Posts tagged ‘German Expressionism’
July 1, 2011  |  Five for Friday
Five for Friday: Life Was a Cabaret

Five for Friday, written by a variety of MoMA staff members, is our attempt to spotlight some of the compelling, charming, and downright curious works in the Museum’s rich collection.

Even though there are advantages to living in this day and age—not dying of consumption or syphilis, transporting money in a wallet, rather than a wheelbarrow—I still fantasize about living in interwar Germany. Maybe it was far too many viewings of Cabaret as a child, but I’ve always carried an imagined nostalgia for the Weimar Republic (1919–1933): its loose social mores, the competing senses of optimism and doom, the passionate political struggles, and of course the edgy art and design. With MoMA’s German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse exhibition closing July 11, I thought we should have a look back at some of the great Weimar-era works in MoMA’s rich collection. This post is dedicated to Paul Jaskot, the professor who inspired my love of German art and design.

1. Unknown artist. Poster for Berlin, Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (Berlin, Symphony of the Metropolis). 1927
Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) lent a soundtrack to the Weimar Republic. This film, which MoMA screened in December 2010, portrays the life of a city mainly through visual effects and music, not narrative content. The impression it conveys of daily life in Berlin is dynamic, anxiety-ridden, cacophonous—and a helluva lot of fun!

2. Rudi Feld. The Danger of Bolshevism (Die Gefahr des Bolschewismus). 1919
This lithograph, included in German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse, features a terrifying Death figure gripping a dagger in his teeth. The work reflects a common fear in the aftermath of the First World War—that the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia might spread to Germany, like a plague.

3. Marianne Brandt. Ashtray. 1924
The liberal Weimar Republic inspired a surge of radical experimentation in all the arts. Marianne Brandt was the head of the metal workshop at the German Bauhaus in Dessau from 1928 to 1929. The Bauhaus was a school, founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, famous for its visionary integration of technology, art, and design. This elegant ashtray from 1924 was based on pure geometrical forms, cylinder and spheres.

4. George Grosz. .a (recto): Circe .b (verso): Untitled. 1927
In this watercolor, also included in the German Expressionism exhibition, George Grosz critiques the ongoing economic disparities of Weimar society, in which the bourgeoisie could afford every pleasure—even the bodies of the lower classes. The unsentimental style of New Objectivity, pioneered by the likes of Grosz, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann, emerged in Germany in the 1920s to rival the utopian and romanticized sensibility of Expressionism.

5. Oskar Schlemmer. Bauhaus Stairway. 1932
Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus Stairway, an oil painting on canvas, depicts the interior of the Bauhaus. Schlemmer painted this work just one year before Hitler assumed power and the Nazis closed the visionary school. Schlemmer was among many Weimar-era artists persecuted by the Nazis for producing so-called “degenerate” art.

February 9, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh
The Last Laugh. 1924. Germany. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Acquired from Universum-Film (UFA)

The Last Laugh. 1924. Germany. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Acquired from Universum-Film (UFA)

These notes accompany the screening of Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), which screens on February 10, 11, and 12 in Theater 3.

Friedrich Wilhelm (F. W.) Murnau (1888–1931) had already made over a dozen films before The Last Laugh, but only Nosferatu (1922) can be said to have raised any blip on the international scene—and Nosferatu didn’t open in America until 1929 (after The Last Laugh, Tartuffe, Faust, and Sunrise), receiving a dismissively condescending review in The New York Times. So, few were prepared for what may be the best film ever made by a German in Germany.

The style of The Last Laugh is derived from the Kammerspiele, introduced by the great stage impresario Max Reinhardt, of whom Murnau (along with almost everyone else of note) was a disciple. Reinhardt proposed an intimate theater with dim lighting in which the audience was close enough to the stage for the actors to perform with greater subtlety. Lotte Eisner, the doyenne of film scholarship of the Weimar era, makes the point that the Expressionist technique that had come to predominance in German cinema by 1924 is only peripheral to Murnau’s achievement. She contends that Murnau’s moving camera “is never used decoratively or symbolically…every movement…has a precise, clearly-defined aim.” (Whatever its rationale, Murnau’s camera mobility and long takes set a standard for such future masters as Kenji Mizoguchi and Max Ophuls, and was developed into the counter-theory to the montage postulated by Sergei Eisenstein and the Soviets. One of the great achievements of Orson Welles was to synthesize these two approaches.) According to Eisner, the director’s use of “opalescent surfaces streaming with reflections, rain, or light…is an almost Impressionistic way of evoking atmosphere.” She also suggests that the supposed ponderousness of the film is a way of lending gravitas and significance to what is, after all, a trivial event: the demotion of a doorman to mens-room attendant.

November 3, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
D. W. Griffith Leaves Biograph
Blanche Sweet in <i>Judith of Bethulia.</i> 1914. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from the artist

Blanche Sweet in Judith of Bethulia. 1914. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from the artist

These notes accompany the D. W. Griffith Leaves Biograph program, which screens on November 4, 5, and 6 in Theater 3 as part of the two-year </em>An Auteurist History of Film</a> exhibition.</span></p>

1915 marked the publication of poet Vachel Lindsay’s The Art of the Moving Picture, the first serious attempt in English to come to grips with the medium that had outgrown penny arcades and nickelodeons and was now threatening to appear in venues that would rival cathedrals. In the preceding year, as extraordinary European films like Benjamin Christensen’s The Mysterious X (released as Sealed Orders in the U.S.) and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria were arriving on American shores, D. W. Griffith had been tearing at the seams of his constraining Biograph contract. As with so many early commentaries on the movies, Lindsay struggled to find the language that would do justice to his thoughts. (One thinks of a young Eugene O’Neill groping for words, or of Griffith himself, trying to articulate something previously undefined and unrecognized.) In fact, in his enthusiasm for film, indicative of the heady atmosphere of the times, Lindsay waxed positively Biblical, informing filmmakers:

“All of you who are taking the work as a sacred trust, I bid you God-speed…. You will be God’s thoroughbreds…. It has come then, this new weapon of men, and the face of the whole earth changes. In after centuries its beginning will be indeed remembered. It has come, this new weapon of men, and by faith and a study of the signs we proclaim that it will go on and on in immemorial wonder.”