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  • The full avant-garde: The November Group exhibition


The full avant-garde: The November Group exhibition

Curator Janina Nentwig on showcasing the fearlessly radical art of the November Group 100 years down the road.

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Hannah Höch, “Der Zaun” 1928
Curator Janina Nentwig on showcasing the fearlessly radical art of the November Group 100 years down the road. Launched in November 1918 during the revolution in Berlin, the association of artists known as the Novembergruppe quickly became an influential and innovative player in the art world and public arena of the Weimar Republic. From 1919 until 1932 they organised some 40 exhibitions, published books, launched parties and organised fancy dress balls. A century later, Berlinische Galerie is paying them tribute with a first comprehensive retrospective. Yours is the first-ever all-round retrospective of the artist collective Novembergruppe, what can we see in the show? Our exhibition follows the history of the group which was founded by expressionist Max Pechstein and other artists. We display the works they showed, and the new art forms they championed at the time. It was them, for example, who introduced Abstraction and Surrealism to a broader audience fostering a new art market beyond exclusive galleries. The association was a melting-pot of disciplines: there were painters, sculptors, architects, but also writers like Bertolt Brecht, filmmakers like Walter Ruttmann or René Clair and the musicians Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler. We’re integrating all of these genres through film screenings, concerts and readings. The artistic spectrum ranges from the Cubism of Paul Klee to Piet Mondrian’s Geometric Abstraction, Hannah Höch (photo), Kurt Schwitters and other Dadaists all the way to New Objectivity and the modern architects like Hans Poelzig and Walter Gropius! In a way the exhibition spans the full avant-garde of the 1920s. The group had quite disparate output. How did you go about finding and selecting the works you are showcasing? The archives of the Novembergruppe were lost and partly destroyed, so our exhibition is the result of thorough research. The group put on about 40 exhibitions with 480 participating artists and at least 3000 works – of which I could identify 600. We were able to locate 400 of them, mostly from artists’ estates, many of whom already belonged to the BG. For example we own the estate of Hannah Höch, so we know exactly what she did and when. I believe we managed to put together a good selection of big names like Otto Dix or Mies van der Rohe, but also lesser known artists, many rediscovered after the Second World War, like the sculptress Emy Roeder [the first female sculpture graduate at the Berlin Academy]. or the expressionist painter Cesar Klein who was one of the founders of the November Group. Other examples are abstract painter Otto Freundlich and Berlin artist Paul Goesch (both murdered by the Nazis) but also international artists like the Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky. Could you talk a bit about their cultural and political influence? They were political, but not in the sense that we might expect or understand today. They believed that with their art, they could change people to help build a better, more humanistic society. Art was their means to positively change people. In the troubled months of the November Revolution they composed several manifestos influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution (one of their mottoes was “Freedom, Equality, Fraternity”) and supported a bold vision of democracy, while fighting reactionary criticism, conservative aesthetics and censorship. They ultimately contributed to the acceptance of modernity and, despite internal feuds, stuck to their credo “freedom of art means freedom for all” with impressive perseverance and idealism, until ultimately defeated by the Nazis… How would you describe their art’s political relevance back then and today? Back then, Germany and Berlin especially was still in the hands of a Kaiser with very conservative aesthetics. Whereas in Paris modernism was blooming, and open for aesthetic experiments, Berlin was still slightly lagging behind. So the radical visual innovations of the November Group were quite upsetting to a majority of citizens and because they were so well-organised, these artists had high visibility and impact in the art world. What I personally find incredibly fascinating, is the sheer pluralism of the movement. This absolute tolerance and openness to everything new. With rising populism and curtailing of civil rights, this seems to remain a relevant message for our times. Freedom. The art of the Novembergruppe 1918–1935 Nov 9-Mar 11 Berlinische Galerie, Kreuzberg