Sunday 25 September 2011

On The Mad Square @ AGNSW

I think it's fair to say that AGNSW's show of inter-war German art, 'The Mad Square' is not a bundle of laughs. Covering the period from 1910 to 1937 was never going to yield anything bucolic or uplifting but the sheer cumulative claustrophobic effect of jagged asymmetry and post-mortem colours is quite draining. When my other half and I left toward the exit she wondered aloud if we had time for another scene of rape and mutilation before we left. The truth of course is that we know only too well what happens when Germany steps out beyond that closing year of 1937. The work here is a pre-cursor to something clearly terrible. Early on in the show we see 'The Suicide' by George Grosz. In it sharply drawn dogs that seem to have been skinned roam the streets sniffing out life, a scarecrow of a man hangs from a lamppost while another, still holding a revolver, lies dead in the street a cloud that may be his soul departing as a jutting chinned, graze nippled prostitute looks out from an upper storey window. The dominant colour is red, the corpses skull face, the roads and pavements are a differing dark tone soy bloody scarlet. The effect is suffocating, violent, and it might sum up the feeling of the show as a whole.

The waft of Sigmund Freud reaches from Vienna to Berlin, faces morph, murderers and secrets are below or behind. There's something overindulgent here. The exaggerations and contortions, the splenetic angst all remind me of method acting. Much gets lost in the layering on of effects bodies are twisted AND discoloured AND the colours are vivid and queasy. A social, political and inner world is played out with the big capital letters of technique. In 'The Suicide' a symbolic world is played out in a blood red light. One is reminded of nothing so much as Heironymous Bosch, the sinister meeting the opaque. Sometimes the neurosis is disturbing and comical, 'The Sex Murderer' by Heinrich-Maria Davinghausen is a seedy Freudian replay of Henri Rousseau's dreamscapes. The naturalistic body of the would-be victim contrasts with the grotesque mask of a face and the cubist angularity of windows and the folds of a bed sheet make the peach soft flesh seem all the more vulnerable. What's striking about this and so many other of the works here is how intertwined social and sexual anxieties appear to be.

The printmaking in the show is often the most powerful work in any given room. The medium encourages a formal retrain and subsequently maximum affect is caused with minimum effects. The prints here , some of them now iconic images, mix a the stark objectivity of near reportage with a sharp and steely line. The prints here, street scenes, detailed examinations of obscenely disfigured war veterans, the living skulls in the trenches are at once cold and deeply touching. Otto Dix's 'Stormtroopers (Assault Under Gas)' benefits from the level of control that allows the bone white paper of the gas masks shine through and remind us of skulls, whilst the slightest scrape across the surface of the printing plate evokes the seep of gas. Economy of technique yields results as shocking as a Wilfred Owen poem.

It's hard to look at the prints on show and still subscribe to the decadence chic image of Weimar Germany. They represent a more complex picture, one of victims rather than ogres, of organised resistance rather than simple reflex disgust and of people attempting to be objective recorders. The print was the earliest form of mass media, the vehicle for propaganda and persuasion from the Reformation onward, and when it is used here it retains some of that didactic power. The woodcuts of Kåthe Kollwitz combine the simplicity of an icon or a holy medallion with the strong impression that a human hand was involved. The left wing printmakers are not the only artists with a manifesto here, and it's the absence of that visible human hand is what makes the Constructivist parts of the show so arid. Given the frailty of broken human bodies and human greed and hatred it's not a great surprise that there should be a response to the organic writing of expressionism that believed in the utopian power of geometry and machines. Of course that mechanical certainty gave a scientific gloss technocratic murder, but at the time any answer must have looked appealing.

It's difficult not to draw political conclusions in work like this. Between the apocalypse of the First World War and the Holocaust of the second Germany is torn by economic and cultural forces that seem to have an altogether destructive edge. What's interesting here is how the images of resistance, coming in this compass-less world from what we might traditionally think of as the Left, are anguished and violent in form and palette. Much of the work from the left demonstrates a revulsion at the squalor beneath the Weimar jollity, it's a healthy antidote to the romanticised view we have today of cabarets and bohemians in old Berlin but it's a cracked and smeared mirror. The right, or at least the anti-Bolsheviks, are no less dark but they demonstrate the rat cunning of focus in what and who they choose to vilify. Throughout one is left with a feeling of inevitability, that Germany were to descend into a genocidal spiral is no great surprise when so much of the work has such a palpable dehumanizing sense of self-loathing.

Max Beckmann's art seems to find a link between the psychic contortions and the political landscape. Full of uniforms and hierarchies, the vertical compositions are striking. Beckmann creates hermetically sealed worlds where the protagonists seem to obey their own perfectly logic and physics. The figures in their hard outlines seem to occupy real space as they jostle for position on the canvas. The clear stratification and the love of uniform hint point to a militaristic society where only the immediate game is important. Through the circus performers in 'The Trapeze' Beckmann captures a blank eyed madness, the acquiescence and conformity that can doom a society. The figures, in complex twisting motion reflect some of that freikorperkultur that Nazi artists like Leni Reifenstahl would celebrate, but the pale skin and the sickly green of the leotards suggest something rotten beneath the flexing musculature. Beckmann's solid figures capture the power of will but also the precariousness of living in an arbitrary dictatorship, that mix of allure and anxiety is perhaps the most nuanced psychological portrait in the show.

John Heartfield's work looks like what can happen when nihilistic DaDa grows up. Here the appropriated imagery cut into photomontage has a purpose, the cheap newspaper images cheapen their nazi subject, Heartfield finds a way to demystify the Nazis by refusing to memorialise them with something more artful. What Heartfield did brilliantly was to allow leave his images cool and objective, thus in 'Adolf The Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk' he adopts the clinical mode of the X-Ray, in juxtaposition to the overheated rhetoric and twisted face of Hitler. The critique is scalpel sharp and makes both his contemporary avant-gardistes and modern satirists look like indulgent dilettantes by comparison. I find Heartfield's work the most hopeful here, and I don't usually look tab history through a Panglossian lens, as it has a precise and brilliantly sharp response to evil. By comparison so much of the earlier work in the show feels like a pre-conscious reflex, an unformed and garish loathing.

I would be lying if I said I liked much of the work in 'The Mad Square'. All of this jarring, often repulsive, imagery makes for a curious experience. Through any regular lens much of the work is ugly and alienating, the paint often seems to crawl and slither with revulsion. However it is undeniably interesting historically (the AGNSW has specialised in 'interesting' in recent years with many shows feeling like extended lectures) and many of the impulses of DaDa and expressionism are at the heart of the established notion of the institutionalised avant-garde today. It feels like the gallery has missed a trick though, the hang is based around art school movements so we shift through Expressionism and DaDa and Constructivism and the Bauhaus. As a result the work looks highly formal in a way that a more thematic or a chronological organisation might have avoided. I'm not sure what lessons you draw from art like this and whether they seem flippant in the light of genocide, however I can't help but think that when societies are so able to imagine themselves and others as monsters or machines the imperative we have to treat one another as human beings is easier to forget.


  1. Thank you John for this piece, you've described the show well and highlighted important aspects. It was a difficult show to 'like' though the work was certainly thought-provoking.

  2. I recently saw the show in Melbourne and thought it was 'interesting' and gave valuable insights into how people were responding to the contemporary zeitgeist. However, I couldn't buy the catalogue because I couldn't imagine sitting down over a cuppa to revisit those graphic images!