Unruly Modernity

Centre Pompidou’s exhibition on the Weimar Republic reveals more than meets the eye.

Otto Dix, Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber, 120,4 x 64,9 cm, oil and tempera on board, 1925 & August Sander, Secretary at Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne, 29 x 22 cm, gelatin silver print, 1931.

Centre Pompidou’s imposing edifice stares me down as I enter Germany / 1920s / The New Objectivity / August Sander, a complex exhibition that contrasts the German New Objectivity movement with August Sander’s (1876–1964) portrait photography. As the title suggests, this presentation is at least three exhibitions in one take. One shows the aesthetics of the 1920s with design objects and architecture, another the avant-garde and anti-Expressionist art movement Die Neue Sachlichkeit, and finally there is a solo exhibition with a large selection of Sander’s unfinished lifework People of the 20th Century.

The perspectives are further widened by film screenings, performances, and conferences prompting the audience to reconsider what is reverberating between the 1920s and the present. This is the Centre Pompidou à l’ancienne: an ambitious exhibition complex. But it is no easy task to bring out productive connections and differences in such an overwhelming mass of perspectives.

Hannah Höch, Glasses, 77.50 x 77.50 cm, oil on canvas, 1927.

As I wrestle, sullenly, with other aspiring time travellers to get a glimpse of the exhibited works, I put on my noise-cancelling headphones to escape the masses. With Christian Gabel’s 2016 album Tekno – a nostalgic anti-hymn to the 20th century – in my ears, I find myself thrown into a place that art exhibitions are called to produce, but all too rarely achieve. The individual artworks don’t speak as solitary pieces, but rather says in unison: “Look here, this is our time; this is what it looked like; now we are looking at you; what do you see?” 

After a few steps, I stand in front of a smoked glass wall through which I can barely make out the end of the exhibition and its only contemporary work: Retournements (2022), a film interrogating the two exhibitions at Kunsthalle Mannheim that marked the birth and death of the SachlichkeitNew Objectivity – German Painting since Expressionism (1925) and Images of Cultural Bolshevism (1933). The former, organised by the art historian Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, defined the movement; in the latter, the Nazis exhibited so-called degenerate art. The smoked glass emphasise the shifting of perspectives – it is how we look more than the objects themselves that determines what is seen. While I peer, as if through a fog, toward the end of the gallery, I am surrounded by paintings that were celebrated in one exhibition only to be denounced in the other. Change can come as painfully slow as murderously fast.

At odds with the past and with hope of better times, an obstinate female gaze captures me throughout the exhibition. It is, in part, present in Sander’s portrait portfolio The Woman, which foregrounds the active working woman – but in relation to children, men, and family. Hilde, the subject of Karl Hubbuch’s (1891–1979) painting Two-times Hilde (1929), offers a liberating look. Here, the model’s posture and facial expressions demonstrate that enough is enough: no more sitting portraits and naked breasts. “Paint me as I am or leave me alone,” she seems to say. She rambles, giggles, and grows bored. The gaze becomes even more subversive in the exhibition chapter ‘Transgressions’. Here, women paint women. Jeanne Mammen (1890–1976) tenderly depicts the lesbian and queer Berlin of the 1920s, while Kate Diehn-Bitt’s (1900–1978) androgynous Self-Portrait as a Painter (1935) shows a liberating aspect of the time. Juxtapositions of mischief and care, on the one hand, and of a dark past and the hope of an illuminous future, on the other, establishes the 1920s as a breaking point. We know all too well that both good and bad were to follow.

Carl Grossberg, Self Portrait, 70,1 x 60, oil on canvas, 1928.

Together with the dystopian sound of Gabel’s sampled recordings replayed on crackling turntables and tape recorders – with song titles like ‘Anti 1900’ and ‘The Modernity That Never Came’ – the exhibition hits me in the gut. Through the intricate interlacing of time and space, portrait photography and paintings, the Centre Pompidou has managed to create an intelligent unit despite the vast scope. It is an exhibition that, through its many perspectives and opposing views, demands reflection and hard work from its audience.

An intriguing effect of Sander’s portrait photography and quasi-scientific search for human archetypes is that the people he depicts are continuously scrutinizing not only the viewer but also the works that surround them. On the one hand: the dream of modernity – the orderly and better future promised by Taylorism, capitalism, and reason – manifested at the heart of the exhibition in a full-scale kitchen featuring the New Objectivity’s idealisation of colourful appliances and electrical installations. On the other hand: Sander’s jaded Martha with a toddler on each arm, laid-back circus workers, petty bourgeois, and country bumpkins. In other words, people of all walks of life. Many stare straight into the camera, towards the objects and the artworks – and towards us. Powerfully cross-pollinating the Roaring Twenties with the social misery that lay in its shadow, these multifaceted gazes gives me an eerie feeling.

August Sander, Circus Workers, 28 x 21,2. gelatin silver print, 1926–1932 & Otto Dix, Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, 121 x 89 cm, oil and tempera on canvas, 1926.

How does this show go from related but disparate parts into something bigger? There is no lack of biographical points of contact. Sanders, coming from an older generation, was not directly part of New Objectivity. Yet, he lived and worked in the Weimar Republic during an era full of disappointment over not only the outcome of the First World War, but also failed social revolutions and dashed hopes for an aspiring modernity. Sander and the other artists and photographers in the exhibition knew one another. It is, however, not their commonalities but their differences that turn the parts of this presentation into a whole. The exhibition emerges out of the details of the human put against a cold backdrop of rationality, standardisation, and industrialisation. Sander’s staged, yet apparently objective, pictures seem to question why a return from Expressionism to figurative depiction would be necessary at all in the era of photography. On the other hand, the contrived expressions in Otto Dix’s (1891–1961) portraits of 1920s cabaret artists reveal the glamourous life as a fraught one. A still life of household utensils and a painting of a power line, together with a view on to the bustle of Paris, remind me of how much life there is and the many forms it can take. If Sanders depicts living people, New Objectivity depicts the human.

I see Centre Pompidou’s exhibition as an intervention in the present: an inculcation of my vision. In the prologue of the presentation, a photograph shows three young peasants walking towards the Great War. In its epilogue, portraits of SS officers with fixed gazes hang opposite images of the victims of National Socialism. Between the two points, a complex and elusive drama unfolds. As I exited the space, I heard Gabel’s sampled text in my headphones: “I came into this world in the rough and ready year of 1923. It was a barbarous time, it was a bleak time, and it was an uncivilized time.” Outside, I was greeted by the cheerful exhibition poster flirting with the idealised 1920s, a gift shop full of tasteful publications, and an advertisement for a show full of colourful plastic. There was a heat wave in Paris, with blistering 38 degrees. The war thunders on. The 1920s is not a blueprint for the 2020s, but juxtaposing contradictory things does reveal more than meets the eye. Centre Pompidou has given me a lesson in seeing.

Centre Pompidou, Germany / 1920s / The New Objectivity / August Sander, installation view, 2022. Photo: Bertrand Prevost.
Centre Pompidou, Germany / 1920s / The New Objectivity / August Sander, installation view, 2022. Photo: Bertrand Prevost.
Centre Pompidou, Germany / 1920s / The New Objectivity / August Sander, installation view, 2022. Photo: Bertrand Prevost.