Weimar Germany, epitomized by the popular musical Cabaret, has long captivated American audiences with its heady combination of hedonism and decadence. In the present exhibition, the Galerie St. Etienne returns to this seminal period in history, a subject to which we have already devoted a number of shows. By combining the work of George Grosz (1893-1959), one of the best-known artists of the time, with that of Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler (1899-1940), whose rediscovery has recently unleashed a flurry of highly acclaimed exhibitions and publications in Germany, we are also highlighting another of our favorite themes: the female role in the genesis of German modernism. Grosz and Lohse-Wächtler were rebels at a time when rebellion was both fashionable and far more dangerous than its advocates initially realized. The social upheavals which radicals and libertines welcomed following Germany’s 1919 revolution led, finally, to the ascension of Adolf Hitler, the murder of Lohse-Wächtler and, indirectly, to the decline and eventual demise of Grosz. Yet though Grosz and Lohse-Wächtler were products of the same time and place, their manifestations of rebellion were at heart profoundly different, conditioned as each artist was by the nature and limitations of his or her respective gender.
Sex, certainly, is a prominent focus of Weimar culture, and the politics of gender in Germany during the 1920s are exceedingly complex. Possibly no period in history ever witnessed such rapid and visible changes in women’s roles. Despite the fact that these changes were the outcome of gradual social, economic and political developments dating back to the nineteenth century, the contrast between the immediate post-World-War-I years and all that preceded them was glaring. The transformation was most obvious in women’s physical appearance: in looser fitting, shorter, more casual dresses, in the abandonment of the constricting corset, and in chic, gender-defying bob haircuts. Accompanying this was a more forthright entry into the public sphere. Women not only acquired the right to vote and hold office under the Weimar constitution, they joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers, albeit largely as low-paid sales clerks and secretaries. And yet to some extent the promise of the new regime was illusory: as Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler would learn, often these freedoms allowed women just enough rope to hang themselves.
Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler grew up in a comfortable middle-class community on the outskirts of Dresden, and like many middle-class girls at the turn of the century, she was encouraged in a number of cultural pursuits, such as playing the violin. But when, as a teenager, she expressed a serious desire to become an artist, her father put his foot down, and the first of many furious arguments ensued. Gustav Adolf Wächtler, a salesman, thought his daughter should pursue a more practical education, and perhaps as a compromise, she enrolled in the Dresden School of Applied Art in 1915, initially studying fashion design but soon switching to the department of applied graphics. Her experiences at school bolstered Wächtler’s artistic resolve, and withal increased her desire to break free of the parental yoke: in 1916, at the tender age of seventeen, she took the then highly unusual step of getting her own apartment. This, plus the short bob haircut she got in 1918, increased her father’s ire to hellish proportions, so much so that at one point she could only visit the family home when he was not present.
Meanwhile, Wächtler was slowly trying to make her way as a professional artist. Using her training at the School of Applied Arts to good advantage, she produced and sold porcelain pendants, batik bedspreads and lithographed greeting cards. In the belief that she might achieve more notice with a male first name, she adopted the pseudonym “Nikolaus.” Wächtler began to make important artistic connections: she met Konrad Felixmuller, Otto Dix and Otto Griebel, who took her to meetings of the radical Spartacus group. Through Griebel, she also met Kurt Lohse, a some-time art student with equally strong interests in singing and acting. Lohse more or less moved in with Wächtler, and their apartment became a gathering place for Dresden’s avant-garde, including prominent members of the Dada movement such as Johannes Baader.
From the start, Wächtler’s relationship with Kurt Lohse had been stormy, but they nonetheless wed in 1921. Like so many women of her generation, Lohse-Wächtler (as she was hereafter called) probably hoped that marriage would provide a combination of security and freedom from parental constraints; and like so many who proceeded accordingly, she was to be bitterly disappointed. Despite fairly steady acting and singing engagements, Kurt never seemed to be able to properly support the couple, and Elfriede’s attempts to augment their income by painting and sculpting portraits did not help much. Increasingly, they lived apart--at first on account of Lohse’s theatrical assignments in other cities, and later by choice. Between 1927 and 1930, while still married to Elfriede, Kurt had three children with another woman. Elfriede and Kurt shared a youthful and probably genuine artistic bond, but Lohse now sought the warmth of what he characterized as a “total woman.” In this, he was completely in sync with the prevailing male view of gender roles, which held that woman’s true creative nature lay in her ability to inspire men and nurture children, and that any other form of female creativity was the product of implicitly tainting masculine personality elements. As the marriage deteriorated (and with it Elfriede’s mental state), the couple’s artist friends rallied to his side; Kurt showed how he felt about his wife’s talent when he gave his students her canvases to paint on.
In early 1929, tormented by her husband’s infidelity, by her own inability to bear him a child, and by pressing financial woes, Lohse-Wächtler suffered a severe nervous breakdown. She emerged from two months in a psychiatric hospital, however, to enter her most productive and successful artistic phase. Lohse-Wächtler and her husband had been living (mostly apart) in Hamburg since 1925, and the artist had begun to make promising contacts with local arts organizations, galleries and museums before her hospitalization. In May 1929 she mounted her first major exhibition: a display of portraits of fellow psychiatric patients that garnered significant critical praise. Lack of funds forced Lohse-Wächtler to work mainly with watercolor and pastel, and in the next years she executed a number of fully-realized large-scale drawings of subjects ranging from portraits and landscapes to allegorical fantasy scenes and forthright depictions of Hamburg’s notorious red-light district. More exhibitions and acclaim followed, but as Germany’s economic situation worsened in the wake of the American stock market crash, Lohse-Wächtler found it ever more difficult to keep her head above water.
By the early 1930s Lohse-Wächtler was in desperate straits. No definite address is known for her, and it is thought that she may have slept in railroad stations and even on the street. Hamburg’s red-light district was not just an artistic motif, it was home. Lohse-Wächtler gravitated to German society’s lowest rungs and for a time took up with a Gypsy lover. All her former friends had at this point distanced themselves from her. Destitute, abandoned and virtually homeless, in May 1931 Lohse-Wächtler conceded defeat and moved back with her parents in Dresden. It may be assumed that relations with her father had not improved; by October of 1931 he was angling to get his daughter committed to the mental hospital in nearby Arnsdorf, and in June of the following year, he succeeded. Gustav Wächtler could not, of course, have foreseen what happened next, for with the advent of Hitler’s government in 1933, mental patients became non-persons. In accordance with the “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Defective Offspring,” Lohse-Wächtler was forcibly sterilized in 1935, about seven months after Lohse finally divorced her. Considered by the Nazis as someone with a “life not worth living,” she was gassed in 1940. Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler’s failure to please the two most important men in her life, her father and her husband, had literally killed her. The third key man in her life, her brother Hubert, was too young to have saved Elfriede, but he made up for it by faithfully preserving and promoting her artistic legacy.
If Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler’s rebellion -- which essentially consisted of her desire to be an independent artist-- seems mild in comparison with the penalty exacted, George Grosz was a rebel of a far more belligerent sort. And while his rebellion took a public form that incited commensurate sanctions, he also had recourse to a much more extensive male support network. Expelled from secondary school for hitting a student teacher, he nevertheless was helped by the drawing master to apply to the Dresden Academy of Art, which he attended (together with Dix) from 1909 to 1911. Physical and mental illness--real or feigned--kept him out of action in World War I, though he was twice inducted. By the time the war ended, he had perfected a seething hostility toward all forms of organized authority and especially to its specific manifestations in the German overclass. Having settled in Berlin, he allied himself there with others of kindred spirit: the publisher Wieland Herzfelde, the brilliant photo-montagist John Heartfield (Herzfelde’s brother), and various local proponents of the Dada movement. Following the 1919 revolution, Communists, including Grosz and the Herzfelde brothers, began jockeying for control of the new Weimar-based government, and Grosz’s prior animosities acquired a more specific political focus. Disdaining the preciousness of oil painting and the bourgeois art establishment, he turned to the impersonal technique of lithography as a means of reaching the broader proletarian mass. Three of his print portfolios, published by Herzfelde’s Malik Verlag, landed Grosz in court: once (in 1920) for defaming the military, once (in 1923) for pornography, and once (in 1928) for blasphemy.
Grosz’s problems with the German authorities do not, however, seem to have hurt him professionally, nor did his disdain for the art establishment prevent him from signing a contract in 1923 with one of Berlin’s foremost dealers, Alfred Flechtheim. Personal and political circumstances were conspiring to mellow the artist. He returned from a 1922 visit to Russia disillusioned with the Communist experiment. In 1924 currency reform ushered in a period of relative stability and prosperity in Germany. And in 1926 Grosz’s wife Eva (a former art student who, like so many women, subordinated her career to marriage) gave birth to their first son, instilling in her husband a desire for greater security. Grosz turned to painting portraits and landscapes with the hope of pleasing Flechtheim (to no avail, as it turned out) and financing his less commercial political art. He also adopted a more fully-worked, masterly style, in keeping with the neo-realist trend sweeping Germany in the mid 1920’s. As the Weimar-based government entered its final turbulent years, Grosz began to sound almost like a conservative: bemoaning the loss of authentic German values and the rampant moral decay of contemporary society. Arguably, such scathing critiques of the existing order, including especially those of Grosz’s now estranged Communist comrades, were in part responsible for undermining the Weimar regime and bringing on Hitler.
But Grosz was no Nazi, and he sensed early on the full implications of Hitler’s program. Following a trial stint at New York’s Art Students’ League in 1932, he decided to emigrate to America. He and Eva arrived in January 1933, just a few weeks before Hitler was named chancellor. Grosz had always admired America from afar, but his had been a fictional America of wild-west heroes and gangster dandies. The reality did not so much disappoint as confuse. He could not sink his teeth into American society with the same malicious zeal as he had done with Germany, and he ended up painting and drawing many relatively naturalistic vignettes. His loss of focus and inner despair were conveyed in apocalyptic allegories and, increasingly, in drink. After World War II, Germany was eager to make up for its sins by lionizing Grosz, and despite several unsatisfying postwar visits, he finally gave in to his wife’s urging and agreed to return for good. The couple arrived in June 1959; several weeks later, George Grosz collapsed after a drunken binge and died.
George Grosz’s greater engagement in the public and political arena naturally gave him a higher profile than Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, yet one may question whether he was at heart a true revolutionary. Certainly his Berlin drawings and watercolors, while animated by a delicious misanthropy, are not very convincing as propaganda. Not only does Grosz’s work lack the heroic proletarian protagonists that the Communists wanted to see, but his depictions of the underclass are decidedly unappealing. Some have even accused Grosz of harboring a secret affinity for the grotesque, pudgy capitalists and generals, who at any rate are by far his most interesting characters. Although Grosz had a genius for caricature and telling detail, he never developed the broader humanism that might have saved him and his work after his youthful anger began to fade.
It is precisely in her humanism that Lohse-Wächtler excels. Unlike Grosz, she does not attempt to proselytize, but simply to portray things as she sees them, accurately and compassionately. Hers is, on the face of it, a gentler art. Yet with her female perspective, she upends centuries of social and art historical tradition, particularly when she depicts subjects that were previously the principal preserve of male artists. Lohse-Wächtler’s female nudes are not repositories for male fantasies, either of anger or desire. And her prostitutes are presented with dignity, as practitioners of a difficult but perfectly honorable profession. Lohse-Wächtler’s nude self-portraits, particularly those in which she is joined by male figures, are similarity unconventional. It is not surprising, given her history, that sometimes she seems haunted by the men in her life. Perhaps most unusual are her self-portraits with the mysterious Gypsy lover, a demonic figure who, in a reversal of the standard art-historical trope, is presented as a kind of homme fatale.
It has been suggested that the pervasive ugliness of the women in the work of Grosz and other of his male colleagues was a subliminal expression of the animosity and fear aroused by women’s greater independence under the Weimar regime. One may broaden this observation to suggest that Grosz was in some respects a reactionary social critic, railing against the excesses of modern life without, finally, any clue as to a viable alternative. Lohse-Wächtler, on the other hand, was simply caught up in the torrent of recent changes. And if her work is not exactly a celebration of the new order, she evinces an acceptance of and attempt to understand the contemporary situation that is comparatively liberated and liberating. Rebellion can take many forms, and surely both Grosz and Lohse-Wächtler paid bitterly for their failure to accomodate a reality that was far harsher than it initially appeared. As we come to have a deeper appreciation for the often more private forms of female rebellion, we can see that it is just as profound and shattering as the better known male variant.