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Nonideological Modernism: Breslau Artists in the 1920s Essay

Although Breslau’s artistic life coalesced around the Academy, the diverse per- sonalities and interests of Brcslau artists made the community truly significant. Looking back on his years in Breslau, the artist Alexander Camaro said. “On the one hand, we have truly lost this city (Breslau], on the other hand, it was an exceedingly fruitful cultural epoch and a spiritually liberal city. Not least, through the concentration, a fortunate combination of a circle of creative men. that seldom occurs.” Camaro implies that the cultural developments in Breslau were particular to the Weimar “epoch” and to Breslau itself. As Carl Lange realized, the situation in the East was a paradox. Breslau seemed isolated and remote, yet artists who went there discovered a place where they were free to work as they pleased, largely because they were ignored. That freedom was both real and illusory.

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Although artists in Breslau could navigate the territory between avant-garde and traditional aesthetics as they pleased, they remained dependent on Berlin in many ways. Local and regional recognition and patronage were not sufficient for building a lasting and fruitful career. While artists could make a decent living in the provinces, they made and maintained their reputations in the capital city’s internationally recognized galleries, museums, and publications. Breslau artists thus had to operate in a reciprocal relationship to the cultural scene in Berlin, if they wanted to truly succeed.

The artists who migrated to Breslau after 1918 pursued an incredible range of aesthetic approaches. Fiercely independent and individualistic, they nonetheless can be characterized as a group who blurred distinctions between the representational aspects of traditional art and the abstract geometric ten- dencies in new art.  To paraphrase Hans Scharoun’s assessment of his colleagues. cited in chapter 3: Paul Dobers. Paul Holz. and Konrad von Kardorff were traditionalists who used realistic representation; Alexander Kanoldt was interested in New Objectivity; Carlo Mensc was a Magic Realist; Georg Muche was an abstractionist. Otto Mueller was an expressionist; and Oskar Schlcmmer was fascinated with the human figure. But in describing his peers. Scharoun did not use standard stylistic labels, like cubism or New Objectivity. Instead, he pointed to the intent or focus of each artist’s work. Rather than referring to Otto Mueller as an expressionist, Scharoun described him as “Mueller, of the vegetative.” Rather than label Holz a realist or traditionalist, he noted that “Paul Holz the strength and power of origins.”‘ These semantic choices emphasized each artist’s individual contribution, distinct from any style, movement, or group. They also point to the fact that these artists did not conform to the narrow prescriptions of modernist or traditionalist aesthetic imperatives, but had to be defined on their own terms. Indeed. Weimar-era art in Breslau demonstrates that the split between conservative and modern or avantgarde was not so clear.

Challenging Style

Contemporary observers recognized the range of aesthetics in Weimar-era Germany. In 1921. Willi Wolfradt wrote in Das Kunstblatt, “we have no culture, no style, we find ourselves in an anarchy of formal tendencies, in a state of cpigo- nal, utopian rootlessness.’* Wolfradt framed this state as loss—“One cedes to engineers and certain politicians (the right] to be happy about civilization, one complains over lost culture, rhapsodizes for the coming one”—explicitly pointing to art as both the “product of our cultural situation” and “a mirror of our desire to overcome our situation.“ Two aspects of art, form and content, were key to addressing what he saw as the chaotic, technically oriented, complex condition of modernity and modem city dwellers, for “Content is the artistic goal of the representation, under Form we understand the accomplishment of this goal using the chosen means.” Like Scharoun’s descriptions of his peers, Wolfradt’s frame offers a less polarized, and arguably more accurate, model for discussing artists and their work than the usual stylistic labels. Wolfradt noted that contemporary art seemed to “unite” the many tendencies in art, the “concert of contrasts” in an “arena of polarities,” asserting that the surface impression of the era’s fragmented, polarized, disconnected art movements be- lied the existence of an underlying order. He likened contemporary art to a wave sweeping over the sand that engulfs the beach, rearranges it. then recedes; although the wave of modernity could be overwhelming, tradition would never disappear. Indeed, the “anarchy” Wolfradt described could be viewed as rich variety, the fruitful result of active artistic engagement, while the absence of “style” and “culture” he described may. in fact, have been the formal expression of the endless possibilities afforded by the combination of old and new. Wolfradt’s analysis and its implications certainly applied to Breslau, which was as a magnet for the artists Wolfradt describes, who embraced the wealth of formal possibilities available to them.

Like all Weimar artists. Breslau artists faced the tensions between the modern and the traditional, along with the avant-garde. As David Cottington. Matei Calinescu, and others point out. “modern” and “avant-garde” are related but not synonymous terms for two connected but distinct groups. The avant-garde seeks to break with convention and forge new territory. In Germany during the 1920s. members of the avant-garde generally could be identified by their membership in particular associations like the Arbeitsmt fur Kunst and Novembergruuppe in Berlin, and Rat Geistiger Arbeit and Gruppe 19 in Breslau. They tended to believe in left-wing politics, drastic educational reform, and the marriage of art and life (whatever that meant). Modem artists engaged in their work with the conditions of modernity: social, political, demographic, and technological change; mass communications and media; urbanity; psychological states of mind.

Many Breslau artists subscribed to Oskar Moll’s beliefs that quality, not style, matters in art and all art builds on past achievements. This focus on the evolution of art differed from the radical avant-garde’s theory of a revolution- ary break with the past. Of course there is a difference between rhetoric and reality, and much of the avant-garde was as deeply rooted in tradition as any traditional artists, as historians like Barbara Miller Lane and Colin Rowe have demonstrated. German expressionism, for instance, was an avant-garde move- ment deeply invested in romantic art. Still. Breslau artists were unusual in their open embrace of both tradition and modernity.

The most obvious manifestation of this embrace was the way Breslau art combined different elements from traditional and contemporary art. in contrast to work that only embraced contemporary ideas and forms. Artists like Moll. Marg Moll. Mueller. Paula Grunefcld, and Schlemmer, used traditional forms, like the still life. nude, portrait, and landscape, but rendered them in an abstract, nonspatial, and unrealistic fashion. Johannes Molzahn worked with abstracted compositions of recognizable figures in a nonlinear space, and the emotional and psychological aspects of his work were very important. Other artists, like Paul Holz, worked with traditional media, such as the woodcut, and traditional representational techniques, like perspective. but experimented within these modes by depicting nontraditional subject matter or partially abstracting elements of otherwise realistic images. Painters like Carlo Mense combined figuration and abstraction, adding the new element of the dreamscape to great effect. Alexander Kanoldt is still considered one of the key figures in Neue Sachlichkcit, yet, as his biographer and childhood friend Wilhelm Hausenstein pointed out. his work was at once absolutely new and deeply rooted in classicism. He painted traditional subjects like cityscapes and still lifes using new methods of applying color and manipulating light. Kanoldt also heightened the emotional quality of his canvases to create a hyper-reality. There were as many formulations for combining old and new as Breslau had imaginations to invent them.

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The Breslau artists did not want to be labeled or even associated with any specific aesthetic ideology or “ism,” including the avant-garde. Schlemmer left the Bciuhaus in part because of the turmoil after Gropius’s departure, but also because Hannes Meyer was pushing a narrowly prescriptive approach to art that emphasized explicitly political or social aims and did not have room for Schlemmer’s theatrical experiments. In Breslau, by contrast. Schlemmer discovered an open, supportive, noninvasivc atmosphere where, he wrote, Moll “rules quietly and wisely.” without imposing any agenda on his faculty. GeorgMuche also seems to have left Dessau for Breslau in search of a less restrictive atmosphere. By 1922 Muche was already concerned with the direction at the Bauhcius. He wrote to Gropius:

I am of the opinion that art today is as much an end in itself as in any time, and that for the unambiguously arts talented man will always remain an end in itself, even where it sccnis applied. I suspect that one too narrowly limits the freedoms of the creative individual when one takes the negation of the formula, “art for art’s sake” as a fundamental principle. The useless picture is just as fundamentally creative as the technician’s useful machine.

Presumably Muche was reacting against the functional imperative pushed at the Bauhaus at that time. His own art in the 1920s was hardly applied, combining cubist abstraction with dreamy colored schemes, and his insistence on artistic independence aligned with the prevailing sentiment in Breslau where, unlike Dessau, there was no push toward functionalism.

Otto Mueller similarly believed strongly in artistic quality. Herbert Wentscher. one of Mueller’s pupils, described him thus: “In (my] memory lingers the incorruptibility of artistic things, his advocacy for absolute quality. He remained true to himself until his last hour, he also demanded the highest accomplishments from his students.”1′ Many of Mueller’s colleagues described his fierce adherence to personal vision, as does his biographer. Lothar-Günther Buchheim. Even when Mueller joined the Briickc. he remained an outsider. He never adopted the bold colors and heavy-handed line, which were the signature formal elements of the Briickc, nor did he abandon the tropes that typify his work, such as the nude, gypsies, and landscape. Kanoldt also remained fascinated with traditional subjects like landscape, architecture, and the portrait. His forays into the avant-garde in Munich were short-lived, as he quit the Neuen Kunstlcncrcinigung (New Artists Associa- tion) and the Munich Neue Sezession (New Secession) almost as soon as he joined them. Kanoldt never moved into the abstraction and cubism explored by other Munich artists, like Kandinsky. Jawlensky, and Le Fauconnier, or the vibrant colors of Franz Marc; instead, his art remained subdued and tied to its traditional origins.

Moll bragged about the diversity of aesthetic positions held by the Academy faculty, which he clearly viewed as both a strength and a defining characteristic of the Academy. It was also a defining quality for the Breslau modem art scene as a whole. The distinguished art and cultural critic Adolf Bchne praised the school for its diverse faculty, who nevertheless “achieve a unity of purpose and outlook.’’ It is significant that Behne emphasized approach over style or aes- thetic ideology. Rather than movements, Moll spoke of artistic “currents’* or “trends’* by which he meant specific formal interests, for instance. ‘The deepening of naturalistic vision without contenting themselves with imitating natural occurrences … on the other hand, a wide distancing from the object, a distur- bance of the artifact.” Moll saw’ such formal trends as the significant factors in contemporary production, with which artists w orked to develop individual means of expression. Style, by contrast, was too narrow and prescriptive, and he consistently repudiated it as a measure of ait. instead recognizing the importance of the “many-sided currents” in contemporary art practice.

In the rather mystical formulation. “Not art as an aesthetic object but style out of belief.” Moll appropriates “style,” redefining it as the desired result of a personal approach that arises from inner conviction, rather than in imitation of current art fashion. As Molzahn put it in 1964. in a diatribe against style and the machine aesthetic, “aesthetics are not the result but the foundation for an organically based spirituality” in art, a claim that reflects his Weimar era position as well. Georg Muche also worried that machine aesthetics were taking over and crowding out individual creativity, which he wanted to keep as open as possible. Otto Mueller admonished himself to “always doubt everything, find the new.’* Mueller positioned himself outside every art movement, including the avant-garde, doubtfully querying any and every idea so he could discover paths as yet unknown. In sum, Breslau’s diversity was specifically predicated on an open-minded use of aesthetic means to develop a form of personal expression. Unlike the radical avant-garde, however, Breslau artists positioned their work neither in reaction to bourgeois society nor or as a means of educating the Volk.

The embrace of individuality in Breslau accompanied a suspicion of fash- ion. style, and prescriptive aesthetics. Unlike the avant-gardist who intentionally rejects norms as an artistic strategy, the Breslau artists celebrated the creative mind that wishes its work to be unique, since singularity makes art special and therefore valuable. The challenge was how to achieve exceptional quality outside the usual aesthetic categories. The painter Hans Purmann. a close friend of the Molls and pupil of Henri Matisse, outlined this challenge in a short essay Marg Moll kept among her personal papers. He wrote, “the goal of our times is to demonstrate the stylistic unity [of artworks) through composition.”2′ The difficulty lay in achieving one’s own aesthetic coherence, without resorting to imitation, style, or fashion. Purmann was particularly worried about the abandonment of nature and natural subjects for pure abstraction, and he argued that it is possible to work with and from nature without copying natural forms.

Hans Poelzig repeatedly warned against the dangers of imitation and style. Although he was an architect, not an artist. Poclzig’s position, shared by many Breslau artists, exemplified the fears about formulaic approaches to art. Poelzig warned again and again that Sachlichkeitand functionalism were com-ing dangerously close to a new style akin to those of the nineteenth century: “This sort of New Sachlichkeit has as much false romanticism in it and. in the end, buried Unsachlichkeit as every period, that allows itself to become intoxi- cated with a buzzword.” In a letter to Bruno Taut, he railed against the machine, warning “that everything related to the machine should not be holy to contemporary architects lest they fall into the same rut of their 19th century predecessors who worshipped styles.” Poelzig articulated Breslau’s general mistrust of fashionable tropes like the machine metaphor, which were not al- ways bad but needed to be questioned and used only when they had a direct relationship to the problem at hand.

If Poelzig’s criticism was balanced and tempered, others, like Georg Muche, went much further. Weighing in on the question of fashion and style, Muche wrote. “If we mean that we are free and untied and that in art all is permitted, then fashion and business dictate what appeals (to people I.” Art requires limitations, for if anything goes, the commercial, capitalist domains of fashion and business will determine public taste, resulting in poor quality art. Two fashionable tropes particularly concerned Muche the machine and tech- nology. In a letter to Waller Gropius, he acknowledged their importance to life but argued that they are secondary to life itself. Muche believed the machine ought to serve ail. not serve as art’s guiding metaphor. He did not worship the machine as such, nor did he see it as an aesthetic end: **A machine seems sense- less to me if it cannot fulfill its function even if it has the most beautiful and artistic form. Artists should not run behind engineers in order to transform their machines into a modern aesthetic.” In other words. Muche believed that the machine is less important than art. and that art. technology, and science are secondary to life itself, which undergirds them all—for life is the subject of art, technology serves life, and science probes the secrets of life. Muche also took issue with the notion that art does not serve a purpose: “Useless painting is primordially creative to the same degree that the technologist’s useful machine is.”2* To Muche, art’s purpose lies in its creative aspect, which is as important to humankind as the machine. Art. after all. serves the spirit, and if art serves the spirit well, it is successful, regardless of its aesthetic expression.

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In spite of his attachment to traditional modes of expression and skepticism about the machine and new technology, Moll believed that the artist needed to engage with the present: “To comprehend contemporary values and an accurate testing of the modern instinct will be one of his [the artist’s) most important tasks,” and to “create new forms is not sensation but acceptable necessity.” Moll did not mean that the artist should follow trends and fashions, but rather that he should “comprehend” new ideas, then use them to create with personal meaning.

Muche’s and Poelzig’s reservations notwithstanding. Moll’s attitude typified Breslau artists, who certainly engaged with the many new ideas circulating during the 1920s. even as they remained cautious about novelty for its own sake and aware of the pitfalls in following fashion rather than personal artistic conviction.

Oskar and Marg Moll arrived in Breslau in 1918. Oskar was originally from Brieg, Silesia, which helps explain why they accepted the offer to come to Breslau. Born on July 21, 1875. Moll was the youngest surviving child of Henrietta Rosalie Marie and Theodor Leopold Wilhelm Moll. His father and two brothers ran the family leather factory in Brieg.'”The business was suc- cessful and Moll grew up in a privileged uppcr-middlc-class home with all the advantages of the German Bürgertum. He never shed the trappings of privilege, and his upbringing and habits later earned him the nickname “Grand Seigneur” at the Academy. Moll regularly smoked a cigar, loved cognac and the hunt, and dressed well. Surviving photographs from the period show him turned out in a dapper suit and tie. quite different from the more bohemian dress of colleagues like Mueller, who usually wore a painter’s smock. His bourgeois background invited disdain, possibly motivated by jealousy, from some Breslau associates, like Alexander Kanoldt and Carlo Mense.’1 Kanoldt railed against Moll’s “incredible middle-class instincts’’ and what he saw as the resultant “superficiality” of his personality and work.

By the late 1920s. he even accused Moll of being a dictator. But others, like Adolf Rading, Hans Scharoun, and his wife Marg. praised Moll’s eventempered disposition, fair-mindedness, and refusal to be baited by his critics.32 Moll’s easygoing nature made him well suited to deal with the radically different personalities and artistic interests of his faculty.

Oskar Silisen

Siegfried and Dorothea Salzmann. Gisela Fiedler-Bender, and others have rightly argued for the recovery of Moll as an important early modern German painter.’ Historians point to several factors in explaining his absence from the canon: his status as a German from the East: the destruction of two-thirds of his work during the war, leaving a relatively small record for scholars to study: his reputation as a French-influenced outsider, even during his lifetime; and the fact that his work docs not sit comfortably in any aesthetic category. Scholars tend to glance over or ignore the profound debt Moll’s work owes traditional painting, yet it is one of its most characteristic qualities.

Over the course of his early career, Moll’s painting metamorphosed from the undistinguished academicism of his first canvases to the uniqueness of his mature work. His earliest work took a traditional approach strongly rooted in late nineteenth-century German painting. Moll used a dark palette steeped in browns, greens, and blacks to paint familiar subjects from his everyday surroundings such as pit houses and workers at the family leather factory. Silesian landscapes, and still lifes modeled after old masters. Adolph von Menzel. a fellow Silesian, certainly influenced his work, as did his teachers Lovis Corinth and Hans Leistikow. After he moved to Berlin. Moll’s work took on the elements common to the Berlin Secessionists: a penchant for painting in nature, a brighter palette, and freer brushstrokes. Moll’s mature style emerged after his sojourn in Paris, where he made contact with members of the French avant- garde, particularly the fauvists and cubists, and studied with Matisse. By his own admission, his work vacillated between naturalism and abstraction over the years, as he sought out his own path. His personal aesthetic equivocations likely made Moll sympathetic not only to the struggles of others but to differing ideas about art.

The Molls rented a large apartment in the fashionable part of central Breslau on the Schlossplatz. next door to Frederick the Great’s Breslau residence. The house at number 4 was a palatial neoclassical stone building that belonged to collector and patron Arthur Ollendorf. The house opened directly onto the square, the site of public parades, political demonstrations, and medieval festivals. Marg remembered enjoying a front row seat on her private balcony during the Kapp Putsch. Moll was an avid collector of antiques and art. and the apartment furnishings and decorations echoed his tastes, which were quite eclectic. His collection was so extensive that in 1932 he mounted a solo exhibition of his antiques at the Breslau Academy. The furniture in the apartment included a mix of solid wooden Biedermeier pieces with custom designs by August Endell. The dining room decor was typical, mixing white Baroque pieces with paintings by Picasso. Braque, and Léger, while the living: room had reddish brown mahogany Jugendstil furniture by Endell and paintings by Matisse. Henri Rousseau. Andre Lurçat. Jean Souverbie. and Oscar Ko- koschka.’7 The range of work in his collection reflected Moll’s belief that “quality art of all ages passes together.’’3* Though Moll favored the French school, his tastes were broad, and alongside works by Matisse, Leger. Lurçat. Picasso, and Braque hung paintings by Corinth. Mueller. Purmann, Schmidt- Rottluff. and Kokoschka. (Alexander Kanoldt’s charge that Moll ignored contemporary German artists is not borne out by an examination of his holdings.) Breslau art historian Ernst Scheyer remarked that ‘The decoration of these rooms, their different styles, were a further expression not only of their unerr- ing. forward-looking contemporary taste, but also the generosity and tolerance of both Molls.’’

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Nonideological Modernism: Breslau Artists in the 1920s Essay
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Although Breslau’s artistic life coalesced around the Academy, the diverse per- sonalities and interests of Brcslau artists made the community truly significant. Looking back on his years in Breslau, the artist Alexander Camaro said. “On the one hand, we have truly lost this city (Breslau], on the other hand, it was an exceedingly fruitful cultural epoch and a spiritually liberal city. Not least, through the concentration, a fortunate combination of a circle o

2017-08-03 12:21:19
Nonideological Modernism: Breslau Artists in the 1920s Essay
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