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Between Metropolis and Arcadia
Places between dream and reality 1850-1950
until 3 March 2018

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The Romantic period was one of sentimentality, dreamy rural idylls but also ideal cities, as described in the work of Adalbert Stifter, for example. In the late nineteenth century, increasing industrialisation led to the impoverishment of the rural population and to the first major migration away from the countryside as a result. The growth of the cities gave rise to both a wealthy bourgeoisie and a lumpenproletariat. Art and literature reacted to the new living conditions, which were also celebrated – making a virtue out of necessity – in the form of an artistic bohemia. At the same time, many artists, particularly those who moved after 1900 from rural areas to the rapidly growing cities, experienced a form of shock to which they reacted in very different ways.

The writer Alfred Döblin and the painter and illustrator George Grosz were bitter chroniclers of Berlin during the 1920s with its four million inhabitants, a city seething with corruption and excitement. Grosz even described it sardonically as “our besmirched paradise”. At a time when Grosz was still drawing in the expressive realist style, the Futurists had already found a home in Herwart Walden’s Sturm-Galerie, where they could celebrate their technology and doom fantasies in a style combining Cubism, Kineticism and Dada. In his manifesto The Non-Objective World,the Russian Kasimir Malevich states that an artist who lives in the city must inevitably address technological themes, while an artist in the country will continue to paint cows. He even goes as far as to say that the cow artist would be unhappy in the city, which should be prevented. The Brücke artists, who had moved to Berlin from the more tranquil Dresden, developed their own urban style, before the outbreak of the First World War churned everything up. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner settled in the Swiss Alps, henceforth painting his surroundings. Earlier in the century the Munich neo-romantics Franz Marc and August Macke of the Blauer Reiter group depicted a vision of nature that was more utopian than realistic, before they were called up to fight – and die all too young – in the war.

After the war, the city and its increasing decadence during the world economic crisis remained a major theme in German Expressionism (and in its own way in the Austrian version). In the USA, the politically dark period of prohibition during the 1920s and 1930s was a subject of urban Expressionism. By contrast, the artistic portrayal of expressive and utopian landscapes as an escape for the financially and intellectually impoverished city dweller was symptomatic not only of the inter-war years. Even before the outbreak of the First World War, some artists, starting with Paul Gauguin, had left their homelands in an expression of their weariness with civilisation to seek their happiness in the distant south. They captured their impressions of foreign peoples, landscapes and animals in a realistic but also frequently exaggerated expressive or surrealistic style in a manner that appeared exotic to those left behind.

After 1918, a focus on landscapes was also sometimes an expression of resignation or hope for the future. In the trend towards New Objectivity during the 1920s, both urban and rural visions experienced a purification to the point of consisting of geometric forms, as seen in the works of artists like Georg Schrimpf or Gerd Arntz, in which humans were reduced to pictograms before disappearing altogether. This was done sometimes with dry irony and sometimes in great seriousness. When the Nazis came to power, all forms of Expressionism were labelled a priori “degenerate”. But during the all-consuming disaster of the Second World War some of the “degenerate” artists, who preferred exile in their own country to emigration, continued to paint expressive landscapes as a form of escapism, and in the early 1950s a few of the students of the first Expressionist generation turned their back in defiance or resignation on the all-conquering abstract art, portraying landscapes and remaining as disdained representatives of figurative art.