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The Mad Square

November 28, 2011

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Woman in a hat 1911, oil on canvas

The Mad Square – Modernity in German Art 1910-37

NGV International 25 November 2011- 4 March 2012

I have just reviewed the book When Money Dies: The Nightmare of the Weimar Hyperinflation by Adam Fergusson. It was salutary reading given the present European economic crisis and very pertinent to this provocative exhibition. This brilliant book, crammed with personal journals and diaries puts a written human face on the nightmare of the Weimar hyper inflation. This exhibition puts a visual face to this turbulent period of German history. In October 1923 it was noted by the British Embassy in Berlin that the number of marks to the pound equaled the number of yards to the sun. In the same year it cost the equivalent of 148,000,000 British pounds for a postage stamp. This book and exhibition is a morality tale with modern relevance for today.

Otto Dix - Dr Paul Ferdinand Schmidt 1921 oil on canvasAt this crazy time when Germany was reeling on its foundations economically and morally many parts of Germany particularly in Berlin and Dresden were teaming with amazing artists full of ideas and wonderful creative energy. So much we take for granted in the art world today originated in Germany at this time – Bauhaus, Dada, New Objectivity and Constructivism.

The latter exposed the worship of the machine and the tyranny of the machine. The Dada movement was founded in Zurich after WW1 and quickly spread to Germany. It exposed the mad insanity and moral corruption of the time. When life is so insecure economically values change dramatically and thus we saw the rise of Nazism.

Rudolf Schlichter - Tingel tangel 1919–20  -  WatercolourWith Nazism you had Wagnerian style gods depicted in their clever propaganda posters juxtaposed with “the scathingly honest human sized figures’ in modernist art. There is interesting film footage of Hitler opening the so called “Degenerate Art Exhibition” the Nazis depicting the modernist works as examples of moral decay that needed to be destroyed.

In this current NGV exhibition there are wonderful portraits by Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grotz and the Bauhaus protagonists Nagy and Wagenfield – who believed we should mix art with life. There is even some work by the Bauhaus graduate Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, who later became art master at Geelong Grammar.

The Exhibition draws its inspiration and name from Felix Nussbaum’s 1931 painting The Mad Square.

Top photograph by John Hoerner
Rudolf Schlichter © Rudolf Schlichter Estate, courtesy Galerie Alvensleben
Otto Dix © Otto Dix/VG Bild-Kunst. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney

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