Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-1933 (exhibition review)

This year marks the centenary of the end of the First World War and Tate used this opportunity to open another exhibition that is fit for the occasion. (‘Aftermath’, the earlier exhibition at Tate Britain was devoted to artistic responses to WWI in Britain, France and Germany). ‘Magic Realism’ at Tate Modern explores further the German part of the story showcasing the works from the George Economou Collection produced in the short-lived Weimar Republic. Along with well-known names such as Otto Dix and George Grosz there are many great paintings and drawings by their contemporaries shown for the first time in their proper historical context. Franz Roh, German art historian coined the term ‘magic realism’ in 1920s to describe the new kind of realism in art that emerged after the WWI.[1] The development in German art that was reacting against earlier Expressionism is better known as ‘New Objectivity (’Neue Sachlichkeit’) a term which does not have the same appeal as ‘magic realism’, although in cases of works by Dix or Grosz may sound more fitting.

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view from the exhibition – works by George Grosz

This modest in scale exhibition is spread over five rooms, the entry is free of charge. It was surprising to see that there are notices at the entrance to one of the rooms warning visitors about potentially upsetting content. Indeed there are a few works on the theme of murder, but the warning note seems arbitrary since, strangely enough, Suicide (1916) by Georg Grosz displayed in another room does not have such a warning label. Sexually-motivated murder and suicide fascinated artists and the general public, who eagerly read reports of gruesome murders in the press of the day. Works of modernist German painters produced in this period were later labelled ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazis.

But to refer to art of the period as ‘degenerate’ is to see only a fragment of the bigger picture. Yes, many artists who were scarred and traumatised by the war returned with a skewed view of reality, the figures in their paintings and drawings often look simply ugly. Images of war invalids, war destruction and dark underbelly of the city, where crime and prostitution flourished were commonly depicted. Painted in variety of styles, with different degrees of realism, art produced in Weimar Republic was often an unflattering social commentary.

One painting on display is of particular interest here. Franz Radziwill’s Conversation about a paragraph (1929/1960) was as current in the late 1920s as it is now. The paragraph in the title refers to the Paragraph 218 of the German Constitution, which outlawed abortion. During the Weimar Republic this law was hotly debated in the society. It feels strange to see this painting displayed today, when discussions on abortion enter the public debate yet again. It is significant that the artist kept this artwork in his studio and retouched it after thirty years adding the floating angel, which represents a human soul.[2]

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Franz Radziwill (1895-1983) Conversation about a paragraph (1929/1960 oil paint on canvas laid on wood)

In my opinion the term ‘magic realism’ best describes some of the portraits on display, such as these two elegant but slightly eerie portraits of women by Herbert Gurschner (1901-1975).

 

Herbert Gurschner – on the left Bean Ingram (1928), on the right Japanese Lady (1932)

Works by Jeanne Mammen (1890-1976) are very observant depictions of the city life. Although less known than Dix and Grosz, she was equally talented. Her witty drawing style emphasises distinct personalities of the women in her artworks. During 1920s Mammen collaborated with fashion and satirical magazines, but was later forced to support herself selling second-hand books on the street. Only after WWII she could go back to her work as an artist.[3]  

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Jeanne Mammen (1890-1976) Brüderstrasse (Free Room) (1930, watercolour, ink and graphite on vellum)(detail)

Repressing at least some of the horrifying memories of the war years, the artists often depicted scenes of popular entertainment, portraits of circus performers, dancers, singers and musicians. The period of Weimar Republic experienced a cultural boom. Arts and culture flourished in the so-called ‘Golden Twenties’.

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Josef Eberz – Dancer (Beatrice Mariagraete) (1923 oil paint on canvas)

Scenes from circus and cabaret might seem like a colourful and even welcome distraction, but the last room ‘Faith’ brings us back to the horrors of war and human suffering, this time in depictions of biblical subjects. The religious paintings by Herbert Gurschner and Albert Birkle (1900-1986) are strikingly different from conventional representations. Gurschner’s Lazarus (1928) is a green and blue apparition, not a man anymore. The haunting quality of this image is difficult to shake off, and it radically changes the original message of the biblical story. This painting has an alternative title The workers. Faced with miraculously resurrected Lazarus the workers seem scared, not joyful and filled with hope. This painting could be read as a commentary on war – humans taking lives of others and playing God. It might also reflect the disillusionment of the post-war period – even a miracle does not live up to expectations.

 

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Albert Birkle ‘Crucifixion’ (1921)
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Herbert Gurschner ‘The Annunciation’ (1929-30)
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Herbert Gurschner – ‘Lazarus’ (The Workers) (1928)

I have been to this exhibition twice already and each time it was quite crowded, which cannot be entirely due to the fact that the entry is free of charge. I think it has an appeal for a wide audience, such as those interested in social art history, or early twentieth century art. There is also plenty to see for art lovers who like more traditional forms of art and are not interested in contemporary post-modern, ‘post-painting’ artworks.

 

‘Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-1933’ is a free exhibition at Tate Modern. It runs until 14 July 2019, so there is plenty of time to see it.

 

References:

[1-3] gallery labels

You can check out the exhibition website here: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/magic-realism

All photographs: Ground Impressions.

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