Lee Krasner: Living Colour @ Barbican Art

‘I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point.’ Lee Krasner

On 11 ‎August 1956 the world-famous artist and leader of the school of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock, crashed his Oldsmobile convertible while driving drunk. His wife of 11 years, Lee Krasner, also an accomplished artist, heard the news while away in Europe, and hurried home to New York to sort out the arrangements for his funeral and Pollock’s affairs.

Lee Krasner at the WPA Pier, New York City, where she was working on a WPA commission (c. 1940) Photo by Fred Prater. Lee Krasner Papers, c.1905-1984

She moves into the big barn

Ten years earlier, and soon after marrying (in 1945), the couple had moved to the Springs area of East Hampton on the south shore of Long Island, and bought a wood-frame house and barn, which they converted into studios.

Of the buildings at their disposal, Pollock had early on nabbed the biggest available space – the barn – as a studio, and it was here that he created many of the masterpieces that made his name in the later 1940s and early 1950s. Sometime in 1957, the year after his death, Krasner moved Pollock’s paints and equipment out of the big barn and her own stuff in, and began to paint in the largest space she’d ever had at her disposal.

The result is a decade’s worth of quite extraordinarily powerful and enormous abstract paintings which make up the core of the major retrospective of Lee Krasner’s art, which is currently being held at the Barbican Centre in London. They are absolutely stunning. Breathtaking. Wonderful. Huge!

Installation view of Another Storm (1963) by Lee Krasner at the Barbican. Photo by the author

A light and airy space

For this exhibition the Barbican has removed some of the partitions which usually divide up the main ground floor exhibition space, and also removed some of the temporary walls which previously concealed wall-sized windows in the exhibition shop and at the end of the main gallery. The combined effect of this decluttering is to make the big central space (technically ‘room 10’ of the exhibition) feel long and bright and airy. From the moment you arrive at the ticket desk, the new lighter, brighter space feels like the perfect environment in which to hang Krasner’s huge and awe-inspiring works.

It is a genuinely uplifting and life-affirming experience to wander among these paintings, I felt like a mortal wandering dazzled through a mansion of the gods.

Siren by Lee Krasner (1966) Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo by Cathy Carver

Her early years in self portraits

The exhibition is arranged in broadly chronological order, and you are directed to start on the upper floor of the Barbican galleries, which houses eight living-room-sized spaces. These eight rooms take us from Krasner’s birth, in 1908, in New York, into a family of Orthodox Jewish Russian émigrés, and onto the early art school training she got (at the Women’s Art School at Cooper’s Union, Art Students League, National Academy of design. From her student days there’s a room of self-portraits in oil, which are OK.

Nudes classical and modern

After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 (when she was 21) Krasner began training as a teacher and attended life school classes. On one wall of room four are the extremely accomplished nude studies she did in the style of the Renaissance Masters in 1933 – very accomplished, very traditional. On the opposite wall is a selection of charcoal nudes she did just six years later, in 1939, which are completely different in style, riven by big abstract angular lines, showing a complete assimilation of European modernist trends.

By 1942 she was a respected member of New York’s artistic community. She had been included in an exhibition of contemporary painting in New York alongside friends Willem de Kooning and Stuart French. Piet Mondrian admired her work. As a result she was given a number of commissions by President Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project, including a job to oversee the design and execution of twenty department-store window displays in Manhattan advertising war training courses. She adopted a cut-up-and-paste collage approach, and room five shows blow-ups of photos of these wartime artworks. Well, sort of interesting as a) social history b) if you really a completist looking for evidence of every step of her artistic development.

The Little Images

She knew most of the exhibitors in that 1942 show except one, a guy named Jackson Pollock, so she dropped round to his Greenwich Village studio to seek him out and say hi. One thing led to another and they were married in 1945. They moved to the farm on Long Island and, in the winter of 1947, Krasner embarked on what became known as the ‘Little Images’ series, abstract paintings made up of tightly meshed squares and shapes which some critics described as ‘hieroglyphic’. Rooms one and two kick off the show with some fine examples of these ‘Little Images’ and it’s amazing what a variety of design and visual effect you can achieve from such a seemingly simple premise.

Composition (1949) by Lee Krasner © Philadelphia Museum of Art

The collage paintings

Krasner was given her first one-woman show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in October 1951. The work didn’t sell and, although she began a new series soon afterwards, she quickly became despondent and ended up tearing some of the new work to shreds in frustration.

Weeks later, returning to the studio, she realised that the torn strips lying about on the floor got her juices flowing. Quickly she began incorporating them into a new series of collages. She layered pieces of fabric over the paintings shown at the Betty Parsons show, adding pieces of burlap, torn newspaper, heavy photographic paper and some of Pollock’s discarded drawings. The resulting ‘collage paintings’ were exhibited in another gallery show in 1955, and there are several rooms of them on display here.

Blue Level (1955) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo by Diego Flores

Strikingly different from the ‘Little Images’, aren’t they? The very tightly-wound hieroglyphs of the Images are completely different from the violently torn strips of the collages.

Prophecies

In the summer of 1956 Krasner began work on a new series. The dominant tone of pink made me think of human flesh and nudes, but nudes severely chopped up and filtered via Demoiselles d’Avigon-era Picasso.

The first example of this new style was on Krasner’s easel when she left for France that summer. In the first half of their marriage, her husband’s career had gone from strength to strength, peaking around 1951, as he became world famous for his ‘drip paintings’, getting on the front cover of Time magazine, promoted by the American government as a home-grown genius, snapped up by collectors. But when, after 1951, Pollock tried to change this winning formula, he met with incomprehension and sales slumped. Pollock lost confidence, his drinking increased, he began an affair, which Krasner knew about, in early ’56.

That was the troubled background to the first of these flesh paintings and then – mid-way through her visit to Europe, she got the call that he had died in the car crash. Just weeks after the funeral, Krasner returned to the style and quickly made three more big, torn-up flesh paintings which she titled Prophecy, Birth, Embrace and Three In Two.

In the last room of the first floor of the exhibition, these four paintings are reunited, one hanging on each of the four walls, and it is impossible not to be powerfully affected by their eerie, agonised power.

Prophecy (1956) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York. Photo by Christopher Stach

The night journeys

So Jackson dies and Lee moves into the big barn studio and she is afflicted with insomnia and can only work at night, and she decides not to use any colour in her new paintings because she prefers to judge colours by daylight – and so, from the late 1950s, Krasner began to make a series of paintings combining just black and umber and creamy white onto huge, unstretched canvases.

Wow! These are great swirling, turd-coloured pieces, full of energy and despair. A poet friend of hers labelled them ‘Night Journeys’ and to follow any of the angled, curved or circular lines which strike across the surface is, indeed, to go on a churning, bitter journey though a landscape in torment.

Polar Stampede (1960) by Lee Krasner. Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, San Francisco MoMA © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York.

Krasner exhibited these big brown works in 1960 and 1962 to critical praise, and half a dozen of them dominate the first half of the enormous ground floor space in this show. You can stand in front of them, or there are benches where you can sit down, meditate on them, and be drawn into their drama and action.

Primary series

But the jewel in the crown is the Primary series. In the early 1960s Krasner replaced umber with a range of vivid primary colours. When she broke her right arm in a fall, she taught herself to work with her left, squirting paint directly from the tube, using her right hand to guide the movements.

Critics often use the word ‘gesture’ or ‘gestural’ but in this case it really is justified. As you follow the great sweeping arcs and patterns of paint, and note their dribbles and dynamic interactions, you can almost feel and see the great sweeps of the arm they must have required, the leaning of the whole body, the straining, the movement from one zone of focus to the next. They are extraordinarily vibrant and exciting paintings.

Icarus (1964) by Lee Krasner. Thomson Family Collection, New York © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York. Photo by Diego Flores

I couldn’t get enough of these paintings. I wandered up and down the central room, enjoying all the views of the works offset against each other, glimpsed behind the one central supporting wall of the main exhibition space, addressed front on, strolled past, studied up close, looked at from the other side of the room.

Wow! What a space, and what works of staggering brilliance to fill them with!

Later works

The Umber paintings and the Primary series cover the decade from the late 50s to the late 60s. What a brilliant decade it was for her.

Then, in 1968 Krasner discovered a stash of handmade paper in the farmhouse, and decided to make a new series of works, on a much, much, much smaller scale. She decided to experiment by making each of these small, crafted works from just one or two pigments. A dozen or so of them are in a room off to one side (room 11).

They require a completely different way of looking. Much more conventional in size they require the viewer to step forwards and examine the detail, rather than step back and admire the scale, as with the Primary series.

The dozen or so examples on display here are all lovely – free-spirited dances of colour, and interplays of defined brushstrokes against broader washes, all given a wonderful background texture by virtue of the expensive paper they’re painted on.

Untitled (1969) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York

In the early 1970s, Krasner made a significant step change in style. Still completely abstract, her works changed from soft biomorphic shapes to hard-edged abstract forms. I found them a shock to the system after the huge works in the central hall.

I liked even less the works in the final room, dating from 1974. In that year she stumbled across a portfolio of work from her art school days, the kind of angular nude studies which we saw examples of way back in room four.

Now Krasner took a pair of scissors to these early studies and cut them up into jagged shapes. Most of the source material was black and white drawings, but she interspersed some coloured strips into the collages, and also left other areas blank, apparently ‘echoing the empty space around the nude model’ which had served as the subject for many of the original drawings.

They were exhibited in 1977 under the title Eleven Ways To Use The Words To See. I didn’t warm to them.

Imperative (1976) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

No, I went back up to the first floor and walked back through the eight rooms soaking up the evolution of those early works and admiring, in particular, the ‘Little Images’ series. And I revisited the rooms holding these later 1970s works, trying to give them the benefit of the doubt — but all the time I just wanted to go back into the massive main gallery space and be swept off my feet and ravished all over again by the huge, vibrant, dancing works of the 1960s.

Summary

This is the first European retrospective of Lee Krasner’s career for over 50 years. It brings together nearly 100 works from some 50 galleries, institutions and  private collections. It must have been a labour of love to assemble them all, and was totally worth it.

The exhibition ends with a 15-minute video made up from various interviews with Krasner towards the end of her life. She was one tough lady, and she told it like it was, still, in her 70s, harbouring a bitter resentment at the sexism of the New York art world which she had to combat all her career.

If you start reading up about her life you quickly find people claiming that, far from being overshadowed by her famous husband, Krasner was in fact the driving force behind his career. And, from some of the interviews, you get the impression that, having seen what really high-profile high pressure publicity did to an artist (Pollock), she was quite content to avoid that level of scrutiny, and just get on with what she loved doing.

The publicity material accompanying the exhibition quotes the playwright Edward Albee commenting at her memorial at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that in both her life and her work, Krasner ‘looked you straight in the eye, and you dared not flinch’.

That seems a perfect description of both a tough lady, and of her extraordinarily resolute, exuberant and unsentimental art.

A short film about Lee Krasner


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Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919 – 1933 @ Tate Modern

This exhibition opened last summer and was timed to coincide with the centenary of the end of the Great War (November 1918) and to complement the Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One exhibition at Tate Britain.

It consists of five rooms at Tate Modern which are hung with a glorious selection of the grotesque, horrifying, deformed and satirical images created by German artists during the hectic years of the Weimar Republic, which rose from the ashes of Germany’s defeat in the Great War, staggered through a series of crises (including when the French reoccupied the Rhineland industrial region in 1923 in response to Germany falling behind in its reparations, leading to complete economic collapse and the famous hyper-inflation when people carried vast piles of banknotes around in wheelbarrows), was stabilised by American loans in 1924, and then enjoyed five years of relative prosperity until the Wall Street crash of 1929 ushered in three years of mounting unemployment and street violence, which eventually helped bring Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party to power in January 1933, and fifteen years of hectic experimentation in all the arts ground to a halt.

The exhibition consists of around seventy paintings, drawings and prints, plus some books of contemporary photography. The core of the exhibition consists of pieces on loan from the George Economou Collection, a weird and wonderful cross-section of art from the period, some of which have never been seen in the UK before.

Moon Women (1930) by Otto Rudolf Schatz © Tate

The exhibition has many surprises. For sure there are the images of crippled beggars in the street and pig-faced rich people in restaurants – images made familiar by the savage satire of Otto Dix (1891-1969) and George Grosz (1893-1959). And there are paintings of cabaret clubs and performers, including the obligatory transexuals, cross-dressers, lesbians and other ‘transgressive’ types so beloved of art curators (a display case features a photo of ‘the Chinese female impersonator Mei Lanfang dressed as a Chinese goddess… alongside American Barbette.’)

But a lot less expected was the room devoted to religious painting in the Weimar Republic, which showed half a dozen big paintings by artists who struggled to express Christian iconography for a modern, dislocated age.

And the biggest room of all contains quite a few utterly ‘straight’ portraits of respectable looking people with all their clothes on done in a modern realistic style, alongside equally realistic depictions of houses and streetscapes.

The Great War

The First World War changed everything. In Germany, the intense spirituality of pre-war Expressionism no longer seem relevant and painting moved towards realism of various types. This tendency towards realism, sometimes tinged with other elements – namely the grotesque and the satirical – prompted the art critic Franz Roh (1890-1965) to coin the expression ‘Magical Realism’ in 1925.

Magical Realism

Roh identified two distinct approaches in contemporary German art. On the one hand were ‘classical’ artists inclined towards recording everyday life through precise observation. An example is the painting of the acrobat Schulz by Albert Birkle (1900-1986). It epitomises several elements of magical realism, namely the almost caricature-like focus on clarity of line and definition, the realist interest in surface details, but also the underlying sense of the weird or strange (apparently, Schulz was famous for being able to pull all kinds of funny faces).

The Acrobat Schulz V (1921) by Albert Birkle. The George Economou Collection © DACS London, 2018

Roh distinguished the ‘classicists’ from another group he called the ‘verists’, who employed distorted and sometimes grotesque versions of representational art to address all kinds of social inequality and injustice.

Other critics were later to use the phrase New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) to refer to the same broad trend towards an underlying figurativeness.

Classicists and Verists

The exhibition gives plenty of examples of the striking contrast between the smooth, finished realism of the ‘classicists’ and the scratchy, harsh caricatures of the ‘verists’.

The first room is dominated by a series of drawings by the arch-satirists George Grosz and Otto Dix, the most vivid of which is the hectic red of Suicide, featuring the obligatory half-dressed prostitute and her despicable bourgeois client looking out onto a twisted, angular street where the eye is drawn to the figure sprawled in the centre (is it a blind person who has tripped over, or been run over?) so that it’s easy to miss the body hanging from a street lamp on the left which, presumably, gives the work its title.

You can, perhaps, detect from the painting that Grosz had had a complete nervous breakdown as a result of his experiences on the Western Front.

Suicide (1916) by George Grosz © Tate

Room one – The Circus

For some reason the circus attracted a variety of artists, maybe because it was an arena of fantasy and imagination, maybe because the performers were, by their nature, physically fit specimens (compared to the streets full of blind, halt, lame beggars maimed by the war), maybe because of its innocent fun.

Not that there’s anything innocent or fun about the ten or so Otto Dix prints on the subject on show here, with their rich array of distortions, contortion, crudeness and people who are half-performer, half-beast.

Lion-Tamer (1922) by Otto Dix © Victoria and Albert Museum

Room two – From the visible to the invisible

This phrase, ‘from the visible to the invisible’, is taken from a letter in which the artist Max Beckmann (1884-1950) expressed his wish to depict the ‘idea’ which is hiding behind ‘reality’.

This sounds surprisingly like the kind of wishy-washy thing the Expressionists wrote about in 1905 or 1910, and the room contains some enormous garish oil paintings, one by Harry Heinrich Deierling which caught my eye. This is not at all what you associate with Weimar, cabaret and decadence. This work seemed to me to hark back more to Franz Marc and the bold, bright simplifications of Der Blaue Reiter school. And its rural setting brings out, by contrast, just how urban nearly all the other works on display are.

The Gardener (1920) by Harry Heinrich Deierling © Tate

A bit more like the Weimar culture satire and suicide which we’re familiar with was a work like The Artist with Two Hanged Women by Rudolf Schlichter (1890-1955), a half-finished drawing in watercolour and graphite depicting, well, two hanged women. Note how the most care and attention has been lavished on the dead women’s lace-up boots. Ah, leather – fetishism – death.

The Artist with Two Hanged Women (1924) by Rudolf Schlichter © Tate

Indeed dead women, and killing women, was a major theme of Weimar artists, so much so that it acquired a name of its own, Lustmord or sex murder.

The wall label points out that anti-hero of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz has just been released from prison after murdering a prostitute. The heroine of G. W. Pabst’s black-and-white silent movie Pandora’s Box ends up being murdered (by Jack the Ripper). But you don’t need to go to other media to find stories of femicide. The art of the verists – the brutal satirists – is full of it.

Lustmord (1922) by Otto Dix © Tate

The label suggests that all these images of women raped, stabbed and eviscerated were a reaction to ‘the emancipation of women’ which took place after the war.

This seems to me an altogether too shallow interpretation, as if these images were polite petitions or editorials in a conservative newspaper. Whereas they seem to me more like the most violent, disgusting images the artists could find to express their despair at the complete and utter collapse of all humane and civilised values brought about by the war.

The way women are bought, fucked and then brutally stabbed to death, their bodies ripped open in image after image, seems to me a deliberate spitting in the face of everything genteel, restrained and civilised about the Victorian and Edwardian society which had led an entire generation of young men into the holocaust of the trenches. Above all these images are angry, burning with anger, and I don’t think it’s at women getting the vote, I think it’s at the entire fabric of so-called civilised society which had been exposed as a brutal sham.

Room three – On the street and in the studio

The hyper-inflation crisis of 1923 was stabilised by the implementation of the Dawes Plan in 1924, under which America lent Germany the money which it then paid to France as reparations for the cost of the war. For the next five years Germany enjoyed a golden period of relative prosperity, becoming widely known for its liberal (sexual) values and artistic creativity, not only in art but also photography, design and architecture (the Bauhaus).

The exhibition features a couple of display cases which show picture annuals from the time, such as Das Deutsches Lichtbild. The photo album was a popular format which collected together wonderful examples of the new, avant-garde, constructivist-style b&w photos of the time into a lavish and collectible book format.

And – despite pictures Deierling’s Gardener – it was an overwhelmingly urban culture. Berlin’s population doubled between 1910 and 1920, the bustling streets of four million people juxtaposing well-heeled bourgeoisie and legless beggars, perfumed aristocrats and raddled whores.

But alongside the famously scabrous images of satirists like Grosz and Dix, plenty of artists were attracted by the new look and feel of densely populated streets, and this room contains quite a few depictions of towns and cities, in a range of styles, from visionary to strictly realistic.

And of course there was always money to be made supplying the comfortably off with flattering portraits, and this room contains a selection of surprisingly staid and traditional portraits.

Portrait of a Lady on the Pont des Arts (1935) by Werner Schramm © Tate

This is the kind of thing Roh had in mind when he wrote about the ‘classicists’, highlighting the tendency among many painters of the time towards minute attention to detail, and the complete, smooth finishing of the oil.

Room four – the cabaret

Early 20th century cabaret was quite unlike the music halls which had dominated popular entertainment at the end of the 19th. Music hall catered to a large working class audience, emphasising spectacle and massed ranks of dancers or loud popular comedians. Cabaret, by contrast, took place in much smaller venues, often catering to expensive or elite audiences, providing knowingly ‘sophisticated’ performers designed to tickle the taste buds of their well-heeled clientele. The entertainment was more intimate, direct and often intellectual, mixing smart cocktail songs with deliberately ‘decadent’ displays of semi-naked women or cross-dressing men.

In fact there are, ironically, no paintings of an actual cabaret in the cabaret room, which seems a bit odd. The nearest thing we get is a big painting of the recently deceased Eric Satie (d.1925) in what might be a nightclub.

Erik Satie – The Prelude (1925) by Prosper de Troyer © Tate

There are the picture books I mentioned above, featuring some famous cross-dressers of the time. And – what caught my eye most – a series of large cartoony illustrations of 1. two painted ladies 2. a woman at a shooting stall of a fair offering a gun to a customer 3. and a group of bored women standing in the doorway of a brothel.

These latter are the best things in the room and one of the highlights of the entire exhibition. Even though I recently read several books about Weimar art, I had never heard of Jeanne Mammen. Born in 1890, ‘her work is associated with the New Objectivity and Symbolism movements. She is best known for her depictions of strong, sensual women and Berlin city life.’ (Wikipedia) During the 1920s she contributed to fashion magazines and satirical journals and the wall label claims that:

Her observations of Berlin and its female inhabitants differ significantly from her male contemporaries. Her images give visual expression to female desire and to women’s experiences of city life.

Maybe. What I immediately responded to was the crispness and clarity of her cartoon style, closely related to George Grosz in its expressive use of line but nonetheless immediately distinctive. A quick surf of the internet shows that the three works on display here don’t really convey the distinctiveness of her feminine perspective as much as the wall label claims. I’m going to have to find out much more about her. She’s great.

At the Shooting Gallery (1929) by Jeanne Mammen. The George Economou Collection © DACS London, 2018

Room five – faith and magic

In some ways it’s surprising that Christianity survived the First World War at all, until you grasp that its main purpose is to help people make sense of and survive tragedies and disasters. Once, years ago, I made a television programme about belief and atheism. One of the main themes which emerged was that all the atheists who poured scorn on religious belief had led charmed, middle-class lives which gave them the unconscious confidence that they could abolish the monarchy, have a revolution and ban Christianity because they knew that nothing much would change in their confident, affluent, well-educated lives.

Whereas the Christians I spoke to had almost all undergone real suffering – one whose mother had been raped by her step-father, another who had lost a brother to cancer – one way or anoyther they had had to cope with real pain in their lives. And their Christian faith wasn’t destroyed by these experiences; it was made stronger. Or (to be cynical) their need for faith had been made stronger.

The highlights of this final room were two sets of large religious paintings by Albert Birkle and Herbert Gurschener.

From 1918 to 1919 there was an exhibition of Matthias Grunwald’s Isenheim altarpiece (1512) in Munich and this inspired Albert Birkle to tackle this most-traditional of Western subjects, but filtered through the harsh, cartoon-like grotesqueness of a Weimar sensibility. He was only 21 when he painted his version of the crucifixion and still fresh from the horrors of the Western Front. Is there actually any redemption at all going on in this picture, or is it just a scene of grotesque torture? You decide.

The Crucifixion (1921) by Albert Birkle © Tate

Herbert Gurschener (1901-75) took his inspiration from the Italian Renaissance in paintings like the Triumph of Death, Lazarus (The Workers) and Annuciation. His Annunciation contains all the traditional traditional religious symbolism, down to the stalk of white lilies, along with a form of post-Renaissance perspective. And yet is very obviously refracted through an entirely 20th century sensibility.

The Annunciation (1930) by Herbert Gurschner © Tate

Thoughts

There is more variety in this exhibition than I’ve indicated. There are many more ‘traditional’ portraits in all of the rooms, plus a variety of townscapes which vary from grim depictions of urban slums brooding beneath factory chimneys to genuinely magical, fantasy-like depictions of brightly coloured fairy streets.

There is more strangeness and quirkiness than I’d expected, more little gems which are not easy to categorise but which hold the eye. It’s worth registering the loud, crude angry satire of Grosz and Dix, but then going back round to appreciate the subtler virtues of many of the quieter pictures, as well as the inclusions of works by ‘outriders’ like Chagall and de Chirico who were neither German nor painting during the post-war period. Little gems and surprises.

And the whole thing is FREE. Go see it before it closes in July.

Full list of paintings

This is a list of most of the paintings in the exhibition, though I don’t think it’s quite complete. Anyway, I give it here in case you want to look up more examples of each artist’s works.

Introduction

  • Marc Chagall, The Green Donkey, 1911
  • Giorgio de Chirico, The Duo, 1914
  • Otto Dix, Portrait of Bruno Alexander Roscher, 1915
  • George Grosz, Suicide, 1916
  • Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, The Poet Däubler, 1917
  • Carlo Mense, Self Portrait, 1918
  • Heinrich Campendonk, The Rider II, 1919
  • Henry Heinrich Dierling, The Gardner, 1920
  • Max Beckman, Frau Ullstein (Portrait of a Woman), 1920
  • Otto Dix Beautiful Mally! 1920
  • Otto Dix Circus Scene (Riding Act) 1920
  • Otto Dix Zirkus, 1922
  • Otto Dix Performers 1922
  • Paul Klee They’re Biting 1920, Comedy 1921
  • Albert Birkle The Acrobat Schulz V, 1921
  • George Grosz Drawing for ‘The Mirror of the Bourgeoisie’ 1925
  • George Grosz Self-Portrait with Model in the Studio 1930-7
  • George Grosz A Married Couple 1930

From the visible to the invisible

  • Otto Dix Butcher Shop 1920
  • Otto Dix Billiard Players 1920
  • Otto Dix Sailor and Girl 1920
  • Otto Dix Lust Murderer 1920
  • Otto Dix Lust Murderer 1922
  • Rudolf Schlichter The Artist with Two Hanged Women 1924
  • Christian Schad Prof Holzmeister 1926

The Street and the Studio

  • Richard Biringer, Krupp Works, Engers am Rheim, 1925
  • Albert Birkle, Passou, 1925
  • Rudolf Dischinger, Backyard Balcony, 1935
  • Conrad Felix Műller, Portrait of Ernst Buchholz, 1921
  • Conrad Felix Műller, The Beggar of Prachatice, 1924
  • Carl Grossberg, Rokin Street, Amsterdam, 1925
  • Hans Grundig, Girl with Pink Hat, 1925
  • Herbert Gurschner, Japanese Lady, 1932
  • Herbert Gurschner, Bean Ingram, 1928
  • Karl Otto Hy, Anna, 1932
  • August Heitmüller, Self-Portrait, 1926
  • Alexander Kanoldt, Monstery Chapel of Säben, 1920
  • Josef Mangold, Flower Still Life with Playing Card, undated
  • Nicolai Wassilief, Interior, 1923
  • Carlo Mense, Portrait of Don Domenico, 1924
  • Richard Müller, At the Studio, 1926
  • Franz Radziwill, Conversation about a Paragraph, 1929
  • Otto Rudolf Schatz, Moon Women, 1930
  • Rudolf Schlichter, Lady with Red Scarf, 1933
  • Marie-Louise von Motesicky, Portrait of a Russian Student, 1927
  • Josef Scharl, Conference/The Group, 1927
  • Werner Schramm, Portrait of a Lady in front of the Pont des Artes, 1930

The Cabaret

  • Josef Ebertz, Dancer (Beatrice Mariagraete), 1923
  • Otto Griebel, Two Women, 1924
  • Prosper de Troyer, Eric Satie (The Prelude), 1925
  • Sergius Pauser, Self-Portrait with Mask, 1926
  • Jeanne Mammen, Boring Dolls, 1927
  • Jeanne Mammen, At the Shooting Gallery, 1929
  • Jeanne Mammen, Brüderstrasse (Free Room), 1930
  • Max Beckmann, Anni (Girl with Fan), 1942

Faith

  • Albert Birkle, Crucifixion, 1921
  • Albert Birkle, The Hermit, 1921
  • Herbert Gurschener, the Triumph of Death, 1927
  • Herbert Gurschener, Lazarus (The Workers), 1928
  • Herbert Gurschener, Annuciation, 1929-30

Curators

  • Matthew Gale, Head of Displays
  • Katy Wan, Assistant Curator

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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 (the grandest and poshest of all the Oxford colleges). 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 assistant 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 that the title says the Weimar Period.
  • The period covered is given as starting in 1917, but that’s not strictly 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 in 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 which are still influential to this day.

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 a ‘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 Weimar Republic.

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 arty 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 at the time 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 genuine shock to me when Willett devotes half a chapter to slagging off Art Deco and Surrealism, because I’d almost 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 not even 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 – a world of architects, designers and craftsmen who 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.

So who 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 elegantly-titled French aristocratic connoisseurs and patrons, ends with a photo of a parade by the Communist Roterfront in 1926. That’s the real people, you see, that’s real commitment 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 cliquishness 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 and convictions. Disagree with everything you and all your friends and your favourite magazines and newspapers and TV shows and movies think. And that 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 take 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 and lifestyles.

Willett’s division of the cultural world of the 1920s into Modernist (his Bauhaus-Constructivist heroes) versus the Rest (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.

By contrast 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 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 pitifully superficial froggy 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, so 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)

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 begins with 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 details 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 the chapter summaries, in his diagrams of interconnectedness, extending it even down to the level of individual sentences.

The tendency to prose overstuffed with facts is not helped by another key aspect of the subject matter which was the proliferation of acronyms and initialisms. For example the tendency of left-wing organisations to endlessly fragment and reorganise, especially in Russia where, as revolutionary excitement slowly morphed into totalitarian bureaucracy, there was no stopping the endless setting up of organisations and departments.

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)

Every paragraph is like that.

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

It proceeds with very much the straightforward chronology of a school textbook.

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 the 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 (the way he slowly came round to support the Republic) and of 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 main theatrical innovation was to project moving pictures, graphs and statistics onto the backdrops of the stage, accompanying or counter-pointing the action. That’s it. We nowhere 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, of Weill or Eisler in the music, before Willett is off comparing it with similar productions by Meyerhold in Moscow. Always he is hurrying off to make comparisons and links.

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 and, ultimately, numbing.

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. Businesses all across America went bankrupt, but America had also been the main lender to the German government during the reconstruction years after the War.

It had been an American, Charles G. Dawes, who chaired the committee which came up with the Dawes Plan of 1924. This arranged for loans to be made to the German government, which it would invest to boost industry, which would increase the tax revenue, which it would then use to pay off the punishing reparations which France demanded at the end of the war. And these reparations France would use to pay off the large debts to America which France had incurred during the war.

It was the guarantee of American money which stabilised the German currency after the hyper-inflation crisis of 1923, 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 demanded their loans back. German industry collapsed. Unemployment shot up from a few hundred thousand to six million at the point where Hitler took 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.

Right up till the end of the Weimar Republic, the Communists (the KPD) refused to co-operate with the more centrist socialists (the SPD) in forming a government, 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 a 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 have been so stupid?

Because they lived in a bubble of self-reaffirming views. I thought this passage was eerily relevant to discussions today about people’s use of the internet, about modern digital citizens tending to select the 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 created 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 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, throwing 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, 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 in Britain. 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 didn’t count and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Because only people who talk like us, think like us, are politically correct like us, can possibly count or matter.

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, was 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

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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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Related reviews

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson (2008)

Like Empire and Colossus before it, this is the book of a Channel 4 TV series. And like them, it is a thematic not a chronological history. Thus:

  • Chapter 1 – A quick skate through the history of money and credit, starting with Babylonian clay tablets, quickly on to the rise of the Medici bankers in Florence
  • Chapter 2 – The bond market
  • Chapter 3 – The stock market
  • Chapter 4 – Insurance
  • Chapter 5 – The real estate market
  • Chapter 6 – The rise and fall and rise again of international finance

In his introduction Ferguson says the world is more truly globalised than ever before and that money in all its aspects rules everyone’s lives, which makes it all the more worrying that polls and surveys in the western world show an astonishing ignorance of even the basics of economics. Therefore he was toiled on the TV series and book to try and make economics more comprehensible and to ‘break down that dangerous barrier which has arisen between financial knowledge and other kinds of knowledge’.

For this reader, at least, he fails. By page 150 I was confused and by page 200 had more or less given up trying to understand the economic mechanisms he’s referring to. I can read the words he uses to explain the massive financial bubble caused by the renegade Scotsman John Law in France in the 1720s. But I didn’t understand exactly why the repeated issue of shares at higher and higher prices in his phantom Mississippi company were doomed to collapse. I could understand that the executives of Enron lied and cheated about their accounts – but I didn’t understand why the financial authorities and auditors who are paid to regulate these things, gave them prizes for so many years.

I didn’t grasp some of the real basics: I don’t understand why the loans a bank has made are counted as part of its assets when common sense suggests that loans are the riskiest parts of its business and so should be part of their liabilities. I found Ferguson’s account of the Wall Street Crash as confusing as every other account of it I’ve ever read, not least because the stock market had been sliding for some time, amid a confusion of other economic indicators, and it actually rallied a bit after the ‘crash’. (Wikipedia article on the Wall Street Crash.) In fact one of the most salient features of the Great Depression of the 1930s which followed is that economists are still arguing about what caused it.

Of course historians are still arguing, and will argue forever, about almost everything that’s happened, from what caused the Great War to the rise of the Nazis. They – historians – fondly imagine they provide a useful function by shedding light on the past and providing some kind of guidance for the future – whereas anyone who’s read a lot of history knows that their ceaseless disagreements provide a kind of high-class entertainment, as informative and pointless as football fans arguing whether Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho is the greater manager. Ie their role is purely ornamental: nobody ever learned anything from history, especially the politicians, the populations and – as detailed here in alarming detail – the financiers who enthusiastically repeat it.

With economists, however, it’s a bit more important, as economists actually run things – banks, big corporations, finance ministries and governments. If we were inclined to take the world seriously, it would be desperately worrying that economists disagree so fundamentally about so much, and use a jargon which is so impenetrable to the rest of us and which, on closer examination, bears so little relationship to reality.

If the aim of the book was to make me more economically literate, it failed because it failed to explain even the basic concepts which economics is built on. Many terms are briskly defined as the narrative speeds on its way, but too briskly for this reader – and the text then moves on to use the building blocks I haven’t properly graspe, to build up more ever more complex sentences and statements. Since I don’t understand the individual elements of the sentences, the complete statements just sound like gibberish.

For example, he briskly defines some of the (numerous) definitions of ‘money supply:

M0 (also known as the monetary base or high-powered money), which is equal to the total liabilities of the central bank, that is, cash plus the reserves of private sector banks on deposit at the central bank; and M1 (also known as narrow money), which is equal to cash in circulation plus demand or ‘sight’ deposits. (p.51)

before going on to apply these definitions in different situations. It seems obvious to me that these are ideas that you should probably spend a week of a degree course getting to know and explore and trying out in different scenarios until you are absolutely confident you have mastered every theoretical and practical implication, before you begin applying them in further theory. That time and opportunity to explore the basics of economics is not on offer here.

Similarly, Ferguson devotes seven or so pages to the Great Depression of the 1930s. I read them twice so I know that an impressive amount of banks went bankrupt and I have some of the dates clearer in my mind, but I couldn’t explain to you why it happened and I have no idea why all the clever economists alive at the time and who presumably noticed it was going on, seem to have been powerless to fix it.

Imagine you have a group of people called airplane engineers and they design and build airplanes over the course of the years and suddenly, within a few months, every airplane in the world crashes out of the sky, killing all their passengers. And the engineers have no idea why it happened. And 80 years later – they are still arguing about why it happened. Would you get in a plane?

Suppose the entire class of European politicians, planners, economists and bankers persuaded Greece it would be a good idea to join the Euro. And a few years later the kind of financial crisis which everyone knows comes around every ten years or so, comes around, and it turns out Greece can no longer pay its debtors. But as a result of being in the Euro it cannot now devalue its currency to make its debts easier to pay and its European partners won’t let it default ie abandon repayment altogether – with the result that the combined efforts of some of the cleverest, best-paid politicians and economists in the modern world have turned Greece into a slave state with record unemployment, record bankruptcies and record suicides.

Would you trust these people? These economists and financial advisers and politicians? To guide your country?

If economists struggle to this day to understand why the Great Depression happened, then why am I even bothering trying to grasp the terminology and theories of an intellectual discipline which cannot explain the most important event in its territory and offers such consistently dreadful advice to the people who run countries?

Ferguson says that, out of the fogs of squabbling economists, there do emerge two vital lessons about the Great Depression:

That inept or inflexible monetary policy in the wake of a sharp decline in asset prices can turn a correction into a recession and a recession into a depression. (p.164)

and that:

the benefits of a stable exchange rate are not so great as to exceed the costs of domestic deflation. (p.165)

I think what makes these sentences incomprehensible to me is that I don’t understand the basic building blocks, the individual ideas, from which they’re made. What is ‘monetary policy’? Obviously it’s policy to do with money, but what exactly? What is an ‘inept’ monetary policy? (What would be a ‘good’ monetary policy?) What, in this context, are ‘assets’? What is a ‘correction’? What is a ‘recession’? What is a ‘depression’ and how are they different from each other?

The second sentence is a masterpiece of magic and obfuscation. I needed an extra paragraph or two to remind me what the benefits of a stable exchange rate are, and also a bit of help grasping what deflation is and what domestic deflation is: and then a bit of help putting that all together so I really grasp it. But that help wasn’t to hand.

So reading this book involved rereading a lot of  history I knew already (the Medicis and early banking blah blah blah, Lloyds of London and the birth of insurance blah blah blah, Rothschilds build biggest bank in Europe blah blah blah) but the book completely failed to explain ‘economics’ to me. It failed to explain how the Medicis got so powerful, or why the Rothschilds or Lloyds got so big. They appear to have introduced new banking techniques and had diverse activities, as also did the five Rothschild brothers, each running a bank in a major European capital. Yes. And?

Maybe I’m particularly stupid. Maybe I have the wrong type of brain. But throughout the book, as it hurried through the history of banking and insurance and bond markets and stock markets and property markets, it felt as if I was watching an American football match where quite a lot is obviously taking place, and the crowd around me are jumping up and down and shouting but, because nobody has explained to me even the basic rules, I have absolutely no idea what’s going on, what’s important and not important, when something special happens or why.

The last two chapters – about the housing market and recent economic crashes – read, like a lot of Ferguson’s previous book, Colossus – more like extended magazine articles than history. After some stuff about the decline of the landed aristocracy in England during the nineteenth century, the real core of the long real estate chapter (53 pages) is an extended description of the Savings and Loans scandal of the 1990s and the sub-prime mortgage scandal which helped prompt the recession of 2007 (or is it 2008?) The conclusion of this section appears to say that real estate ie property, isn’t always a reliable investment. Hmm.

Similarly, I have just finished the final chapter about high finance, which opens with an interesting account of the financial collapse surrounding the Great War, but only really takes fire as it approaches the present day and describes the hedge fund boom of the 1990s and 2000s. He then does a quick couple of pages on the way the USA and China have in recent decades become tied in a complex symbiotic financial relationship, with the Chinese government funding the American deficit and Chinese factories supplying consumption-mad America with its consumer goods. Again, this had historical elements but felt less like ‘history’ than an interesting extended article from the Economist or Financial Times. After all the interesting detail, the conclusion of this essay is that a financial crisis can come out of the blue when you least expect it. Hmm. Not a blinding insight, maybe.

These chapters, like similar ones in Colossus – which purports to be a history of the US but is really about the (then recent) US invasion of Iraq – tend to suggest that Ferguson is less a historian in the traditional sense than an impassioned commentator on current political and financial affairs who takes an unusually historical point of view, or uses an unusually large number of historical examples to shed light on  his analyses of the contemporary world.

Confidence sapping

If I came away with one over-riding impression, it is that economic theory has always struggled to catch up with the actual behaviour of incalculably greedy and clever men who are always devising financial structures and models way ahead of the theorists, politicians and regulators, and which almost always come to grief.

If there is one compelling conclusion from the book, it is that economists don’t know what they’re talking about. Again and again Ferguson introduces another tale of greed and folly with words to the effect of, ‘Until 19XX the conventional wisdom was that YY’, before going on to show, again and again and again, how received opinion among economists was overthrown by what actually happens in the world. ‘Bucking the trend’, ‘hardly anyone expected’, ‘nobody could have predicted…’ – by telling so many tales of financial disaster at such length Ferguson, presumably unintentionally, rubbishes the pretensions of his own subject.

Take pages 321 to 330, which describe the pioneering investment theory of a company called Long-Term Capital Management, set up in 1994 by Myron Scholes, an academic, and Fisher Black from Goldman Sachs who were  soon joined by another economist from Harvard Business School, Robert Merton. They devised an impressive mathematical formula for the optimum management of ‘option contracts’ (which, like so many of these concepts, I struggled to understand). They teamed up with a Federal Reserve vice-chairman, a Harvard professor and superstar traders from various firms, along with investment bank backing to set up the company, and started making a lot of money.

The best thing about this story is that after just three years, in 1997 Scholes and Merton were awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. The Nobel Prize! In September the next year their firm went bankrupt, only surviving because of a $3.6 billion bailout by Wall Street banks, frightened of the knock-on effect its collapse would have on the other major financial houses of America. Truly a Nobel Prize-winning achievement.

The net effect of this book is to undermine your faith that anybody really understands what is going on in the world of money, and to make that world seem a much more anarchic and dangerous place than you already feared.

Related links

Bibliography

1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

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