On the second floor of the Neue Galerie mansion, a pig is hanging from the ceiling. The pig—really more of a porcine puppet man—wears the World War I uniform of a Prussian soldier, with a cap over his ears, and jackboots jutting out at odd angles. A sign dangling from his belly instructs the curious: “In order to understand this work of art completely, one should drill daily for twelve hours with a heavily packed knapsack in full marching order on the Tempelhof Field.” This is about as much instruction as viewers can expect from Berlin Metropolis: 1918 – 1933, where room after room of Weimar wonders quicken the pulse and excite the eye, but interpretation—whether critical, biographical, or historical—is kept to a minimum.
On ViewThe Neue Galerie
October 1, 2015 – January 4, 2016
Curator Olaf Peters has sorted the art into loose-fitting, rather wooly categories: “A New Utopia;” “The Crisis of Modernity;” “Into the Abyss.” Otherwise, he lets the works speak for themselves, and the exhibition’s first room stages a raucous debate. Unlike elsewhere in the sprawling show, this introduction to Weimar’s competing political and artistic factions reads clearly in the works chosen. Wall-to-wall drawings, prints, posters, and paintings vie for attention. George Grosz’s acidic cityscapes and jaded cartoons jostle with outmoded expressionist portraits, and collages torn from the headlines crackle and quip on current events. Further up, exclamatory Dada posters edge against the Galerie’s gilt moulding, shouting revolution in nonsense syllables. Presiding over it all is John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter’s pig soldier, parodying German military folly even as he anticipates a coming cult of violence. He’s one of several reconstructions originally exhibited at Berlin’s notorious First International Dada Fair, along with an assemblaged amputee mannequin and a pair of Hannah Höch’s grotesque handsewn dolls leering from their vitrine. As at the 1920 Fair, the transgressive and sharply political art packing the walls is alive to the possibilities and risks of the new republic.
This visual clamor befits a gallery of works dealing with Weimar’s turbulent birth, and rival visions of the postwar metropolis come through with a minimum of curatorial exposition. Elsewhere, though, Peters loses track of that debate, flattening the contours of Weimar modernism into a streamlined spectacle. Styles and designs appear fully formed, as if in a vacuum: the “New Utopia” envisioned in a room full of Bauhaus architectural designs looks cool and sleek even today, but the buildings’ theory and history, their relation to earlier styles and to technical innovations, is
This is not to say that the show doesn’t entice. At the top of the stairs, starlet Brigitte Helm greets visitors as Metropolis temptress Maria, plastered across the entryway in an exotic headdress and rhinestone pasties. Beyond, the pulsing, seductive city awaits. Yet it becomes clear that Peters won’t deliver on his promise to debunk the Weimar mythos—to expose, as he puts it in the catalogue, “the sham vitality of the metropolis.” His 399-page text achieves this and more, but little of that research makes it onto the walls. The scarcity of labels makes visual learners of us all—a good thing in principle, but perilous here, where many images contribute to the very myth Peters aims to dispel.
Weimar Berlin was an unlikely metropolis—sprawling, war-wounded, and by many accounts, ugly. What we see, in unrealized architectural plans and radical designs for film and stage, is a city reconstructing itself in a cosmopolitan image. Berlin’s then mayor described playing catch-up with New York and Paris. But you wouldn’t know it from this show, where Weimar films, fashions, and periodicals advertise a jazzy decadence inaccessible to average Berliners. What is clear, from the photos of cinemas like Martin Punitzer’s Roxy-Palast of 1929, with its elegantly sloping interiors, is how the booming entertainment industry offered a portal from one Berlin to another. This gulf between real and imagined cities is everywhere in the exhibition. In films and photographs, kinetic camerawork activates the city’s staid boulevards. Peters writes that “only traveling rapidly [. . .] could produce the illusion of a world-class city,” and in the 1927 film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (projected on a gallery wall) director Walter Ruttmann takes us on a joyride, his camera trailing cable cars and careening down roller coaster tracks. Like so much of the work in this show, Ruttmann’s film is less a straightforward document than a myth in the making.
A large room devoted to Weimar’s Neue Frau (New Woman)—the only of Peters’s categories to name a concrete social phenomenon—is comprised almost entirely of this aspirational entertainment. László Moholy-Nagy’s 1931 cover design for lifestyle magazine Die Neue Linie (The New Line) is a case in point: a photo of a modern woman (chic bob, smart suitdress) is montaged into a Bauhaus living room, drawn in ink and gouache. The room’s low-slung coffee table, tubular steel chair, and plate-glass window are emblems of modern luxury. The woman leans against a sideboard, taking casual ownership of this fictive space. Inserting her photograph into a fantasy realm, Moholy-Nagy simulates the experience of many magazine readers, who, lacking the means for a similarly stylish room, could project themselves onto the printed page.
Elsewhere in the Neue Frau gallery, it’s harder to imagine this working-class woman consumer. Flappers and femmes fatales crowd the walls instead, leaving the casual viewer to conclude that the New Woman was just the sum of her accessories. Though the term often identified women of Berlin’s growing white-collar workforce, the only office girls in this exhibition appear across the hall, in a loosely organized photo gallery. Alternately, depicted as a secretary, a slut, a crossdresser, and a fashion plate, the New Woman was actually harder to pin down, representing different things to different segments of Weimar society. Only a group of masterful photomontages by Hannah Höch approximate this condition. By compiling images of women from popular periodicals, advertisements, and other print media, Höch captures the many irreconcilable expectations of New Womanhood. Her disproportionate, irregular female bodies swell and split at the seams, fracturing these expectations.
Photomontage recurs throughout the show, and rightly so: more than any other medium, the hybrid of photography, collage, and design best expresses Weimar’s mass cultural experiment. These syntheses of images, as frenetic as a Berlin street, are matched by the exhibition design. Walking through the rooms is like paging through a Weimar periodical, or Oskar Nerlinger’s photomontage flipbook (on view in the final gallery). Bringing together such deft, delicate, and rarely-seen works is the show’s greatest virtue. But the curator wants too badly to be a monteur himself. By snipping Weimar images out of context, Peters scrambles the era’s complexities and contradictions, constructing a thrilling but facile collage.