Progress, a subtly different idea. This artistically aristocratic sensibility refused to kow-tow to the vulgar jingoism and gimcrack technical advances of the age (telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, early cinema – how ghastly), remaining nostalgic for the imagined superiority of its ancestors in an imaginary, pre-scientific age.

The Salon de la Rose+Croix

In 1891 the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix published a manifesto in which they declared that Symbolist artists were forbidden to practice history, patriotic and military painting, all representation of contemporary life, portrait painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, ‘all animals either domestic or connected with sport’, flowers or fruit. On the plus side, they welcomed mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, any work based on legend, myth, allegory or dream (p.56).

It’s an accurate enough snapshot of the Symbolist mentality.

This sensibility locks itself away from the world, cloistered (a Catholic image) in an ivory tower, waking only at night (Symbolism is as fascinated by night, by shades of darkness, as Impressionism is by sunlight and daytime). Rejecting science, the exoteric (obvious), and everyday banality, it retreats into esoteric studies of the past, into alchemy, into the artificial recreation of medieval ‘orders’ (the more artificial, the more delicious), into mesmeric incantations about sin and death and damnation (overlooking the rather more mundane positive elements of Catholicism – charity, good works and so on).

The vast range of Symbolism

The great success of this book is in bringing together a really vast range of works from right across Europe to show how this mood, this urge, this wish for another, stranger, irrational world, took so many weird and wonderful forms, in the paintings of hundreds of European artists.

And it also investigates the shifting borders of Symbolism, where the impulse to ‘clothe the Idea’ shaded off into other schools or movements – of post-Impressionist abstraction, or Expressionist Angst, into Art Nouveau decorativeness, or just into something weird, unique and one-off.

The more I read on and the more examples I saw, the more I began to wonder in particular about the border between Symbolism and ‘the Fantastic’. Despite Gibson’s inclusivity, some of the paintings reproduced here look more like illustrations for fantasy novels than grand gestures towards a solemn mystery world. It’s a tricky business, trying to navigate through such a varied plethora of images.

Here, from the hundreds on offer, are the paintings which stood out for me:

Symbolists against nature

Numerous symbolist writers and artists argued that the world of art is radically separate from the so-called ‘real world’. They thought that the Impressionists (who they heartily disliked) were simply striving for a better type of naturalism. Symbolists, on the contrary, wanted next to nothing to do with the yukky real world. As Gibson puts it:

No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. (p.27)

Symbolists found the idea of the total autonomy of the work of art

No following of nature, then, but, in various manifestos, essays, poems and paintings, the Symbolists claimed the total autonomy of art, accountable to no-one but the artist and the imagination of their reader or viewer. Gibson argues that these claims for the complete autonomy of art lie at the root, provide the foundation of, all the later movements of Modernism.

Maybe. Discuss.

Symbolism ended by the Great War

What is certain is that the strange otherworlds of Symbolism tended to come to a grinding halt with the Great War, which tore apart the community of Europe more violently than the Industrial Revolution. The movements which emerged just before and during it – the absurdist Dadaists, the violent Futurists, the avant-garde cubists – all tended to despise wishy-washy spiritualism, all guff about another world.

The irrational mood, the imperative to reject the business-like bourgeois world, was revived by the Surrealists (founded in 1924) and it’s easy to identify a continuity of fantastical imagery from the later symbolists through to the Surrealists.

But the Surrealists’ great secret wasn’t other-worldly, it was other-mindly. Their worldview wasn’t underpinned by lapsed Catholic notions of the divine and the demonic. The Surrealists were students of Freud who thought that if they brought the creatures of the unconscious out into the open – via automatic writings and artfully bizarre imagery – they would somehow liberate the world, or at least themselves, from bourgeois constraints. But in practice some of the art from the 1920s, and even 1930s, is not that distinguishable from the weirder visions of the 1880s and 1890s.

The conservatism of Symbolism

Reading steadily through the book made me have a thought which Gibson doesn’t articulate, which is that almost all of this art was oddly conservative in technique. It is overwhelmingly realistic and figurative, in that it portrays human beings (or angels of death or satanic women or whatever), generally painted in a very traditional academic way. There are (as the Rose+Croix wanted) no landscapes, still lives or history scenes with lots of characters; generally, one or two or so people are caught in moments of sombre meaningfulness.

And hardly any of it is experimental in form. Not much of it invokes the scattered brush work of a Monet or the unfinished sketchiness of a Degas or the interest in geometric forms of a Cézanne. Nothing in the book is as outrageous as the colour-slashed paintings by the Fauves, by Derain or Vlaminck.

This art of the strange and the other-worldly was peculiarly conservative. I guess that chimes with the way the belief almost all these artists shared in some kind of otherworld, some meaning or presence deeper than our everyday existence, was profoundly conservative, a nostalgic hearkening back to an imagined era of intellectual and spiritual completeness.

The twentieth century was to blow away both these things – both the belief in some vaporous, misty otherworld, and the traditional 19th century, naturalist style which (on the whole) had been used to convey it. Cars and planes, tanks and bombs, were to obliterate séances and spiritualism.

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War Paint @ the National Army Museum

The National Army Museum is the British Army’s central museum, located in Chelsea just a few hundred yards from the Thames Embankment and next to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, home of the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’.

Its remit is to cover the overall history of British land forces since their inception back during the British Civil Wars (the 1640s). It differs from the Imperial War Museum in two ways: the IWM has a wider remit of theme (covering the war experiences of British military personnel from all three services and of civilians, too) but the IWM covers a shorter time period – only since 1914.

Exterior of the National Army Museum

Exterior of the National Army Museum on a December morning

The museum reopened in March this year after a three-year-long refurbishment costing £23.75 million. It’s now a big, clean, light and airy space, full of greeters and super helpful visitor attendants. Spread over its three floors are galleries arranged by themes – Soldier, Army, Battle, Society and Insight, along with a light and airy café, a shop – and a gallery for temporary exhibitions.

Inside the National Army Museum

Inside the National Army Museum

War Paint

I had come to see the exhibition titled ‘War Paint’, which has been open since March and closes in January. The idea is to display ‘over 130 paintings and objects exploring the complex relationship between war and the men and women who map, record, celebrate and document it’.

The exhibition is divided into five or so ‘spaces’ (they’re not quite defined enough to be rooms) which display works and objects related to the themes of:

1 Surveying the world

To control a territory you must understand it. After the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, the Board of Ordnance was instructed to create detailed maps of Scotland. This was the origin of the Ordnance Survey maps of Britain which we use today and are so breath-takingly thorough. The exhibition shows early maps of Scotland, and then a rather random selection of maps and diagrams, one used for charting the River Blackwater near Aldershot, one used to track Napoleon’s sea journey to Egypt (where he set about a massive map-making commission), and so on.

There was a small, beautifully drawn sketch of the view from the UN outpost in the village of Majlaj during the Yugoslav Civil Wars by a contemporary soldier, showing the position of Serb and Muslim snipers up in the surrounding hills. Display cases contain compasses and other kit required by professional map-makers.

Inside the War Paint exhibition

Inside the War Paint exhibition

2 Drawing on experience

War illustration became professional (newspapers started to pay for it) in the 1840s. Before then serving officers produced nearly all the surviving eye-witness portrayals of the army on campaign. Modern soldiers continue to use painting as a form of relaxation and, more recently, to aid rehabilitation.

3 Selling war

All perspectives on conflict are partial and artists as much as anyone else, choose a subject and select and manipulate it in order to create an image under the influence of concerns for saleability, professional advancement, concerns for ‘the truth’, the wish to record bravery, and so on.

4 Political statement

A number of works here show how British society recorded triumphs and victories, from King Billy at the Battle of the Boyne to Wellington in the Peninsular War. Although the themed approach tries to conceal it, the core of the collection seems to be innumerable paintings recording victories against the fuzzy-wuzzies in the countless small wars of the Victorian era. The stories behind each painting (and each artist – there appear to be lots of battle artists) are often interesting – but not many of the paintings are really notable, considered as art (as opposed to as interesting examples of imperial propaganda or of Victorian narrative painting).

But then, Victorian society was complex: there was also a strong counter-thread warning against jingoism, warning against complacency. Kipling’s great poem Recessional comes to mind, and the exhibition quotes from the battle artist, Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler, who said: ‘Thank God I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism’. In that vein her most famous painting is probably Remnants of an army, 1879 (though it isn’t on show here, being owned by Tate).

Thoughts and reactions

I’m afraid I didn’t find the thematic arrangement very convincing or maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. I found myself rearranging the exhibits chronologically in terms of style. After a handful of items from the Civil Wars, and a few primitive works from the 18th century, there was a large amount of Victorian boilerplate – sentimental pictures of soldiers off to the wars or returning back by ship, done in a soft-edged Romantic style. Lots about Wellington and the Napoleonic campaigns.

Wellington at Sorauren, 27 July 1813 by Thomas Jones Barker (1853) © National Army Museum

Wellington at Sorauren, 27 July 1813 by Thomas Jones Barker (1853) © National Army Museum

Horses are a popular theme – the cavalry was not only glamorously dressed but gave every painter all kinds of compositional opportunities designed to inspire zeal and admiration in their Victorian spectators.

It seemed to me only in the last decades of the 19th century, and the first of the twentieth, that figure painting reached a kind of peak of excellence – a consistent brilliance of lifelike draughtsmanship, which helps give so many late-Victorian and Edwardian battle paintings such a tremendously vivid, realistic and stirring quality.

The Flag, Albuhera, May 16, 1811, by William Barnes Wollen (1912) © National Army Museum

The Flag, Albuhera, May 16, 1811 by William Barnes Wollen (1912) © National Army Museum

The paradoxical beauty of the Great War

This technical virtuosity carried on into the Great War when even painters who were aware of developments in modern art in France stuck to a more traditional academic style to depict the horrors they saw. It’s a very subjective view, but the works I liked best came from the Great War, for several reasons:

1. Almost all the previous wars, up to and including the Boer War, involved lots of horses in the actual fighting. There’s a big continuity of dramatic horse war paintings from the Battle of Bleinheim through to the campaign in South Africa.

Buller's Final Crossing of the Tugela, February 1900 by Georges Bertin Scott (1900)

Buller’s Final Crossing of the Tugela, February 1900 by Georges Bertin Scott (1900)

2. The Second World War is about machines – Panzer tanks, Spitfires and Messerschmitts, massive warships in the Pacific, U-boats in the Atlantic. The Battle of Britain or El Alamein or Stalingrad, are about machines. Humans dwindle beside them.

3. The iconography of the Great War sits between these eras – although horses were used in their millions to pull carts and artillery, they played little role in the actual fighting which, as we all know, was a grim attritional, trench-based affair. On the other hand none of the machines which dominated the Second World War had yet been invented (OK, early planes and tanks were in action, but not perfected yet, not dominating the scene).

Therefore, the Great War is the war of people, of ordinary people (mostly men, obviously), of millions of poor bloody infantry pushed into a nightmare life. The stories and iconography of the Great War are, paradoxically, very humane, human-scale. It is a face of war acceptable to our modern anti-war tastes and values, because it is predominantly about suffering – lacking all the vainglory and braggadocio of the previous two hundred years of imperial triumphs.

Which explains why it produced a work like this, by Second Lieutenant Richard Tennant Cooper who served in the Great War, sketching and painting as he went – a work focusing on an individual, not a cavalry charge or an attack on a redoubt or the defence of some pallisades, but a wet man trudging along with a heavy weight of barbed wire picket posts on his shoulder.

A Tommy wearing rain cape and carrying picket posts, 1917 by Second Lieutenant Richard Tennant Cooper, 1918 © National Army Museum

A Tommy wearing rain cape and carrying picket posts, 1917 by Second Lieutenant Richard Tennant Cooper, 1918 © National Army Museum

The visitor assistants at the Museum are extremely helpful and one of them pointed out something I’d missed, which is that this detailed sketch was just one of many Cooper made for his large oil painting, The Working Party (hanging next to it). The figure above is the fourth from the left in the finished composition, below. (She also pointed out that the fifth figure from the left is smoking a crafty fag – you can just make out if you lean right up to the canvas, a tiny pinprick of orange flame.)

The Working Party, 1917 (1918) by Richard Tennant Cooper © National Army Museum

The Working Party, 1917 (1918) by Richard Tennant Cooper © National Army Museum

In a way this may be one of the many reasons why the Great War continues to haunt our imagination – because it was a war of mostly powerless men, men reduced to pawns, a war of great and pointless suffering. It is to this day a morally acceptable war, in that most of the soldiers are felt to be victims – contrasted with pretty much every war before it, which tend to be seen as being fought to expand the British Empire, generally against much less well-equipped opponents, whether Sudanese or South Africans – endeavours which, in our time, are coming in for greater and greater criticism.

Cooper (1885-1957) is one of the most featured artists in the exhibition, with four or five atmospheric works on display.

Warrington Road, 1917 (1926) by Richard Tennant Cooper © National Army Museum

Warrington Road, 1917 (1926) by Richard Tennant Cooper © National Army Museum

An older contemporary whose work recurs is William Barnes Wollen (1857-1936). The Museum appears to have 15 of his works in total of which about five are on display. At the turn of the century and into the Edwardian era Wollen made a reputation for painting historical battles in the dashing, realistic style of a good book illustrator.

The Battle of Lexington, 19 April 1775 (1910) by William Barns Wollen © National Army Museum

The Battle of Lexington, 19 April 1775 (1910) by William Barnes Wollen © National Army Museum

And he lived on into the Great War, which he painted in the same thrilling style. There’s a display case showing the passport and paperwork he used to wangle permission to go to the Front to see and sketch for himself.

The Territorials at Pozières, 23 July 1916 by William Barns Wollen © National Army Museum

The Territorials at Pozières, 23 July 1916 by William Barnes Wollen © National Army Museum

The Second World War

My impression is that there is a lot less art from the Second World War, and what there is is much more mannered i.e. under the influence of modern art. For example, when I think of WW2 art I think immediately of Stanley Spencer’s eccentric style applied to the shipbuilders on the Clyde – or Paul Nash’s very stylised depictions of aerial battles over the South of England or of fighter plane graveyards, or of Ravilious’s wonderful submarine drawings. None of them are here and the examples here are just not so impactful as the Great War imagery.

One of the best pictures from the Second World War is Sepoy Nand Singh, 1st Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment, winning the VC in Burma, 12 March 1944 by Second Lieutenant Edward E L Mortelmans. In it you can see the modern approach most obviously in the stylisation of the entire landscape, the loose handling of the paint, and especially the odd perspective of the tank which seems to be on a different plane from the other elements in the picture. This makes it an interestingly modernist painting but less clear about what is going on than any of the Great War paintings. You need to read the wall label top understand the action.

Sepoy Nand Singh, 1st Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment, winning the VC in Burma, 12 March 1944 by Second Lieutenant Edward E L Mortelmans © National Army Museum

Sepoy Nand Singh, 1st Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment, winning the VC in Burma, 12 March 1944 by Second Lieutenant Edward E L Mortelmans © National Army Museum

Post-colonial wars

After 1945 the British Army saw policing actions in – to mention the main ones – Israel, India, Cyprus, Malaya, Kenya, Rhodesia and then, from 1970, in Northern Ireland. Maybe because they weren’t full-blown ‘wars’ I didn’t see any evidence of art about them. I wonder if there are any works of art which take the British Army’s involvement in these events as their subject (as opposed to photos, news reports, TV news and documentaries etc).

Contemporary war art

But the biggest break in this 350-year-long narrative of war art is between everything which went before and the advent of the contemporary era. When does that start? Well, the most commonly agreed date suggests that the contemporary world started in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War – itself quickly followed by NATO’s first adventure in the Middle East, during the First Gulf War (1990-91). This set the tone of the world we still live in.

Some people argue that 9/11 and the advent of ‘the Age of Terror’ (as some people call it) should be seen as the start of a new era – but it can also be regarded as simply an intensification of the new post-Cold War atmosphere of anarchy, the era when the international community struggled to make sense of conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia and across the Middle East.

And, after all, 9/11 was Osama bin Laden’s ‘revenge’ for the massive American military presence in Saudi Arabia during that first Gulf War, so it ultimately stems from the events of 1990 which, in my opinion, sowed the seeds of the era we now live in.

Anyway, the art by British soldiers and ex-soldiers dating from about 1990 has a completely different feel from everything which went before. The artist-soldiers who are featured here all have a modern sensibility i.e. they have never experienced a world war, they come from a basically peaceful country used to a calm, comfortable lifestyle – war and conflict somehow seem all the more alien and alienating, upsetting in a completely new way, somehow qualitatively different from the experience of either of the world wars.

Maybe because it’s carried out by the relatively small numbers of a professional army and not by mass recruits (there are currently around 82,000 soldiers in the British Army), and in places which seem remote and far away, that actual reports on and image of conflict seem both more remote and more… jarring.

Battle (2010) by Jules George © Jules George

Battle (2010) by Jules George © Jules George

One of the names which cropped up several times in the contemporary era was Captain Jonathan Wade of the Royal Highland Fusiliers. It was he who made the beautifully atmospheric sketch of the hills full of snipers in Bosnia which I mentioned earlier on – and who is also represented by a couple of cracking oil paintings from the Iraq War.

British infantry vehicles advancing, Iraq, 1991 by Captain Jonathan Wade (1992) © National Army Museum

British infantry vehicles advancing, Iraq, 1991 by Captain Jonathan Wade (1992) © National Army Museum

We live in confusing times. The moral certainties of earlier conflicts are no longer so available to us – and certainly servicemen and women are more informed than ever before about the political and strategic realities behind the conflicts they are called upon to fight. The presence of mobile phones and other digital technology, combined with a high level of modern education, means that any soldier knows more about the war they’re engaged in than ever before. It must be hard, it must be very hard, to fight a modern war.

Something of that difficulty – and the modern psychological costs of being a soldier and seeing conflict – are captured in by far the most striking piece in the exhibition, Brothers in Arms (2012) by Michael Crossan. This is made up of masks roughly stuck onto a big canvas and then painted over with the Union Jack. What you can’t see from this reproduction is how big it is, or that it is in three-dimensions – the masks, and the arms reaching across from bottom left to top right – are all thrust right out in your face.

Brothers in Arms (2012) by Michael Crossan © National Army Museum

Brothers in Arms (2012) by Michael Crossan © National Army Museum

To quote the catalogue:

Michael Crossan joined the Royal Highland Fusiliers as a teenager. He travelled extensively after leaving the army, but struggled with alcoholism and ended up homeless before getting help from veterans’ charities. Art therapy can help struggling veterans address the symptoms of psychological injury, reduce anxiety and manage stress. In his art Crossnan explores issues around army rehabilitation and life after service.

I found this almost unbearably moving, far more moving than even the Great War paintings. This is the face of modern war art, inconceivably different from the academic traditions which dominated from the 17th century to the mid-twentieth century. And conveys the cost of war, which somehow, in our times, seems to be more psychologically damaging to the participants than ever before.

Ironically, it is, according to the visitor assistants, the most popular piece in the show with young children who are otherwise – and pretty understandably – bored by a series of dusty old paintings about the Napoleonic or the Crimean or the Boer War. By contrast, this inventive, big and bright sculpture, which could be hanging in a school sixth form art department, which is so immediate and accessible – they can understand.

Bolan market

Artist Mark Neville spent a three-month residency with the British Army in the Afghan province of Helmand as the UK’s official war artist in 2011. ‘Bolan Market’ was one of the results. It is a slow-motion video filmed from a British Army ‘husky’ support vehicle as it rolled slowly through Bolan market, capturing the expressions of local inhabitants, perplexed, bored, resigned, sullen – the interpretation is up to you.

It also, maybe, helps to convey the feeling of the British soldiers tasked with patrolling this country and these people, unable to read their moods or intentions or feelings, permanently anxious and on edge. I saw it as a powerful study in alienation and disconnection.


Search the catalogue

You can search the National Army Museum catalogue online.

Here you can look up all of the art works I’ve featured above and read more about their subject matter and about the artists (or about the thousands of other works which the NAM owns).

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