Hot-bed of dissent for two hundred years now, Berlin has absorbed strikingly divergent ideologies ranging from Romanticism, Expressionism and Dada to the imperatives of Marxism, Nazism and the Cold War. The multi-layered history of Berlin’s artistic, cultural and political radicalism reveals a city at the very heart of twentieth century culture.
Despite the material and philosophical advances of the 18th century Enlightenment, there was a growing sense amongst many German artists of the day that spirituality in art had been entirely forgotten. The scientific view of nature prevailed; God was either relatively absent in the miracle of creation or a simple fiction, a myth. So how did one experience awe and wonder in this brave new world? A revolution, in a period of revolutions, was in order.
The most famous German Romantic artist was Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) whose use of the ‘sublime’ in nature depicted the glory and terror of the natural world as well as the folly of human civilisation. The revolutionary middle-class Berlin student Karl Marx (1818-83) saw the folly of civilisation as the destructive ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ going on to write his famous book The Communist Manifesto (1848). The personal experience of brutalising urban civilisation was violently explored a hundred years later with the emergence of German Expressionism, a movement devoted to the inner subjectivity of human psychology. The personal is always political and Expressionist artists such as Otto Dix (1891-1969) and George Grosz (1893-1959) sought to explore the perversity of modern life. The devastating effects of the First World War only served to increase this political agitation.
In Berlin during the nineteen twenties the radical ‘Dada’ movement emerged, an absurdist exploration of surreal ‘madness’ seeking to expose the corruptions of the Weimar Republic. Considered ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi’s (themselves dissenters from the status quo), Hitler’s fascist revolution and the Second World War affected a cessation of the radical avant-garde in Germany. By the nineteen-fifties Cold War anxieties pervaded Berlin, particularly after the erection of the GDR Wall between 1961 and 1975. Artists on both sides of the Wall often, naturally, became exemplars of their respective ideologies. But West Germany was decidedly more tolerant of the social critiques emerging, for example, from the work of Joseph Beuys (1921-86) and Anselm Kiefer (b.1945) even if the work explored some of the more uncomfortable elements of German history. Nourished by conflict, dissent and uncomfortable memories, since the fall of the Wall in 1989 Berlin has once again established itself as an international epicentre for the radical and subversive avant-garde.
Andy will be giving a lecture on Berlin tomorrow evening at Durham University:
8pm, Tuesday November 27th in the Birley Room, Hatfield College. There will be free drinks in the college bar afterwards. You can contact Alex Fielding firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.