“Art in Berlin: 1815–1989”

“Art in Berlin: 1815–1989,” curated by Gudmund Yigtel, managed to suggest the complexity of the interrelationship of history, politics, and art in Berlin, though without capturing in depth any single era. The first strand of the exhibition was the neoclassical work of Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The architect and draftsman was represented by two lithographs and by the 1811 painting Kathedrale (Cathedral), which shows his architectural ambitions as well as the oblique light, Romantic landscape, and shadowed foreground of much German painting of the period. Berlin cityscapes by Johann Heinrich Hintze, Eduard Gaertner, and Wilhelm Brücke demonstrate the impact Schinkel had as an architect—an impact still evident in both halves of the reconstructed city. The second section of the show traces the modernization of Berlin through the work of Adolph von Menzel and the Berlin Secession, emphasizing presentations of everyday life in a rapidly industrializing but still imperial city. Menzel’s work is seen only in a series of studies and two small paintings. One of the paintings, Hinterhaus und Hof (Backyard, ca. 1845), portrays in quick strokes the dark, vacant yard of a working-class tenement, creating a strong sense of the changes being wrought by industrialization. Of all the works in the first half of the show, Menzel’s most clearly reveals the complexly and ambivalence of the city and its art.

The selection of early Expressionist and Dada works is substantial, and in these pieces the political and artistic struggles of the first decades of the century are clearly evidenced. George Grosz, Ludwig Kirchner, and Max Beckmann are particularly well represented, as is Hannah Höch, one of the less well-known founders of Berlin Dada Constructivist abstraction is duly noted with several pieces, but the curators assert the dominant historical and political viewpoint in the most striking single room in the show, the gallery containing works from the later period of Expressionism. Beckmann’s stunning The King, 1937, surveys with dark , brooding eyes the politics, pessimism, and decadence of Richard Ziegler, Christian Schad, Carl Hofer, Käthe Kollwitz, Rudolf Schlichter, August Wilhelm Dressler, Bruno Voigt, and Otto Dix. The latter’s powerful cartoon for the Grossstadt (Metropolis) mural of 1927–28 distills both the satire of Grosz and the decadence of Schad into a sweeping triptych that captures the class struggle, the anarchy, and the shrill sexuality of the years between the wars.

The most disturbing gap in the show comes with the Nazi era. Nazi-approved art is only suggested by a few documentary photographs, and none of the work in the exhibition refers directly to the Holocaust (though the misery of the war is portrayed powerfully by Kollwitz and somewhat less so by Hofer). Given that gap, the formalism of the art immediately following the war is jarring. Only in the art of the last three decades does the work begin to take full account of the city’s past, both artistic and political. Christa Dichgans’ acrylic on canvas Germany, 1976, reworks Höch’s Dada collage in terms of contemporary West German pop culture, and Wolfgang Petrick’s three large grotesque figures from Ritter, Tod und Teuful (Knight, death, and the devil, all 1988–89) look back to Grosz’s wonderful Circe of 1927 K.H. Hödicke’s Kriegsministerium (Ministry of war, 1977), Dieter Hacker’s Gestapo, 1984, and Edward Kienholz’s and Nancy Reddin Kienholz’s The Pawn Boys, 1983 (50 bricks with a framed photo of a German soldier on each), are the most effective of the recent works in the context of this show, providing a somber reflection on the years of horror and war. The other contemporary work in the show was a sketchy overview (one or two pieces each by Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf, Wolf Vostel, Georg Baselitz, and Salomé, three by Markus Lüpertz, and no work from East Berlin artists, due to the refusal of the Honecker government to loan contemporary works for the show) barely suggesting the complexity of contemporary German art and its relation to the German past. The anticlimax of the final section created a gap between art and politics just at the point when recent events called for the greatest recognition of their interdependence.

Glenn Harper