Art Review: Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-1933, Tate Modern ‘Fantastic and Revealing’

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At the end of the year, when we think back on our favourite art shows and we weigh up offerings from the Tate Modern, I’ve no doubt many will be talking about the blockbuster Picasso exhibition or seeing all of Modigliani’s nudes together. I wonder how many, if any, will be including this unassuming and unheralded free display of art from Weimar Germany.

It hasn’t been as promoted with as much fanfare as the big pay-to-view shows or grabbed as many headlines – perhaps the fact that it is free has somehow convinced audiences it is likely to be less worthy or less interesting. Well, if that’s the case then it is a great loss as Magic Realism is a fantastic and revealing collection of superb artworks that not only capture that famous atmosphere of ‘loose liberalism’ of the Weimar era, but also exposes some of its darker undercurrents including PTSD in war veterans, the backlash against emerging women’s rights, and the rise of fascism.

The term ‘magic realism’ probably needs some explaining first. It was a phrase coined by the German Art historian, Franz Roh, in the early 1920s to describe what many German artists were exploring at the time. What he was trying to convey was the extent to which many of them were shunning the idealistic representation of life that existed before the War, such as in the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, in favour of a more satirical realism that revealed inequalities and unhappiness, and how these clashed with the perceived sense of freedom and liberation in wider society.

A perfect example of this is George Grosz’s Suicide, 1916. The painting is, on the surface, a rich sea of decadent reds – the lush velvet furnishings of a cabaret club and the bohemian vision of a naked woman ooze excitement. But it’s the figure of a dead man lying across the centre of the scene that throws you – an observance of a national suicide as well as an individual tragedy.

Suicide is a recurrent theme in the paintings, as it was in the Weimar Republic where scars from the war and a disintegrating economy led many to desperate acts. Rudolf Schlichter’s watercolour, The Artist with Two Hanged Women, 1924, seems to initially go with this theme too, but there is something far darker going on here.

The women hanging inert are partially stripped and the artist has drawn himself into the scene – but alive. There are shadows of dark sexual fantasies at play here, and it is one of many works that depicts violence against women.

Those particular images are hard to spend too long in front of, as you can appreciate, but the backlash against the push for women’s rights is fascinating. I thought I know a lot about the politics of the time and era, but this was an interesting historical lesson for me.

An equally harrowing theme, but far more powerful, is that around Paragraph 218, the notorious part of the Weimar constitution that banned abortion. Franz Radziwill’s Conversation about a Paragraph, 1929, where an exhausted naked woman lies evidently traumatised and physically scarred from a backstreet termination. There is a clever use of colours here, subtle but clever. The background is in shadows and the foreground and the woman’s body is strongly lit. The lines on her chest and where her corset digs into her waist are obvious. This is a women’s body in sharp focus.

Some of these paintings have never been seen before in the UK and the breadth of their styles and themes is astonishing from lurid, acid-trip depictions of the Crucifixion (hello, Albert Birkle), to paintings of Amsterdam that are so clean and precise in their lines and solid colours I felt as if I were looking at a Charles Sheeler barn (that’ll be Carl Grossberg), on to my favourite painting in the show: a tender portrait of dancer Beatrice Mariagraete dressed as a harlequin, embracing an androgynous appearance.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that even though there is a lot of paintings of women in this show, there ain’t so many actually by women (an eternal lesson from art history there), But the curators have, admirably, made an effort to include some from female artists – and the spin these women bring to the table is terrific.

It’s a reclamation of identity, for sure, and a rejection of the victimised depiction that men often bring to the table. Jeanne Mammen’s watercolours, in particular, stood out for me. I loved At the Shooting Gallery, 1929, which has a woman getting her hands on a gun (the metaphor is not subtle!) and I wanted to take Bruderstrasse (Free Room), 1930, home with me. For her, Jeanne has the sex workers as women of means. They are fully fleshed out and real. What a relief it was, in the final room, to see the women of Weimar Germany from the female gaze.

I loved this show. And the fact that it’s free and open until the middle of 2019 gives me plenty of opportunity to visit again. Which I will do.

Tate Modern, London, to July 14, 2019
Admission free

Image Credits:
1 Albert Birkle (1900–1986) The Acrobat, Schulz V, 1921. Oil paint on canvas, 920 x 607 mm. The George Economou Collection © DACS, London 2018
2 George Grosz (1893–1959) Self-Portrait with Model in the Studio, 1930-1937. Watercolour on paper, 660 x 473 mm, Tate © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J. 2018.
3 Josef Eberz (1880–1942) Dancer (Beatrice Mariagraete), 1923. Oil paint on canvas, 1580 x 785 mm. The George Economou Collection.
4 Jeanne Mammen (1890-1976) Brüderstrasse (Free Room), 1930. Watercolour, ink and graphite on vellum, 475 x 345 mm. The George Economou Collection © DACS, 2018.

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