Exhibition Review: The Mad Square/Art Gallery of New South Wales 2011

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Art review
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If you think that capital-A Art has no effect on your life, take a look around you. Bauhaus, Dada, Constructivism – these revolutionary art movements have shaped almost every aspect of your life: the shape of your chair,  the rectangular building you work/live in, the world-weary drone of your Nick Cave CD – even the sans serif typefont on your PC screen as you read this. They are all resonances, all background radiation from the Big Bang of Modernism which exploded in the early 20th century.

It is humbling to think on this when faced with the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ current major exhib – The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37. This vast collection of Bauhaus, Dada and International Constructivist works – together with pieces from German Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) – will make your head spin: which is fitting as so much of it was produced as reaction to the whirlpool/whirlwind political climate of the day.

The insane mechanised carnage of World War I, the rise of the dazzling and dwarfing modern city metropolis, the worship of the machine/the tyranny of the machine, the machines of tyranny. It was all going too fast and bulging too big for a society that had been (and still was in many ways) living a rural, human-sized village and town life merely half a generation previous.

In 1911, the Expressionists (artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner) moved from Dresden to Berlin, a city that had recently doubled to a population of two million people (and which would double again by 1920). The city, with its dynamism and urban vices, gave them new, apocalyptic subjects for their art – the crazed window in the background of Heinrich Maria Davringhausen’s ‘The Sex Murderer’ looks out on a crazed city teetering on a crazy foundation. The whole world seemed ripe for war.

When war came, it was soon realised this was not the adventure that would lead to a quick victory for Germany. As stories of the horrors, then the awfully disfigured war-crippled came back to the city, artists reacted with an explosion of creativity and experimentation to try to come to grips with it all. Otto Dix and George Grosz portrayed the awfully scarred victims unflinchingly, caricaturing the idiot generals who had sent them into battle.

The Dada movement began in Zurich as a statement on society’s seeming common and consensual insanity. Dada spread to Germany and was taken up by Christian Schad, Max Ernst and Kurt Schwitters – the latter creating ‘merz’ drawings which were collages of the rubbish of city life. Nothing meant anything.

And then the Nazis rose to power…

The Mad Square has brought together 220 works – prints, drawings, paintings, sculpture, furniture, photography and film (over half from Australian collections) – from this hugely influential time. Curator Jacqueline Strecker has selected works by key players – Max Beckmann, Dix, Grosz and lesser known artists (check Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack’s beautiful prints and paintings, like a Paul Klee with patience) in a wonderfully balanced overview. She has given equal time to both the overheated political radicals such as collage artist John Heartfield (who was so disgusted with German society he anglicised his name from Herzfeld) to the super-cool Bauhaus designers such as Moholy-Nagy and Wilhelm Wagenfeld, who believed we should mix Art with everyday life (a radical thought then, as now).

How could all these utterly opposed minds exist in the same time and space? What bound them together and yet freed them like never before was the idea that society and their world had vanished – been shredded to nothing by war, politics, technology, city-life. The void was filled with ideas and flashing creative energy like never before, or since.

A final note: When the Nazis rose to absolute power, modernism (scathingly honest, human-sized) was the antithesis of their Wagnerian pomp-heroic, god-sized aesthetic. They mounted a mocking exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’, rounding up and displaying modernist masterpieces of the time to show good Germans an example of the moral decay the Nazis were working to stem (The Mad Square has footage of Hitler touring the exhibition). After the showing many of these works were destroyed; gone forever because those with influence had decided they did not show society in the preferred light. Recently the American cartoonist and satirist Robert Crumb cancelled a Sydney speaking engagement because someone was quoted in the press as saying his works were “crude and perverted images emanating from what is clearly a sick mind.” The more things change…

Let’s hope The Mad Square serves to open some closed minds around town.

Published August 2011 on liveguide.com.au

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