Berlin Realism: from Käthe Kollwitz to Otto Dix

The “Berlin Realism: from Käthe Kollwitz to Otto Dix” exhibition in the Bröhan Museum includes some of the most powerful, emotional and intense artworks created in the capital of the Weimar Republic between the 1890s and the 1930s.

The exhibition, open from 22 March to 17 June 2018, is an expression of the social critique of the time; it mostly includes the works by the artists of “The Berlin Secession”, such as Heinrich Zille, Hans Baluschek, and Käthe Kollwitz.

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Detail from George Grosz’ “SCHÖNHEIT”


The collection, which includes pre, during and post-World War I artworks, is particularly multicoloured, including sketches, paintings, photographs, posters and films. These artists focused on working class people and their deteriorating situation throughout the time period.

However, these artists were merciless towards their subjects: there’s nothing left of the dignified, golden atmosphere in which Millet’s characters were operating; the faces depicted by the German realists are ugly, tired, sometimes quirky and as distorted as caricatures, the predominant colours are black and grey, and the atmosphere is generally gloomy. The people depicted are just examples of the misery experienced by many: poverty, hunger, illness, death, prostitution, homelessness are the real subjects of the works.

Whenever colour is used, it serves to accentuate the sad environment of the city; whether the artist choses a bright red to paint blood, or a full set of colours, like in Baluschek’s aquarelle paintings, the result is still very depressing and touching, and the colours only increase the contrast with the grey atmosphere of Berlin.

There is a great variety of techniques, themes and styles in the collection; some paintings are static-but-powerful portraits, like Kollwitz’s poster of an exhausted working woman, others are tumultuous, dynamic and full of drama, like Otto Dix’s intense “Schützengraben”. No one is excluded from these paintings: the artworks include women, children, elderly people, animals, soldiers, protesters, prostitutes and much more.

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“Schützengraben” by Otto Dix


There is a significant number of harsh, monochromatic sketches and pen drawings, blurred aquarelle and brightly coloured paintings, brave photo collages and dense, multi-layered images, like Karl Hubbuch’s. The second generation of artists, like Gerge Grosz, Henrich Davringhausen, Otto Dix and Otto Nagel depicted and criticised the more general decline of society during the Weimar Republic, including the depravity of the high and middle classes and capitalism, representing more mundane, lively scenes of brothels and bars.

Colours are not the only evocative elements of the paintings: lines, brush strokes, the harsh contrasts between lights and shadows all add up to make the paintings even more touching. Käthe Kollwitz’s multi-directional, confusing lines, for example, express perfectly the deep sorrow and frustration of her characters.

The one thing that unifies all these diverse artworks is the explicit, sharp, keen social criticism and deep desire to represent the other side of Berlin, the one that Kaiser Wilhelm II refused to see at the time. He criticised social realist art, defining it as something that “descended into the gutter”, but Heinrich Zille liked a lot the derogatory definition of “gutter art”: it is exactly the effect that realists were trying to obtain.

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Self-portrait by Käthe Kollwitz


What is very clear since the moment you walk into the exhibition is the singular sensitivity of these artists, that chose to represent these rough, politically inconvenient, tragic topics that were very scandalous and unpopular at the time. Willy Jaeckel, for example, represented scenes from World War I in 1914 as something terrible and apocalyptic, despite not partaking in the war as a soldier, at a time when the enthusiasm for the war was still widespread.

The room dedicated to realist photography deserves a special mention, as it adds variety and character to this worth-seeing, highly political, but nonetheless very pleasant exhibition.