Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919 – 1933
TATE MODERN | JULY 30, 2018 – JULY, 14 2019
Commemorating the centenary of the armistice of the First World War, the Tate Modern presents Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919 – 1933. Comprised substantially of loans from The George Economou Collection, the show attempts to revive the overlooked artistic term Magic Realism, while also exploring the changing fortunes of the short-lived Weimar Republic. Framing the exhibition in a linear manner, we are taken through post-war turmoil and economic crisis, the relative stability and liberalism of the "Golden Twenties," succeeded by the National Socialist Party's rise to power in 1933. It is a rich period, full of disruption and change, but a broad approach to the material results in Magic Realism's often muted representation.
Trying to elucidate the term's art world origins while also charting the Weimar Republic's fourteen years of existence, results in focus being pulled from the titular movement. Coined by Franz Roh in 1925, Magic Realism embodied the rejection of expressionism in favor of "a new style that is thoroughly of this world that celebrates the mundane." While sharing Realism's everyday subject matter, its methods evoked something extra-ordinary without representing it; suggesting hidden mysteries that "threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenuous things." This heightening of reality accounts for the often palpable sense of the uncanny in works like Albert Birkle's The Acrobat Schulz V (1921) wherein the performer's appearance is distorted, or in the undulating cobblestone streets of Conrad Felixmüller's The Beggar of Prachatice (1924).
The appelation Magic Realism feels somewhat arbitrary here, given the show includes examples from Expressionism, Symbolism, Caricature, Satire, and New Objectivity. The latter in particular threatens to muddy a strict definition of the movement. Taking its designation from Gustav Hartlaub's Neue Sachlichkeit exhibition in Mannheim—presented the same year Roh's essay Magic Realism: Post-Expressionism was published—the two can be difficult to distinguish, sharing a rejection of Expressionism and the embrace of a "New Realism." Their subtly different approaches however could see them as existing on different parts of a Post-Expressionist spectrum: the satirical savagery of George Grosz's Suicide (1916) at one end, and Richard Müller's In The Studio (1926)—a subtly surreal comment on modernity—at the other.
The inclusion of New Objectivity artists like Grosz, Otto Dix, and Rudolf Schlichter—especially their more confrontational works—act as a preface for Europe's "Return to Order" and its artistic conservatism after the war. They symbolize the psychic disruption and the break in gender roles that followed in the wake of the war's unimaginable violence. Their visceral meditations set up an expectation of potent social critique whose energy is lost in the exhibition's central room: filled with mostly fantastically inflected portraiture, mundane still-lifes, and cityscapes. By comparison with the New Objectivist's these pieces feel largely flat and affectless.
It seems that even the curators had qualms about the inclusion of certain New Objectivity works, attempting to subdue their impact. Two of the most contentious—Rudolf Schlichter's The Artist with Two Hanged Women (1924) and Otto Dix's Lustmord (1922)— come with the warning that "this room contains some works viewers may find upsetting." They are easily unnoticed opposite two large portraits that dominate the eye instead. The Gardener (1920) by Harry Heinrich Deierling is a tranquil image luminescent with deep blues and oranges, while adjacent The Poet Däubler (1917) by Heinrich Maria Davringhausen depicts a giant fluorescent figure dominating a cosmic landscape. Though sadly overlooked on my visit, turn around and Dix and Schlichter's lurid watercolors should provide a striking contrast: conveying horror, powerlessness, and an unsettling attitude toward shifting gender dynamics. Lustmord presents the dead body of a woman in the gutter as a beastly-looking man with lolling tongue leers at her in jaunty suit and bowler hat, while in The Artist with Two Hanged Women a colorless figure looks up helplessly at two women hanging by their necks from the ceiling. These troubling visions illustrate not only a keen awareness of the body's fleshy frailty but bitterness about women's emancipatory gains. As well as greater employment opportunities for women after the war, they finally gained political visibility when they achieved the right to vote in 1918.
War's impact on the male psyche is charted alongside the changing face of femininity; increasingly depicted as strong, independent, and sexually bold. Given, however, that the majority of these paintings are by men, women are often represented as victims, harlots, or otherwise exotic objects. Only Jeanne Mammen, one of three female artists included here out of thirty-four, depicts the mundane reality of female experience in Weimar Germany. A necessary corrective to her male colleagues' sensationalism, Boring Dolls (1929) shows two women smoking unaffectedly, taking a break perhaps from performing for men, while in Brüderstrasse (Free Room) (1930), a group of prostitutes look out assertively at the viewer with unrepentant expressions, at ease within the drab urban scene.
While these are pleasing discoveries, they don't evidence the surreal stamp of Magic Realism. They are grittily real and empathetic—closer to New Objectivity—and thus one of many examples whereby the exhibition struggles to stay within its own parameters. Lea Grundig's Into the Abyss (1943) takes us beyond the Weimar period to evoke the horrors of the Holocaust, while a room entitled "The Circus" also includes Grosz's graphic social critique and nostalgic equine imagery, with Marc Chagall's The Green Donkey (1911) an expressionistically informed piece in a post-expressionist exhibition.
Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919 – 1933 is an interesting but ultimately muddled show whose discursive scope sows obscurity. The exhibit attempts too much: confusingly segueing pre-war Germany with the Weimar Period and the consequences of Nazism, as well as conflating movements such as New Objectivity with Magic Realism. With greater restraint, we might have perceived Magic Realist works as "enigmas of quietude in the midst of general becoming," as Franz Roh did. Instead, the movement's relevance is lost in a fog of historical events and artistic styles.
Daniel Pateman is a freelance writer based in the UK with an MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture.