The mad square – Modernity in German art 1910-37: Interview with curator Jacqueline Strecker

Felix Nussbaum 'The mad square' 1931. © Felix Nussbaum/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century was the site of one of the most astounding and explosive outpourings of creativity in modern history. The mad square: modernity in German art 1910-37, an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, demonstrates how a growing metropolis, unprecedented freedom of expression for artists and social and political turmoil were key factors in the gestation of avant-garde art movements such as Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus and New Objectivity.

Vogue Living sat down with The mad square’s curator Jacqueline Strecker to learn about the art and artists that blossomed in the period of intense crisis that followed the devastation of World War I and the founding of the Weimar Republic in 1919. Strecker explains how the excitement and turmoil of the period is conveyed in the work of more than 200 artists that feature in the exhibition and how Berlin Sydney – a program of cultural events held around the city – aims to recreate the exhuburent mood of Weimar culture and 1920s Berlin.

VL: This is the first exhibition of this period in Australia. What was the catalyst for the Art Gallery of New South Wales to hold this exhibition?

JS: I’ve been here about six years and worked on Giacometti with Edmund Capon (director of AGNSW for 33 years, until July 2011). I came up with this idea that looked at showcasing a whole moment of German art in the early 20th century and the flowering of avant-garde movements. Many exhibitions are focused on single artists or single movements; this looks at three
decades of German art. To me, it seemed like the most interesting and engaging way to present the art of this period.

VL: What were the challenges of taking such a huge period and condensing it?

JS: One of the major challenges is making sure that each of the avant-garde movements is represented by key works. When I started working on the show four years ago, my first step was to travel to Germany and the United States to talk to museums to see if they would be willing to loan their works. I had this very fixed structure, starting with Expressionism, moving through Dada, Bauhaus, constructivism, New Objectivity, and finishing with art and politics in the ‘30s. The title of the exhibition, The mad square, comes from a painting in the exhibition by Felix Nussbaum which has a double meaning: “Der tolle Platz” means both crazy and fabulous. I wanted the works to have both qualities.

VL: Which museums and collections have you drawn from?

JS: About 47 lenders in total: from about 10 museums in Germany, more from Munich and Stuttgart, about 10 in the US and about 10 in Europe in general. About a quarter of the works are from the National Gallery of Australia and some from our own collection and some from Melbourne.

VL: The exhibition explores the years between 1910 and 1937. The Weimar Republic was in place from 1919 to 1933. Why have you explored either side?

JS: I think that, in order to understand the art of the 1920s, you have to go to that period just before the war and during the war. Artists at that time had moved to the metropolis. They were already starting to develop works that looked at the dark themes of city life. They developed their style of very expressive, intense colours and distorted forms and city themes. With the experience of war, many of them went to fight at the front and were affected by those experiences.

The other reason was that, often, people look at Weimar as doomed from the beginning. I wanted to get away from that narrative and look at what was happening over that 27-year period. I think it’s important to look at the way in which art was politicised and what happened to these artists under Hitler.

Christian Schad 'Self-portrait' 1927. © Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg. VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

VL: You spoke about the fact that some people see the Weimar Republic period as doomed. You’re obviously not taking that perspective.

JS: I’m trying to get away from that view of it being a period of angst and cultural pessimism, to look at the hopes and dreams that a lot of the artists had at the end of the first World War with the founding of the Weimar Republic. They believed this was the beginning of a new society that represented great freedom for artists, turning away from conventions of the past, not only in art but in people’s lifestyles.

VL: World War I was obviously a game changer for the artists. What other factors contributed to this sense of a new world view?

JS: Germany was really quite late to modernise. It was only in the early 20th century that people moved to the cities and that Germany really became such an industrialised country. Those two forces of urbanisation and industrialisation had a huge impact on people’s lives. It was a particularly rapid change. By the 1920s, Germany was one of the most technologically advanced countries. That’s why you see so many of the artists engaging with the themes of industry and unemployment or the vices of the city life. The way that modernity was experienced in Germany was a little bit sharper and a little bit more intense than in other countries.

VL: So social commentary is quite a strong theme of the art in the exhibition?

JS: It is. Certainly, artists like the Dadaists were very critical of society and capitalism and the injustices of society. But they always seemed to do it with a sense of satire and a sense of humour so even though their subjects are quite provocative, there’s something so engaging about the way they present these things.

George Grosz 'Suicide' 1916. © Tate London.

VL: It sounds like the artists were very aware of the unique mood of the period. You have grouped them into strict movements. Were they aware at the time that they had allegiances to certain movements and that they were separated?

JS: That’s an interesting question. In some cases, they did formally create these art movements. The Berlin Dadaists were a group. The Bauhaus was obviously a school that had a defined principle of teaching. In the New Objectivity, artists were brought together at an exhibition in Manheim in 1924, where the characteristics of their style were identified as a distinct movement away from Expressionism. So they did rally together with their art and theories. A lot of the movements were theoretical, like constructivism, where they produced journals and their ideas were disseminated and they were held together very strongly. You see George Grosz in 1916 with ‘Suicide’, a very Expressionist work, and by the 1920s his work has become much more restrained and austere and introspective. I think the exhibition will show the ways in which the artists were interrelated and overlapped.

VL: Were there any new subjects unique to this period that hadn’t been previously explored?

JS: Film, for example, was a completely new medium in which filmmakers explored the modern world. And also photography; while photography had existed before then, it was usually confined to quite wealthy people and didn’t reach the masses as it did with people in the ‘20s. So photography was really seen by many artists as a way of capturing the new world. The way they represented machines and factories and industry was certainly very new. Artist and designer El Lissitzky came up with ideas to represent architecture and typography in completely new ways. Theatre design and so forth are very tied up with abstract art and how it paved a way to the new future.

VL: In terms of the audiences changing, in what ways did the new society engage or not engage with the perspectives presented by these artists?

JS: In most cases, the audiences tended to be quite elite. In Berlin with the Dada movement, audiences were confined to quite a small group of collectors and patrons. However, the Dada Fair which we show in the exhibition, the actual pictures of their first exhibition, was reproduced in the newspaper, so they did reach a much broader audience through its sheer scandalousness.

Hannah Höch 'Made for a party' 1936. © Hannah Höch/VG Bild Kunst, Bonn.

VL: You have talked about the exhubrence of the period and the idea of the roaring Twenties and the danger and excitement that characterised that period. How is that decadence and mood communicated in the exhibition?

JS: By the time you get to the middle of the exhibition, a whole section focuses on Berlin’s nightlife and the decadence. Even the great Christian Schad self-portrait from the Tate, which we are using as one of our key marketing images, speaks of the decadence of the upper classes of Berlin in the mid-twenties. Their parties and their considerable wealth. At the same time, there is quite a critical view of those subjects. People will be confronted by artists exploring that myth of the Golden Twenties.

VL: What other major works underpin the exhibition and have been really important that you made sure were here?

JS: I immediately have to say Max Beckmann’s ‘The Trapeze’, because it is one of the great Max Beckmanns from the 1920s, painted at the height of his creative power; a work of extraordinary accomplishment and complexity but really striking in terms of its colours and forms. Really, it is a painting you have to spend time with. It talks about circus performers as marginalised people in society but as a commentary on the condition of modern life and the alienation of man. George Grosz’s ‘Suicide’ I have point to again because of its extraordinary colour, this red that emanates from the canvas, this sense of emotion and desire and vice. And Hannah Höch would have to be one of my favourites, with her collages that talk about modernity and gender and how with the founding of the Weimar Republic, women were emancipated and given the right to vote; they could work, go out into public alone but at the same time not a lot had changed, so they were still trying to balance quite difficult roles.

Toledo Museum of Art. © Max Beckmann/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

VL: This is very much an exhibition of movements associated with male artists, are there many women’s perspectives represented?

JS: Käthe Kollwitz is probably the most well-known. Her radical wood block prints are very important Expressionist works and deal with grieving after the war. There’s also a very interesting artist called Jeanne Mammen, who did a portrait of a burlesque cabaret performer. She was also a very prolific artist of that period but you don’t have many paintings of women by women, so that’s really unique. And there were female photographers such as Margaret Michaelis and women associated with the Bauhaus – Margarete Marks and Mariana Brunt, two very talented Bauhaus students who went on to create their own decorative arts. Margarete Marks set up her own porcelain factory in Berlin. They turned the Bauhaus ideas into quite commercially successful productions, and are some of the great Bauhaus icons.

VL: In terms of decorative arts and the Bauhaus, how strong a representation is there in the exhibition?

JS: It is a major room in the exhibition, but it is not a representative survey; we have presented aspects of the Bauhaus. We have a group of works on paper from artists such as Paul Klee and Kandinsky and Johannes Itten, pieces of furniture from Marcel Breuer as well as a lesser-known Bauhaus designer, Erich Dieckmann; we have a dining suite of his furniture brought out to Australia in the 1930s. Then we have some of the textile patterns from the female weaving workshops, as well as the beautiful Wagenfeld lamp and some other pottery and glass works.

Wassily Kandinsky 'Cup and saucer' c. 1921-23. © Wassily Kandinsky/ADAGP.

VL: Sometimes one comes across anecdotes of artists’ lives and they seem indicative of something about the period?

JS: So many interesting stories are represented through each artist. Take Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, who studied in Berlin in the late 19th century, then went onto become one of the founding masters of the Bauhaus in 1919. He was the head of the graphics workshop and also one of the teachers of the foundation course. Like so many others, he had to leave Germany in the early 1930s. He went to London and then to Australia as one of the Dunera [passenger ship for Jewish refugee] boys, and went on to teach Bauhaus ideas and principles at Geelong Grammar for many years.

VL: In the broader cultural programs attached to this exhibition, there is a real focus on cabaret, for example; why was it important to weave other elements into the exhibition experience?

JS: The exhibition really lends itself to this kind of collaborative programming because so many artists were working across art forms. You had theatre directors working with visual artists and architects and it was this period of great artistic collaboration. I felt that to include some of the plays written at the same time, or films with their original musical scores, or some of the music from the era, really brings the whole period to life. And it just makes it a more enriching experience.

VL: In the symposium, what are the key ideas that you will be hoping to explore?

JS: The idea is just to go a bit deeper in exploring some of the key artists or ideas. Curator Sean Rainbird will give a very interesting paper on ways in which German art has been presented in England at the Tate Gallery and at his new post in Stuttgart. Curator Dr Carla Schulz-Hoffmann will speak on Max Beckmann, to look at the artist in a little more detail, and what happened to him through the ‘20s and when he went into exile in Amsterdam and to America, never to return to Germany. Then we have freelance curator, writer and lecturer Jill Lloyd speaking on Kirchner and his theatre work and costumes; Professor Uwe Fleckner of the University of Hamburg on degenerate art and in particular Kurt Schwitters, and why the Nazis chose him as an artist to be ridiculed in their exhibitions. Adrian Martin will speak on Weimar classics. It will be quite academic but just fascinating.

The mad square is on show from August 6 – November 6 2011 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney before touring to the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. For information on the symposium and the Berlin Sydney program visit here.

Interview: Madeleine Hinchy

2 Responses to “The mad square – Modernity in German art 1910-37: Interview with curator Jacqueline Strecker”
  1. Jo Meyers says:

    fantastic interview, both questions and answers were insightful and inspiring.

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