The Beggar of Prachatice by Conrad Felixmüller, 1924 Image Credit: Supplied

After the First World War, Germany was gripped by a chaos of excess, captivated by a cabaret of the bawdy, the beautiful and the grotesque.

Few captured the times better than the artists whose works are on show at London’s Tate Modern in Magic Realism, Art in Weimar Germany 1919-1933. What a world it portrays, disfigured by pain, perversion, rage and disgust.

Look no further than one of the most ferocious critics of the post-war turmoil, George Grosz, and his disquieting work Suicide (1916). A man has shot himself and is sprawled on the ground grinning obscenely in his death throes. Dogs roam past, shadowy figures scuttle into the dark, another corpse hangs from a lamp post. But the world goes on in its corrupt and heartless way; a prostitute, red lips and rouged nipples looks on as she waits for custom, indifferent to the death and to her own degradation.

Albert Birkle, The Acrobat Schulz, 1921

Suicide is one of 70 works on display, most owned by Greek shipping magnate George Economou and many on show for the first time in the UK, which were born out of the shambles of the Weimar Republic, which lasted from the end of the First World War to Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor in 1933.

It was a time of upheaval. The Bolsheviks had seized control in Russia, the Austro-Hungary empire had been dismembered. Germany was hamstrung by the reparations they were compelled to pay the allies, industry was hit by strikes, unemployment was high and inflation higher. In 1922, a loaf of bread cost 163 marks, one year later it cost two hundred billion. Berlin was a hub of drug dealing and crime with as many as 62 gangs roaming the city.

Despite, or maybe because, of this anarchy German historian, photographer and art critic Franz Roh, tried to bring a sense of identity to the art scene by coining the phrase Magic Realism — long before the label magical realism was used by the South American writers.

He wrote in 1925: “Painting now feels the reality of the object and of space not like copies of nature but like another creation. To depict realistically is not to portray or to copy but rather to build rigorously to construct objects that exist in the world in their particular primordial shape. For the new art it is a question of representing in an intuitive way the fact, the interior figure of the exterior world.”

As definitions go it is, as Tate’s co-curator of the show Katy Wan admits: “Quite impenetrable.”

Roh also talked about a new naturalism (Neue Sachlichkeit) which divided into the art which took actual things from the world of real events and classicists who ‘search for timelessly valid object to realise in art the eternal valid laws of existence.’

Hans Grundig, Girl with Pink Hat, 1925

He was influenced by Freud who had just published The Uncanny (Das Unheimliche) in which he examined the experience of perceiving a familiar object or a person in a strange situation with unsettling results.

Unsettling it is. As Grosz wrote: “In this faithless and material time one should use paper and slate to show people the devilish mug concealed in their own faces. Let us tear down the storehouse of ready mades and all the manufactured junk and show the ghostly nothing behind them.”

A similar nihilism gripped his contemporary Otto Dix (1891-1969). Like Grosz (1893-1959) he served in the trenches. Grosz suffered a breakdown and was admitted to a field hospital, and then a military mental asylum where doctors declared him unfit for service on grounds of insanity while Dix fought on the Western Front and won the Iron Cross. Utterly disillusioned, Dix captured his experiences in a series of etchings entitled Der Krieg (The War), a savage denunciation of the conflict with unrelenting depictions of the dead, the dying and the shell-shocked, the shattered landscapes and the graves.

Surprisingly perhaps they were drawn after a series on the circus which he made in 1922. Circus Scene (Riding act) captures something of the spectacle’s fantasy with a woman balancing provocatively on the back of a horse, displaying an admirable decolletage. Just the kind of gaudy image one would expect of the circus but nothing like his etchings on the same theme which are peopled by the grim and the bizarre.

The couple in Scorners of Death are like skulls, their jaws clamped in tension. Another skull looms menacingly in the background. Lili, Queen of the Air is dangerously deranged, in Illusion Act a woman’s head is on a spider’s body. Another entitled Sketch has a grotesquely grinning dwarf shooting at a ball with a man impaled by a axe and giant screw.

Everyone is ugly. Take the set face and hard stunted body of the Tamer. Who or what is about to feel the lash of her whip? This is a world of the degenerate, the misfit, where the exotic and the permissive is the norm.

It is a world too which had a gruesome, often misogynistic, fascination for killings with the newspapers dwelling enthusiastically on the latest atrocity. In Lust Murder (1922) the killer laughs as his victim, a woman, lies spreadeagled by her bed, naked and bloody.

It is hard not to think that the work owes as much to the predilections of the artist as the pressures of the time.

There is a definite undertone of fetishism in Rudolf Schlichter’s The Artist with Two Hanged Women. The fact that he puts an artist — maybe even Schlicter himself — in the frame suggests an unhealthy fascination for degrading women, and indeed for some years the painter earned his living from drawing and selling pornography.

The Tate thought long and hard about even including the painting in the exhibition but had to acknowledge that it reflected the artist’s attitude towards women.

Intriguingly in the next room Lady with Red Scarf is a striking portrait of the artist’s wife, her hands across her body, staring boldly out of the picture. One cannot but take a second look when it is revealed that they made a somewhat Bohemian couple and she indulged his various fetishes.

What to make of Conversation about a Paragraph by Richard Müller? He specialised in exotic nudes, often attended by alien animals and here two naked women, one seated with only a hat, the other sprawled on a bed with what could be the tattoo of an apple peeping from her nether regions. An angel, painted many years later in the Sixties, flutters by.

Perhaps this meets the label Magic Realism as well as any. It is certainly mystifying but it is also grounded in a political issue of the day. The small symbol for a paragraph hovers in the air between the women. It refers to paragraph 218 in the German constitution which at the time was debating women’s rights to abortion.

Social issues and politics are all entwined with the hedonistic life immortalised by Christopher Isherwood in his 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin which inspired the film Cabaret many years later in 1972. As the compere sang in the film: We have no troubles here! Here life is beautiful...the girls are beautiful...Even the orchestra is beautiful!”

But this was a savage irony. The world of cabaret was befuddled with drink, cocaine and casual sex. The Girl with Pink Hat (1925) by Hans Grundig captures the fickle allure of a night on the tiles with her smudged make up, heavy mascara, a basilisk gaze and red lips. She doesn’t seem to have enjoyed herself very much (or maybe she enjoyed herself too much)

Her joylessness is shared by the characters in the works of Jeanne Mammen, who worked for satirical and fashion magazines. Maybe that’s what inspired her portray the emptiness behind the glitter in At the Shooting Gallery, and Boring Dolls who treat the world with a sardonic mix of nonchalance and boredom. The three prostitutes in Brüderstrasse (Free Room) standing by a doorway with the sign Zimmer Frei register nothing but indifference and contempt for their potential clients.

Come to the cabaret, old chum, sang Lisa Minelli aka Sally Bowles in the film — but she might have added: “Don’t expect to enjoy yourselves.”

Even the ‘straight forward’ portraits have an air of unease about them such as Moon Women by Otto Schatz. Two naked females, inscrutable, weirdly wearing only shoes, stand before a fantasy landscape with the moon behind them.

What does it mean? They are neither, sexy or alluring, just rather uncomfortable to behold. Similarly with Werner Shramm’s Portrait of a Lady in Front of Pont des Arts and Max Beckman with Anni (Girl with Fan) gazing knowingly over the shoulder of an admirer, presumably a customer, as if she knew what was coming.

From that jaded party it is quite a leap to the intense religious works of Albert Birkle.

Religion was not seen as being an important part of Roh’s vision but one of Germany’s most sacred paintings Matthias Grünewlad’s Isenheim Altarpiece (c1512-16) had been moved in 1917 from war torn Alsace for safety and had become an object of pilgrimage by end of war.

It inspired Birkle, only 21 who also saw active service, to produce a series of tortured images in 1921 such as the Crucifixion and The Hermit which are a cry of anguish for the lost souls of the war.

Despite the label of Magic Realism, it is hard to find anything as formal as a movement here. While one could point to Futurism in Italy, the realist school in Britain and the stylised celebration of machinery and power in the US in works by the likes of Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth, the German artists embrace a host of styles.

Maybe the Germany of the day was more influenced by a combination of social decay, violence, mass unemployment and dire living conditions. Interestingly, Freud’s theories expressed in The Uncanny were published in Germany before other countries encouraging a sense of introspection which was reflected by the uncomfortable fact that suicide rates in Germany were among the highest in Europe.

Though there may not have been an organised collective or a tendency there is a shared fierceness of many of the works which, ironically was born out of the freedom, louche and dangerous, that so appealed to the poet Stephen Spender.

He wrote about that ‘strange Indian Summer — the Weimar Republic,’ having revelled in the decadence of Berlin with the likes of writer Christopher Isherwood and poet W.H. Auden, for whom Germany seemed a paradise where there was no censorship and ‘young Germans enjoyed extraordinary freedom in their lives.’

That was 1929. Four years later with the rise of Hitler all ‘degenerate art’ was banned and the artists persecuted. Grosz, for example, was dubbed ‘Cultural Bolshevist Number One’ and was taken to court on charges that 52 of his book’s 100 images were pornographic.

In Barry Humphries’s wonderfully original show about the music of the Weimar period, which was recently at London’s Barbican Centre, he recalls visiting an exhibition of German degenerate art with David Hockney.

“Why had so many pictures survived the Holocaust,” he wondered.

“Because somebody loved them,” replied Hockney.

Actually they are hard to love. Perhaps Herbert Read, the leading critic of the day captured the mood more succinctly when he wrote in 1933: ‘such realism, sardonic in its essence, is not likely to be acceptable to those who want art to be pretty or even to be beautiful in the classic sense.’

Richard Holledge is a writer based in London.

Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33 is at Tate Modern, London, until July 14, 2019.