Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Germans Are Coming!

Hard on the heels of the Viennese exhibition, the NGV is about to give us another treat: an extensive collection of avant-garde art from Germany, spanning the first three decades of the 20th century. The exhibition is currently at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and will open here on 25th November.

Sparing no effort or expense, I selflessly travelled all the way to Sydney last weekend in order to go and preview the exhibition for our members. L.P. Hartley remarked that the past is a foreign country - they do things differently there. The same can be said of Sydney. For one thing, the taxi drivers are not afflicted wth B.O. and they know where they are going. I flagged down one of this fine body of men (and women, for all I know) outside my hotel, just like they do in the movies, and he took me straight to the Art Gallery with no prompting.

Felix Nussbaum's painting gave its name to the exhibition: "The Mad Square - Modernity in German Art 1910-37". These were tumultuous years, socially and politically. The eponymous "Mad Square" refers to Berlin's famous Pariser Platz, a place that embodies the crazy and fantastic zeitgeist of the times.

The Mad Square is not only a place but also evokes the edginess of the times - the atmosphere of the exhibition rooms made me think of of Joel Grey's sly, louche Master of Ceremonies in "Cabaret", Peter Lorre's sinister paedophile in "M" and Walter Sickert's "Ripper" paintings.

In the time span covered by the exhibition, Germany went through the horrors of WW1, followed by economic disaster, the political turmoil of the abdication of the Kaiser, the establishment of the decadent Weimar Republic and the gradual rise of Fascism. All this is embodied in the range of artistic experimentation and creative freedom that saw artists move away from figurative work towards inceasingly abstract forms.

To give an overview of the scope of the exhibition: the starting point of the show is the Expressionism that flourished until the beginning of the world war, moving on to Dada by 1916, which was overtaken by the golden age of Walter Gropius' Bauhaus school of art and design from 1919 until its end in 1933, when the Nazis raided the school and closed it down. The Bauhaus was essentially a school of design that sought to fuse the aesthetics of fine arts with the technical skills of crafts. The exhibition includes some beautiful examples of furniture, ceramics and textiles.

There is a very interesting collection of photographs and drawings representing the brief period of Constructivism in 1922 and '23, that saw art fused with technology - lots of photographs of machines.

The show moves on to the art of the 1920s - the sophisticated metropolis of Berlin providing a rich source of inspiration. Indeed, Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" is screened on a continuous loop and there are lovely contemporary film posters. Not only of "Metropolis" but also of "M" and of "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari". The latter, with its marvellous expressionist sets, is, for my money, the greatest movie of the silent era, and incidentally the one that hooked me on the beauty and magic of film beyond Hollywood and Disney. I first saw it at the impressionable age of eight, when my Auntie Ann who was babysitting me, took me with her to the local Film Society.

The decadent Berlin of this era is best described by Christopher Isherwood in his series of "Berlin Stories". Nothing was beyond the pale in the brothels, clubs and gambling dens; it would have been fertile soil for Krafft-Ebbing and his colleagues. From this section two pictures encapsulate the atmosphere of the city for me. In The Sex Murderer by Heinrich Davringhausen, I like the way he references Manet's Olympia and I am amused by the clichéd bogeyman lurking under the bed: he looks more terrified than his intended victim! Maybe he's new at the sex fiend trade.

I was also amused by The Powder Puff (George Grosz) - the wall text explains that the prostitute powdering her friend's bottom is helping her get ready for the next client. Clearly an upmarket establishment: each client gets clean sheets and a freshly powdered bottom!

By the mid-1920s, there was a move towards Objectivism, returning to more traditional modes of representation and away from modernity. In this area there is a fascinating range of photographic portraits of contemporary figures: Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and Paul Klee among them.

One of my favourite parts of the exhibition is the "Degenerate Art", singled out by the Nazis as representative of the moral decay and mental deficiency that had infiltrated modern art. There is a fine crop of works by moral degenerates and mental defectives such as Picasso, Max Beckmann, Franz Marc, Kandinsky, Paul Klee and others of their disgusting ilk. I also liked the posters advertising the exhibition of Degenerate Art that the Nazis had put on so that the German people could see for themselves the horror and feel the fear-and-loathing of it all. That backfired bigtime!

After a bit of lunch and a restorative cup of peppermint tea in the Members' Room (why doesn't the NGV's Members' Room do lunch?) I went to have a look at the permanent collection. I haven't been to the museum since the completion of the new contemporary galleries, so I thought I would suss them out. I saw some old favourites: for some reason I love the fat lady in the yellow dress by Matthew Smith - I was delighted to see her again, near another of my favourites: the still life by Giorgio Morandi.

There is some delightful Op Art and Pop Art that takes you right back to the Sixties, and I was fascinated by a wall-size abstract on a reflective surface, that caused me and the room behind me to become part of the picture. There was a dead clown lying on the floor at my feet, but I didn't let that spoil my day.

Three sculptures commanded my attention: Killing Time by Ricky Swallow, an exquisitely detailed carving of a table on which is displayed all the sea creatures that he can remember killing and eating in his life;

 The Comforter by Patricia Piccinini, a disturbing figure of what appears at first glance to be a teenage girl cuddling a baby, but on closer inspection you see that she is as hirsute as a Turkish navvy and the "baby" is her arms is a torso with a pair of baby feet at one end and a bunch of huge fingers at the other. Repellent yet mesmerising!

Spyrogyra by Tony Cragg is a ten foot tall spiral with bottles seeming to grow out of it. The black and white reproduction won't do it justice: the subtle shading of green, white and brown bottles with just the occasional blue evokes the embodiment of plant life: Christmas trees, pine forests, the waving tendrils of a spirogyra, last seen under a microscope in high school biology class!

As I was leaving, two rows of large photographs divided by fluorescent tubes caught my eye, and I recognised a portrait of Hannie Schaft, the sixteen year old Dutch girl who was shot by the Gestapo for helping the Resistance in Haarlem. I couldn't think what Hannie is doing in Sydney - she is not a well-known figure outside Holland. I only happen to know about her because I have spent time in Haarlem. So I wandered over to have a closer look.

The installation is called Seven people who died the day I was born – April 18 1945. It is by Peter Kennedy and he uses it to illustrate the way in which individual lives are connected to political and historical events. I found it interesting and thought-provoking.
If you find yourself in Sydney, do try and spend a couple of hours in the Art Gallery of NSW: they have a marvellous collection and you will get VIP treatment of you flash your NGV card!

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