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      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

Aufstieg und Fall der Moderne
A feature article by C. J. Schüler

THOMAS MANN, returning to Weimar in 1948 for the re-opening of the National Theatre, was met by flags, slogans and chanting choruses. "I kept my head," the wily old novelist wrote afterwards, "and let it all flow by me, finding only now and then that the external forms of the people’s democracy displayed a fatal similarity with the stage management of Hitler’s state."

Nowhere in Germany are the contradictions of the nation’s history as evident as in Weimar. This elegant rococo city, home to Schiller and Goethe, gave its name to Germany’s first, precarious attempt at democracy. And, from outside the post office on Goetheplatz, the no. 6 bus runs to a northern suburb called Buchenwald.

Now, as European City of Culture for 1999, Weimar has become a showpiece for the aspirations of a re-united Germany. Buildings have been spruced up, new cobbles laid, and the tourists are pouring in. Away from the Stadtmittel, however, the distressed stucco and puttering beige Trabants are a reminder that the legacy of four decades cannot be entirely erased in one.

It is an appropriate location, therefore, for a controversial three-part exhibition charting the rise and fall of modernism and including rarely-seen Nazi-era paintings. Part I, tracing the rise of modernism, closed at the end of July; it would have been preferable had it run concurrently with Parts II and III, dealing with works from the Third Reich and the DDR respectively.

The venue is itself controversial. The Gauforum, to the north of the town centre, was built in the 1930s and 40s as the headquarters of the Nazi civic administration. The fourth side of this brutal classical moderne quadrangle remained an unfinished, reinforced-concrete skeleton at the end of the war. The DDR authorities eventually curtain-walled this embarrassing legacy with concrete and glass, a stark demonstration of the structural dishonesty of totalitarian architectural historicism. The ugly and unloved building that resulted goes by the drably functional name "Mehrzweckhalle" (Multi-Purpose Hall).

The paintings in Part II were chosen – initially by Hitler himself, and then by his photographer Heinrich Hoffman – for the Great German Art Exhibition held annually in Munich between 1937 and 1944. Many subsequently decorated the walls of Hitler’s Reich Chancellory in Berlin. At the end of the war they were discovered in a mountain tunnel in Austria; since then, they have languished in a vault in Munich. A few have been exhibited since the 1970s, but this is the first time that so extensive a selection (about 150 works) has been put on view.

With virtually every painter of distinction vilified as "degenerate" and forced into exile, the Munich exhibitions offered a clear field of play to dull academicians, minor genre painters and downright amateurs. The paintings, exhibited against sheets of builders’ plywood in one of the Mehrzweckhalle’s lightless concrete interiors, are categorised by subject, without commentary.

The historical and mythical paintings include Arthur Kampf’s risible Venus and Adonis (before 1939) and Ivo Saliger’s breathtakingly absurd Judgement of Paris (1939), which shows Paris as a Hitler Youth in shorts choosing between three strapping specimens of Aryan womanhood. It’s not pleasant to think of the Führer gloating over seedily voyeuristic nudes such as Johann Schult’s Im Lebensfrühling (The Spring of Life, before 1942).

There are propagandist pieces in support of the war effort, too. Michael Mathias Kiefer’s, Die Wacht (The Watch, 1940) pays tribute to the Luftwaffe with a pair of clumsily-painted sea eagles over Heligoland; Rudolf Otto’s Rüstung (Armament, before 1939), is an inhuman vision of a knight in armour, visor down, against a steel-grey sky.

Such references to the military power of the Reich are invariably couched in allegorical terms: not only are modern techniques banished, so too is modern subject matter. The small handful of inevitably romanticised industrial scenes – including two by Hans Bauer depicting the building of the Gauforum itself – are vastly outnumbered by genre paintings of traditional rural life such as Rudolf Otto’s Bauernfamilie (Peasant Family, before 1944).

This is the vision that the artists of the Third Reich were expected to propagate: reassuring, sentimental, and big on family values. The landscape paintings, an array of shimmering rivers and glistening peaks after – a long way after – Caspar David Friedrich, evoke a similar nostalgia for the elemental German Heimat. Perhaps the most quietly chilling of these is a neo-Impressionist idyll by Paul Erbe, complete with poplars, hayricks and gambolling dog. Its title? The SS Shooting Range at Dachau.. Totalitarian kitsch, Milan Kundera has written, is "a folding screen set up to curtain off death."

There is plenty more kitsch to be seen in Part III, which juxtaposes officially-sanctioned art from the German Historical Museum in Berlin with "dissident" art from the DDR. This, too, has been controversial, with several leading artists, including Wolfgang Mattheuer – represented here by Weinachtsstilleben (Christmas Still Life, 1976) – threatening to withdraw work.

The small gallery through which you enter shows the short-lived attempt of artists such as Gerhard Altenbourg to revive constructivism, and its defeat by the Soviet-led attack on "formalism" in the early 1950s. There follows a "curve" in which massive wall-paintings by stalwarts of socialist-realism such as Walter Womacka are contrasted with grainy, mostly black-and-white, photos of everyday life in the DDR.

The presence of Werner Tübke’s pastiche Renaissance polyptych Mensch – Maß aller Dinge (Man – The Measure of All Things, 1975) strikes a disturbing note, however. One of the best-known and most genuinely popular artists of the DDR, Tübke is also one of the most enigmatic. His conservative figurative style and astute choice of subject matter found favour with the authorities, yet his Teutonic historicism sits oddly amid the cosmonauts and steelworkers forging a just society.

The largest exhibition area is the "panorama", (a reference to Tübke’s famous panorama of the Peasants’ War in Bad Frankenhausen) a circular space densely hung with paintings from all strands of art in the DDR, the last section is devoted to the "unofficial" schools of modern art that grew up in the 1970s and 80s in areas such as the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. Despite the omission of several important artists such as Roger Loewig and Nuria Quevedo, the exhibition testifies to the continuing vitality and eclecticism of East German art, both "official" and "unofficial", throughout the 40 years of the DDR’s existence.

Copyright © C. J. Schüler 1999


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