15 May 2019

The Shock of the New


15 May


Series Advisor Gavin Plumley introduces the context for the Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis series.

Light fuels memory. And I clearly remember the first time I saw the Bauhaus. It was a sunny spring day. I’d travelled to the small industrial city of Dessau from nearby Leipzig. My head should have been filled with the sights and sounds of Bach’s adopted hometown, but they were suddenly blown away by the sharp shock of the new. It was the vision of Walter Gropius’s modernist masterpiece. The glare of its glass, steel and geometry blazed in an otherwise drab suburb; “a bright object through the gloom”, Theresia Enzensberger calls it in her new novel Blueprint. It was a cathedral to modernism. And just as when I first saw that totem of the Renaissance, the Duomo in Florence, tears pricked at the corners of my eyes.

The Bauhaus in Dessau © Ian Dagnall

Back in December 1926, when the Bauhaus opened in Dessau – the second of the art school’s homes – the impact must have been even more marked. Very few of the surrounding buildings were in place; Gropius’s temple stood proud. As the international press approached, they would have heard the music of Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. Photographers swarmed, ready for the great reveal. And the following day, a further 1,500 people arrived for the official inauguration, wandering slack-jawed through the school’s hallways and workshops, where many of the most pioneering artistic minds of a generation would come to study and create.

The history of the Bauhaus is entirely coincident with that of the Weimar Republic: both were created in the Thuringian capital of Weimar in 1919; and both came to an end in Berlin in 1933 with the advent of the Nazis. But, most importantly, the Republic and the Bauhaus were thoroughly utopian projects, tendering solutions, democratic and cultural, to the warring era they trailed.

The sense of disillusionment after the most brutal, mechanised conflict the world had ever witnessed was pervasive. Having been a willing volunteer, German poet Hugo Ball expressed his dismay in 1917 at what had unfolded. Writing ostensibly about artist and later Bauhaus teacher Wassily Kandinsky, he declaimed, “God is dead” (alluding to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche). “A world disintegrated. I am dynamite. World history splits into two parts. There is an epoch before me and an epoch after me.” And yet the era that followed was just as conflicted. In the final stages of World War I, the German population lurched into a violent revolution. The uprising may have seen in the founding of a republic and the abdication of the Kaiser, but it also resulted in a volunteer militia, supported from afar by the Social Democrats, assassinating various leading communists.

Otto Dix ‘The Match Seller’

With elections, including the first votes for and by women, and the establishment of a national assembly, some sense of reason was restored. Meeting first in the sleepy cultural centre of Weimar, parliament set out terms for a new German constitution. It was adopted in August 1919, announcing that “the German people, united in its tribes and inspired with the will to renew and strengthen its realm in liberty and justice, to serve internal and external peace, and to promote social progress, has adopted this Constitution”.

On the streets, however, there was little unity among the ‘tribes’. Turning their gaze from the trenches to the cities, artists (and former soldiers) George Grosz and Otto Dix recorded the ravages of war on society, painting limbless matchbox salesmen and generals with metal jaws. Added to the war’s physical and emotional disseverment, apparent in Alban Berg’s first opera Wozzeck (1925), there were also the lasting economic effects, with the Treaty of Versailles blaming Germany for all the loss and damage caused between 1914 and 1918. The Allies duly levied reparations that the new Republic had no chance of paying back, which similarly made attempts to reconcile the constitution’s idealism and the pessimism of daily life impossible.

The very same artists who recorded the period’s socio-political schisms also decided to step away from the hyperemotional expressionism that had characterised its art to date. Instead, Dix and Grosz, alongside conscientious objector Christian Schad, pursued a cooler, more detached style. In 1925, curator and art historian Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub branded it Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity), describing an art that expressed a “desire to treat things dispassionately, as they are, without trying to find some ideal meaning”. Similarly objective, though truly idealistic in its aims, was the Bauhaus. The school had likewise moved away from the expressionism and cultish fervour that marked its initial years in the city of Weimar towards a more rational style. Re-established in Dessau after local government machinations forced it to move and, later, again, in Berlin, the institution’s masters applied their arts-and-crafts principles to the modern age, fashioning geometric designs for everyday use, while creating photographically-inspired art.

The kind of theoretic perplexity at the core of these movements was characteristic of the age. Thomas Mann deftly communicated its dichotomies in the allegorical push-and-pull of Der Zauberberg (‘The Magic Mountain’), his literary sensation of 1925. Focussing on a naive bourgeois named Hans Castorp, who travels to an elegant sanatorium in the Alps, Mann’s novel confronts an array of possible solutions to the woes of the world. While set in the seemingly comfortable pre-war era, its concerns are manifestly those of the Weimar Republic, as people grappling for intellectual identity again faced questions of progress versus tradition, of society’s needs against the collusions of a political hierarchy.

In the midst of this maelstrom, there was an unsurprising explosion of hedonism. Fuelled by drink, sex and drugs – cocaine use was particularly prevalent among Berlin bourgeois circles – Weimar Germany became a veritable playground. Its increasingly diverse society, catalysed by unemployment and consequent mass movement, prompted an unlikely and often dangerous ethnic, political and sexual mix, becoming as much a subject for local writers such as Irmgard Keun and Alfred Döbling as it was for visitors like Christopher Isherwood.

The Bauhaus in Dessau © Nikolaj Schubert

In Weimar Germany, modernism was many-splendoured and indefinable, bridging everything from avant-gardism to the out-and-out popular. And evidence of its breadth is surely found on the lyric stage. This was, after all, the era of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s plush weepy, Die tote Stadt (‘The City’) which enjoyed simultaneous premieres in Cologne and Hamburg in 1920. The opera’s mood of eroticised, fetishized remembrance, harnessed to a clutch of bittersweet arias, proved evergreen (until the Nazis banned it). But even more popular were the era’s operettas, as Berlin stole the genre’s crown from Vienna and modish plots and ‘American’ popular songs came into play. Such trends were equally prevalent in Zeitopern (operas of the time), which eschewed escapist fantasy in favour of the contemporary. Featuring telephones, trains and factory workers, Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf (‘Funny plays’, 1927) and Max Brand’s Maschinist Hopkins (1929) maintained surface modernity while relying on established musical forms.

Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith likewise reverted to traditional structures, albeit to subvert them. The latter, in particular, relished the rigour and rhetoric of the Baroque, using it for his musical complement to Neue Sachlichkeit. And while Weill, born in Dessau, the city of the Bauhaus, had, like Hindemith, begun writing expressionistic works, he was soon flaunting a more barbed idiom, inspired by his collaboration with playwright-cum-agitator Bertolt Brecht on works such as Die Dreigroschenoper (‘The Threepenny Opera’, 1928) and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (‘The Rise and the Fall of the City of Mahagonny’, 1930). Brecht was to pursue even more pointed forms of social criticism, while Weill readily embraced jazz and Americanisms, helping pave his way to Broadway. Conflict and contradiction abounded, even in the closest of collaborations.

And it was not just the shellac records and sheet music of Weill’s popular songs that bridged the gap between high art and the high street. That was done most ably by interwar German cinema. Film was one of few artistic disciplines to thrive due to the country’s otherwise lamentable economy: imports, including US films, were prohibitive; while German producers were able to capitalise on the effects of inflation, borrowing funds that were soon rendered null. Lavish effects, swathes of extras and technological trickery typified Weimar cinema, as it moved from vertiginous expressionism to social critique, as in the art that emulated its fluidity, such as Berg’s Lulu.

By the time Schoenberg’s former pupil died in 1935, leaving his second opera incomplete, the era’s commitment to progress – socially, artistically and politically – had become prey to a new regime. The Weimar Constitution may have sought to paper over the cracks, but the violence and crime on the streets, the enduring humiliations of a war-torn generation and the failed hopes of those who came in its wake all sat at odds with the Republic’s idealism. Exploiting the ignominy doled out to Germany and the pain of reparations, while invoking apparent past glories and future promises, the Nazi Party, founded in Munich in 1920, had brought about the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933.

Looking back, the demise may seem inevitable. But the horror of the 12-year Third Reich cannot blind us to the successes of the 14-year period that preceded it. Weimar’s greatest achievement remains its progressive thinkers – writers, artists, musicians, architects and filmmakers – many of whom found homes further afield, there rebuilding Weimar’s utopian vision. They included Walter Gropius in Harvard, Kurt Weill on Broadway and the Philharmonia Orchestra’s own Otto Klemperer in Los Angeles and in London, to say nothing of the flood of German-speaking artists in Hollywood. And although the Republic’s politics were deeply flawed, stemming from what Eric D. Weitz calls its “star-crossed birth”, the Weimar Constitution remains proof of enduring faith in democracy.

Because, for all the hopelessness of the period, it was also a time of great hope. Like the Bauhaus, the Weimar Republic offered “a bright object through the gloom”, what Gropius called “the crystal symbol of a new faith”. 100 years on, we need its light and optimism – now, more than ever.

Written by Gavin Plumley

Explore the programme for our Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis series