Benjamin and Brecht. Thinking in Extremes


It was a friendship of paradoxes. Contemporaries called it unique, productive, asymmetrical, and disastrous. Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht met around 1924 and were in intense communication and exchange for over ten years, from May 1929. Sometimes they worked together, and their relations became closer after 1933, once both had fled Germany. The two men spent around a year together in total, mostly at Brecht’s house in Denmark while in exile, where they played chess, listened to the radio, talked about their work, and engaged in sometimes fierce arguments sparked by their different spheres of influence, working methods, and mentalities.

Once forced to defend his close relationship with Brecht, Benjamin conceived the expression thinking in extremes. Connections such as these are dangerous, Benjamin declared, but they enable a new reach and freedom of thought because they allow things that seem irreconcilable to be brought together. The relationship between Benjamin and Brecht was an attempt to make such contradictions fruitful. It was an unusual constellation of critic and poet, commentator and author, art theorist and theatre director, scientist and artist, metaphysicist and rationalist.

The exhibition is founded on this personal affinity, and carried by conversations between Benjamin and Brecht, based either on transcripts of their discussions or pieced together, sometimes rather freely, from texts and comments. A selection of manuscripts, prints, photographs, and objects from the archives illustrate the most important themes they discussed: interventionist thinking, the epic theatre as a philosophical form of performance, their jointly-conceived detective novel, the use of Kafkaʼs writings as a model, a derogatory poem about Stalin, models for living, an argument about Baudelaire, and more. The Akademie der Künste houses both archives, and the curatorial staff was able to plumb an embarrassment of riches – though it is by no means the entirety. What is on display is a quintessence of the archival materials in sixteen fragments. Unless otherwise noted all the exhibits originate from either the Walter Benjamin Archive or the Bertolt Brecht Archive.

Artistic commentaries capture the contemporary culture by casting an alternative vision on what is supposedly already known. But this is not merely to celebrate a relationship that became significant for the 20th century – it is about exploring possibilities, discovering certain clues and depths, and documenting the abrupt, the unpolished, the incomprehensible, but also the sudden accord. And itʼs about irony – in keeping with Brechtʼs motto: “This is not completely serious to me.”

The exhibition is funded by the FRIES Group, the Society of Friends of the Akademie der Künste, the Goethe-Institut, the Hamburg Foundation for the Advancement of Research and Culture, and by Alexander Kluge, Munich.