The visionary spirit of Classical Modernism
Several of the works in the current exhibition The Art of Society, which are drawn from the Nationalgalerie collection, attest to the visionary artistic spirit alive in the first half of the twentieth century. It is also the time between the two world wars, when Mies van der Rohe was living in Berlin and becoming a world-renowned architect.
The visual arts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries frequently envisioned a new form of society that entailed a nostalgic return to nature. Georg Kolbe’s painting Die Goldene Insel shows back-facing figures standing on a rocky shore, looking out at an island bathed in light. Visualized here is the longing for a lost paradise, one that, in the Judeo-Christian understanding, is thought to have existed at the beginning of human history and in this work serves as a positive counterimage to industrialization and life in the metropolis. The island in the painting, however, does not appear to be a tangible Arcadia sought after in real life but instead symbolizes that which remains forever out of reach.
Rudolf Belling’s Skulptur 23 was created during a period of industrialization when one technological achievement followed on the heels of another. As these fast-paced developments unfolded, the vision of artificial human beings became a fixture in the entertainment culture. Films such as Alraune (1918) and Metropolis (1927) laid out utopian visions of the future. The term “robot” made its first appearance in the drama W.U.R. Werstands Universal Robots (1920) by Karel Čapek, which was performed as a stage play at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm in Berlin in 1923. Building on this, Belling designed his futuristic sculpture from highly polished brass and wire, reducing human physiognomy to basic geometric shapes. Skulptur 23 was characterized as a machine-creature and has a movable eyelid.
In their quest for a pristine life untarnished by civilization, the painters of the Brücke group strove to be in harmony with nature – a utopia that found expression, among other things, in their fascination with the South Pacific. Looking at the ethnographic collections of German museums, they encountered objects from Oceania that inspired them to use a reduced form language. Max Pechstein’s painting Am Strand von Nidden also testifies to his admiration for Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings. Stylistically borrowing from Gauguin, Pechstein exoticized his wife Lotte and forged a connection between the East Prussian fishing village of Nidden on the Curonian Spit and the South Pacific, thereby essentially bringing his dream of a faraway paradise home. In 1914, the couple actually did travel to Palau, the exotic destination in the South Pacific that had been the object of their longing.
The Mondweib is one of Otto Dix’s “cosmic paintings.” These are paintings the artist completed in a short creative phase following his return from the First World War. Suspended between earth and sky and constructed from circular elements, the figure points to the work of Marc Chagall, while the symbolic depiction of a city at night is influenced by Paul Klee. The work may also be understood as a symbol for the circle of life, drawing on an idea developed in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. The face of the moon woman appears to consolidate female and male features. Symbols of Christian iconography are overlaid with erotic innuendos, resulting in a transcendental vision.
With his painting Palast im Vorübergehn, Paul Klee created a dreamlike architectural vision before a luminous viridescent background. The title suggests that the edifice composed of sketched, greatly reduced forms is meant to portray a moment of fleeting observation. It is the attempt to show the world in motion, perhaps from the point of view of a child who, barely discernible in the foreground of the panorama, is taking a walk with a dog along the bottom edge of the painting. At the same time, the delicate architecture appears as an imaginative configuration of fragmentary memories of Italian and oriental cities. Two arrows, pointing outside the painting in opposite directions, one black and one red, lend a dynamic to this pictorial space and its architecture, which appears to have been unbound from its inherent structural principles. This work by Klee is closely linked to his teaching at the Bauhaus, which he began in 1921. Firmly holding on to the utopia of a better society, the art school, combining fine arts and crafts, sought to erect a “new building of the future.”