Poignancy of Jewish Art, 100 Years Ago in Berlin

There is inevitably something dolorous and even frightening about the current exhibition at the Jewish Museum, which is called Berlin Metropolis: Jews and the New Culture, 1890-1918 and focuses on one of the most brilliant periods in the life of the arts in the modern era. For virtually every visitor to this exhibition will be acutely conscious of the historical sequel to the story of high aspiration and extraordinary achievement that Berlin Metropolis sets before us. Less than 20 years after the terminal date of the period covered in this exhibition, Hitler had already eradicated much of the “New Culture” that had been created in Berlin in the years preceding World War I, and he then went on to complete his war against the Jews themselves with remorseless efficiency.

For anyone with a sense of history, then, it is the specter of the Holocaust to come that induces a feeling of queasiness and alarm even as we take pleasure in the many fine works of art that Emily D. Bilski, the guest curator of Berlin Metropolis , has assembled for our instruction in this remarkable exhibition and familiarize ourselves with the somewhat complex installation that has been devised to underscore the historical character of the show itself. This is, after all, an exhibition about the history of the Jews in modern, pre-Nazi Germany, and of their role in shaping the fortunes of modernist culture not only in Germany but in all of Europe in the decades preceding the debacle of World War I. And the exhibition has the additional merit of illuminating a period-the Wilhelmine era in modern Germany, named for Kaiser Wilhelm II-which few of us nowadays have bothered to look into.

This in itself raises an interesting question: Why is it that this Wilhelmine era has remained so obscure in a period when the culture and politics of the Weimar Republic in the 1920′s have become, for good reasons and bad, so celebrated in late 20th-century cultural life in this country? It is certainly not because the art life of Berlin was lacking in avant-garde achievements. Among artists whose works are represented in Berlin Metropolis are Vasily Kandinsky, Edvard Munch, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Lovis Corinth and Max Liebermann, and there is even an early film by Ernst Lubitsch, who would later become renowned in Hollywood. The one American painter who might also have been included-Marsden Hartley, who exhibited early abstract paintings in Berlin in 1915, based on German military motifs-has somehow been overlooked.

The fact is that Berlin in the period under review in this exhibition was one of the capitals of the modernist movement in Europe, a rival of Paris in that regard and a place where certain modernist masters-Delaunay, for example, and Kandinsky, too-achieved earlier recognition than they did in Paris. It was in Berlin, too, that the National Gallery acquired a painting by Cézanne in 1897, and thus was the first museum in the world to acquire the work of this master. As Ms. Bilski reminds us in her introduction to the fine catalogue that accompanies the Berlin Metropolis exhibition, the French state had rejected Gustave Caillebotte’s Impressionist collection, which included Cézanne, only three years earlier.

My own guess is that the relative obscurity of the Wilhelmine period can only be accounted for by the fact that well-heeled bourgeois collectors, dealers, publishers and businessmen played so large a role in establishing Berlin as an important center of Modernist art and culture in early 20th-century Europe. In the mythology of the Modernist avant-garde in Europe, the bourgeoisie was stigmatized as the know-nothing enemy of artistic enlightenment. Yet in Wilhelmine Germany, a significant part of the bourgeoisie-especially its cultivated Jewish component-refused to conform to its assigned role, and instead became the principal support of the Modernist movement. For that, of course, they were never to be forgiven by the Neanderthal element in German political life that eventually found its champion in Adolf Hitler.

Long before Hitler was in a position to denounce Modernist art as “degenerate,” however, the Jews were under attack in Germany for their sponsorship of an international avant-garde. Another of the essays for the catalogue accompanying the Berlin Metropolis exhibition-Peter Paret’s “Modernism and the ‘Alien Element’ in German Art”-cites an example from the pre-World War I period: “In 1913, the anti-Semitic publicist Philipp Stauff issued the second volume of his biographical dictionary of Jews and their gentile associates, friends and supporters in Germany. An introduction denounced the Jewish threat to German culture as expressed in one area of the nation’s life-the art world. The 11-page essay, ‘The Alien Element in German Art, or Paul Cassirer, Max Liebermann, etc.,’ opened with the pronouncement that ‘Dealers, critics and painters, who are strangers in our land and to our blood, stand today at the apex of the fine arts.’ … They and their followers, he charged, were driven by the innate Hebrew motives of greed and cultural hate. They wanted to become rich and penetrate the upper levels of German society; and they intended to destroy the native values by which the Germans had lived since the Teutonic tribes first confronted the Romans.”

Yet, as Mr. Paret further observes of what he calls “Stauff’s fantasies,” there was an undeniable element of truth in his paranoia, for “Stauff also sensed correctly that Jewish assimilation had progressed further in the fine arts, in literature and music, than in most areas of German life, and that in modernism, with its often self-conscious rejection of tradition, it had found a particularly favorable environment.” Why that came to be so is indeed one of the central themes of the Berlin Metropolis exhibition.

One of the ironies of this historical situation is that the Modernist German painters who were themselves Jewish are not, for the most part, to be counted among the many first-rate artists in this exhibition. The most accomplished of them is undoubtedly Max Liebermann, but even Liebermann, though in every other respect a very attractive figure, rarely achieves the level of his contemporary Lovis Corinth, whose work makes a very strong showing in this exhibition. I was particularly moved by his portrait of a minor Jewish artist of the period, Hermann Struck, painted in 1915 when Struck was a soldier in the German army during World War I. The painting is called Portrait of Makabäus-Hermann Struck , and the reference, of course, is to Judas Maccabaeus, the Jewish patriot who died in 160 B.C. and is commemorated in the Feast of Hanukkah. Struck’s story is more fortunate than some others, however, for he later emigrated to Palestine and lived out his last years in Haifa.

Berlin Metropolis is the first exhibition to be devoted to its important subject, and although the layout of the show can sometimes be confusing, it is very well done and at times almost unbearably poignant. The accompanying book-length catalogue is also an important contribution to the historiography of modern German society as well as of the role of the German Jews in the modernist movement in Europe. You may leave the show with tears in your eyes, but you will not soon forget it. It remains on view at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, through April 23.