There’s something lovely and magical about states of flux. Beauty can often be found amidst the chaos and uncertainty, creative expression often blossoms, and figures emerge, defined against the tumultuous fog, individual thinkers with the abilities to grasp and express society’s many conflicted emotions.
The period between the end of World War I and Hitler’s rise to power is one such time. Known as the Weimar Republic, the years between 1919 and 1933 were fraught with turmoil as Germany attempted to repay massive war debts on top of being hit with the Great Depression. As the crushed country nursed its wounds, artists wielded paintbrushes, charcoal, cameras, and even wood cutters to convey a variety of messages. Through the methods of rhythm, form, and repetition, the artists expressed strife, grief, frustration, anger, and even, sometimes, joy.
It is these artists that “Changing Visions,” the latest exhibit at the Davison Art Center, celebrates. Bringing together a collection of woodcuts, sketches, and photographs from the DAC’s permanent archive (as well as a few historical artifacts from the Olin Special Collections), “Changing Visions” draws from both the Weimar period and beyond, displaying splices of artistic life throughout German history.
To those unfamiliar with 20th-century art history, this period lands smack in the middle of the development of the European avant-garde. Horrified by the devastation caused by World War I (although the swing had begun even before then), many European artists turned their backs on the so-called “real world” and began to collapse notions of depth, layers, lines, defined figures, and other techniques that help artists mimic the exact appearance of the world in their works. The results of this departure vary greatly; while it started with the blurred wisps of Impressionism, the post-war implications range from Picasso’s chopped-up figures to Wassily Kandinsky’s rhythmic jumbles of shapes. Even Surrealism’s knack for depicting dreams and the unconscious indicates a rejection of subjects that come from what most would consider the “real world.”
Germany itself was a hotspot for many of these movements, most prominently Expressionism, the Blue Riders, and the Bauhaus school, all of which feature heavily in the DAC’s exhibit. It was also the hotspot for a totalitarian dictator’s rise to power, which ultimately led to most of these artists either fleeing or facing intense government scrutiny. However, while the overtones of “Changing Visions” (not to mention its uniting theme) are political, it’s more of a collection of biographies than a survey of large-scale movement. It situates each artist within an individual framework of a historical, political, and cultural arc.
These artists’ intersections with the Nazis ranged from Otto Dix’s initial membership in the Socialist party until he became estranged from (and eventually victimized by) the Nazis to Ilse Bing’s brief stint at an internment camp in Vichy France, which ended when her husband obtained visas and helped her escape. “Changing Visions” is just as much about artistic and political development as it is about personal change, and it tells the biographies of each of these artists with regard to how the growing Nazi party influenced their lives.
“My specialty is German 20th–century art,” explains DAC Curator Clare Rogan. “It just seemed time to do this, time to look at this period of great change, of great possibility, of really dynamic ways of looking at art, making art, and even teaching art. And then it all ends.”
The exhibit begins with the post-World War I restlessness that Hitler and his party tapped into during their rise to power. Toward the front, there are woodcuts and drawings mourning the losses of the Great War and criticizing the bourgeoisie. In one especially heart-wrenching woodcut by Käthe Kollwitz, a woman weeps, holding her hand to what is, upon closer examination, a pregnant stomach. The choice of woodcut in Kollwitz’s work, as well as that of German Expressionists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, ties them to a tradition of German art that can be traced back to Duhrer and the German Renaissance, which speaks to another common sentiment that ended up fueling the Nazi agenda: a desire to claim certain traits for one’s country, to define movements or ideas as inherently German.
This area of the gallery also illustrates a rising critique of wealthy capitalists and the bourgeoisie class, hinted at initially by a large collection of cartoons by George Grosz from 1922 that depicts workers as a downtrodden, oppressed class ruled over by greedy, piggish capitalists, often drinking or smoking cigars. Initially a member of the Communist Party, Grosz distanced himself from the movement after visiting Russia in 1924. He eventually came out openly against the Nazis, most often with satirical cartoons. After receiving vague warnings from the party, Grosz fled to New York just before Hitler was sworn in as chancellor.
Other artists took refuge closer to home. Photographer Werner Mantz, for example, who had a Jewish background, moved permanently to his second studio in the Netherlands after Kristallnacht. August Sander, whose work appears alongside Mantz’s, was less fortunate. He remained in Germany during the Nazi regime (a decision commonly referred to as “inner emigration”) and suffered severe restrictions on his work, not to mention the arrest of his son, who died in prison in 1944. Sander’s works in the DAC are taken primarily from his collection of portraits in a series called “People of the Twentieth Century,” which portrayed people from all walks of German life, from professional doctors and lawyers to gypsies, circus people, and the mentally and physically handicapped, an image that violently opposed the Nazis’ exclusive ideal of what the German population should be. In one photo, a bricklayer gazes into the camera. The worker bears the yoke of a mass of bricks on his shoulders.
Since “Changing Visions” examines art and biography in front of a historical backdrop, the exhibit also brings in artifacts from Olin’s collection to ground the illustrated works. In a display case lie images of the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin, a pre-stamped postcard from Hitler’s inaugural ceremony, and a pamphlet for the Degenerate Art exhibit held in 1937 to denigrate and publicly humiliate artists who weren’t depicting idealistic images of German life in mimetic strokes. Hanging their works haphazardly so they would appear unprofessional and scattered, Hitler declared these artists—many of whom appear in the DAC—mentally ill and un-German. The dictator stripped them of their studios, materials, and exhibition rights.
“There’s such an abrupt change in 1933 because the National Socialists really sought to control, and did manage to control, the production of art in a way nobody before or after has ever tried to do,” Rogan explains. “To an extent, that was completely unprecedented. National Socialist ideology was controlling all spheres of cultural life. It’s this period where there’s immense possibility and change and dynamism and then it stops abruptly. So it’s very dramatic.”
The rest of “Changing Visions” is an eclectic but ultimately coherent exploration into individual artists and their positions within the volatile framework of 20th-century Germany. There’s a stunning 12-piece series by Kandinsky that’s done in print lithography, woodcut, and drypoint; each piece is, as the series’ title indicates, a “little world” of constellating shapes and figures, some of which vaguely resemble concrete objects or familiar designs.
There’s also a series of drawings by Max Beckmann that explores images of strong women (albeit not too favorably) and heavily features himself and his wife. A print by Josef Albers titled “Tents” traveled with him from Germany to North Carolina in 1933, when he was hired to teach at the Black Mountain College, and features an inscription that dedicates the work to one of his students.
Finally, there’s a beautiful collection of photographs by Ilse Bing, who settled in Paris and worked as a photojournalist, often doing ad campaigns before her brief internment in Vichy France. Bing’s petite and efficient Leica camera captured images that, much like Kandisky’s, cut against the widespread despair of the era, featuring a hypnotizing grid of Pommery champagne bottles, or an industrial-looking pipe casting complex shadows on the wall behind it. Across from her work is an intriguing silver print attributed to Ernst Fuhrmann that sets a snail shell’s shape against a black background.
I don’t need to mention that we live in a world today where art is, yet again, on the line. Hitler’s legacy is anything but dead, and artistic expression is not immune to a certain orange-hued celebrity’s wrath. Rogan is correct: It is time to look back, and not only to appreciate the art and the artists and their lives. It’s time to look back, and to wonder how far we’ve really come.