In her book, Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany, Janet Ward claims that the Weimar era can be seen as a particular era of transition from the modern to the postmodern world (Ward, 3). She digs up the remnants of Weimar modernity to challenge the idea that “distinctive forms of contemporary art and thought have made a quantum leap beyond all the diverse sensibilities of modernism, and earned the right to call themselves post-modern (Berman, 345-346).” In other words, Ward attempts to uncover the traces of modern surface within postmodern hyper-representation (Ward, 42-43).
In her book, Ward distinctively underlines the importance of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), which was the surface style of the Weimar Republic, for the modern architecture of Germany. She states that the New Objectivity aimed to eradicate the memories of the First World War as well as all superficial forms of decoration (Ward, 51-56) from the surface culture of the new republic. The application of this architectural style to buildings revived a “collective spirit to match the rapid tempo of the mechanized era,” and implied the erasure of the empire’s defeat in the First World War from the memories of the Germans (Ward, 49). Moreover, as opposed to the Wilhelmine era’s unnatural artificial aesthetic, the architecture of the Weimar republic was designed to shape the new aesthetic by removing the heavy ornamentation in addition to making it more functional. For Ward, it was not just the removal of the Wilhelmine façades within the “context of urban rejuvenation (Ward, 83),” but it was also a creation of a new aesthetic surface culture which affected architecture, advertising, and women’s clothing as well as cinema. By emphasizing its functional characteristics, Ward indicates how “advertising, architecture, and the new female identity were merged into the unified functionalism of sheer surface (Ward, 83).”
Just as Berman characterizes modern man as one who “moves within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty, of freedom, of justice, that its fervid and perilous flow allows (Berman, 346),” hopeful people of the Weimar Republic intended to search for authenticity, beauty, and justice and they aimed to liberate the world in which they lived. Ironically, they produced new inauthenticities and boundaries. This argument is valid for glass architecture and the “new woman” of the Weimar Republic. With the introduction of glass exterior walls, the “façade lost its significance as a marker of social status,” and the division between the interior and exterior ended (Ward, 66). In other words, glass technology demoted the bourgeois outer surface of the building, which separated inside from outside, and articulated the social status of builder and owner. Ironically, consumerism used “glass as a key medium of the Weimar modern (Ward, 204),” thus glass-covered displays created new social divisions regarding purchasing power of the passers-by: the ones who possessed the goods displayed through glass-window and the ones who were incapable of purchasing what they saw (Ward, 224). Another irony could be seen in the case of the new woman. Even though women’s bodies were liberated from flamboyant clothes and corsets in the Weimar era, all thanks to the aesthetic of New Objectivity, the image of the New Woman’s body became that of a masculinized “prepubescent girl,” who was “athletic, slim-hipped, broad-shouldered (Ward, 86).” Moreover, the New Woman’s “assembly-line image” enforced an idealization of thinness with “vitamins and diet pills.” That’s why Ward states that “it is not coincidence to see that anorexia and bulimia” started in 1920s. (Ward, 87-91). Additionally, advertisements put women’s bodies “on display,” and made them into a “permanent source of commodified spectacle (Ward, 86).” In other words, “unrestricted,” so-called liberated and rationalized women bodies became modernized but defeminized, objectified, and commodified for mass consumption, which was underpinned by electric advertising and window displays.
Similar to Schwartz’s fin-de-siècle Parisian crowd which was composed of urban spectators as well as apolitical consumers influenced by ocular representations (Zeren-Enis, Blog entry on Schwartz’s book), in my opinion, Ward’s Berliners were also represented as apolitical consumers fascinated by neon lights or window displays. However, Ward does not give much account for the marginalized/politicized people of urban life in the Weimar era. Ward’s representation of apolitical Berliners could be challenged by a discussion of the “politicized neighborhoods” of Berlin during the Weimar era, as seen in the Berlin “kiez” as studied by Pamela Swett in Neighbors and Enemies: The Culture of Radicalism in Berlin, 1929-1933. Swetts points out the problems and political engagements of people in the “kiez” and their role in the transition from Weimar democracy to Nazi Germany. Compared to apolitical consumers described by Ward, the political activists discussed by Swett show the “marginalized side” of modern urban culture.
Ward’s engagement with urban visual culture in 1920s’ Germany indicates how Weimar surface culture shaped the tastes and practices of Germans and how the traces of this era could be observed in visual codes of consumerism in the post-modern era (Ward, 3). Even though the New Objectivity’s rejection of Wilhelmine ornamentation represented itself in architecture, advertisements, women’s clothing and, cinema, ironically, it became a new form of functional aesthetic style or ornamentation for modern Weimar surface. Its authentic and liberating promises failed in certain cases as seen in use of glass technology and the rhetoric of the New Woman. Yet, to look at Weimar Germany both “as the apex of the urban modern and as the germination of the urban postmodern (Ward, 15),” contributes a great deal to today’s debates on modernity and modernism within the context of postmodernity.
PhD Student in History
Posted December 2014