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“Berlin Metropolis”

  • Art
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Germany’s Weimar era has become synonymous with a certain kind of doomed glamour, an embodiment, almost, of the cliché, “Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse,” writ on a national scale. Born of the country’s defeat during World War I, the Weimar Republic was an all-too-brief experiment with democracy eventually done in by the political and economic chaos that created it. The Weimar years were characterized by a wholesale embrace of avant-garde aesthetics, especially in the Republic’s capital and cultural heart, Berlin. That milieu is brought back to life in this compact survey of paintings, drawings, prints, photos, posters and film snippets by a panoply of historical greats: George Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Hannah Höch and Fritz Lang, among many others. Stuffed into an overflowing installation spread across six smallish rooms, “Berlin Metropolis” is as dizzying as the zeitgeist it recalls.

By 1920, Berlin had grown into the second-largest city in the world, home to Albert Einstein, UFA studios (responsible for such cinematic masterpieces as Lang’s Metropolis) and Bertolt Brecht. The place, however, was also overrun with dispossessed veterans, brawling gangs of radical agitators on both the left and right and prostitutes.

This tumultuous landscape was a natural habitat for the anarchistic mischief of Dada, which began in Zurich before migrating to Berlin as the initial embodiment of Weimar Art.

Neue Galerie New York, the show’s only venue, begins the proceedings by evoking the emergence of Berlin Dada with a floor-to-ceiling display, dominated by a 2004 reconstruction of a pig-masked mannequin dressed as a German officer hanging overhead. Titled Prussian Archangel, this collaborative outrage between John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter served as the centerpiece for Berlin’s “First International Dada Fair” in 1920, one of Modernism’s seminal events. Just as in-your-face is Grosz’s Pandemonium from 1914, a spidery ink-on-paper depiction of Berlin descending into a melee of rape, murder and mayhem. Crazy-quilt collages by John Heartfield, Höch and Raoul Hausmann capture the centrifugal pull of the time. Elsewhere, the show delves into the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which married Precisionistic Realism with a jaded, world-weary outlook. Christian Schad’s haunting and sometimes unflinchingly erotic likenesses of women are exemplars of the style.

Not all of the show is downbeat. Parts of it cover women’s sexual freedom under Weimar, as well as the utopian architectural designs of Mies van der Rohe and Erich Mendelsohn. For some, at least, the future held possibilities. But ultimately, there’s no way to deny the future that followed, and indeed, much of Weimar Art is shadowed by a foreboding of the Republic’s ultimate end. Though Weimar survived an early stretch of hyperinflation to usher in a brief period of prosperity, the Great Depression sealed its fate. We all know the horror that followed.

Written by
Howard Halle


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