Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany

I’ve been tracking down a side project that flared up from Lynn Hershman’s Bonwit Teller windows in 1976. Janet Ward’s book about Weimar Germany makes a case that innovations in department window design took place in Berlin first despite Germany’s late start (France, England, U.S. all had several decades of huge growth in department stores before Germany’s 1890 rise). Architecture gave rise to the importance of display windows as light courts were introduced. Professional window dressers (the Schaufensterdekorateurs) were trained in schools. From 1909 on there were annual display window contests in Berlin, and Ward states that the displays of the city were the “most renowned worldwide until the gradual decline in innovation during the 1930s with the onset of Nazism.” (From her footnote: “In the initial euphoric period of Nazism, display windows were so overstocked with Nazi symbolism (especially at Christmas) that a law had to be passed in December 1933 to prevent the Nazi Hoheitszeichen being used except for official purposes.”)

The impact of mixing art with advertising was long lasting; “there was no longer any fixed boundary between the aesthetics of painting and popular culture, and no more autonomy for creative artists unrelated to the needs of industry.”

She does an excellent job weaving in sources as varied as Walter Benjamin, Fritz Lang, Baudrillard, and Nietzsche. I’m left with several leads on additional sources to track down.

More gold from the footnotes:

  • The 1st U.S. trade magazine for display windows was founded in 1897 and was first edited by L. Frank Baum (Wizard of Oz creator)— The Show Window: A Monthly Journal of Practical Window Trimming. Oz also authored The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows (1900).
  • Did you know that window displays were covered on Sundays up until the 1930s in the U.S.?? Germany dropped this “churchgoing prescription” in the 1910s.
  • Both Dali and Marcel Duchamp designed windows in 1930s NYC.
  • Elizabeth von Stephani-Hahn was an early innovator. She was “a portrait and flower painter hired in 1904 to create window designs for the Kaufhaus Wertheim, recognized later as the key figure in the reform of window design.” (Quote from August Macke’s Shoppers: Commodity Aesthetics, Modernist Autonomy and the Inexhaustible Will of Kitsch by Sherwin Simmons in a 2000 article in Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte). She published the definitive book on this topic in 1919, Schaufensterkunst (The Art of the Display Window, which I found a copy of online!).
  • Weimar culture critics waxed poetic about the displays: “The old specialty shop was static, the department store is dynamic; there everything was fixed, here everything flows. Then small, now big. Then dark, now bright. Then soul, now intellect.” (Werner Sombart)
  • While citing Sara Schneider’s Vital Mummies, Ward notes that her approach, “while insightful, neglects the closer kinship of film over theater to the window art form… [and her] book title also indicates her anthropomorphic bias, which downplays how show window display of the German 1920s focused equally on nonmannequin scenes; she also seems unaware of Weimar German predominance in the field, implying instead that it was a uniquely ‘American modern art form.'”

A display from the waning days of the Weimar, showing women mannequins climbing over each other in an attempt to get into the store:

A couple of my favorites from Stephani-Hahn’s 1919 Schaufensterkunst: