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Fifteen years after the great financial crisis of 2008, which shook the capitalist economic system in America and Europe to its foundations, the book “The New Man as Man Machine” presents, for the first time, the interrelationship of art and political economy in the Weimar Republic, the Soviet Union, and the United States of America during the interwar period. By taking a look back at the 1920s and 1930s, it attempts to better understand our own era and its well-founded fears with regard to globalization and a new global economic crisis.

Image above: Kliment Redko, Aufstand, 1924-25

This project focuses on how artists reacted to the central questions of the political economy in these three paradigmatic cultures and national economies of the interwar years. How did they deal in the United States, for example, with the question: Can free markets advance people’s “pursuit of happiness” better than the state in the form of a controlled capitalism or state capitalism? Is the process of consistently economizing and rationalizing all areas of life—as well as the technical-industrial progress, the deregulation, and the global effects of an international market that makes all traditional bonds, regions, and localities disappear—compatible with a dignified life? Or are there alternatives? Can a rational, socialist planned economy overcome the negative consequences of capitalism? Does the world of machines demand a new type of human being or is a humanizing of work on machines conceivable? Alternative models for a state-guided economy were developed in the Soviet Union. In the German Empire and the United States, National Socialism and the New Deal both began simultaneously in March 1933. Roosevelt, however, only planned a temporary suspension of the global market policy, while Hitler aimed for a permanent policy of autarky.

Max Beckmann, The Granate, 1915

George Grosz, Grey Day, 1921

While writing this book, the coordinates of world politics changed also dramatically. In February 2022 Russia invaded the Ukraine. We are currently experiencing a return of authoritarian regimes, right-wing populism, an impending trade war with customs duties, and growing xenophobia or even open racism. This is true for all three countries compared here. Parallel to the experience that Carl Einstein noted in 1930, definitions are once again shifting “imperceptibly” and “invisibly.” The long-forgotten novel It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935)—which describes, instead of Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936, the victory of a right-wing radical by the name of Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip, who establishes a fascist dictatorship— gained new topicality in America after Trump’s election victory and has been reprinted in Germany as well.

Piotr Wiljams, Portrait Meyerhold, 1925

Gustav Klucis, Spartakiade Moskau, 1928

From the perspective of today, it can therefore be shown that a society in a particular situation gets exactly the art it requires so as to reflect on its situation. For the period of time selected, this is the technology-affirming, streamlined art of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) in Germany, while it corresponds with Precisionism in the United States, and with the dynamic urbanism of the Society of Easel Artists (OST) in the Soviet Union. Artists reacted to the great crisis of 1929 with Regionalism, Native Art, and Socialist Realism. All three art movements attempted to once again blur the hard contrasts of modern life and to address traditional values, such as a commitment to rural life, family, and community.

O. Louis Guglielmi, Mental Geography, 1938

Philip Evergood, Dance Marathon, 1934

Eckhart J. Gillen, born 1947 in Karlsruhe (Germany), Art Historian, freelance Curator, received the Doctorate from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Heidelberg. He has organized numerous exhibitions and published widely on Russian, American, and German art of the twentieth century. Among his exhibition catalogs and books are German Art from Beckmann to Richter: Images of a Divided Country; Yale University Press 1997; Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures 1945-1989, LACMA, Los Angeles, Berlin, Nuremberg (with Stephanie Barron) 2009; Art in Europe 1945-1968. Facing the Future, BOZAR, Brussels, ZKM, Karlsruhe, Pushkin Museum, Moscow (with Peter Weibel) 2016/17Flashes of the Future. The Art of the 68er’s, Ludwig Forum, Aachen (with Andreas Beitin, elected by AICA Germany for exhibition of the year 2018); Constructing the World. Art and Economy 1919-1939 in USA, Germany and Soviet Union, Kunsthalle Mannheim (with Ulrike Lorenz) 2018. Publications on German, Russian, and American art in the 20th century, including Feindliche Brüder? Der Kalte Krieg und die deutsche Kunst 1945-1990 (Hostile Brothers? The Cold War and German Art 1945-1990), Berlin 2009, and Der neue Mensch als Menschmaschine (The New Man as Man Machine), Bonn/Berlin 2023. Numerous distinctions, including AICA-USA 2009 for Best Thematic Museum Show, the Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge Award 2011 and Federal Cross of Merit 2022. Visiting lecturer for Art History at the Film University Konrad Wolf in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

This event is part of the monthly series “Flight or Fight. stories of artists under repression.”

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