Berlin Dada and the Modern Artists of the Weimar Republic Research Paper
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Dada and Degenerate Art in Germany
At the end of WW1, Germany found itself in a period of transition. Held responsible for the war and forced to pay reparations, the Weimar Republic was in a disastrous state. The Kaiser Willelm II had abdicated, hyperinflation decimated the value of the mark, and Berlin was fast becoming vice capital of the world with "New Frau" poster-girl Anita Berber taking pride in her position as the high priestess of immorality.[footnoteRef:1] It was a new Germany in every respect -- but not one that was destined to last: it was new in the sense that for the first time in its culture, the Germans were embracing the end -- the end of the old order, of the old code, of the old art and moral imperatives; life was short and falling apart at the seams as fast as the mark was becoming worthless. Jobs were being lost and hunger and prostitution soaring; the ideas of Freud and the Bauhaus were spreading, and if at least people could not find work they could drown their troubles in sex, drugs and cabaret. 1920s Germany under the Weimar Republic was a decade of decadence and "degenerate" art (as the Third Reich would come to call it): but it was also a celebration of both as the First International Dada Fair in Berlin from June 30th to August 25th, 1920 showed. Dada had been born four years earlier in Zurich, Switzerland at Cabaret Voltaire, opened by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings. Lenin had been in Zurich at the same time, departing only one year later in order to oversee the revolution in Russia (German authorities allowed his carriage to pass without inspection). In short, revolution in art and in government was taking hold -- and Germany was the nexus of it all. [1: Katie Sutton, The Masculine Woman in Weimar Germany (NY: Berghahn, 2013), 7.]
Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings had fled Germany in 1915 following their criticism of the war (Ball fled to avoid serving in the military -- just one of the ways in which he was the exact antithesis of Hitler,[footnoteRef:2] who not only served in WW1 but was decorated with two Iron Crosses, the Bavarian Military Medal and the Cross of Military Merit). Dada for them, and for Tristan Tzara and Jean Arp and the others who joined them at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, was the artistic epitome of their rejection of everything related to the established order of general society. Tzara for instance would dress like a clown when reciting poetry (mingled with screams) on the stage: it was cold, calculating, cynical, sarcastic, original and anti-establishment to the core. Ball's sound poetry, which consisted of a string of nonsense words -- babble -- which he tossed out while dressed like a caricature of a bishop of the church, was another example of the Dada Movement in Switzerland. (Raoul Hausmann was another sound poet, whose poems were "constructed abstractly from letters alone ... with lines such as "NVMWNAUR").[footnoteRef:3] Cabaret Voltaire thumbed its nose at the world of high art and everything connected to it -- and soon it would be extending its influence into Germany following the end of WW1, as the Germans surrendered, bowed their heads in submission to the Western powers, and gave up. Germany was being rolled over and left for dead -- and Dada and the Degenerate Art Movement, rather than mourn the loss, celebrated it with glee and reckless abandon. Dada was nihilism dressed up in artistic pose. [2: Bruce Altshuler, The Avant-garde in Exhibition (NY: Abrams, 1994), 98. ] [3: Bruce Altshuler, The Avant-garde in Exhibition (NY: Abrams, 1994), 107.]
If Otto Dix captured the visual essence of the new transition in German culture, Tzara captured the philosophical skullduggery of the times in his Dada Manifesto. Dix reflected in his paintings the vampirism underlying the new code; Tzara the hollow, smirking rage. Tzara, gleefully sounding like Dostoevsky's Underground Man, asserted, "I write a manifesto and I want nothing, yet I say certain things, and in principle I am against manifestos, as I am also against principles," relishing in his Wilde-like wittiness, a common enough diversion among the "smart set" -- but the German Dadaists took the Absurd to a whole new level. Tzara would go on to expound that "I write this manifesto to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking one
fresh gulp of air; I am against action; for continuous contradiction, for affirmation too, I am neither for nor against and I do not explain because I hate common sense,"[footnoteRef:4] and essentially thus laid out the doctrine of German Dada: Shakespeare's Iago could not have spun out a better philosophical treatise; nor Nietzsche; nor the Underground Man -- though Tzara certainly must have found inspiration among them all. It was this antithetical approach to all things ordered that crept into Germany post-WW1 and that transformed the culture, already receiving a beat down both politically and economically. [4: Tristan Tzara, "Dada Manifesto" (1918), 391.org, accessed May 8, 2016 from http://www.391.org/manifestos/1918-dada-manifesto-tristan-tzara.html#.Vy9504SDGko]
For Dix, the new German soul was that which he saw beneath the surface of the skin, in his Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber (1925) and The Journalist Sylvia von Harden (1926). Dix painted Berber as though she were a calculating old harlot -- which was, of course, the image she liked to cultivate. Her portrait shows her with vivid red hair, powdered white face, heavily painted with make-up and clad in a tight, form-fitting red dress, which she hikes up her thigh, a sneer in her eyes daring the viewer to make his move. Dix's portrait casts a lurid red glow over Berber, with the backdrop doused in globs of red and black: her eyes stare out beneath hoods of black mascara and her bored mouth portrays the requisite cynicism and ennui -- one could only take so much pleasure in the thrill of being "bad" before the thrill finally and inevitably wore off -- such was what Dix appears to have discovered in Berber's young (but quite old if one counts years by experience) face. There is a skeletal characteristic to her portrayal and a kind of predatory snarl lurking in her expression. Berber was the liberated woman of the 1920s -- the Cabaret girl -- the famous dancer whose life of opiates, sex, and alcohol would lead her to an early grave. Famous German filmmaker Fritz Lang would model his anti-heroine of Metropolis after her -- the wicked seductress of the German menfolk, captivated by her blatant eroticism and played like the rats led by the pied piper. Dix's portrait of Berber reflected this to some degree.
His portrait of Sylvia von Harden did the same for her as his portrait of Berber did for the dancing girl. Harden was another "New Frau" -- but of the more intellectual kind rather than of the "entertainment" variety. Harden was the journalist whose outlook was colored by the ideals of the emancipated woman -- woman liberated from the old order, which had kept her subjugated to a patriarchy that was now running for the hills, tail between its legs (all, that is, except for young men like Hitler, who recoiled with intense disgust at what was happening in Germany at this time). Harden's New Frau was much more symbolic of the elitism that the identity was meant to cultivate: Harden herself changed her name from Lehr to von Harden so as to give herself the same kind of character of upper-crust nobility that Lars Trier would later adopt by inserting the "von" into the middle of his name.[footnoteRef:5] (She was not the only one to change her name: George Grosz would also change his first name from Georg so as to reflect his rejection of European bourgeois values, and John Heartfield anglicized his from Helmut Herzfelde).[footnoteRef:6] Harden would also give herself a physical makeover, cutting her hair short, sporting the androgynous bob (gender-bending linked up with the sexually amorphous, homosexual, sexually liberated underworld that Berber was so much a part of). Harden's own life was riddled with sexual dalliances, but such was the nature of the times that having a child out of wedlock, as Harden did, was almost part and parcel of being progressive.[footnoteRef:7] The idea of matrimony being something sacred (and something connected to childbearing and the fostering of a family) would be a theme of some of the portraits by Hannah Hoch -- for instance, in Immortal Life (1924) and The Bride (1924-7), both representative of the deep social strain overwhelming the Weimar artistic consciousness. Dix's portrait of Harden also hinted at this strain: the portrait exaggerates the woman's features and essentially caricatures his subject. Her hands and fingers are elongated like the vampire in Murnau's Nosferatu, another Weimer cinematic masterpiece, like Lang's Metropolis, which captured the tone, mood, and decline of German society, with the vampire at the center of the film lurking as an undead predator in…
Sources Used in Documents:
Altshuler, Bruce. The Avant-garde in Exhibition. NY: Abrams, 1994.
Barron, Stephanie. Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. NY:
Droste, Sebastian; Berber, Anita. Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy. UK: Side Real
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