Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany aka sex, death and decadence

British writer, Christopher Isherwood wrote The Berlin Stories, set in 1930s Berlin detailing the lives of a disparate group of people all connected by the seedy boarding house in which they reside. Later, the book was adapted into a play, a stage musical and is most famously known as the film version, Cabaret.

The book introduced us to characters who would not be amiss in this free exhibition at Tate Modern. So wilkommen, bienvenue , welcome to the tawdry, yet fascinating world of art of the Weimar Republic.

For the artists of Germany, the end of the war and the rebuilding of a defeated nation brought with it hardship and suffering that had been inconceivable ten years earlier. This turmoil was reflected in the art being produced by those who had been in the centre of the maelstrom.

The term ‘Magic Realism’, although now more linked to literature, was coined by Franz Roh, artist and critic, who used it to, “describe a shift from the anxious and emotional art of the expressionist era, towards the cold veracity and unsettling imagery of this inter-war period.” What came in between was art that reflected the hedonistic, liberal society that was forming as a backlash to the austerity of post-war Germany.

Artists like Otto Dix, had served in the army, and witnessed the horror of trench warfare. These experiences fed into their art and the results can be seen in this collection.


Self-Portrait with Model in the Studio by George Grosz (1930-37).© Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J. 2018

The lascivious look on Grosz’s face as his model rearrange her hair, tells you everything you need to know about this work. Grosz is always interesting to see, as his satirical wit along with a sharp sense of what was going wrong in the Weimar Republic gives us an image of the time.

Lili, Queen of the Air, by Otto Dix. The 1922 sketch is part of the artist’s Circus portfolio. Photograph: © The Estate of Otto Dix 2018

International Riding Act (1922), Otto Dix. © Estate of Otto Dix 2018

Otto Dix is well represented here and, laid out in a case, you can see his series of lithographs on the theme of the circus, but as always with Dix, his biting observations bring a dark element to his scenes.

The Beggar of Prachatice by Conrad Felixmüller (1924). The George Economou Collection

The aftermath of the war saw the plight of the wounded and damaged as neglected citizens. This work by Conrad Felixmüller shows one of the war wounded reduced to begging; his contorted body bring replicated in the undulating cobbled street. The woman walks hurriedly by, glancing over, but not breaking her stride. This, despite the garish colour scheme, is a melancholy depiction of suffering , and a painting you find hard to move on from.

Jeanne Mammen, Zimmer Frei, 1930, Tate

In a quote by Jeanne Mammen, a painter and illustrator, you can understand the core of the three works towards the end of the exhibition: “a pair of eyes, walking through the world unseen, only to be able to see others”.

The women in Mammen’s work are strong, sensual women who are not afraid to stare you in the eye as they go about their business. You get a strong sense that they are not victims, but are in control of their life, making their own choices.

An earlier retrospective in Berlin gives an insight into the world she chronicled so eloquently:

George Grosz, Suicide, 1916, Tate

Otto Dix, Lust Murder, 1922, The George Economou Collectio

Dix’s obsession with Lust Murder (he painted and sketched several versions) and Grosz’s Suicide, both link directly society’s fascination with sex and death. The 1928 silent film, Pandora’s Box, directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and starring Louise Brooks, tells the story of Lulu, whose bohemian lifestyle, sexual freedom and lack of morals leads her, from a life of splendour at the hands of all she seduces, downwards into the hands of Jack the Ripper, whose face she smiles into not realising what fate had in store for her.

These two, however, were not the most shocking painting in the exhibition. That honour goes to Rudolf Schlicter and his Artist with Two Women Hanged.

Rudolf Schlicter, Artist with Two Women Hanged, 1924, The George Economou Collection

The caption card advises that there is little context to this painting. With high unemployment, lack of welfare and escalating inflation, the suicide rate was increasing and it is not surprising that this became a subject for art.

For a free exhibition, there is a lot here to explore. The artists represented here show a society that was a direct response to the political landscape of its time, and it is apt to end with a quote from Berlin Stories:

I am a camera with its shutter open

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2 thoughts on “Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany aka sex, death and decadence

  1. Mr Norris Changes Trains & Goodbye to Berlin, The Berlin Stories, were published in 1935 and 1939 respectively, not 1945.


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