Art Exhibition: The Mad Square – 5 November 2011
New South Wales Art Gallery
I had to come a second time and see this – the modern German art of the Weimar Republic years between the two World Wars. An hour was not enough.
It’s hard to say what I want to see – I want to look at the Bauhaus artist’s photographs and write my impressions as if writing is a kind of art, using my words as a medium to sketch or paint studies in words of each of the little pictures. The artist Paul Klee was there too, teaching at the Bauhaus.
The photographs are different from the hard-edged, gravelly cynicism of Grosz and Beckman. They seem to have a fecund glow about them – these photos of pieces of machinery and their spatial relationships.
30 years ago, the drawings of George Grosz’s ‘Ecce Homo’ struck me intensely as I was feeling the weight of a human existence almost too heavy to bear. With each jagged line of the pen, my world cracked with a vast sense of alone-ness, of the harshness of life, of despair, futility and emptiness.
Did Grosz feel the same sense of heaviness of existence? He was an alcoholic, living the last of his days as a white-suited expatriate in America, forever haunted by the apocalypse he left behind him.
Today, it is almost around the same time of the year, years later, we meet again. But I am more interested in the photos and want to know why.
George Grosz – Painting – Suicide. The painting glows red carmine with the fallen figure of a man with skull-grin face, lights out lies isolated beneath the unseeing gaze of a prostitute and her gentleman client on the balcony.
Sex Murder in Ackerstrasse – Psychopathic killer washing his bloodstained hands in a basin, his clothes suggestively awry, looks blandly over the beheaded corpse of a woman who must have died in agony of pain. He is the kind of faceless, innocuous, docile man who remains unnoticed in a crowd, and is used to being told what to do.
Another painting by someone else, a woman. Within the smooth metal surface, the machine arc, lie eyes of unutterable longing. The artist is Hanna Hoch, painting ‘Imaginary Bridge’.
Laszlo Moholy – Nagy’s photograms – Untitled Weimar 1923-1925
Sphere, faintly obscured by a shadowy grey behind an almost three-dimensional oblong shape where lies a luminous white disc and all delicately balanced on two slim, long sticks of light.
A metal triangle lying partially on a circle of greyish light, half submerged by darkness, a slightly half-lit ring with its metallic gleam shining nearby beyond the slightly diagonal pole. Bottom left, a full elliptical circle of luminous white light balances three balls of variegated shadow, or is it the movement of one? And the dish appears to tremble. Later, at a different angle, the dish looks more like a bowl.
Overlay of white bars of light, like musical score bars against 2 overlapping discs, a criss-cross of pipe-like lines play across the bars of music under the complicated arcs of variegated darkness, pale grey, metal grey, darker and soot black. The light appears to be glowing from within the two circles. Curious that although the bars are the brightest white light, they are not the source of the illumination.
Fotogram Self Portrait
Embryonic profile of a face of a tissue of translucent glowing white paper skin against a depth of soft, black space. Faint light plays along the crescent-shaped head.
Lucia at the Breakfast Table
Lying with her head on a white table, before a white, glowing, empty saucer concentric woven straw bowl of spheres of which appear to be apples, figs, plums, maybe pomegranites. Nearby, partially seen on the bottom right-hand side of the picture, some crusty bread rolls.
Two bread knives lie balanced. Lucia hardly seems to have pushed aside the empty plate with its knife and spoon lying almost under the dead weight of the back of her curly-haired head.
A background row of tiny, dark little matchbox houses beside a taller soaring, oblong building of glowing white, accentuated by dark, horizontal contrasting bars of balconies and a vertical column of black windows. To figures are running forward into the eye of the camera, one on the left brandishing a long, thin foil to the sky, reaching out with arms outstretched, leaping into the future.
Wall Painting Workshop
An ascending row of four busy people on three long, vertiginously balanced ladders, painting the smooth, precipitous face of a mountainous wall.
Lotte Stam-Beese – Group Portrait
A circle of the heads of some 14 Bauhaus students shot from above, their rapt and dreamy faces upturned.
Moholy – Bauhaus Nebau
Oblong block of building lies, its limpid, mirroring glass encased by a rigid and geometric iron framework. In the foreground is a swell of dark lawn and the twigs and branches of a leafless tree acts as a kind of curtain.
Karl Grill: Spiral Costume
A graceful, black-clad dancer, arms expressively arrayed. Her right arm and pointing forefinger outstretched to the side, the other arm held bent towards her breast, hand hanging. She is encased in a gleaming tutu of steel wire springing and a coronet of three springs on her head. She is on tip-toe against a bare floor and wall. A row of points of light glitter all along the top line of her arms and neck outline.
Laslo Moholy-Nagy – Light/space Modulator
The machine-harp of gleams and lights – almost a cubist sculpture, with sheets of perforated metal against contrasting bars.
I swam out into the warm, late-spring afternoon sunlight into the wide, gentle, green bowl of the Sydney Domain where the geometric forms of massive buildings loomed in the background under a blue sky and in a land sunk deep in its peaceful, mundane ordinariness.
The impression I got from the Bauhaus school, its teachings and influence is that the Germans artists and students did not shy from the machine. Instead, they embraced it and harnessed its gleaming, futuristic energy. Nature and the machine were intertwined, because was not the machine man-made and did not metal come from the earth? In the photograms, they softened the curves and angles of metal and gave them a softly glowing life of their own. They introduced it into the natural environment of light and shadow.
The Bauhaus school was enormously influential in all kinds of modern arts, from furniture, photography, painting and architecture. What would it have achieved had not the Nazis shut it down? In harmony with human, nature and the machine, what would our information and communications technology have looked like by today?
In the years after the Second World War, the live, pulsing, exciting man/machine world and the great hope embodied in the movie ‘Metropolis’ had given way to a fear of the machine, the feeling of being an impersonal cog in the works, the fear lurking behind modern living that the machine would overrun our lives and ultimately destroy us. And this is precisely the fear behind the development of Artificial Intelligence today.
But there was a time when there was hope for harmony with nature in the technological revolution. The works of the Bauhaus school teach me that there can be such a thing.