Persevering vision of another era

Print edition : January 30, 1999

The art that emerged with the collapse of the world empires, such as German radical art of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, bore the stamp of popular and working-class movements, and characterises, in one sense, the art of the 20th century.


THE twentieth century has seen the emergence of a new class on the centre-stage of human history: the working class. It emerged triumphant after the most destructive war between competing empires, victorious over both the winners and the losers. If one of the winners, Czarist Russia, dissolved into the first working class state in history, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires, which were among the losers, saw the end of the dynastic imperial principle in Europe. On the southern and eastern borders of Russia, the Qajar Empire fell in Iran; British colonialism faced its first major mass opposition in the Non-Cooperation Movement; and the Manchu Empire in China had already given place to a Republic. The empires of the world were beginning to lose their initiative to the people, and with this, the visual culture they bred.

"Things American" by Gerd Arntz, 1924, screen print, 32 cm x 48 cm. Arntz' art reflects a practical concern with visual communication.-

This is why we see a certain newness of approach in every form of human activity since then; and art was no exception. A number of elements were shared by all these movements. There was an irreverence towards the religious establishment, the landlords and the army, which underpinned the empires; and contempt for the new industrial classes, who, while they were prepared to push emperors off their imperial thrones, were suspicious of the change that had brought a new element they faced on the factory floor as a determining factor in history. The people, however, were welcomed by the new artists, and even glorified as heroes by some. In general, though, the best artists were more realistic.

"Seen on the steep slope at Clery-sur-Somme" by Otto Dix, 1924, etching, 47.5 cm x 35.3 cm.-

They simply shifted the centre of their art from the hero to the victim; from the oppressors and the privileged to the ordinary people in the streets and fields; and from the generals surveying their victories to the horrors the empires had subjected humanity to in the trenches and bombed-out cities. In the colonies, too, the perspective had begun to change. The colonial middle classes turned their backs on the art of the colonisers and sought an alternative in that of the peasantry resisting them.

The finest of these artists were conscious of the changes and kept in touch with developments all over the world and with each other. George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz and others formed a committee of artists to aid the hungry in Russia in 1921; the first exhibition of Soviet art was held in Berlin the same year. The next year saw an exhibition of the artists of the Bauhaus group from Germany being held in Calcutta at the initiative of Rabindranath Tagore and his kinsman Gaganendranath. Indeed, it was an exhibition of Indian radical art in February 1998, including a work by Gaganendranath, that inspired the Director of Max Mueller Bhavan to bring to India the exhibition of prints and drawings of the Weimar Republic, taking note of the similarities between Indian and German radical art.

"Dead Comrade" by Conrad Felixmuller, 1919, lithograph, 28 cm x 22 cm.-

The exhibition at Delhi's Rabindra Bhavan, however, seemed to present Weimar art as a phenomenon of the 1920s and early 1930s, something that is a part of history. But the fact that the exhibition represents 16 artists - Grosz, Kollwitz, Bernhardt Kretschmar, Karl Arnold, Gerd Arntz, Max Beckmann, Albert Birkle, Otto Dix, A.W. Drebler, Heinrich Emsen, Conrad Felixmuller, Karl Hubbuch, Franz Maria Jansen, Jeanne Mammen, Karl Rossing and Christian Schad reflects the existence of this art as a trend. And trends do not come up suddenly and get snuffed out. Also, as many of our young contemporary artists, even in the 1990s, confess to being influenced by Beckmann, Grosz or Kollwitz, it would appear, as it does from the work of Gaganendranath that predates the Weimar Republic, that this is the new art of the twentieth century and not just that of a specific period of German history. It is the art that emerged with the collapse of the world empires, with the stamp of popular movements of working class hegemony in an age when the people who have always been the makers of history also became its rulers, giving it the vitality of a free and irreverent expression as never before in the annals of man.

"God bless You" by George Grosz, c. 1920, pen and ink, 65 cm x 52.2 cm.-

The modern artist too is a many-sided being, as we see in Arntz, who was born in 1900. He served in the Army during the First World War, took active part in the workers' uprising of 1920 as an art student, was a participant in the 1930 exhibition of Socialist art in Amsterdam. Later, he visited Moscow twice, in 1930 and 1931, making contact with the constructivist artists, Tatlin and Lissitzky. He also worked with the Communist group in the Netherlands, and participated in the anti-fascist exhibition in London in 1935. His woodcut, "The Third Reich", had to be removed from a Dutch exhibition in 1936 at the insistence of the German Embassy. This did not prevent him from becoming the head of the graphics department in the Netherlands Statistics Institute, where he innovated on pictorial statistics, a talent he later used for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) from 1951 to 1962. In 1943 events overtook him and he was conscripted into the German Army; but he surrendered promptly to the French Resistance in 1944 and became a prisoner of war. After the War he has continued to live in the Netherlands. Clearly his art reflects not only his capacity to face life head-on but also a practical concern with visual communication. "Things American" of 1924; "Twelve Houses of Our Time", including prison, barracks, a hotel and a sports arena of 1927; and "Compensation" from his portfolio, "Models 1931-1938" have a distinct contemporary flavour and a visual language still in use among artists today.

"The Press Photographer at the Execution" by Karl Rossing, 1928, wood engraving, 27.2 cm x 20.3 cm.-

What are its main features? Apart from the change in content from the art of the empires, it also differed from the colourful efflorescence of the expressionists, using powerful lines to integrate pictorial space. It also simplified the visual image, rejecting academic representation in the interest of communicating felt reality as directly as possible. This was a concern similar to that of the Bengal School artists and the Santiniketan group that evolved beyond them. With the emergence of this art, the right to determine what was the subject of art and how it was to be presented shifted from academies and studios controlled by the state and the propertied classes to the fields and streets. True, the journey that ended with this "new" or "magical" realism had begun with Francisco Goya and the impressionists much earlier. But in the 1920s it came into its own.

Indeed, this reality was seen as a threat not only by the old order, but also by the "new" one, fascism. Most of these artists lost their government posts. Their art was labelled "degenerate". They were not allowed to exhibit. Many were persecuted in other ways. Some, like Beckmann, went into exile. But the majority stood up to the onslaught. Their fate at the hands of Hitler's fascists was not very different from that of a number of our own contemporary artists, like M.F. Husain, or the exhibition of radical art that was shown at the Academy of Literature and Fine Arts in Delhi that was attacked by elements of the Bajrang Dal. The final irony is that while fascism has collapsed in Germany, the art it tried to root out has not only survived but flourishes more widely today than in the 1920s. This is because it is the art that characterises the twentieth century. And its popular roots will carry its message to the twenty-first century.

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