Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 26, 2001
Janet Ward Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 357 pp.; 63 b/w ills. Paper $19.95 (0520222997)

Janet Ward’s Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany offers a rich, ambitious, and theoretically acute analysis of this subject and its legacy in our own time. In this book, Weimar visual culture emerges in its various guises—architectural, cinematic, and consumerist—to reveal the transition from the modern to the postmodern and the merging of high and low culture. These developments in turn prefigure our own current state of saturation with regard to the visual codes of consumerism. In its promotion of a pervasive urban spirit—and cult of surface that extended into the visual arenas of fashion, architecture, advertising, film reception, and display windows)—Weimar modernism came to define and to dominate both artistic and business production as well as the sensory experience of everyday life. In Germany of the 1920s, Ward argues, “Surface played a different, more dynamic, meaningful role in mass cultural formation.” This was a time, she says, when “the new was not yet old, modernity was still modern, and spectacle was still spectacular” (2).

It is Ward’s singular achievement to show how the everyday modernity of Weimar visual culture remains the “cultural blueprint of visual life that shows us where our images today have come from” (8). She focuses on the material culture of this era—the buildings, newly asphalted streets, picture palaces, and display windows of large department stores. For Ward, Weimar visual culture joined together high and low arts in an almost seamless topography and thereby sustained a range of practices that, although short-lived, displayed a greater conceptual clarity—and even greater playful joy—than we find in our own postmodern era. Weimar Surfaces demonstrates that, above all else, Weimar visual culture was a deeply interconnected culture in which architecture had an impact on fashion, which in turn had a strong influence on street culture, which was related to the advent of outdoor electric advertising and the evolution of the film industry (with its movie palaces and set designs), which then were developed in tandem with the display of commodities in store display windows. It is precisely this interconnected visual culture that Ward so vividly captures in this study, which is itself an incredibly rich integration of modern and postmodern architectural theory.

In her chapters on architecture and advertising, Ward shows us how the experience of urban life and the street (whether by car or by foot) was meant to engage the visual, acoustical, and tactile senses. This was a time, she reminds us, when exposure and transparency first offered themselves as emancipatory advances. Ward convincingly documents how Weimar Berlin was one of the first—and last—modern cities to successfully combine mass transit, pedestrianism, and car culture. It therefore offered a greater intellectual interest, artistic collaboration, and social interchange than what would later emerge in the postmodern emptying-out of the metropolis, as the example of Los Angeles (and the views of its development in the work of critics from Theodor Adorno to Mike Davis) suggests. Furthermore, in her chapters on the cinema and the display window, Ward underscores the links between avant-garde abstract art and the new design media. Bauhaus rationalism, Expressionist film, Taylorist streamlining, and the compelling concept of “less-is-more” not only transformed the relation of the spectator to the screen, but also the relation of the screen to the theater, the theater to street, and street to everyday urban experience. Ward focuses less on film or individual works of art than on the texture of Weimar culture itself. Taking on an architectural focus—both in terms of her theoretical approach and conceptual objects—Ward provides us a comprehensive look at the mise-en-scène of Weimar urban culture: the newly smoothed surfaces of building façades, the illusionary monumentality provided by neon and electric lighting, and the display window as mechanical-age artwork.

Although dozens of books on Weimar culture have appeared in the past decade and more studies of Weimar art and film have been conducted in the last ten years than in the last fifty, no book has consistently or persuasively tackled the very premise on which Weimar culture was founded—namely, the immediacy of modern, urban, surface culture. Weimar Surfaces surveys urban visual culture in 1920s Germany in rich detail, both theoretical and archival, and does so without any trace of nostalgia for the past or pessimism in the future. This is itself a remarkable achievement and testament to the fact that, for all the books and monographs and polemics published to date on German art and culture during the interwar years, Weimar visual culture still has much with which to teach and surprise us.

Patrice Petro
Center for International Education, The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee