The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-1937

The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-1937
NGV International, Melbourne
25th November – 4th March

A world-class exhibition of artwork reflecting modern Germany’s second most fucked-up period. A huge timeline on a corridor connecting one of the three enormous rooms details the disintegration of German society and the buildup to the Third Reich, and a pleasant tale it is not. Australia was a popular destination for the “degenerate” artists fortunate enough to be kicked out of Germany before things really got nasty, even though it must’ve been a mixed blessing for someone like Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack to go from being a star of the Bauhaus to teaching art at Geelong Grammar School.

The arrangement of the exhibition is curious. It starts with a projection of Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920) and then displays some fascinatingly wretched prints and paintings documenting the fraying of post-WWI German society by the likes of George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix. It then moves on to propaganda posters and the fun parts of Dada, including Kurt Schwitters and a large collection of work by photomontage pioneer Hannah Höch.

Then there’s some informal photographs from daily life at the Bauhaus schools (which, being Bauhaus, manage to be surprisingly formal) and some fine examples of furniture, imported to Australia (and in many cases well-used for generations before being donated to museums). There’s an honest-to-God Wassily chair. You know, the one everyone thinks of when they think of modern furniture. Then there’s some impressive geometric work from El Lissitzky and that crowd.

Near the end it becomes a bit random, as though they were trying to fit in stuff they couldn’t find room for before. There’s more Grosz and Beckmann and New Objectivists, jumbled together in a long corridor and leading to some fantastic film posters for Metropolis (1927), then a video loop of that famous film, and finally some iconic photomontages from John Heartfield and a selection from the first Degenerate Art exhibition, including an unpleasantly antisemetic poster.

We spent about two hours examining this treasury of mental disintegration, and when it was announced the gallery was closing, there was barely time to visit the gift shop. Surprisingly, although it had a huge collection of art books, they don’t seem to have capitalized on this exhibition to the same extent that, say, Te Papa did with their European Masters exhibition at the start of the year, featuring several of the same artists. There was just a few postcards and a set of fridge magnets. I suppose it’s not all about the merchandise.

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