The exhibition was organized in collaboration with the
Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The exhibition was organized in collaboration with the Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Curator for the Israel Museum: Adina Kamien-Kazhdan
Curator for the Nationalgalerie: Dieter Scholz
Exhibition design: Rivka Myers
Associate curator: Noga Eliash-Zalmanovich
Assistant curator: Giovanna Fazzuoli
Website Design and Development: The New Media Department, The Israel Museum; Web design: Haya Sheffer; Development: Avi Rosenberg; Head of the Department: Susan Hazan Photography: Elie Posner
* The words of Stephanie Barron, who curated the landmark exhibition "Degenerate Art":
The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in
1991; her catalogue essay provided the basis for this text.
Expressionist artists strove to overcome the rigid traditions of statesponsored art academies, as well as the Impressionists' naturalistic rendering of transient phenomena, in order to convey pure internal expression through color and form. This new style, which flourished in Germany and Austria between 1905 and 1920, was characterized by simplified or distorted forms, sharp color contrasts, and rapid brushstrokes.
German society during the reign of Wilhelm II (1888–1918) was perceived by many as authoritarian and ossified, and freedomloving intellectuals, artists in particular, hoped to see it radically transformed. Several groups of German artists organized exhibitions of avant-garde art to break away from the established academies. Die Brücke (The Bridge) was a group of Expressionist artists founded in Dresden in 1905. Its name – derived from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's pronouncement that "What is great about man is that he is a bridge and not a goal" – indicated the artists' faith in a better future to which their work would act as a bridge. Influenced by late medieval German and Primitive art, the Brücke painters created unrefined figure compositions, often nudes in open air. Unspoiled landscape provided the foundation and setting for a new art intended to comprise "immediate and pristine" forms of expression. In the group's early years, the yearning for the "primitive" was equated with flight from the city and from society, as well as a rejection of bourgeois norms and Wilhelmine morality.
After 1910 the Brücke artists moved from Dresden to Berlin and began to depict the hectic life of the modern metropolis. As they achieved national recognition, their individual styles emerged more clearly, threatening the group's identity. They dissolved by mutual agreement in 1913.
The democratic Weimar Republic, established after World War I and the German Revolution of 1918–19 to replace the Wilhelmine Empire, was marked by strong contrasts. Although daily life continued to be deeply affected by the consequences of war and political and economic instability, people enjoyed newfound freedoms, and the period was characterized by extraordinary cultural and creative activity.
The fifteen-year history of the Republic can be divided into three parts: the first phase of political instability from 1918 to 1923, facing Germany's defeat in the War and the unfavorable conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles; a second phase of relative stability lasting until 1929, often referred to as "The Golden Twenties"; and the dark crisis beginning with the economic collapse of '29 and leading to the rise of the Nazi regime.
Against Expressionism's emotionalism and promises of a better future, the younger artistic generation offered close observations that emphasized the ugly and grotesque as an intentional affront to comfortable bourgeois society. This distanced, cooler representational style, known as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity or New Sobriety), spread through various centers in the Weimar Republic. Cynical, often caricature-like depictions of injured war veterans, unemployed workers, and war profiteers portrayed an irreparably scarred society. Building on the satirical approach of Dada, many of the New Objectivity artists attacked those in power and denounced the devastating effects of World War I. Others favored the artistic "return to order" that arose throughout Europe. Inspired by nineteenth-century art and Italian Metaphysical painting, these artists were called "Idyllic" or "Magic Realists" in allusion to their meticulous technique and Arcadian, often dreamlike subject matter.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, in the wake of Cubism, new artistic movements employed basic forms and elements to create a new visual language. Probably the most influential of these – across space and over time – was the German Bauhaus school.
The Bauhaus was founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919 to forge links between art and industry. This renowned art school played a key role in breaking down the hierarchy dividing "fine" from "applied" arts, strengthening the connection between design concept and industrial production. The Bauhaus curriculum started with a preliminary study of materials, color theory, and formal relationships. After this six-month course, students could enter different workshops, including metalworking, cabinetmaking, weaving, pottery, typography, and wall painting.
As early as 1925, the predominantly right-wing atmosphere in the town of Weimar resulted in the school's relocation to Dessau, where Gropius designed a new building for it and brought together a remarkable assembly of teachers. But his insistence on a political (left-wing) dimension to the school's agenda eventually became problematic, and he left Dessau in 1928. Hannes Meyer, the successor he appointed as director, continued the focus on designing prototypes for serial mass production and functionalist architecture. As Weimar political tensions grew increasingly threatening, the mayor of Dessau fired Meyer for allegedly harboring a Communist student organization within the school. In 1930, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe became the new director. Stressing the importance of architecture and banning all political activity, Mies hoped to make the school a less easy target for right-wing opponents. However, after the Nazi party gained strength in Dessau, the Bauhaus moved to Berlin in 1932, only to be closed for good by its own leadership in 1933, under pressure from the Nazi-led government.
During the years preceding World War II and during the war, many key Bauhaus figures left Germany, creating a world diaspora of avant-garde creativity that fueled international modernist culture in many disciplines. In the mid-1930s, some twenty-five Bauhaus graduates and former students immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine. Here, they developed a modernist style that was foundational to the State of Israel in its formative years. Major contributions were made in the realm of photography, graphic design, fine art, and particularly in the modernist architecture of Tel Aviv and designs for kibbutz structures. The Israel Museum's International-style buildings reflect this same artistic heritage, realizing key ideas and ideals of European modernism.
As World War I came to an end, the Kaiser abdicated and revolution in Germany seemed within reach. Although the left-wing uprisings of 1918–19 were defeated by armed forces acting in consonance with the Social Democratic Party that took the reins of government, the volatile political situation inspired many artists with confidence that society would soon be truly emancipated. Their works of this period are filled with emotional intensity and political fervor.
The stylistic range of politically engaged art in the Weimar Republic remained broad, embracing groups or individuals with different backgrounds and styles. The radical left-wing November Group, named for the month in which the German Revolution began, formed in Berlin in December 1918. Its aim was to promote national renewal through art by creating a dialogue between artists and the masses. The November Group included a variety of artistic languages, from Cubism and Expressionism to abstraction and social realism.
Many avant-garde artists remained committed to socialism in the turbulent later years of the Weimar Republic, and works of the 1930s reflect the era's politically charged climate and aggressive energy. The Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists, whose members belonged to the German Communist Party, preferred proletarian realism to aesthetic formalism. Deploring the plight of the poor and the effects of unemployment, many artworks were infused with deep social awareness. Some remained indebted to Expressionism, using color, gesture, and texture to convey the precariousness of human existence.
Still processing the lingering trauma of their military or civilian experiences of World War I, in the 1930s and during World War II numerous artists lost teaching positions, were conscripted into military service, or went into exile. With admirable inner strength, they continued to fight to achieve valid artistic forms; exposing the face of trauma, they waged a "War against War."