The end of World War I and the fighting that accompanied the November Revolution in 1918/19 were followed by inflation and unemployment. Berlin is in a state of revolt, and so are its artists: George Grosz dissects the world of villains and whores, Erich Godal demonises factories in his cycle “Revolution”, Otto Möller and Heinrich Vogeler depict orators and protest-ing crowds, and even the young Werner Heldt dreams of rebellion. Different as their artistic techniques may be, almost none can resist venturing an opinion. Artists plunge into the street life of this fashionable, proletar-ian or “sinful” Berlin and find their models. On the city boulevards, in the bars, behind the wings of the music hall or on the gloomy dance floor of a working-class pub – in all these distinctive urban haunts, illustrators discover the faces on the street and with them a store chest of contemporary types: revolutionary, proletarian, whore, girl, garçonne, rent boy, pimp, sex killer, war profiteer, parvenu, office worker.
Female artists like Jeanne Mammen, Gertrude Sandmann and Lilo Friedlaender give the New Woman a face: she is making use of her newly won rights, studying at university, becoming a doctor or an artist. Like Irmgard Keun’s famous “Artificial Silk Girl”, she dreams of being a rising star. She invests in an elegant dress, sips her mocha in the café, takes champagne at the bar, and catches men and women alike in her erotic net.
In the years between 1924 and 1929, the “golden” centre, Berlin pulls itself up by the jockstraps to become a colourful hub of entertainment. Boxing, dancing and the Zoo featured among the most popular pleasures of the man and woman on the street, illustrated by artists like Karl Arnold and Heinrich Ehmsen. But these artists see the dark side, too: the addicts on park benches, disenchanted prostitutes, unemployed workers. The struggle to survive is engraved on the faces in the city.
Like today, Berlin attracted artists and writers from all over the world. Dozens of newspapers and magazines reported on theatre and cinema celebrities. The bestknown press cartoonist of the day, Dolbin, supplied fast and fitting portraits of performers such as Valeska Gert, Mary Wigmann and Lotte Lenya.
In 1930 the portfolio Rues et Visages de Berlin was published with a text by the French diplomat and playwright Jean Giraudoux and illustrations by Chas-Laborde. Giraudoux observed Berliners going about their business as a researcher might in an alien culture. It was not the theatre and museums that fascinated the Frenchman so much as the physical pleasures of open-air bathers and the delight of ordinary day-trippers at the Zoo and in Lunapark: “Berlin’s half-dose of sadness and double dose of fun, this mixture of poverty, slavery and supreme freedom that makes up the metropolitan elixir.” It was an elixir tasted by all the artists on show here: the pictures they painted with pen and brush still inform our image of that period, caught between the urban demons of Expressionism and the racy tempo of Objectivity, a society embracing the modern era and the looming shadows of dictatorship.
When the Nazis seized power in 1933, this cultural diversity began to disintegrate: fanfare and finale. Critical artists emigrated. Jewish artists like Ines Wetzel, Lilo Friedlaender and Gertrude Sandmann were banned from working, went underground or perished in the camps. Werner Heldt’s famous drawing of 1933/34 sums up what is throttling and destroying the colourful, vivacious culture of the Weimar Republic: this “Meeting”, as its German title declares, is a parade of nobodies.