December 20, 2015

"Berlin Metropolis" at the Neue Galerie

The period between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the rise of the Third Reich saw Berlin, the capital of the Weimar Republic, become the world-wide capital of all that was chic, avant garde and risquĂ©.  With a population of over four million inhabitants, the city was a cultural mecca and the epitome of modernism in all facets of the arts.

This autumn, the Neue Galerie presents a compact but comprehensive look at the phenomenal rise of the war-torn city into an international style setter and its impending decline with the election of the National Socialist Party.  "Berlin Metropolis:  1918-1933" examines this watershed period in five thematic groupings spread over two floors in the magnificent Beaux Arts mansion that houses the museum.

The exhibition begins in a small gallery, just off the room where the magnificent Klimt "Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer", popularly known as the "Woman in Gold", holds pride of place.  Passing through a velvet curtain, visitors arrive in "The Birth of the Republic", where German Expressionism meets the emerging Dada movement.  Both were reactionary, socially critical and challenged traditional ways of looking at art - new ideas for a new post-war era.  Collages, assemblages, posters, drawings and even some oil paintings (although of rather unorthodox subject matter) usher in the 1920s and the new modernity.

Upstairs on the third floor visitors are greeted with a replica of the first electric traffic light in Europe that flashed over Berlin's Potsdamer Platz starting in 1924.  A marvel of contemporary design and engineering, the curator now has it blinking yellow as a caution of what was to come - for as Berlin exploded onto the art and culture scene, it also became the center of German politics and a cauldron for the new Weimar policies.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  The exhibition continues with "A New Utopia", a look at Berlin's advances in architecture and film.  Faced with a housing shortage and a need for new public and commercial buildings, innovative architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius presented practical, elegant and thoroughly modern solutions that are masterpieces in urban design.  Drawings and designs for structures from apartment complexes to movie palaces hang on three walls while a 1927 film by Walther Ruttmann entitled "Berlin:  Symphony of a Metropolis" is projected against the fourth.

"The Neue Frau [New Woman]" is the theme of the next gallery.  The post war era saw a lot of social changes, perhaps none more remarkable than the new role of women.  As it became more acceptable for women to enter the work force, and as the concept of a "salaried worker" became more common, a new culture of consumerism and leisure activities developed.  The emancipation of women demanded a new fashion and the proliferation of film allowed many more people access to these new trends and styles.  Changing social morals made it suddenly more acceptable for a woman to smoke, go out to a restaurant or be more sexually liberated.

The role of photography as a medium for artistic expression is explored in "The Crisis of Modernity".  Beside its obvious uses for advertising and documentation, photography and the manipulation of photos became the expression of choice for artists from the Dadaists to the Surrealists with The Neue Sehen (New Look), a combination of Neue Sachlichtkeit (New Objectivity) and Constructivism, developing as a uniquely Berlin aesthetic.

All good things must come to an end and the meteoric rise of the metropolis began its slow descent into Hell with the emergence of Adolf Hitler on the scene.  Ten years after the new beginning of the Weimar Republic, things were starting to fall apart and the impending doom was foreseen by many of the same artists who had heralded the new era.  "Into the Abyss" showcases works that portend the horror that was to come, either subtly with veiled messages, or shockingly with horrible imagery.

"Berlin Metropolis" attempts to pack a lot of art and history into a very small space.  On some levels it is quite successful but it can also be somewhat confusing.  The wide variety of expression presented - fashion, film, collage, architecture, photomontage, poster arts - certainly makes the case for the artistic melting pot that existed at the time, but it is hard to keep everything in its proper perspective.  It certainly does make the case for Berlin being the most American of European cities during this extraordinary period of time.  "Berlin Metropolis" is on view until January 4, 2016.

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