Magic Realism – a new free display at Tate Modern

Suzanne Frost

Was there ever a more interesting time for art than the interwar years? Weimar Germany is having a bit of a moment right now, partly because its distinct aesthetic will never go out of style and partly, undoubtedly, because we can feel alarming parallels to our own time of political turmoil, social inequality and an uncertain future.

The impact of the First World War and its aftermath on German art is the subject of this fascinating show, which is part of a programme of exhibitions and events across Tate to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War. While Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One at Tate Britain looks at artist’s reactions across Europe, Magic Realism focuses in on German artists of the interwar years, of which there were many, among them celebrated names such as Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, George Grosz and the incomparable Otto Dix.  
George Grosz, Suicide (Selbstmörder), 1916

The Weimar Republic was a fledgling German democracy established in 1919, only to be undermined by economic disaster and overrun by Hitler. It begins with the trauma of WWI and ends in the trauma of the Holocaust. 100 years ago, the economic and social upheaval caused by the First World War and its immediate aftermath were even more turbulent in Germany than across the rest of the continent. Initially burdened by extreme levels of poverty and unemployment, 1920s Germany - and Berlin in particular - then saw a golden period of liberalism and free creative expression. A global economic downturn, however, and the rise of the Nazi party, eventually led to repression, as the fascist group sought to turn the arts to their own aims and Hitler rejected modern art as “degenerate”.

Conrad Felixmüller, Portrait of Ernst Buchholz, 1921
A most helpful and fascinating part of the exhibition is a timeline putting the lives of the featured artists in context with political and social events as well as other art produced in the era, taking into account the major aesthetic influences of film such as Robert Wiene’s Dr. Caligai, Friedrich Murnau’s Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but also seminal literary works such as Rainer Maria Rilke’s sequence of war poems, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. The wealth of important artists and even more important artworks that were created in that relatively short yet impactful period of time is astounding – the ‘Golden Twenties’, a time of hardship for most, were indeed a golden age for art.

Prosper de Troyer, Eric Satie (The Prelude), 1925
Magic Realism is an interesting choice of a title, a term commonly used to describe the stories written by South American authors including Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. This exhibition remembers that the term was actually invented by Franz Roh, a German artist and critic who coined it as a name for the art created in his home country following the emotionally fraught German Expressionist movement. Roh felt that many German artists were turning away from the idealistic tendencies that prevailed before WWI in favour of a new form of realism – a harsh, satirical observation of everyday misery. Faces are grimacing, distorted, grotesque.

There is a kind of comic book aesthetic to expressionism that is exaggerated, full of humour – probably to hide the actual pain behind it. Max Beckmann and Otto Dix returned from the front as invalids. Dix was profoundly traumatised by his experience of serving in the battle of the Somme. Dismembered and maimed body parts are scattered across most of his drawings, scathing visions of violence and auto-aggression. Scared by their war experience, many artists expressed unsettling and disturbing themes. Paired with the sensationalist appetite for entertainment, it made for an explosive cocktail. Reoccurring themes are the circus and cabaret, places for amusement satire, for outcast and misfits, where social boundaries and taboos could be bended and tested.
Max Beckmann, Anni (Girl with Fan), 1942

The changing role of women is reflected in various ways, with artists grappling with increasing female emancipation and the ‘new woman’ typology. While they are often presented as sex workers, lurking in the backgrounds of dirty streets, women are increasingly visible and take part in urban life. They are in the audience at the cabarets, such as in Max Beckmann’s Anni (Girl with fan). In the work of Jeanne Mammen, one of the few female artists of the exhibition, slim, fashionable, immaculately put together women are depicted spending leisure time together. Mammen’s depiction of women differs greatly from her male contemporaries and is one of the greatest discoveries of this display.

Jeanne Mammen, Boring Dolls, 1929 and At the Shooting Gallery, 1929

It shines a new light on the violent murder fantasies of Otto Dix’s Lustmord and Robert Schlichter’s Artist with Two Hanged Women. Maimed bodies can be undoubtedly read as reactions to war trauma but the many murdered female bodies also speak of a deeply troubled reaction to growing female emancipation.

Elsewhere, a room named Faith shows rarely seen works around religious motifs, with Albert Birkle’s paintings hinting towards surrealism a la Dali, and Lea Grundig’s Into the Abyss from 1943, bodies among bodies falling towards relentless destruction, is a haunting and helpless reaction to the trauma of the holocaust.
Rudolph Schlichter, The Artist with Two Hanged Women, 1924, and Otto Dix, Lustmord, 1922

One of the most shocking revelations is Franz Radziwil’s Conversation about a Paragraph, 1929, an artistic reaction to the public discussions about abortion. It is a gut punching realisation that we are here again, 90 years later. The parallels with our current political events happening throughout Europe and the US are unignorable. Two more years and we are in the ‘Golden twenties’ again. It is a past that feels like our present, and the art here holds up a mad mirror to a mad world.
Magic Realsim: Art in Weimar Germany 1919 - 33 is at Tate Modern until July 2019. The dipslay is free.

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