In 1910, the critic Karl Scheffler, watching Berlin’s spectacular expansion, remarked that the city was fated “always to be in the process of becoming and never to be.” The 20th century bore out his prediction, as Berlin, marked by the scars of history, came undone, came together, and rebuilt itself repeatedly. This richly absorbing and provocative exhibition of over 250 works, organized by guest curator Emily D. Bilski, explores a particularly fecund moment in the city’s past, when the contemporary cult of distraction was born in turn-of-the-century Berlin’s heady mix of art and capital.
“Berlin Metropolis” focuses on the prominent role played by Jewish artists, writers, impresarios, and patrons in the modernist movements that mushroomed in the dank recesses of cafés, galleries, cabarets, and movie palaces. Yet Berlin’s modernism was no ghetto culture; profoundly cosmopolitan, it thrived on the international exchange of art and ideas. In his gallery, Der Sturm, Herwarth Walden showed Berlin Secessionists and German Expressionists alongside Robert Delaunay and Italian Futurists; poet Else Lasker-Schüler collaborated with painter Franz Marc in coffeehouses where you could hear the rustling of 100 daily newspapers. Artists like Max Liebermann, Ludwig Meidner, and Jakob Steinhardt veered between secular representations and more specifically Jewish imagery, forging unforgettable images from the energy and gaslit confusion of the modern metropolis.
What became of them? Lasker-Schüler died, despairing and in exile, in Jerusalem; Marc was killed on the battlefields of World War I; Walden’s life ended in 1941, in a Stalinist prison. They lost their city (and their city lost them), yet they kept the memory of a brief, dazzling efflorescence of modernist culture, poised on the brink of an apocalypse.