FROM LEFT TO RIGHT
Social Realism in Germany and Russia, Circa 1919-1933
For the past two years, the Galerie St. Etienne has devoted its first show of the fall season to exploring German art of the Weimar era (1919-1933). The present effort--specifically examining the connections between Germany and Russia during this period--may be taken as the conclusion of a trilogy and also, in a broader sense, as an affirmation of the Galerie St. Etienne’s ongoing commitment to this field. By focusing exclusively on social realism, our exhibition intentionally skirts the more abstract Constructivist tendencies of the time. Presumably the equally potent relationships that exist in this domain will be documented by the sweeping survey Berlin--Moskau/Moskau--Berlin that runs more or less concurrently (September 3, 1995--January 7, 1996) at the Berlinische Galerie. Especially in today’s recently reunified Germany, but also in the wider post-cold-war world, it is important to take a closer look at the ideologies that shaped Germany and the U.S.S.R. in the 1920s and ‘30s and, in the process, ignited the principal conflicts of our century.
Throughout the Weimar years (and indeed even after Hitler came to power in 1933), significant links existed between Germany and Russia. Marx and Engels were of course German, and it was initially thought that Germany’s socialist-led revolution of 1918, following scarcely a year after the Bolshevik uprising, would yield similar results. Partly under the auspices of the KPD (the German Communist Party) and the local office of the Comintern, and partly of their own accord, German artists remained in constant contact with their Russian colleagues. Artists from both countries traveled freely back and forth, as did exhibitions of their work. The Soviet-directed Internationale Arbeiterhilfe (International Workers’ Aid, or IAH), initially founded to elicit German aid for victims of the Russian famine in 1921 (compare checklist #s 38 & 48), later sponsored a number of wide-ranging projects, including the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (Illustrated Worker’s Paper, or AIZ), for which John Heartfield designed many famous covers (checklist #s 26-29).
Although the seeds of abstraction sown before World War I reached their first full flowering in the 1920s, this was also a decade in which numerous avant-garde artists, European and American alike, returned to realism. Not all these artists were motivated by political agendas (one thinks of Picasso’s neo-classical phase, or the brooding yet ideologically neutral citiscapes of Edward Hopper), but it was natural that in countries which had been wracked by revolution, such as Russia and Germany, realism should acquire a socio-political bent. In both countries, there was a tendency for cutting-edge artists to support the left. After all, the pre-war avant-garde had been in conscious rebellion against bourgeois taste, and it seemed natural enough to associate radical aesthetics with radical politics. With the notable exception of Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lenin’s Commissar for Enlightenment, politicians in Germany and Russia were probably as ignorant about art as is the norm today. Nonetheless, virtue was made of necessity, since visual propaganda was needed and advanced artists proved the most willing to oblige.
Revolution spawned an out-and-out civil war in Russia, but the skirmishes that ensued after 1918 in Germany were confined largely to street fighting; the few more substantive armed uprisings were readily squelched. Thus whereas the Soviets had an urgent need to forge allegiance to the Red Army and to inform an immense populace of the war’s progress, the German regime’s propaganda requirements were more in line with conventional electoral politics. The vast outpouring of posters that distinguishes Russia’s civil war years (roughly 1918-1920) was conditioned by a lack of publishing and distribution facilities for newspapers and by the need to reach a largely illiterate or multi-ethnic (hence non-Russian speaking) citizenry with cogent visuals. Germany had few such problems, and the posters that proliferated during the early Weimar years were intended to muster support for the fledgling democracy and solicit votes for various factions, or to warn against the dangers of Bolshevism.
Comparison of these posters shows some remarkable similarities between those produced by the left and by the right. Each side had recourse to a common language of visual symbols, whereby a sun, for example, could represent either the new Communist order or its proto-fascist alternative. A hand might evoke power (checklist #46) or alternatively the grasping incursions of the enemy. Snakes or dragons, drawing on the Christian legend of St. George, were also universally used to embody the enemy (see checklist #s 1, 3 & 47). Hitler later consciously modeled his posters on those produced by the Bolsheviks, who he felt had created a perfect three-part formula, encompassing depictions of a threat (capitalism, the White Army, or in Hitler’s case, international Jewry or the Allied forces), the thing threatened (home and hearth) and the savior at hand (usually a soldier). The most effective posters, in all cases, were those that relied on fairly simple realistic images. Arcane allegories would lose the masses and, both in Russia and Germany, more avant-garde stylistic elements elicited disdain or outright hostility.
Because their work alienated unsophisticated observers, artists who eschewed rote realism quickly encountered practical problems. The Constructivists in Russia, after intense internal debate, concluded that art could have only two legitimate purposes: the production either of utilitarian objects or of propaganda. Henceforth they applied their efforts principally to the former pursuit, momentarily ceding the latter arena to a new group, the Associated Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR, founded in 1922), who in the interest of intelligibility reverted to nineteenth-century representational prototypes. In Germany, those vestiges of Expressionism that still lingered through the early Weimar years were rapidly fading, and by the mid-1920s the amorphous style commonly referred to as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) held center stage. These artistic developments were, in Russia as well as Germany, accompanied by generalized political and social stabilization. With the civil war successfully concluded, Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) to build up his nation’s industrial and agricultural base. Ancillary visual propaganda diminished in volume and intensity. After a period of wild inflation and failed takeover attempts by the Communists and Hitler, the German government, too, entered a calmer phase around 1924. The realist orientation of the Neue Sachlichkeit artists can be seen as a retreat from the aesthetic and political chaos of the preceding years.
Those artists most closely affiliated with Communism--including George Grosz and Heartfield in Germany and just about everyone in Russia--decried the capitalist trappings of conventional easel painting. They sought to efface the preciousness of the artist’s personal touch by adopting such techniques as photomontage and collage, and to disseminate works via the print media rather than promulgating unique objects. Although the NEP re-introduced a limited amount of private enterprise to Russia, individual patronage of the arts remained inconceivable, so there was really no market for one-of-a-kind artistic creations. In Germany, however, while there were still artists such as Käthe Kollwitz who relied almost exclusively on printmaking, and those like Heartfield who worked for wide-circulation publication, most practitioners of Neue Sachlichkeit retreated from overt ideological posturing and returned to the production of works that could be hung on the walls of a museum, gallery or home. Even Grosz began, for the first time, to produce lush watercolors (checklist #s 18 & 19). Nevertheless, Neue Sachlichkeit was not by any means an apolitical genre. The most seemingly banal portraits often had elements of caricature that implicitly lampooned the bourgeois aspirations of the subject at hand. And many artists continued to focus on depicting the failings and evils of the Weimar regime: the proliferation of destitute war cripples and beggars (checklist #s 13, 40, 54 & 58), the corrupt businessmen and agents of the military (checklist #s 14-17 & 62), and the quintessential Weimar prostitutes and pimps (checklist #s 10 & 11). Workers were inevitably portrayed more charitably (checklist #s 20-22, 49, 51 & 65-67), but rarely glorified in the manner that now began to be common in Russia (checklist #s 45 & 52). The Soviets frowned on the negativism that seemed to be overtaking their German comrades.
Yet the Soviets, too, suffered from ideological and aesthetic contradictions. While the realist style favored by artists of the AKhRR was tainted by its associations with the bourgeois past, Constructivist propaganda had been generally deemed a political failure. The path out of this quandary was blazed by Gustav Klutsis and kindred artists, who found in photomontage a visual tool that was broadly comprehensible and free of all traditional connotations. Though Klutsis had pioneered the technique as early as 1919 (vying for priority with the German Dadaists, who seemingly independently had begun creating similar images around the same time), the form really came into its own with Stalin’s enactment of the first five-year plan in 1928. Under the auspices of the Fine Arts Department of the State Publishing House (IZOGIZ), photomontage posters became a principal means of promoting collectivization and industrialization (checklist #37). In a roughly parallel manner, photomontage in Germany had worked its way from the esoteric collage experiments of the Dadaists into the broader graphic arts, finally reaching its most visible political expression in the late 1920s and ‘30s with the mature work of John Heartfield.
The evident conceptual relationship between Heartfield’s work and that of the Soviet photomontagists reflects in part the renewed closeness that developed between Germany and Russia after the 1929 stock market crash. Dire economic circumstances triggered a resurgence of the political fragmentation and revolutionary tensions that had characterized the early Weimar period. Once again, there was hope that a Communist takeover could be near, and many German artists and intellectuals sought temporary (or in some cases permanent) shelter and sustenance in the U.S.S.R. With Hitler’s ascendancy in 1933, of course, all prospects of a Communist revolution in Germany faded, though Heartfield continued to produce his provocative covers for the AIZ, which was smuggled into Germany for some years to come. Lea Grundig was one of the few artists who, remaining in Germany, dared raise her pen against Hitler (checklist #s 23 & 24). Leo Schleifer, who after emigrating to the U.S. in 1933 changed his name to William Sharp, did the same from a safe distance (checklist #63). Within Germany, Hitler eliminated all public traces of the avant-garde and put forth his own style of social realism: idealized depictions of Aryan mothers, robust young men and happy peasants. In Russia, Stalin imposed a similar iron control on the arts, with results that were aesthetically not far different from Hitler’s.
There is, after all, no such thing as realism. All the art produced in the 1920s and ‘30s had an agenda. If artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit overemphasized the negative, those in Russia and later in Nazi Germany created a dishonestly rosy view of things. Propagandists of all stripes, in times of war or conflict, exaggerate the threat of annihilation and the promise of deliverance. It was perhaps the failure to perceive a more nuanced truth, which would have allowed for gradations between absolute good and evil, that accounted for Germany’s slide into Nazism and the eventual excesses of Russian Communism. Yet despite the similarities that inevitably exist between any two totalitarian states, it is a grave error to equate the crimes of National Socialism with the more complex failings of Communism, as is commonly being done today in Germany. Marxism involves a number of intricate economic and political theories, elements of which have been incorporated in the structures of most modern governments (including Germany’s), while Nazism has nothing to offer beyond racist xenophobia and aggressive nationalism.