Olivia Ward-Jackson reviews the Tate Modern’s year-long, free exhibition.
The Weimar Republic presided over a short period of political and artistic freedom between two devastating world wars. In the days of the Republic, Gustav Stresemann claimed that ‘Germany is in fact dancing on a volcano’, but what he failed to mention was that those dancers were still nursing their previous burns – a point which hits home in the Tate’s free Magic Realism exhibition.
Magic Realism powerfully documents Weimar Germany’s social psyche, even though its selection of art is limited and not all the pieces are strong in themselves. The trauma of the First World War, and the political uncertainty that followed it, is conveyed by many Weimar artists including George Grosz in his grotesque and striking ‘Suicide’, which depicts a dead man beneath a shroud of deep red light and under the eye of a flower-bearing prostitute. A small church features ironically in the background. Like Grosz, many Weimar artists channelled their disturbing memories of war into images of crude, hollow debauchery.
Otto Dix was also deeply affected by his time at the front. This can be observed in his Circus portfolio – a distressing series of satirical etchings that played on contemporary fears of moral degradation and popular anxiety surrounding social outsiders.
Indeed, Dix’s Lust Murder plays on a recurring theme in Weimar culture of sexual murder, which combines the slaughter of war with the frenzy of sexual passion. This subject is returned to in Rudolf Schlichter’s The Artist with Two Hanged Women, a self-portrait depicting his own sexual fantasies but also commenting on the wider prominence of suicide in Weimar Society – an age of soul-sucking hyperinflation and mass unemployment.
Nevertheless, not all Weimar art focussed on the depravity of society and the exploitation of women. Some artists, like Jeanne Mammen, documented the increasing independence of women during the period. Her Boring Dolls depicts two nonchalant women with their hair cut short; one is smoking, both are paying no heed to an onlooker behind them.
Similarly, in At the Shooting Gallery we see a working woman dressed in simple, unprovocative clothes in stark contrast to the voluptuous cardboard targets in the background. Max Beckmann’s Girl with Fan recollects a well-known Weimar nightclub scene in which a young woman is talking to her male companion whilst staring out of the painting and coquettishly catching the eye of the viewer.
The Weimar Republic is often remembered as a brief period of democracy and alluring social freedoms, but Magic Realism reminds us of the era’s perverse undercurrents. The artworks are raw and vulnerable; they are inseparable from the horrors of the First World War and expose the dark realities of the precarious Weimar Republic. Dix’s Billiard Players are day-drinking, unemployed military veterans who have returned unwelcome to civilian life. The players are not liberated but in fact imprisoned in a cage of decadence, an image recalling Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin.
The Nazis banned ‘degenerate’ Weimar art not only because its loucheness was out of touch with traditional German values, but also because it portrayed a weak, traumatised and pessimistic society, which was an image the Nazis were keen to stamp out. However, this exhibition ensures that its legacy will continue.