Art in Berlin 1880-1980

Paul Sullivan visits the Berlinische Galerie and takes a deep dive into a century of art made in Berlin…


Interior of the Berlinische Galerie

Founded privately by an association in 1975, the Berlinische Galerie was officially taken on by the city as a public museum in 1994. Between its inception and 2004, the project was generally itinerant—at some points completely homeless—exhibiting and hopping between a slew of esteemed cultural venues, including the Akademie der Künste, the Neue Nationalgalerie, what is now the Museum of Photography, and the Martin Gropius Bau, where it stayed for twelve years (1986-1998).

In 2004 it finally found a permanent home: a glass warehouse, constructed in 1965, set close enough to the western side of the Berlin Wall that the West Berlin government used it to store window panes in case of a blockade. The warehouse’s capacious interior (4,000 square meters) and eleven-meter-high walls were already ideal for an exhibition space, but it still cost a slick six million euros to update the security aspects of the building and add distinctive elements like operable walls, and the highly Instagrammable crossover staircase in the middle of the main hall, which gives access to the upper level.

This upper level is where the gallery’s permanent exhibition, “Art in Berlin 1880–1980” is located. Overhauled in November 2020 (it’s updated every five years) the exhibition traces locally created art from the late nineteenth century up to the 1980s, via around 250 works that span paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures, and archive materials. Organised throughout seventeen rooms, arranged chronologically and thematically, it traces the city’s rollercoaster journey through monarchy and democracy, war and division, fascism and communism, and the especially vibrant dialectic between art and society during the twentieth century.

The Advent Of Modernism 

Unveiling of the Richard-Wagner-Monument in the Tiergarten, by Anton von Werner, 1908

The first couple of rooms introduce the first major tension that arose in the late 19th century between the Kaiser (Wilhelm II)—famed for his rigid conservatism—and the encroaching influence of modernism, which at that time meant predominantly Impressionism, a movement that had been slowly gaining ground in France since the famous 1863 Salon des Refusés, as well as Art Nouveau, also from France.

The establishment view of art at this time was upheld by Berlin artists such as Anton von Werner, who became the official court painter (even tutoring the Kaiser himself) and director of the Prussian Academy of Arts. Known for his highly idealised depictions of major historical events and public occasions, his most famous work is the “Proclamation of the German Empire at Versailles”, which he painted several times, including a version specifically for Otto von Bismarck.

In Room #1 (“Conservatives and Modernists”), we find a different von Werner painting, namely his “Unveiling of the Richard-Wagner-Monument in the Tiergarten” from 1908. Three meters wide, the painting took five years to paint, and in terms of the almost photographically accurate style of formal realism—so beloved of the Kaiser—it is undeniably an impressive work of art. But a closer inspection highlights some of the radical changes the city and its art establishment were experiencing.

Despite its overall depiction of Wilheminian pomp and pageantry, both the Wagner sculpture—which still sits in the Tiergarten today, beneath a protective plexiglass pavilion, opposite the Indian embassy—and the painting were commissioned by a wealthy cosmetics manufacturer and opera singer, Ludwig Leichner. And not only is Leichner himself featured in the painting (at the foot of the statue), the assembled crowd includes a mixture of industrialists and artists (Peter Breuer, Hermann Ende, Ludwig Knaus, Adolph von Menzel) alongside military and aristocratic personnel, including Prince Eitel Friedrich (the Kaiser’s second son) and Prince Friedrich Heinrich of Prussia.

The rapid industrialisation of the city during the mid-late 19th century—and especially following 1871, when Berlin became the capital of a newly unified Germany—created innumerable changes in daily life that helped set the tone and context for new concepts of art to emerge. The room illustrates these ongoing tensions well: On one hand, we see Wilhelm Gallhof’s “Temptation of the Knight”, a pastel-hued depiction of a naked woman being presented to an armoured knight, shows that patriarchal values and conservative forms of sexuality were still prevalent in 1910; on the other, there’s a 1901 portrait of progressive artist, writer and art collector Fritz Rumpf by Gallhof’s teacher, Lovis Corinth.

Kinder auf der Knobelsdorff Brücke by Heinrich Zille, 1898

A more powerful contrast to establishment mores, though, comes in the shape of a series of small black and white photographs by famed Berlin illustrator Heinrich Zille. His “Children on Knobelsdorf Bridge” shows children tramping barefoot on a muddy Charlottenburg bridge in 1900; “Ohne Titel” (1899) shows a line of washing hanging out in a garden near his apartment; and “Handstand machende Jungen” (1898) showcases the simple joys of children performing handstands. These insights into the everyday life of ordinary people in the city feel a million miles away from the bombastic depictions of order and authority perpetuated by the likes of von Werner, and simultaneously highlight the growing threat of photography to upper class ideals of art.

Making an Impression(ism)

Impressionism’s playful and creative use of light and colour had also been slowly chipping slowly away at establishment standards through the nineteenth century. The most striking example here is from Lesser Ury, whose darkly compelling “Leipziger Straße” (1889) uses thickly applied paint to create a nocturnally urban mood: well-to-do, umbrella-carrying ladies amidst rows of horse-led street carriages, illuminated by murky pools of reflected yellow light and streaky splashes of white and red.

Leipziger Straße by Lesser Ury, 1889

The biggest name in Berlin Impressionism, though, was Max Liebermann, initially a close friend and then an arch enemy of Ury. Born into a wealthy family whose home was right next to the Brandenburg Gate, Liebermann had worked in Paris, albeit with little success initially, as well as in the Netherlands and Munich, returning to Berlin to promote the new style of painting. Joining forces with art dealers such as Paul Cassirer, and the then-Nationalgalerie director Hugo von Tschudi, they met fierce resistance from the Kaiser, von Werner, and the Academy of Fine Arts—which Liebermann was also a member of, and would eventually direct.

Liebermann was instrumental in setting up the Vereinigung der XI (Association of the XI) in 1892, which held an annual salon on Unter den Linden to showcase some of the new art—from Liebermann himself, as well as local artists such as Walter Leistikow and Ludwig von Hofmann. Underlining the distinctively modern approach of the association, the Vereinigung der XI accepted Dora Hitz in 1897, the first female member to be allowed to join an official art association in the Prussian era. In contrast, at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung—the annual official art show of the Academy of Fine Arts—a year later, Wilhelm II refused to approve prizes won by Käthe Kollwitz simply because she was a woman, as well as Walter Leistikow because “he painted trees blue”.

Jury for the Berlin Secession 1908 exhibition. From the left: sculptors Fritz Klimsch and August Gaul, painters Walter Leistikow and Hans Baluschek, art dealer Paul Cassirer, painters Max Slevogt (sitting) and George Mosson (standing), sculptor Max Kruse, painters Max Liebermann (sitting), Emil Rudolf Weiß and Lovis Corinth. (Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H0806-0501)

The Vereinigung der XI led to the foundation of the Berlin Secession in 1898, which was directly inspired by similar secessions in Paris (the “Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts”, 1890), Munich (1892) and Vienna (1897). Liebermann was the first President of the Berlin Secession, as well as one of its co-founders along with Lovis Corinth, Ernst Barlach, Edvard Munch, Max Slevogt, Käthe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann and Heinrich Zille. It contained sixty-five members in total, representing a wide range of new painting styles from Naturalism and Symbolism to Art Nouveau, Impressionism and Pointillism.

Room #2 of the exhibition, “Embracing Modernism – Berlin Art around 1900“, sees the creative brush techniques, shifts in subject matter, and bold colours associated with Impressionism take more of a hold. Corinth—who also studied in Paris and Munich and later succeeded Liebermann as the Berlin Secession’s president—openly embraces impressionistic smears and smudges for “Meal on the balcony” (1925), as does Beckmann for his subdued “Still life from studio onto snow”, from 1908.

Theo von Brockhusen’s “Beach with Bathing machines” (1909) seems directly inspired by van Gogh with its vertically streaked, multicoloured sky and cartoonish depiction of bathing costumes hanging on lines over a sandy beach. A Leistikow painting, “From The March” is also on display; an innocuous depiction of pines at a lakeside edge in Berlin, one can easily—and perhaps happily—imagine the famously prudish and thin-skinned Kaiser up in arms at its defiantly stylised aesthetic.

From The March by Walter Leistikow, around 1898

Photography again presents a deeper insight into the broader reality of city life, this time in the shape of prints by Friedrich Albert Schwarz, an architecture photographer specifically commissioned to chronicle the changing cityscape. The images on display here show barges idling along the Spree (Segelnde Kähne auf der Spree, 1894), and a pine on a sandy slope (Kiefer am Sandhang, 1884); his captures of innercity factories, gas stations and railway stations would have arguably been a more interesting and relevant choice.

Enter Expressionism

With the gates of modernism well and truly pushed open, Berlin’s art world intensified rapidly as the city roared into the twentieth century. By 1910, the Berlin Secession was already considered old fashioned by a group of its own artists, with Liebermann rejecting a slew of Expressionist works by the likes of Max Pechstein, Georg Tappert and Moriz Melzer and Heinrich Richter-Berlin—who subsequently broke away to form the New Secession.

Joined by members of Dresden’s Die Brücke group, who had moved to Berlin, the New Secessionists staged their own rival exhibition simply titled “Rejected Artists of the Secession Berlin”; Liebermann subsequently resigned from the Berlin Secession and was replaced by Lovis Corinth, but to all intents and purposes the organisation had run its course.

The New Secession lasted until 1914, and was instrumental in the breakthrough of Expressionism in Berlin and Germany. Unlike Impressionism, which had its roots in French culture and society, Expressionism was a German movement, and although it was similar to Impressionism in its wish for more freedom of expression and to break with conservative norms, it also reacted against the former’s preoccupation with nature, still life and light experiments, with a more subjective and emotional stance; its anxious, wild and fragmented energy seemed particularly well suited to a burgeoning turn-of-the-century metropolis whose population had quadrupled in just a few decades.

Der Sturm magazine cover, October 1917. Cover art by Rudolf Bauer

A key mouthpiece for this new movement in Berlin (and Germany) was Der Sturm, a magazine founded by Herwarth Walden in 1910, and the associated gallery that opened two years later. A whole room (#4) is dedicated to showcasing both the magazine—which was edited by Bauhaus teacher Lothar Schreyer—and gallery via a multimedia mix of posters, postcards, covers and portraits. Both promoted and exhibited the ever-growing number of avant-garde artists not only from Berlin, but across Europe: Dadaists, Futurists, Surrealists and Cubists, from Schwitters to Picasso to Constructivists from Hungary and Russia (a separate room features works by Russian avant-garde artist Ivan Puni).

In the midst of this creative explosion loomed the First World War, the theme of Room #5—“Upheaval and a Fresh Start: Avant-Garde Movements in Berlin, 1910–1933“—which showcases other local movements that erupted during this profoundly fertile time. One such was the Novembergruppe (November Group), which was created in response to the 1918 November Revolution and brought together young revolutionary artists such as Pechstein, Hannah Höch, and Otto Dix, as well as the sculptor Rudolf Belling and architect Mies Van der Rohe.

All of these artists were united by a desire to build a democratic postwar society, and the displayed works are fascinatingly varied and ambitious. Arthur Segal’s prismatic “Helgoland” (1923) reduces houses, cliffs and ships to flat geometric shapes, Otto Freundlich’s “The Mother” (1921) is a rainbow swirl of colourful abstraction; Ludwig Meidner’s ominous “Doomsday” (1915) evokes the anxiety and horror of war-era Berlin, as does one of his Apocalyptic Landscapes from 1916 (interestingly he began the series in 1911, long before the Great War began). In contrast, Max Beckmann’s tightly cropped “The Street” (1914) is a decidedly sober, if slightly claustrophobic, observation of big city bustle.

Doomsday by Ludwig Meidner, 1916

In Room #6, another hugely influential and dynamic local movement is presented: “Dada in Berlin”. Though it originated at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, its principles and spirit were imported to Berlin in 1917 by German poet and writer (and psychoanalyst) Richard Huelsenbeck, who had been living in Zurich and regularly attended the cabaret.

Like the Novembergruppe, Dada was political in nature, serving as a direct artistic reaction to the war. Huelsenbeck was joined in Berlin by protagonists such as Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield, George Grosz and Johannes Baader—their own Club Dada produced everything from paintings and manifestos to abstract poetry and ‘actions’, most of which took aim at the bourgeoisie, church leaders, and authority in general.

First International Dada Fair, Berlin, June 1920. Standing (left to right): Raoul Hausmann (artist), Otto Burchard, Johannes Baader (writer and artist), John Heartfield’s brother, Wieland Herzfelde, born Wieland Herzfeld, and his wife, Margerete Herzfelde, George Grosz (artist), and John Heartfield, born Helmut Herzfeld, (artist). Seated (left to right): Hannah Höch, born Anna Therese Johanne Höch, (artist) and Otto Schmalhausen (artist).

This room’s works include Höch’s painted collage “Roma” from 1925, as well as a cutely assembled postcard she sent to Hausmann (they were lovers for a while); satirical George Grosz sketches like “Blood is the best Sauce” and “Pimps of Death” (both from 1919), and—on the ceiling—a reconstruction of Heartfield’s famous “Prussian Archangel”, a mannequin of a police officer featuring a pig’s head that was originally presented at the First International Dada Fair, held in a multi-roomed apartment-gallery in Berlin in 1920.

New Objectivity

Rooms #7 and #8 explore Berlin as a “Hub Between East and West”, underlining the influence of Russian and Eastern European Constructivism and the abstract photography movement known as ‘New Vision’ via some of the political exiles and avant-garde artists who had found a home in Berlin. These include Russian artists such as Ivan Puni, Naum Gabo, and El Lissitzky, as well as Hungarian painter Lajos d’Ebneth. The works here emphasise abstraction and geometric shapes, as well as the use of industrial designs and materials; characteristics that also heavily influenced the Dutch De Stijl movement, of which d’Ebneth became a part after moving to the Netherlands in 1923.

Still Life with White Bottle by Ivan Puni, 1922

These movements were decisive shifts away from, and in some cases reactions to, the often wild and emotional content of Expressionism and Dada, ushering in a trend for orderly, rational works that became known in Germany as ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (New Objectivity)—the theme of Room #9. Although the movement had a big influence on architecture, it quickly became a guiding focus for a distinctive kind of portraiture that favoured sober, detailed reproductions of reality (a vague return to the Old Masters), but with twists in terms of colour and perspective that made it distinctly modern.

Hence the room’s title, “Faces of the City”. Otto Dix, one of the central figures of the movement (many New Objectivists were also Dadaists), is represented here with his striking portrait of the poet Iwar von Lücken (1926), an exaggeratedly thin figure dressed in a threadbare suit next to the window of what appears to be a poky attic studio.

My Little Daughter Kiki, by Issai Kulvianski, 1927

Other standouts include Christian Schad’s imposing depiction of the writer Ludwig Bäumer (1927), and Issai Kulvianski’s portrait of his daughter Erika holding a doll, pencil and a ball in “My Little Daughter Kiki” (1927); her innocence is in contrast to Rudolf Schlichter’s “Jenny Seated”, in which a topless lady in tights and a bob haircut sits on a chair and stares confidently from the canvass, cigarette dangling casually from her hand.

The New Objectivity theme continues in Room #10, on the other side of the gallery, with reportage photography from Erich Salomon—famous for taking illicit photos through a hole in his bowler hat—and artworks such as Nikolaus Braun’s “Berlin Street Scene” (1921), which actually returns us to Expressionist tropes of big-city-chaos: bright colours, vertiginous buildings, trams and beggars.

The show stealer here though, is “Folly Square”, a 1931 painting by Felix Nussbaum—who was just 27 at the time—that brings the Berlin modernism story full circle: it portrays a group of young avant-garde artists unloading paintings outside the Prussian Academy of the Arts on Pariser Platz, as the old professorial vanguard—once anti-establishment rebels—ignore them as they walk towards the building entrance. In the background, a vainglorious Max Liebermann struggles with a self-portrait on the roof of his family home next to the Brandenburg Gate.

The Folly Square by Felix Nussbaum, 1931

Nazi Oppression

From Room #11 (“Berlin in the Nazi Era – Brought to heel Berlin art under the Nazis 1933 – 1945”) onwards, the exhibition takes a decisive turn away from the colourful, creative movements of the Weimar city as the Nazis stamped their jackboots down on modernists and Jews, labelling their art as “degenerate” and the artists as “cultural Bolsheviks”.

Lamenting Women by Hannah Höch, 1946

Many of the artists in the previous rooms were not only banned from exhibiting, painting and teaching, but had their works removed from public life. Some were forced to flee; others were arrested and murdered. A few managed to remain in Germany and continue working—usually in isolation and in secret. Hannah Höch was able to continue working, albeit from a secluded house outside of Berlin. “Lamenting Women”, sketched in 1943 and painted in 1946, is perhaps the most moving work in a room tinged with the terror and sadness of the Third Reich, and an impressive counterpoint to her better-known collage work.

Karl Hofer also managed to survive the regime—just about—to become the director of the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts in 1945. His work “The Prisoners”, a huddle of semi-naked figures with shaved heads, is remarkable for being painted in 1933, since it seems to starkly presage what was to come. Nussbaum is featured again too, this time with “Self-Portrait Wearing a Shroud (Group Portrait)” from 1943, one of several poignant works he created while in hiding in Brussels, following a spell in a camp in Saint-Cyprien that he escaped from. In 1944 he was caught again and this time executed.

Self-Portrait Wearing a Shroud (Group Portrait) by Felix Nussbaum, 1942

Black and white photos by Herbert Tobias showcasing depressing scenes from the Russian front complete the aesthetic of misery—slaughtered animals, exhausted soldiers, desolate bunkers and the remnants of a farmhouse.

Room #12, “Isolation – Artists During Nazi Rule between 1933 and 1945”, displays works from artists who were somehow able to continue working, but is no more uplifting despite the presence of the curiously cheerful “Three Points” from Rudolf Bauer, who escaped to the States in 1939. Höch’s macabre, authoritarian “Three Faces” dominates the mood, alongside some curious sketches of wire heads from Hans Uhlmann, who was imprisoned in Tegel for distributing anti-Nazi materials. Upon release, he secretly turned the designs as sculptures alongside his day job.

Postwar Development

The next room, which looks at the city after 1945, starts to pick up hope again after the years of desolation. Amazingly, the Galerie Gerd Rosen opened on Kurfürstendamm as early as August 1945, becoming the first exhibition space in the post-war city for modern and contemporary art; out of necessity, it showcased a lot of works that had until recently been banned. The gallery was founded by bookseller Gerd Rosen, art collector Max Leon Flemming, and surrealist painter Heinz Trökes, two of whose paintings hang here—his “Tuberies, Building Blocks, Feather Growth” from 1947 is the most compelling, for its almost upbeat take on the found destruction of his bombed out environment.

Tuberies, Building Blocks, Feather Growth by Heinz Trökes, 1946

Jeanne Mammen’s “Door to Nothingness” (sometime after 1945), an angular handle-less doorway floating in mid-air, has a similarly fragmentary quality. Arwed Messmer’s 1951 photograph of Pariser Platz shows the famous square bleak and empty; in contrast to more famous 1945 images of the square in ruins, this one feels symbolic of the area’s new role as part of the ideological barrier in a politically divided city.

Room #14 guides us into ”Abstraction as the Language of Freedom”, whereby the emphasis shifted to New York, which became a new centre for art as Europe recovered from destruction. Abstract Expressionism was the dominant postwar movement there, although the term had actually been used in Der Sturm as far back as 1919, in connection with German Expressionism. The German iterations of it here, from Fred Thieler and ‚Thursday Group’ co-founder Hann Trier—experiments in collage and drip painting—feel dull and lifeless compared to what has gone before, and are not elevated much by the textural shadowplay of East German photographer Fritz Kühn, nor the bafflingly ugly scrawls of Hans Uhlmann.

Arwed Messmer, Pariser Platz, 1951

Perhaps it’s the (understandable) dearth of compelling art in the city during this period that led to the decision to turn to architecture in Room #15. But despite some vaguely interesting styles that point to a revival of Bauhaus ideals, “Detached Houses in Berlin from 1950” feels decidedly underwhelming.

Divided City

Things pick up slightly in Room #16, which focuses on the cultural scene in West Berlin between the 1960s and 1980s, profiling the Grossgörschen 35 group, who founded the first artist-run gallery in West Berlin, in 1964 (it ran until 1968). The group—named after the gallery address (Großgörschenstraße 35, Schöneberg), which was close to the University of Arts where many of the associated artists had studied or were studying—were adamantly against abstraction, and sought a return to figurative painting, or what became known as ‘New Figuration’.

The first show at the Großgörschenstraße gallery was by co-founder K.H. Hödicke, and included his triptych “The Great Butcher” (1963), which now hangs here, in all its grotesque, semi-violent glory, along with works by his contemporaries Georg Baselitz and Eugen Schönebeck, The latter’s gory “The Crucified I” (1964), featuring a mutilated body on a cross, was part of a direct attempt by that generation to shatter the deafening silence of Germany’s engagement with National Socialism. Schönebeck’s friend Georg Baselitz shared the same concerns: his “A Modern Painter” (1966), part of his “Heroes” series, is a distorted, ragged caricature of a soldier figure—genitals exposed, uniform ripped, fingers digging into the earth.

The Great Butcher by K. H. Hödicke, 1963

Of course the Berlin Wall was a conspicuous theme for West Berlin artists too. Rainer Fetting, who co-founded the Galerie am Moritzplatz in the seventies and helped spawn the Neue Wilde—a group of Neo-Expressionist artists inspired by punk and New Wave—tackles the topic in “Yellow Wall (Luckauer Straße / Sebastianstraße)” (1977). Part of a series of works relating to the structure, this one paints the Wall bright yellow, purposefully inverting its usual grey, lifeless character.

Mann mit Koffer by Trak Wendisch, 1983

Representing the same theme but from East Berlin, Trak Wendisch’s “Man with Suitcase”, from 1983, was painted in Prenzlauer Berg and depicts a much more uncertain atmosphere: a businessman in an overcoat, deep in thought, East Berlin glowing ominously in the background. This image serves as an introduction of sorts to the final room (#17), which focuses on the work, all in black and white as per GDR style, of two East Berlin photographers: Maria Sewcz, who was born in Schwerin and studied in Leipzig, and urban planner Ulrich Wüst, whose work “Stadtbilder” (“City Views’, 1979-87”) critiqued the lacklustre reality of city development throughout the GDR.

From the series ‘inter:esse’, by Maria Sewcz, 1986

The several images taken from Sewcz’s “inter.esse” series are comprised not of wide screen perspectives of the GDR capital, but close ups and moments taken between 1985-1987: a short-haired woman stroking a floppy-tongued dog; crushed egg shell around the opening of a bin; and the most telling of all, an arm sporting a spiked armband—an overt sign of regime resistance—reaching for a cup of coffee in a restaurant.

Ulrich Wüst’s images look at Berlin and other East German cities (Gera, Leipzig, Magdeburg) in a completely different way. Devoid of people, they’re documents of urban architecture—rows of prefabricated housing, empty streets with tell-tale east German lampposts, the occasional run-down pre-GDR building. And yet these depersonalised urban landscapes manage to convey a thoughtful kind of visual poetry through their use of formal symmetry and interplay of light and shadow.

Berlin by Ulrich Wüst, 1980

There was more art than this happening, of course, even in former East Berlin, but both sets of photographs make a refreshing change from the well-known names, as well as overly-familiar GDR imagery. Having this room end the exhibition feels premature; another room exploring post-reunification art would perhaps been a more triumphant finale, returning Berlin to its rightful status as a vibrant, creative capital and giving the finger to the various regimes that tried to dampen its spirit. But for that we now have hundreds of other galleries; something that one feels very grateful for after a visit here.

All images courtesy of the Berlinische Galerie, unless otherwise credited


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