New York

“Three Berlin Artists of the Weimar Era”

Galerie St. Etienne

All artists of the Weimar era, Hannah Höch, Käthe Kollwitz, and Jeanne Mammen would seem, on the surface, to have little in common. Kollwitz, a pacifist, posits women as inherently more caring and sensitive to suffering than men; Mammen, a popular illustrator, represents woman as powerful, autonomous, and glamorous; while Höch, the most avant-garde of the three (she was the coinventor of photomontage) suggests that gender, indeed identity, is a social construction.

Though each artist successfully avoids slipping into stereotypes, a uniform vision of German-ness does inform their work: Kollwitz’s proletariat, Mammen’s bourgeoisie, and Höch’s composite figures in particular continue the German medieval tradition of grotesque realism. According to both Vasari and Henry James, everything German is “more ugly than beautiful,” since it is “inordinately gothic.” This return to the grotesque is also reflected in the style and figures of George Grosz and Max Beckmann, but seems particularly pointed in the works of Kollwitz, Mammen, and Höch. Höch’s series “From an Ethnographic Museum,” ca. 1924–34, absurdly combines Caucasian, African, and Asian body parts and artifacts, suggesting that race has nothing to do with humanity and that identity is often a mix of uneasily reconciled elements. The Nazi stereotypes the Jew as grotesque, echoing the fate of Germans and women since antiquity, and certainly in Modernity. In reviving grotesque realism, these artists not only encapsulate the contradictory nature of the Weimar Republic but of womanhood as well. Women already knew—Weimar women doubly—what it was to feel like Jews.

If the Germans internalized the Romans’ classification of them as barbarians, the Nazi regime can be seen as representing the effort to turn it inside out—to purge themselves of it. Whatever else it was, Nazism was an attempt to reassert German superiority or deny German inferiority, and one way of doing so was to project the German sense of feeling at once superior and inferior onto the Jews. The work of Kollwitz, Mammen, and Höch is a climactic rendering of German grotesqueness (like the art produced during the Weimar Republic in general) that builds up to and anticipates this projection.

To view this work today is to acknowledge that we live at a time when people willingly turn themselves into stereotypes (in the guise of a critique of dominant ideology) even as they struggle against the reifications imposed on them by others. This paradoxical psychosocial situation is perfectly embodied by the figures, the women in particular, who appear in the work exhibited here. The heroines of Kollwitz and Mammen and the mutants of Höch indicate how ironic and persistent a stereotype can be, especially that of the grotesque.

Donald Kuspit