Raw, abrasive and politically rebellious – Berlin art during the “Kaiserzeit” (the Wilhelminian era) was explosive. The artists of the Berlin Secession around 1900 were the first to thoroughly explore social issues. Kaiser Wilhelm II referred to their art as “gutter art”. They laid the foundations for a tradition of socially critical realism that was typical of the Berlin art scene and which saw its systematic and logical continuation in the art of the Weimar Republic.
This exhibition which covers the period between the 1890s and the 1930s gives a comprehensive overview with more than 120 works – ranging from oil paintings, drawings, prints and posters to photography and film.
The critical examination of social injustices in Germany runs like a common thread through the Berlin art scene. Independent of the various different styles in modernism, the themes of war, revolution, criticism of capitalism, social injustice and prostitution are explored again and again.
Painting and graphic art
The precarious living and working conditions of the working class in an increasingly industrialised society are at the centre of the works of Heinrich Zille, Käthe Kollwitz and Hans Baluschek. They illustrate a working-class environment characterised by poverty, starvation and social deprivation in the outwardly glamourous Wilhelminian era.
The First World War marked a drastic caesura. This cataclysmic disaster of the early 20th century confronted young painters and graphic artists such as Willy Jaeckel, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz with an existential situation that found its expression in their works of art. The artists of this ‘second generation’ of Berlin Realists – including Otto Nagel, Conrad Felixmüller and Werner Scholz – did not just espouse the cause of the ‘man in the street’, but criticised the social conditions in the Weimar Republic with an increasingly political intention. Artists such as John Heartfield published poignant photo-montages and collages using text and picture materials in the new media, e.g. the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung as a comment on political developments.
Film and photography
This show also includes the presentation of photographic positions. Works by August Sander and Friedrich Seidenstücker as well as photographs by Ernst Thormann and others demonstrate how this new working-class photography managed to document the living conditions of the lower social strata from their own perspective.
Two major examples of proletarian film making are shown in the framework programme – “Mutter Krausen’s Fahrt ins Glück”, a highlight of Weimar cinema made towards the end of the silent movie era, for which Käthe Kollwitz created an unusually large-scale poster, and “Kuhle Wampe or: Wem gehört die Welt?”, a textbook example of agit-prop and a classic of modern film making.
An exhibition in conjunction with the Bröhan-Museum, Berlin