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The Mad Square

Pre-Nazi Weimar Germany was a time of unprecedented hedonism, hyperinflation and general sexual and intellectual badassery. Though their political governance despaired the overpopulation and economic shitstorm they’d wound up in following WWI, Berlin was a centre of booming cultural efficacy, hosting saucy strip shows and birthing a movement in modernist, avant-garde art.

And in the largest Australian survey show of this artistic movement to date, its greats have been celebrated as the NGV’s centerpiece this summer, The Mad Square: Modernity In German Art 1910–37, tracing its origins until its untimely end with Nazi occupation. With time running out to get an eyeful of this evocative and salacious selection, assistant curator Maggie Finch gushes formidably about some of the incredible works and their historical context.

 

“This is the broadest show that looks at the real diversity of practice that was occurring in Germany at that time,” she said. “One of the main emphases behind the show is to look at this idea of edginess, and artists that were really pushing the formal, intellectual and moral boundaries. Artists who were really responding to the time – that’s one of the key ideas behind the show.”
With many a keen, debaucherous artistic eye fixed on what unfolded in Germanic cities, the modernists, Dadaists, surrealists and constructivists created some of the most profoundly subversive, and historically accurate art to represent a carefree, morally-unbridled time in the country’s history. One of the best representations of this ‘diarist’ art, as Finch calls it, is Rudolf Schlichter’s Tingel Tangel, a depiction of the interior of a cabaret, which looks suspiciously like a Berlin transvestite bar. Here, an androgynous cast of performers entertain civilians.

 

“They’re quite grotesque in their features, the way they’ve been depicted. They’re wearing really incredible, really modern, quite wild outfits, but then in front of them the people depicted as watching them performing are all military men, or officers, bureaucrats – so this mixture of all the different classes attending the cabaret. But none of them actually look at each other. It’s a very strange depiction where they all seem very psychologically isolated. It’s a sense of the vice-ridden view of Berlin.“

 

And though these vices spawned a prolific period of artistic creativity, it proved a gateway-drug to greater evil. In 1933 when Hitler and the National Socialists gained power, one of their first targets was what they saw as the morally bankrupt movement of avant-garde art. The final room of the exhibition traces some of the art being created and disparaged around this period.
“A a lot of the artists that you see in previous areas of the exhibition are suddenly banned from exhibiting. A lot of their work gets confiscated, or destroyed, or sold on the international market, and a lot of those artists then leave Germany and go into what they call a state of inner-exile. So they stayed in Germany but they just switched off.”

 

The Nazi party coined the term ‘Degenerate Art’, said Maggie, to denigrate the excesses of the avant-garde artists. But in a bizarre move, instead of getting rid of the art, they exhibited the works countrywide in 1937, in The Degenerate Art Exhibition, which toured Germany for several years. It brought together hundreds of works that they had labelled ‘degenerate’ and was visited by millions of German people.

 

However, being labelled ‘degenerate’ was particularly distressing for some of the artists, said Maggie. “Ludwig Kirchner, for example, after learning that he had gone into the show, left Germany and went into a state of exile and ended up committing suicide. Other artists like Max Beckmann again left the minute they were classified in this way, and it was a terrible moment but a very interesting one to reflect on at the end on the exhibition.”

 

But Maggie notes that while the National Socialists put a very severe and abrupt end to the art movements occurring in Germany, one of the most wonderful things the exhibition bares is the survival of the artistic period’s legacy. Works and artists continued the movement outside of Germany, emigrating and smuggling works and skills to the US and even to Australia. Looking at these works retrospectively helps to reflect on the time period with perhaps a bit of a message.

 

“One of the underlying things with a lot of the artists in this exhibition is they were trying to find a new truth for themselves because Germany was in such a crazy state. And you get this sense of Germany trying to respond to what happened, and trying to look forward. Art helps us to reflect on good and bad situations, and it’s a bit of a morality lesson when you do get to the end of the exhibition…see what can happen.”

 

But these German masterpieces must return from whence they came, and to say sayonara the NGV are holding their annual Goodbye Summer picnic in the sculpture garden on St. Kilda Rd. Sunday March 4 will be the last time you can tour the Weimar excesses, and coincidentally the day of the picnic.

 

BY BELLA ARNOTT-HOARE

Don’t miss out – The Mad Square: Modernity In German Art 1910–37 finishes up at the National Gallery of Victoria this Sunday March 4.