... every aspect of the old ways of life were being challenged by the development of the thriving cities, throwing traditional values and culture into flux.

— Maggie Finch

The thriving, sophisticated and cosmopolitan metropolis provided a rich source of imagery for artists. By the 1920s, Berlin had become the cultural and entertainment capital of the world and mass culture played an important role in distracting a society traumatised by World War I. The metropolis also came to represent unprecedented personal and sexual freedom and tolerance, and artists depicted scenes of leisure, entertainment and the city at night. George Grosz and Rudolf Schlichter portrayed Berlin’s seedy underbelly. Their brilliant yet sinister representations of brothels and sex murders seem shocking, but their intention was for art to affect social change by representing the victimisation of society’s outcasts. In Frankfurt am Main, Max Beckmann depicted elaborate scenes of outsiders, such as circus and carnival performers, which became metaphors for modern city life and its social corruption.

In photography, modernity was emphasised either by unusual views of the metropolis or through the representation of city types. Contemporary debates around the question of whether a photograph could capture the psychological depth of a person were played out in the works of August Sander and Hugo Erfurth, who photographed many of the most prominent members of German society. The diverse group of works in this room portrays the uninhibited sense of freedom and innovation experienced by artists throughout Germany during the 1920s.

Focus work

Max Beckmann (1884-1950)
The trapeze 1923

Year 7–12 Visual Arts: issues for consideration

  • The city became a significant theme for artists in this period. Create a body of work responding to the metropolis. Think about what the city represents and how it differs from rural areas. Consider the people and the landscape and how your point of view on this theme can be represented in your art making.
  • Respond to The trapeze 1923 in a subjective way. In your opinion is it a successful artwork? Consider the figures in the composition. What emotion are they revealing to the audience? Is this image a true representation of circus performers or is it saying something more?
  • Create an exhibition based on the same artworks in The mad square. Would you choose the same approach as the curator who focused on artists from the metropolis? Are there other ways to group particular artworks together to form a different narrative?
  • Max Beckmann was one of Weimar Germany’s leading artists who embraced modernity in his artworks. Define the term modernity and its significance to this particular period. Look at Beckmann’s body of work and discuss how modernity is represented in his art practice. Give a slide presentation discussing your point of view.