This is a strong exhibit that succeeds in conveying a sense of what it was like to live during the 1920s in this exciting, chaotic, and dangerous capital of the Weimar Republic.
Berlin Metropolis: 1918–1933 at the Neue Galerie, New York City, until January 4, 2016.
By Helen Epstein
One would not expect the Neue Galerie’s new exhibition Berlin Metropolis: 1918–1933 to be subtle or unprepossessing. But I was unprepared for the bombast, the number, and the density of objects and pictures on display. Typically, the two floors of this small museum on Fifth Avenue and 86th Street in Manhattan resembles a series of grand bourgeois living rooms in which 40–70 works of art—however large, small, delightful, or disturbing—are judiciously displayed. This exhibition crams 400 works into the same two floors: oil paintings, watercolors, posters, film stills, shoes, silk stockings, and a reconstruction of Europe’s first traffic light, along with fashion and architectural drawings, lithographs, and photographs. Though some of the works are iconic, many are rarely seen. The result is a strong exhibition that succeeds in conveying a sense of what it was like to live during the 1920s in this exciting, chaotic, and dangerous capital of the Weimar Republic.
In this febrile and much-celebrated period, Berlin was a cauldron of revolution in politics, culture, lifestyle, and all the arts. In 1920, George Grosz, Hannah Höch, John Heartfield, and Raoul Hausmann organized the First International Dada Fair in Berlin, and several samples of their work are on view, including paintings by Hoch never before shown in the US.
I was particularly struck by Heartfield’s Hitler photographs and Otto Umbehr’s photomontage of the Prague-born “Racing Reporter,” Egon Erwin Kisch, one of the first practitioners of what we now call long-form journalism. Like many German-speaking journalists of the time, he was drawn to work in the media capital of Central Europe in the way journalists are today drawn to Brooklyn. He is all but forgotten now, but he was then a media star.
In the Weimar Republic, then-new techniques of photomontage co-existed with traditional painting by Karl Hofer and Lovis Corinth, with the subjectivity of Expressionist artists like Ludwig Meidner, whose portrait of the anxious city-dweller (I and the City) makes complete sense in this setting.
Max Beckmann, sometimes described as an Expressionist, sometimes viewed as a forerunner of Expressionism’s opposite, the meticulously objective Neue Sachlichkeit, chose not to live in Berlin but commuted from Frankfurt. He is represented in this exhibit by a set of lithographs titled “Trip to Berlin Portfolio.” A more representative “new objectivist” is Christian Shad, whose Two Girls, a large oil painting of a pair of girls masturbating, has been on view at the Neue Galerie before.
Which brings us to the Neue Frau, or New Woman, the hard-edged, in-your-face German version of the American Flapper. During the 1920s, in the exhibition’s narrative, Berlin became a center of the post-First World War culture, which saw the rise of the salaried female employee, important to fashion, as well as consumer and leisure activities. The Neue Frau (New Woman) bobbed her hair in a Bubikopf, took charge of her own sexuality, and provided endless opportunities for fashion designers (Jeanne Mammen’s fashion illustrations and a small sample of clothing and women’s accessories are on exhibit), as well as filmmakers such as Josef von Sternberg, whose 1930 film Der blaue Engel starred Neue Frau Marlene Dietrich. Film posters advertising M, Metropolis, and Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis, are all on view, as are German advertising posters (a mini-exhibition is on view in the basement for free).
As if all this weren’t enough to take in, Berlin was also an important center for modern architecture and there are numerous samples of this work, including Erich Mendelsohn’s Einsteinturm (Einstein Tower) in Potsdam and Hans Poelzig’s interior design for the Großes Schauspielhaus (Great Theater) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s striking skyscraper for the Friedrichstraße, which prefigures some of our own buildings today.
It was hard to take in most of what I saw, even though I received a private tour. I can only imagine what it would be like to view this stunning exhibition in the midst of a crowd.
If you get overwhelmed, you can periodically go down stairs to one of my favorite places in the city, the Café Sabarsky, where you can recover over celery-root salad and sachertorte while you look out on Fifth Avenue at contemporary versions of Meidner’s anxious urbanite.
Helen Epstein writes on the arts and is editorial director at Plunkett Lake Press, which has published Egon Erwin Kisch.