“Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Present, c. 1930” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin

Iby Anselm Franke and Tom Holert




What are the positions and functions of art in the broader context of the upheaval of orders and worldviews in the interwar period? This is one of the incipient questions of Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Present, ca. 1930. The fairly broad period, “ca. 1930,” spans the 1920s to the 1940s, denoting the culmination of the multiple crises, threshold situations, crossroads, and turning points. Art—and the knowledge of art in its wider relation to intellectual and academic knowledge production—found itself at the center of a struggle for an ontological opening. This opening of the concepts of being was an attempt to counter colonialist capitalism’s and fascism’s “false” social, political, and epistemic closures in the interwar years with a new understanding of reality. An essential aspect of this understanding was the struggle for a functionalist conception of signs. The forms of a reality-constituting mythopoeia, as they were reconstructed in cultural-philosophical and ethnological research, were intended to wrest collective mimetic effects away from fascist appropriation. Thus the discourse on premodern, “primitive” sign and image magic became an important catalyst for aesthetic and intellectual undertakings.
The central argumentative axes and vectors of Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Present, ca. 1930 are based on a series of texts from the later work of Carl Einstein (1885–1940). The ideas and concepts of this elusive extra-academic poet, art historian, anarchist, and anti-fascist, structure this research and exhibition project. Its title, too, is taken from one of Einstein’s essays: Neolithic Childhood, a formula from 1930, in which he encapsulated Jean (Hans) Arp’s artistic technique.

The connection between the early history of mankind (in the case of the Neolithic: the age after the transition from nomadic to sedentary forms of socialization) and the early stages in the development of each individual, which Einstein discerned in Arp’s reliefs from the late 1920s, points to a widespread interest of the twentieth century to fuse the present with a distant past. Einstein actively contributed to the corresponding speculations on the deep time of mankind. At the same time, he was critical towards the often reactionary narratives and outmoded ideas that many of these speculations culminated in. His concern, rather, was to create a dialectical relationship between his own time and other—e.g. prehistoric—times. One motif may be found in the uninhabitability of the present, not only experienced by Einstein. The loss of a unifying collectivity in the separating processes of the division of labor, the systemization lent by the natural sciences and the “liberal” individualization of capitalist modernity led the intellectuals and artists of the interwar period to—ideologically highly diverge—scenarios of flight and evasion. Carl Einstein’s critique of modernity is in conflict with the anti-modernism of the conservative revolution and of fascism, but he also considered “regression” to harbor possibilities for a new social, aesthetic, and psychic organization.


The impression that Neolithic Childhood is a monographic project, dedicated to a single personality from history, is deceptive. Einstein himself was deeply wary of the monograph genre. In the early 1930s, he wrote that it served the “normalization” of art, because it ensured that “a person and their work are too sharply separated and that both are removed from significative relations.”[1] He emphatically shifted those “significative relations”—the social, political, economic, religious, epistemological, anthropological, and psychological contexts that determine a work and render it possible—from the background to the foreground.

Neolithic Childhood also aims at such an inversion of figure–ground relationships—akin to a flickering oscillation in an Ice-Age cave. A selection from Einstein’s prolific literary output became the impetus behind both referential contextualizations and associative dissolutions of boundaries. The tone was set by Einstein’s later work, around the time of his relocation from Berlin to Paris in 1928. Many of his key terms and figures of thought became structuring devices of the research that preceded the exhibition and accompanied its planning. Based on both published and unpublished texts and notes that were written until Einstein’s suicide on July 5, 1940—fleeing the Germans in Boeil-Bézing (Pau) in the Pyrenees—a transdisciplinary, occasionally far-reaching and always open network of references was created.

The exhibits, variously taken up by the present book—as anthology, catalogue, documentation, and catalyst for further reflection—consist of different epistemic objects: archive materials, mainly from the avant-garde milieu, as well as academic, cultural-critical, and pop-cultural books and magazines, in close dialogue with the former. In addition, there are objects of a different category, mediating between the aesthetic and the epistemic: artworks, for the most part drawings and graphics, by well-known and—beyond the relevant research—lesser-known male and female artists, some directly connected to Einstein’s work, others belonging to different movements of artistic confrontation with the multiple crises of (and flights from) the “false present, ca. 1930.”


We consciously situate Neolithic Childhood in that winding line of fascinating and canonical exhibitions and books that have worked towards an expanded understanding of the surrealist movement, especially of the relationship between (“dissident”) surrealism and ethnology, as exemplified in the journal Documents. Dawn Ades’ numerous groundbreaking exhibitions, including the pioneering Dada and Surrealism Reviewed (London 1978), the first to highlight the important role of avant-garde magazines, and Undercover Surrealism (London 2006), dedicated to Georges Bataille and Documents, are still effective models today. The exhibition L’informe: mode d’emploi, curated by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss in Paris in 1996, and the accompanying publication (Formless: A User’s Guide, New York, 1997), which develope a critique of artistic modernity and postmodernity—also based on Bataille and Documents—are equally influential and still constitute a provocative call for exploration. Krauss and the critics and historians flocking around the magazine October, which she co-founded, have particularly shaped the discussion about the role of the interwar avant-garde since the 1980s. But their anti-canonical canon of formlessness also contains considerable gaps, constrictions, and exclusions. A feminist or postcolonial perspective, for instance, is sought in vain. An (albeit alternative) formalism of formlessness, hardly threatening the status of art as such, remains intact.

It is striking that in these researches and exhibition projects Carl Einstein’s historical and theoretical role in Documents and the debates of the 1930s remained underdeveloped. Since the 1990s, international Einstein research has been working against this marginalization, in October itself, but also on many other platforms. The important contributions made since the 1960s by Sibylle Penkert, Heidemarie Oehm, Liliane Meffre, Klaus H. Kiefer, Hubert Roland, Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs, Hans-Joachim Dethlefs, Marianne Kröger, Klaus Siebenhaar, Hermann Haarmann, Uwe Fleckner, and Rainer Rumold are continued in an innovative way by a younger generation of art historians, such as Maria Stavrinaki, Joyce Cheng, Charles W. Haxthausen, Sebastian Zeidler, David Quigley, Andreas Michel, Devin Fore, Axel Heil, Susanne Leeb, Jenny Nachtigall, and Kerstin Stakemeier, elaborating the stakes of Einstein’s politics, aesthetics, and ontology with increasing precision. Without this groundwork by and collaboration with Einstein scholarship, Neolithic Childhood would have been inconceivable.


Speaking of genealogy and archaeology: this project started with discussions about documents from the Carl-Einstein-Archiv, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, on display at the 2012 exhibition Animism at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt. In the exhibition (curated by Anselm Franke and featuring a video sculpture by Tom Holert), the history of the concept of animism, which was of central importance for early ethnology and psychology, became a magnifying lens for a critique of modernity’s ontological and disciplinary liminal practices. The exhibition focused on the intersections between ethnology, psychology, media technologies, and modernization ideologies, attempting to demonstrate, in a display cabinet presenting typescripts by Einstein, the relevance of the animism concept, even for the advanced discourse of the interwar avant-gardes. For Einstein, animism is, on the one hand, a proto-religious technology of reality perception in non-sedentary societies; on the other hand, hardly any concept comes closer to his own dynamic understanding of reality as a “functional mental pluralism.”[2] He was less concerned with an examination of ethnological findings on premodern art or a rediscovery of animism than with its reinvention in the sense of a “trans-visual” artistic mode of production. Here this “animism of form”[3] becomes a method of “mantic obsession,” in which “man […] no longer is a mirror, but a possibility of the future.”[4]

Neolithic Childhood picks up this trail. As part of the project, it has been possible to digitize Einstein’s literary estate in cooperation with the Carl-Einstein-Archiv, making it accessible to the general, interested public. The exhibition attempts to situate Einstein’s writings within the crises (of political systems, capitalism, consciousness, culture, and basic scientific concepts) of the interwar period, against the backdrop of which his work delineates ideas for a radical conception of art that explode the institutional disciplining of art and the limits of academic knowledge. For Einstein, art was a means of revolt and a medium for an ontological opening. Its reality-constituting dimension was activated—perhaps for the last time in such emphatic manner—as a model and instrument of a force that effectively transforms inner and outer reality.


Neolithic Childhood is part of the project Kanon-Fragen at HKW, which, over several years (2016–19) has provided the framework for a programmatic questioning of the premises and geopolitical conditions for the globalization of the art-historical canon. Based on this critical re-presentation of the—mainly Western European—artistic and intellectual interwar avant-garde, and refusing both an idealized-voyeuristic view of the Weimar period, as well as catastrophist, undialectical assessments of the 1930s and 1940s, impulses for an exploration of historical and contemporary discussions of world art can be gleaned. At least since the debates about the Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984, the necessity of questioning the geopolitical and ideological-systemic framework of global art production has been undeniable, if a formalist modernist art history, defending the autonomy of art, is to be overcome.

Yet, we also think it necessary to counteract the reductive nature of such approaches of a critique of representation, which tend to annul cultural alterity and in which a colonial logic of separation and identitarian inscription often continues to have a fatal effect. This is also why it is important to shed light on the historical relationship between colonial patterns of thought and representation, on the one hand, and radical critique and critical relativization, on the other. Although disciplines such as ethnology, anthropology, and modernist art of the first half of the twentieth century affirmed and legitimized the violently enforced norms of colonial modernity, they also subjected them to a harsh critique, fundamentally questioning Eurocentrism and racist capitalism—a critique, however, whose manifold biases and responsibilities for the ongoing reproduction of global asymmetries and physical and epistemic conditions of violence must not be ignored.


The name Carl Einstein also stands for the earliest and still largely valid canonization of European modernism of the early twentieth century. His brilliant Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts (Art of the 20th Century) was first published in 1926—and in revised editions in 1928 and 1931—as volume 16 of the renowned Propyläen-Kunstgeschichte. He also stands for everything within modernism that must be considered “unresolved”—to develop a thesis by art historian Walter Grasskamp. Firstly, there is this anti-bourgeois, degenerative, anti-civilizational impetus within large parts of the avant-garde, who, in response to the rapidly growing pressure for rationalization and discipline, invoked irrational, often mediumistic-hallucinative elements, and for whom the art of non-modern or non-European societies, alongside the pictorial works of the “mentally ill” and children’s drawings, were essential resources in this respect.[5] This legacy is “unresolved” in relation to its appraisal by postwar modernism, on the one hand, and in its relationship with the history of colonialism and racism, on the other. Postwar modernism often had to neutralize the most radical elements of the avant-garde in order to be able to claim it for the new bourgeois Western canon. Thus the Nazi defamation of modern art, as Grasskamp argues, was reversed only half-heartedly and with concessions. Secondly, this heritage is also “unresolved” because even the explicitly anti-racist and anti-colonial protagonists of the avant-garde, among whom Einstein is to be counted, participated in the—from today’s perspective—colonial schemata of archaism and primitivism.


The Neolithic Childhood exhibition stretches across HKW’s two exhibition halls and lower foyer. Hundreds of archival documents are shown in over fifty display cases: bibliographic and historical probes, trial excavations of the discursive history of the interwar period. Kooperative für Darstellungspolitik’s architectural exhibition concept and the info-graphic design by NLF Team, work alongside and against associations of excavation site, research library, and investigative expedition. In the large exhibition hall, partitioned by a diagonal, ceiling-high wall (like a vertically folded worktop), the exhibits are accessed via spectacular footbridge architecture; it is no accident that the latter is reminiscent of an archaeological excavation site. An index system—in conjunction with a comprehensive manual and navigation aid—provides access to the exhibition’s narrative and contents. The first section of the exhibition, The Impossible Expansion of History, starts with fragments from Carl Einstein’s Handbuch der Kunst (Handbook of Art) from the Carl-Einstein-Archiv of the Akademie der Künste. It is an attempt to apply his demand for a “reintegration of art history into cultural history,” as expressed in the Handbuch, to Einstein’s own project. This means situating his plan for a multi-volume art-educational standard work within the publishing activity of the interwar period: within the proliferation of works, by means of which the field of art history was to be anthropologically grounded and radically expanded, both in a geographical and temporal sense.

This section addresses the connection between crisis awareness, deep time, archaism, and primitivism, but also the radical genealogical opening and destabilization of an order designed to consolidate Western European dominance with evolutionist and racist stage models. The notorious reference to the “primitive” remains inextricably linked to the inclusive exclusion of colonial rule through the (“allochronic”) refusal of contemporaneity.

Einstein contributes to the early criticism of such schemata and to a replacement of stage thinking with synchronic time models (triggered not least by ethnological field research). This kind of primitivism, pursuing the critical inversion of the gaze, sought a genuinely a-modern point of view, beyond or prior to modern dualisms and dichotomies (something that has only been demanded again by recent attempts at a “symmetrical” ethnology). In addition to the geographical and historical expansion of art history and the functions of the figure of the “primitive,” the section is dedicated to the principles behind origin narratives and the struggle for the interpretative prerogative concerning cultural and temporal models, as well as to the notion of a “childhood of humanity” at the constantly shifting threshold between history and “prehistoric darkness.” The references to ancient and prehistory are connected to an unprecedented genealogical opening, which, on the one hand, was initiated by the natural sciences, revealing prehistoric deep time, and precipitated by global colonial expansion, on the other. One of the key effects of imperialism was to have ineluctably interwoven all chronologies and partial stories.

The exhibition’s second section, The S/O Function, takes its starting point from a cryptic formula of the same name, scattered throughout Carl Einstein’s notes of the 1930s. From there it spins numerous threads to related approaches that pursue a combination of epistemic and artistic research. Einstein’s typescripts, notes, and sketches on the concept of the “subject/object function,” by means of which he describes the functional relationship between subject and object as an “act-totality,” form the operative center. Here the focus is on a primary, pre- and early civilizational mediality and relationality and the reciprocal emergence of subject and object, as well as on their archaeology or staging. The expression “neolithic childhood” is also invoked: Einstein speaks in strongly autobiographical terms about the way Jean (Hans) Arp’s art repeats “the rites of a pre-historic childhood.” The text illustrates that the primitivisms and notions of a “childhood of humanity” are not exhausted in processes of exclusion and appropriation alone. In Einstein’s work, the Neolithic Age, synonymous with the sedentarization of man, becomes a metaphor for processes of subjectification and objectification, and in particular for experiences in a transitory stage before any stabilizing separations and categories.

This critique of the dualisms of European standard metaphysics, also crucial for surrealism, and the concepts of embodiment, immanence, and mediality, which are brought to bear against these dualisms, are the common denominator in, among other things, a selection of materials from Einstein’s works on Georges Braque, discussions of mediumism and hallucination in the surrealist milieu, pornography and “pornophilia,” drawings by children, biological “monisms,” ethnological expeditions such as the Dakar–Djibouti mission (1932–33), and Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of the filmic gesture. The section concludes with several documents relating to debates about the concept of “myth” in the context of fascism.
The third section of the exhibition, Resistance and Lines of Flight, is devoted to resistance movements of colonized humanity and to manifestations of an alternative, different modernity. The metropolises of the colonial powers and port cities are shown to be exemplary contact zones, centers of anti-colonial artists and intellectuals, and of new solidarity communities. But it also becomes clear to what extent a more far-reaching encounter between non-European voices of resistance and anti-colonial European intellectuals was torpedoed by the latter’s primitivistic projections and misjudgments. Non-European voices of resistance in no way saw themselves as outside and beyond cultivated Western reason, but rather as lumped together on its false flip-side. In Paris, there was not only the “Colonial Exposition” of 1931, prompting organized resistance, but also the Négritude movement, which turned away from the promise of assimilation towards an affirmation of African heritage and identity. The section closes with a chapter on the Spanish Civil War, the battlefield on which the fault lines of global powers and mass-mobilizing ideologies were shifting and collapsing, and in which Carl Einstein fought on the side of the Anarchists in support of the defeated Republic.

In a critical spirit and literally crosswise to the line of display cabinets, the exhibition presents the artworks in a section entitled AW (based on KW, Einstein’s abbreviation for Kunstwerke (Artworks)). The majority is displayed on the aforementioned wall, which halves the HKW’s large exhibition hall and is reached in its full height through a raised walkway. In the drawings, paintings, prints, photographs, and sculptures, Neolithic Childhood can be explored as a field for experimenting with new world relations and as a site for “prehistories” of subjectivity “ca. 1930.”

Between self-affirmation as an aesthetic practice and anti-modern self-transcendence, an opening emerges. Beyond categories such as abstraction and figuration, but also beyond the (anti-) category of the formless, the works of art reflect the search for a productive, ecstatic mimesis. “Totemistic” landscapes symbolize unbounded relationships and cosmological visions. Forces of destruction are contrasted with the possibilities and the unconventionality of childhood. The pictures experiment in the interstices between physical shapes and semiotic carriers. They touch on points of indifference, where “original” symbolizations and hallucinatory designs call into question both subject and object.

The spectrum of artists gathered here (including filmmakers and photographers) is broad, even though surrealism, in its various generations and schisms, is a reference system that unites almost all works. The selection goes far beyond the art that Einstein appreciated and with whose creators—Georges Braque, André Masson, Fernand Léger, Paul Klee, Florence Henri and others—he had personal dealings. Brassaï, Eli Lotar, Jean (Hans) Arp, Jean Renoir, and Willi Baumeister were part of the wider context of his work. Einstein’s anti-canonical stance is to be continued here, without losing sight of its canonizing effects, by showing many important artists of the time, who escaped the filter of Einstein’s masculinistic gaze—those include Paule Vézelay (who—as the exception to the rule—is once praised by Einstein), Toyen, Valentine Hugo, Catherine Yarrow, Florence Henri, Helen Levitt, Hannah Höch, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Germaine Dulac, Germaine Krull, and Alexandra Povòrina. Although artists such as Max von Moos, Frits van den Berghe, Jindřich Štyrský, Kurt Seligmann, Wolfgang Paalen, Richard Oelze, Jean Painlevé, Len Lye, Miguel Covarrubias, Franz. W. Seiwert, Heinrich Hoerle, T. Lux Feininger, and Rolf Nesch are attracting increasing academic attention, they are still not regularly exhibited. One of the few non-European artists in the exhibition is Kalifala Sidibé, whose paintings of African village scenes were exhibited in Paris in 1929, generating great interest from Michel Leiris and Le Corbusier, both of whom wrote exhibition reviews and, in their explorations of the artist, also effectively reflected on the conditions and (im)possibilities of global art.


Pre-print of the catalog:
Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Present, c. 1930
Edited by Anselm Franke and Tom Holert
Haus der Kulturen der Welt / Diaphanes, 2018
460 pages
English: ISBN 978-3-0358-0106-4
German: ISBN 978-3-0358-0119-4
Price: 50 €
To be released on June 29, 2018
Pre-orders at

[1] Carl Einstein, Georges Braque [1934], in Hermann Haarmann and Klaus Siebenhaar (eds), Carl Einstein: Werke (Berliner Ausgabe), vol. 3 (1929–1940). Berlin: Fannei & Walz, 1996, pp. 254, 256.

[2] Ibid., p. 292.

[3] Carl Einstein, “Notes on Cubism,” Documents 3 [1929], in: October, vol. 107 (2004): pp. 158–68, esp. p. 168.

[4] Uwe Fleckner and Thomas W. Gaethgens (eds), Carl Einstein: Werke (Berliner Ausgabe), vol. 5 (Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts). Berlin: Fannei & Walz, 1996, p. 135.

[5] Walter Grasskamp, “‘Degenerate Art’ and Documenta I: Modernism Ostracized and Disarmed,” in Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff (eds), Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles. Cambridge, MA: Routledge, 1988, pp. 163–96.

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