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The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910–1937, edited by Jacqueline Strecker. Sydney: Art Gallery NSW, 2011. 320 pp + more than 200 color and black and white illustrations. £30.00.
This exhibition catalogue moves in a quasi-chronological fashion from the beginnings in German Expressionism through the First World War as a shock and a vast disillusionment on through the ambiguous and febrile days of the Weimar Republic and then up through the beginnings of the National Socialist revolution and concludes with the Nazi-sponsored exhibitions on Degenerate Art. With very few exceptions, the editor and authors of the various sections of this collection of essays and reproductions of painting, photographs and other illustrations make virtually no mention of the Jewish Question. In fact, the closer the various essayist come to articulating this central problem of the looming Holocaust, the more turgid and confused their argument. Therefore, two important contextual works need to come into play to judge the exhibit and the catalogue: one is Thomas Mann’s Diaries from 1918 to 1938, as they record his personal experiences during this same crucial period in German history; the other is Peter Cohen’s documentary DVD The Architecture of Doom, as it is the most powerful of discussions of “the Nazi philosophy of beauty through violence.”
The catalogue is divided into seven main sections plus an introduction. The sections, divided by heavy black glossy paper, are Expressionism by Jill Lloyd, Dada by Brigid Doherty, Bauhaus by Karen Koehler, Constructivism by Petra Keyser, Metropolis by Maggie Finch, New Objectivity by Matthias Eberle, and Power, itself divided into two subsections—“In the Twilight of Power: the Contradictions of Art Politics in National Socialist Germany” by Uwe Flecker and “‘Degenerate’ Art” by Jaqueline Strecker, who is the over-all editor and author of many short commentaries on particular works of art or schools of thought. In addition to the many finely reproduced paintings, posters and photographs, the catalogue also contains useful biographical and bibliographical data on the artists and their various movements.
The reason why contextualizing books and DVDs like these is important is because the editor and writers in this volume tend to be extremely coy about the question of whether or not an artist was Jewish and about the role of art under National Socialist domination. From time to time, it is mentioned that politics or an artist’s “Jewish heritage” occasioned his or her decision to leave Germany for Prague, Paris, or America: not that it was unsafe to walk down the streets if you were a Jew, or that you would lose your job if you tried to stay on, or that you found the whole Nazi phenomenon utterly repugnant. Until the last two chapters, the words Nazi and Jew are mostly avoided, and the ugliness and grotesqueness of the government by racist thugs is downplayed. The deeper philosophical and moral questions barely make it to the surface. For instance, in the discussion of Wilhelm Wagenfeld, a designer of lamps at the Bauhaus, Jacqueline Strecker remarks, first, that his “popularity allowed him to continue working throughout the years under the Nazi regime,” leaving in abeyance the problematic nature of popularity under a racist government and what was or was not allowed at that time. More troublesome a few sentences later is her somewhat unclear statement: “Yet some aspects of his work in the 1930s have been controversially associated with forms of art promoted by the Nazis, thus illustrating the dilemma faced by modernist artists who continued to work in Germany during the Third Reich” (p. 153). So many questions sputter forth at this disingenuous and glib glossing over of Nazi policy that one can only turn to the two other sources mentioned above. Uwe Flecker’s essay on “Power” comes fairly close to grasping the nature of the confusions, illogicalities, and contradictions in the attacks against modernism and degeneracy, yet it still glosses over the very features that are the heart of Peter Cohen’s The Architecture of Doom: the Nazi obsession with cleanliness, health, and racial purity, and the hysteria psychohistorians like Lloyd de Mause trace back to childrearing abuses in German-speaking lands in the late nineteenth century—early toilet training, anti-masturbation controls, and domestic violence and similar attempts by the rural petit-bourgeoisie and urban middle classes to compensate for the loss of traditional family values. Theories of degeneracy, of course, had been popular in the last decades of the nineteenth century (e.g., Max Nordau, Emile Zola), but they had not usually been taken as requiring eugenic measures; instead, it was the fear of in-breeding and mono-culturalism that had to be corrected by the infusion of new, diverse blood and ideas.
University of Waikato
Hamilton, New Zealand