Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 25, 2007
Living Modern: German and Austrian Art and Design, 1890–1933
Exhibition schedule: Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, June 7–September 16, 2007
Marianne Brandt. Tea Service: Tea Infuser (Pot), Creamer, Sugar Bowl, and Tray (1924). Hammered sterling silver and ebony. Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago. Anonymous gift in memory of Liesl Landau. 2006.19.

The Smart Museum bears a long tradition of exhibiting the art of early twentieth-century Germany, a period of remarkable cultural, political, and social transformation. Exhibitions such as The German Print Portfolio, 1890–1930: Serials from a Private Sphere (1993) and Confronting Identities in German Art: Myths, Reactions, Reflections (2003) have explored different manifestations of this change across several themes, from the portfolio as a medium for visualizing personal experience to collective and individual notions of national identity from the nineteenth century through National Socialism. Living Modern: German and Austrian Art and Design, 1890–1933, curated by Richard A. Born, senior curator at the Smart, addresses artists’ responses to these shifts by presenting multiple perspectives of what it meant to be “modern” as it was encountered in contemporary life. Here, modernity’s association with progress and the new is the framework for avant-garde appraisals of society’s rapid development and its impact on individual experience. Several styles and schools are represented, such as Symbolism, Expressionism, and the Bauhaus, all drawn from over one hundred works from the museum’s permanent collection—prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures, household designs, and photographs.

The concept of utopia is the underlying premise of the exhibition, as numerous artists and intellectuals of this period hoped the transformations of contemporary society would be gainful—emotionally, spiritually, and economically—and would shape a better world. How this goal would be realized was diversely approached as artists commented on both the adverse and positive effects of rapid change, such as urban alienation and loss of community or the affordability of quality goods for the average consumer as a result of industrial production. Visualizing these points at the exhibition’s introduction are Otakar Nejedly’s From Ceylon (1910) and Emil Artur Longen’s Untitled (ca. 1910); the former addresses a desire to escape industrialization and European culture through primitivist idylls reminiscent of Gauguin’s Tahitian subjects, while the latter focuses on its outcome through the congestion of boats and barges on the Vlatka River in Prague. Stylistically, Nejedly’s brushwork and coloration bear kinship with Van Gogh’s work while Longen’s demonstrates clear affinities with Fauvism’s black outlines and flat, saturated areas of color. Displays of Bauhaus utilitarian wares stand opposite these images—from the functional, mass-produced glass tea service (1930–31) designed by Wilhelm Wagenfeld and still manufactured today, to the more craft-based, hammered-silver and ebony tea set (1924) by Marianne Brandt, practical in its form but too costly for large-scale fabrication. Egalitarian aesthetics and an interest in bringing beautiful household objects to the masses, produced within the guidelines of modern technology and industry, are mirrored against the issue of the broader consequences the production of such goods had on society. This evaluation is presented throughout the exhibition under a rubric organized around three themes: “Multiple Modernisms, 1890–1920,” “Alternate Modernisms, 1905–1933,” and “Constructed Modernism, 1920–1933.”

The earliest, “Multiple Modernisms, 1890–1920,” focuses on the period after German unification in 1871, when the effects of accelerated industrialization, urbanization, and the departure from an agrarian economy began to materialize. Realism’s dominance as an artistic style, prevalent since the 1860s, began to wane as several other tendencies appeared, including Impressionism, Symbolism, and Jugendstil. Their simultaneous coexistence paralleled a more poignant interest in developing a new art, which Secession organizations articulated in Germany and Austro-Hungary from an anti-academic, anti-official position. In painting, these innovative approaches are juxtaposed through stylistic shifts in the traditional genre of the portrait, as in Hans Fechner’s Agnes Samson (1896) and Max Pechstein’s Head of a Girl (1910). Agnes Samson, a relatively conservative image allied with “grand manner” portraits of wealthy socialites, reveals new artistic explorations through Fechner’s use of pastels, similar to the quick executions undertaken by Edgar Degas and the work of Max Liebermann and Max Slevogt. Despite her refined dress and seated pose, Samson is rendered by Fechner with an air of informality conveyed in part by a bare, ungloved arm, signifying shifting upper-class behavior in Berlin at the time (as indicated in the wall text). Pechstein’s approach is expressionist and indicative of Die Brücke’s anti-academic position both in technique and subject matter. Highly saturated colors, distorted features, and fluid, thick paint application characterize this portrait, likely of his first wife, Charlotte Kaprolat. She is portrayed exotically, with a large red flower on her bodice and her black hair tied back, in keeping with the group’s interest in capturing images of dancing girls at local cabarets, the circus, and other urban venues.

A series of excerpts from the Smart’s rich collection of print portfolios continues this line of inquiry into multiple responses to modernity. They include Max Klinger’s A Love (Opus X) (1887, fourth edition 1907), Oskar Kokoschka’s Columbus Chained (1916), and Lovis Corinth’s Antique Legends (1918). Their themes are centered around male/female relationships: Klinger’s addresses larger social roles and conventional attitudes toward women; Kokoschka’s is related to his stormy relationship with Alma Mahler, the widow of composer Gustav Mahler; and Corinth’s is a metaphor for life in the German Empire and its downfall after World War I. Prints by Max Liebermann, Otto Mueller, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, and Käthe Kollwitz follow, the latter representing her never-ending support of the lower classes and her desire to improve their living and working conditions, as in Riot (1897) from the series Revolt of the Weavers. Less in-depth but no less interesting are the broad range of design objects which follow, from an academic-style bronze commemorative medallion by Stefan Schwartz, Allegory of Franz Josef I of Austria (1888), celebrating the fortieth year of the emperor’s reign, to Josef Hoffmann’s Cabaret Fledermaus Arm Chair (1905–6), produced by the Wiener Werkstätte. Karel Masek’s Study for a Decorative Panel: Seated Nude Placing Flowers in Her Hair (1894) is an interesting Jugendstil example of designs used for the commercial production of panoramic wallpaper, a trend that emerged in the early nineteenth century. Several ceramic vases, ranging from Czech Cubist sources (1915–20) to Wiener Werkstätte designs by Hilda Jesser (1921) and Gudrun Baudisch (1927), demonstrate the firm’s interest in marketing more non-Western patterns to its clients in later years.

Expressionism is given primary attention in “Alternate Modernisms, 1905–1933,” particularly through the work of Die Brücke and the post-World War I Weimar generation, who commented on society’s shortcomings more radically. This section is dominated by prints and drawings centered on several prevailing themes. Die Brücke is characterized through works exploring cabaret and performance, touched upon in the Pechstein painting earlier, but given more depth in lithographs such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Gerda and Erna (1912), Emil Nolde’s Tingel-Tangel II (1907–12), and two woodcuts by Kirchner and Pechstein featuring circus acrobats. Leisure and recreation in nature’s surroundings are suggested in Heckel’s watercolor East Baltic Seacoast (1911), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s House with Poplar Trees (1913–18), and others pointing to the group’s interest in the regenerative power of nature. Less uplifting but no less intense are Otto Dix’s and Max Beckmann’s prints commenting on the effects of World War I on Weimar society. Dix’s entire portfolio The War (1924) is displayed with all fifty intaglio prints presented in the order intended by the artist. The horrors of war in images of trench casualties and decomposing bodies, informed by his own experience as a gunner on the Western Front, are paired with images of soldiers in scenes of drinking and prostitution, seeking temporary relief from such suffering. Similarly frank in depicting the demoralizing impact of the war on contemporary society are seven of Beckmann’s prints from the portfolio of ten entitled The Annual Fair (1921 plates, published in 1922). In the first one, The Barker, the artist renders himself in the context of the city carnival opening the gate to its visitors, who encounter performers engaged in a variety of acts. Their view, however, is not so much entertaining than a comment on the cost of the war on human existence, shown through images of tightrope walkers, musicians, a snake charmer, a tall man, and others.

The exhibition’s final section, “Constructed Modernism, 1920–1933,” focuses, as its title suggests, on the importance of design in the rebuilding of Germany and Austria after World War I. The Bauhaus is prevalent in this area, both for its utopian vision and its development of designs for mass production and the social good. Household objects, such as a coffee pot by Otto Lindig, percolator by Gerhard Marcks, and a lamp by Brandt, all Bauhaus students, are displayed in the company of two architectural renderings for high-rise apartments by Karel Lodr entitled Collective Living (1935), with dining furniture by Franz Singer, and with Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel-and-rattan B35 Lounge Chair (ca. 1929–early 1930s). Economy of means, egalitarianism, and quality production are all important features of progress and a healthy lifestyle, as emphasized here. Yet the depersonalization of industrial production, loss of individuality, and personal excess for social and financial gain are similarly addressed, as in Georg Grosz’s design Amalie (1922) for the character in Ivan Goll’s Dada drama Methusalem. Methusalem, a wealthy shoe manufacturer, and his wife Amalie are parodied for their grotesque bourgeois lifestyle, ultimately demonstrating the failure of utopian idealism. The Smart Museum’s drawing is a study for the lifesize cut-outs that would have been placed in front of the actors, hiding their figures. Amalie’s body is transformed into an assemblage of mechanized parts, including horns, locomotive tracks, and a teapot on her head. Underscoring this utopian failure is Felix Nussbaum’s Masquerade (Mummenschanz) (ca. 1937), which appears at the end of a loop the visitor is meant to follow at both the conclusion and introduction of the exhibition. It is hung alongside Nejedly’s From Ceylon, mentioned earlier, stressing the interweaving of themes in the art of this region and period. Nussbaum’s image portrays six masked self-portraits set in the foreground of high rises and a lone barren tree. Carnivalesque in style, the theme continues both older traditions taken up earlier by Die Brücke and Weimar artists as well as that of Belgian artist James Ensor, who had addressed modern alienation through the theme of the carnival. Nussbaum, who was living in exile in Belgium to escape Nazi persecution at the time he made this painting, represents several guises as if to suggest that the individual under suspicion could never be himself.

Living Modern offers an important and in-depth consideration of the nuances and complexity of modernism in Germany and Austro-Hungary, and is a refreshing counterpoint to French discussions on the subject, which have dominated scholarship in the United States. Regional and cultural differences, urban and rural shifts in demographics, infrastructure, and the economy produced various artistic responses during the course of modernization and nationalization in this Central European region. The organization of the exhibition into three overlapping sections accurately points to the multi-layered interaction of these phenomena, an alternative to the linear narrative traditional to Western scholarship. Although no catalogue was published, the wall texts offer excellent detailed analysis of the objects represented as well as the context for their relationship to the modern.

Adrienne Kochman
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Indiana University Northwest

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