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Between the storms

Three Berlin exhibitions chronicle the peril and prosperity that befell the city during the interwar era.

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George Grosz Schönheit, Dich Will Ich Preisen

Three Berlin exhibitions chronicle the peril and prosperity that befell the city during the interwar era.

After World War I, the Weimar Republic publicly advocated cultural liberalism in Germany, but by 1933 artists and movements such as abstract expressionism were denounced by the ruling Nazi regime. Berlin’s interwar period, 1918-1938, was at once a cosmopolitan, creative melee of artistic freedom and a time of censorship and repression: abject poverty for some and glamorous excess for others. This month, three exhibitions approach the city’s artistic output over these 20 short years from very different angles.

The Bröhan Museum’s ground floor is filled with Art Deco and Art Nouveau room sets, upstairs, however, is the exhibition Berlin Realismus. Spanning from 1890 to the 1930s, it contains paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, collages and films all on the theme of social critique. Staying true to the Realist ideals, the works depict people of all classes and address the hardships brought about by the Industrial Revolution: from Käthe Kollwitz’s tragic 1922 Hunger poster of a barechested woman in rags, hands clasped to her upturned face with mouth open in anguish at the skeletal and lifeless child in her lap (see more of her work at the Käthe Kollwitz Museum), to Bruno Voigt’s Arbeitsbeginn, 1932, depicting the backs of hunched men as they defeatedly trudge into a factory, and Bruno Bötger’s six pen drawings of an industrial dispute turned bloody street battle in Schöneberg’s Rote Insel district in 1924. Representing the excess and debauchery of the period are George Grosz’s disapproving Map “Ecco Homo” series from 1916-22. In stylised caricature, well-dressed gentlemen and prostitutes gamble, fornicate and preen in front of crowded dressing tables.

Drawn from the Berlinische Gallerie’s permanent collection is the exhibition Art in Berlin 1880-1980, including over one hundred works from the interwar period. Illustrating the cosmopolitan nature of the city’s artistic community at that time are mid-1920s works such as Hungarian constructivist Lajos Ebneth’s paintings and Russian avant-gardist El Lissitzky’s prints and Proun Room installation. The exhibition also highlights women artists of the period, delving deep into the stories of the likes of German Dadaist Hannah Höch, whose 1932 Bauhaus exhibition was cancelled and who was denounced as a “cultural Bolshevist” in Wolfgang Wilrich’s infamous 1937 Purging the Temple of Art. German Jewish artist Anne Ratkowski, a founding member of the New Naturalists group, was banished from public art activities in 1933.

At HKW is Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Present, c.1930, an exhibition of works by avant-garde artists in Berlin, Paris and Prague at the time. The title is inspired by a phrase used by German Jewish art critic Carl Einstein (1885-1940), who wrote about and exhibited many of the artists included, such as Jean (Hans) Arp. The curators assure me that Einstein was merely their “trans-historical interlocutor” and the exhibition reaches beyond his immediate circle with the inclusion of artists such as British surrealist Catherine Yarrow. Einstein wrote extensively on a harking back to human pre-history, an artistic response to the ideological instability, technological and scientific advances and fundamentally changing structure of societies at the time – a phenomenon comprehensively charted by more than 800 books, pamphlets, magazines, paintings, drawings, sculptures and films in the exhibition.

Berlin Realismus Through June 11 Bröhan Museum, Charlottenberg | Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Present, c.1930 Through July 9 Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Tiergarten | Art in Berlin 1880-1980 Ongoing Berlinische Gallerie, Kreuzberg | Käthe Kollwitz Museum Daily 11-6 Prenzlauer Berg