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Berlin stories: the caustic energy of Weimar art.

Discussed in this essay:

Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s, edited by Sabine Rewald. Yale University Press. 304 Pages. $65.

Christian Schad's disturbing, confrontational portraits challenge you to a staring contest, a face-off that you are inevitably going to lose. The paintings are executed in a style suggesting an improbable amalgam of Netherlandish and Florentine Old Masters, Latin American magical realism, and Indian billboard art, and the eyes of his subjects take aim at you, daring you to look away. At the same time, you feel that Schad's grimly serious men and women are monitoring your responses, provoking you either to acknowledge or to ignore certain other things--subplots, as it were--transpiring elsewhere in the painting.

Schad was the most interesting of the artists involved with the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, movement, a loosely connected group that included, among others, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Rudolf Schlichter, Karl Hubbuch, and Georg Scholz--painters who worked mostly in Berlin between the First and Second World Wars, during the Weimar Republic; artists who managed simultaneously to savage and celebrate the manners and morals of their time. As Alexandra Richie writes in her history of Berlin, Faust's Metropolis, "The new realism was imbued with a longing for something whole and with an enthusiasm for things as they are rather than as they should be. It was as if Germans had finally given up the search for an identity informed by volkisch tales of ancient dark forests or misty mountains and had decided to place themselves in the real world, with all its industry, its toughness and its urban ugliness.... By the mid twenties Neue Sachlichkeit was being applied to everything from film to theater, from cabaret to painting." Germany in the Twenties was, as is well known, an extraordinarily fertile time and place for artists. The playwrights, directors, writers, architects, and composers whose works cross-fertilized one another's included Arnold Schoenberg, Walter Gropius, Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Thomas Mann, Alban Berg, and Alexander Doblin, among countless others.

Collected in Glitter and Doom, a recent book that was published last fall to coincide with an exhibition by the same name at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the flashy and unsettling images that these painters created make you wonder (even as you can guess) why German art's fascinating detour into realism en route from Expressionism to Anselm Kiefer is not more widely celebrated, and why the startlingly original Schad is less known to the general public than his gifted but more predictable contemporaries. Perhaps because their grotesqueries and exaggerations continue to seem like accurate representations of their political moment, Dix and Grosz are the Weimar artists who are most often reproduced and most frequently mentioned in discussions of their era; unless, that is, you happen to be speaking to contemporary painters, who are more likely to think of Schad's haunting and unsettling work as a secret that they alone have managed to discover.

In Schad's 1927 Self-Portrait, the artist is awkwardly posed on the edge of a rumpled bed, on which reclines a dark-haired vamp, naked but for pink stockings. Running down one side of her face is a long, jagged scar that presumably refers to the brilliant technique that jealous lovers in Naples (where Schad lived briefly) devised to prevent their mistresses from straying. But neither the scar nor the woman quite explains the sitter's extreme discomfort--the expression of someone who is, as they say, about to jump out of his skin. Could some of his anxiety have to do with his outfit? The artist wears a tight, see-through green shirt, fitted with a stand-up collar, laces, and a jaunty little tassel, beneath which you can see his nipples and a patch of curly black chest hair. It's hard to say exactly what dissonant minor chord (gender confusion? fetishism? masochistic exhibitionism?) has been struck, and it is equally hard to deny that the diaphanous, parrot-green shirt is among the most perverse and creepy fashion statements in all of art history, which is saying quite a bit.

Another of Schad's double portraits, this one from 1929, depicts two sideshow performers, Agosta the "Winged One" and Rasha the "Black Dove," both exuding a pure steady stream of confidence and bravado. Rasha, a beautiful African woman, her bodice decorated with cowrie shells and the whites of her eyes tinged with red, gazes out at us, as if to judge how we are reacting to her companion, Agosta--a pale haughty fellow, rather handsome if we choose to overlook his congenital deformity, an upside-down rib cage that turns his naked chest into a matched set of wings poised on the brink of taking off and flying out of his body.

Schad, the son of a privileged family, was a pacifist who spent the First World War in Switzerland; his background and experience made him an exception among the New Objectivity artists, many of whom fought in the war and were profoundly affected by their memories of combat. The trenches must have seemed like a chasm between the Weimar years and everything that had gone before, just as the word "peace" must have struck them as a grotesque misnomer for what the soldiers discovered upon their return home. The dark, furious energy--the anger and cynicism and disgust--that animates so many of their paintings seems like a direct outgrowth of the experience of battle and defeat, just as the fascination with disfiguring injury and bloody crime (such as the subject of Rudolf Schlichter's Lust Murder) evokes the gore and butchery to which these men were routinely exposed, the mutilation and reduction of the body to its limbs and parts. (Arguably, the most shocking aspect of these willfully scandalous images is the loathing of the body--and the female body in particular--that suffuses them; it's hard to think of another painting so steeped in revulsion for so many varieties of female flesh as Otto Dix's Three Wenches, a trio of nudes ranging from the emaciated to the obese.)

The aftermath of the war and the sufferings of its veterans are common themes, and the wounded and their injuries are often represented with a quasi-clinical relish. Otto Dix's Skat Players portrays a trio of legless, hideously maimed and disabled ex-combatants, each of whom has exactly enough brain and body left to enable him to play cards. The scarred faces in several of Dix's drawings and watercolors (Prostitute and War Wounded, In Memory of the Glorious Time) have the jagged, clumsily stitched-together look of a junior-high sewing project, and the gravely injured--a blind man and a war cripple--inspire two of George Grosz's atypically tender drawings.

The artists' sympathy deserts them, however, when they are portraying those responsible for the suffering. At the 1925 "New Objectivity: German Painting Since Expressionism" exhibition in Mannheim (this was the show that christened the movement), Grosz's 1921 painting Gray Day appeared under the title Municipal Welfare Officer for Disabled Veterans. In its foreground is a bureaucrat who, with his black suit, stand-up collar, and briefcase, appears exactly as competent, thoughtful, and sympathetic as the cross-eyed, mustachioed, soft-boiled egg that his face so closely resembles. A brick wall (no one could accuse these artists of having a light touch with the symbolic) separates the petty official from those whose welfare he is supposed to care about: a workman carrying a shovel and an emaciated soldier, hunched, missing a hand, leaning heavily on his cane as he stalks the grisly industrial cityscape.

The war was only the first of the catastrophes that these artists and their society endured. Between the end of the fighting and the Mannheim exhibition (which was organized by art critic and curator Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub), Germany underwent a series of cataclysmic social upheavals: the November 1918 revolution that overthrew the Kaiser, the Spartakist uprising of 1919 and its brutal suppression by the right-wing paramilitary Freikorps, and the Treaty of Versailles, which added the burden of humiliation to the weight of defeat. Random homicides and targeted political assassinations turned the streets of Berlin into what George Grosz called "wild ravines haunted by murderers and cocaine pedlars, their emblem a metal bar or a murderous broken-off chair leg." As the popular sentiment, along with the wheels of justice, turned toward the right, the number of politically motivated killings increased. In Faust's Metropolis, Alexandra Richie reports that "of the twenty-two murders committed by the left, seventeen of the perpetrators were severely punished, ten with the death sentence; but of the 354 murders committed by the right between 1918 and 1922, only one was punished. Vigilante groups made up of unemployed ex-officers and criminals continued to occupy the capital, murdering at will, clubbing and beating people accused of 'unpatriotic' activities."

In 1923, due to a truly unfortunate series of events--the Allies' demand for reparations payments, the French occupation of the Ruhr--hyperinflation succeeded in further destabilizing the social order. Paper money lost all value; life savings vanished overnight. As Sebastian Haffner describes in his memoir, Defying Hitler:
   The old and unworldly had the worst of
   it. Many were driven to begging, many
   to suicide. The young and quick-witted
   did well. Overnight, they became free,
   rich, and independent. It was a situation
   in which mental inertia and reliance
   on past experience were punished by
   starvation and death, but rapid appraisal
   of new situations and speed of reaction
   were rewarded with sudden, vast riches.
   The twenty-one-year-old bank director
   appeared on the scene, and also the high
   school senior who earned his living from
   the stock-market tips of his slightly older
   friends....


As Haffner goes on to report, the widespread suffering engendered, among the young, a febrile appetite for pleasure, a determination to celebrate life despite, or perhaps because of, what their elders had endured:
   Amid all the misery, despair, and poverty
   there was an atmosphere of light-headed
   youthfulness, licentiousness, and
   carnival. Now, for once, the young had
   money and the old did not. Moreover,
   its nature had changed. Its value lasted
   only a few hours. It was spent as never
   before or since; and not on the things
   old people spend their money on.

      Bars and nightclubs opened in large
   numbers. Young couples whirled about
   the streets of the amusement quarters.
   ... Everyone was hectically, feverishly
   searching for love and seizing it without
   a second thought. Indeed, even love
   had assumed an inflationary character.


Instituted in 1924, the Dawes Plan stabilized currency and ushered in an economic boom. But for ordinary Germans, as well as for the artists of the New Objectivity movement, it was already too late to dispel the gathering lawlessness, to quiet the lethal conflict between the Nazis and the Communists, or to counter the shock of discovering that the bedrock beneath their feet had been, all along, the thinnest crust of ice. To comprehend the prevailing mood in Germany during that period, it may help for us to recall the chaos, the rumors, the fears and uncertainty that characterized the immediate aftermath of September 11--and to imagine that unsettled state enduring for well over a decade. Likewise, to understand why painters were drawn to portraiture, we need only to remember how, in those final months of 2001, the eye contact that one made with strangers on the street often outlasted the few seconds to which city dwellers are normally accustomed; it was as if we were searching our neighbors' faces to see how human beings still looked--how we looked--and how drastically we had been changed by our brush with disaster.

As Sabine Rewald tells us in her lucid and informative introduction to Glitter and Doom, the New Objectivity movement "encompasses two wings: the right, conservative and tending toward classicism, and the left, Verism.... The Verists painted the demimonde, individuals on the margins of society, as well as the professional class.... We see emancipated women in nightclubs, lesbians, effeminate homosexuals, cocaine-addicted performers, anonymous cripples and prostitutes, and among the members of the demimonde, a number of aristocrats."

Centered mostly in Berlin, the Verists (as their name would suggest) were committed to painting accurate and unflinching depictions of the life around them--without adornment, obfuscation, or romanticization. To many observers, the resultant work--furious, pitiless, fueled by a determination to locate the grotesque in everyday urban life and in the faces of the respectable and the criminal alike--might seem to lack that lofty detachment. What's undeniable is the fierce sincerity with which these men believed that they were holding a mirror up to the world around them--a funhouse mirror that would present a more truthful reflection than the most dispassionate photograph.

The New Objectivity painters found themselves to be in competition with the increasingly popular portrait photographers of their era. In a 1955 interview, Otto Dix still "referred to photographs as snapshots that lacked the psychological depth of painted portraits." Indeed, the entire lengthy painting-versus-photography debate could be encapsulated by comparing the New Objectivity paintings with People of the 20th Century, August Sander's photographic encyclopedia of his country, a monumental project that took decades to complete; by the time the Nazis destroyed his plates, which included Jews and Gypsies and other non-Aryan faces in his group portrait of the German nation, Sander (whose best-known photo is of three "Young Farmers" on their way to a dance) had produced more than 10,000 negatives.

Published here in a seven-volume set, People of the 20th Century is a masterpiece--the sort of work to which you can devote hours, or days, searching the faces of Sander's subjects for what they have to tell us about the mysteries and the variety of human nature. The formally posed men and women are in almost every case identified only by their occupation: "Railway Officers," "Secretary at West German Radio," or, more simply, "School Girl." You can play a sort of guessing game, ignoring the titles and seeing how much you can intuit about the subjects' stations in life by studying their faces and the details of their self-presentation. But what's interesting is that, unless they are actually shown with the tools of their trade, you may not guess correctly all that often. Sander set out to photograph types and wound up capturing the appearance and (just as the primitive fear of photography warned) the souls of individuals.

By contrast, the Verists emphasized those physical features and aspects of character that made their neighbors and acquaintances not merely unique but peculiar, and they delighted in demonstrating their own disregard for status and social position. Whereas Sander posed his subjects to retain the maximum personal dignity, the Verists, in many cases, preferred to challenge the vanity of their sitters and to mock the whole notion of self-regard and self-respect. Among the most hilarious and nightmarish images in Glitter and Doom are those of the physicians who suggest a team of Doctor Caligaris, mad scientists with a professional interest in mayhem and sadistic experimentation. No reproduction can quite capture the otherworldly effect produced by the thickly painted eyes, like two pieces of unappealing hard candy, in Dix's portrait of Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann, a Berlin oddball who believed that Dada was a species of social disease and whose own psychiatric researches involved hypnotism. In another Dix work, the respected and reputedly kindly urologist and art dealer Dr. Hans Koch brandishes a menacing syringe and a length of rubber tubing as he surveys the torture implements and restraints of the horror chamber that passes for his treatment room.

It's tempting to assume that these portraits are gross overstatements until we see the photographs of their subjects included in Glitter and Doom, as well as in an earlier book, New Objectivity, by Sergiusz Michalski, published in 2003--documentary evidence of the extreme eccentricity so passionately cultivated and displayed by Weimar Berliners. As painted by Otto Dix, Johanna Ey, a corpulent art dealer with owlish spectacles, wears a lavender robe trimmed with black fur and a skewed gold tiara; she stands before a red curtain evoking a Velazquez or a Caravaggio. But the photos reveal that, although the regal paraphernalia may have been added for theatrical effect, the real-life model was just as unlikely looking as the woman in the painting. In a 1927 photograph, the poet Max Herrmann-Neisse, with his outsized, oddly shaped head, large ears, and claw-like hands, looks ever so slightly more like Murnau's Nosferatu than he does in the two portraits by his friend George Grosz.

All of which brings to mind what Ian Buruma notes, in one of the essays in Glitter and Doom: "Hannah Arendt recalled viewing Grosz's drawings 'not as satire but as realistic reportage; we knew these types; they were all around us.'" There are indeed eras (our own may be one of them) in which what at first appears to be satire rapidly and dismayingly proves to be reportage. "The Leaning Tower," a story by Katherine Anne Porter, who visited Berlin in 1931, offers a vision of the city, the era, and the gap between the maimed poor and the porcine middle class that echoes and reinforces the vision of the New Objectivity painters. "Those blinded or otherwise mutilated in the war wore a certain band on their sleeves to prove that they had more than any others earned the right to beg, and merited special charity." But charity is only rarely forthcoming from the "enormous waddling women with short legs and ill-humored faces, and round-headed men with great rolls of fat across the backs of their necks," whom Porter's hero glimpses in front of a pork store and a shop selling toy and candy pigs, "in a trance of pig worship, gazing with eyes damp with admiration and appetite ... their late medieval faces full of hallucinated malice and a kind of sluggish but intense cruelty that worked its way up from their depths slowly through the layers of helpless gluttonous fat." New Objectivity's "realistic reportage" ranged beyond the destitute and the gluttonous to focus on the droves of war widows and hapless older women (like the one in Dix's Lady with Mink and Veil) driven into prostitution during the Weimar years. Whores, along with their customers, are an obsessive motif in these works, as is the colorful population of Berlin's vibrant art scene and its transgressive demimonde.

Persuasively, Buruma argues that "for those of us born after World War II," the face "that best conjures up the spirit of Berlin about 1930" belongs to "Joel Grey, master of ceremonies and androgynous host of the Kit Kat Club in the 1972 film Cabaret." But Dix's portrait of The Dancer Anita Berber--who, in fact, looks a bit like the Grey character--instantly (that is, the instant we see it) supplants him in our memory as an iconic symbol of the period. Red-headed, draped in a bandage-tight scarlet gown, and posed provocatively against a scarlet background, her ghoulishly pale face painted with green eye shadow and pursing her crimson bow mouth, Berber--a bisexual nightclub performer and actress equally notorious for her nude dancing and her ultimately fatal addictions to drugs and alcohol--seems an exotic nocturnal creature, theatrical, self-destructive, and perverse, one of those artists who are their own most fantastic creations.

Clubs such as the one that proved so ruinous for the lovesick professor in the 1930 Emil Jannings film, The Blue Angel, appear in paintings such as Dix's To Beauty, in which the artist glares at us from the center of a dance floor swirling with mannequin-like merrymakers and a heavily caricatured black drummer with an American-flag pocket handkerchief. Rudolf Schlichter's own fetishistic fascination with women in high-heeled boots makes its way into paintings such as Meeting of Fetishists and Maniacal Flagellants. The riotously polymorphous sexuality for which Weimar Berlin was famous is both parodied and admired in Dix's portraits of the wasp-waisted, dandified jeweler Karl Krall and the lesbian journalist Sylvia von Harden, who, with her monocle and mannish air, may make you think of the severe Frau Farbissina of the Austin Powers films.

Finally, though, what impresses and haunts you about every one of these portrait subjects is not their freakishness so much as the force and complexity of their personalities, the proud, defiant theatricality of their self-presentation. Even the most "unflattering" likenesses exude a vivid admiration for the rogue genetic material that could have formed a figure like Herrmann-Neisse's, for the character that shaped a mournful, vaguely simian face like that of the art dealer Alfred Flectheim, and for the energy that must have gone into the creation of a persona like that of the bon vivant aristocrat Count St. Genois d'Anneaucourt, whom Christian Schad poses between a butch countess and a celebrated transvestite, both wearing transparent gowns.

It's hard to say precisely how these paintings would look if we had no knowledge of their historical context and could consider them apart from the gathering shadow of National Socialism, which was steadily gaining political influence through this period, and which was ideologically committed to the elimination of essentially all the people--homosexuals, Jews, "degenerate" artists, defective physical specimens--whose portraits grace Glitter and Doom. Seen from that perspective, the portraits assume an elegiac power, at once celebrating and commemorating individuals or, in the Nazis' view, types who were just about to disappear from these artists' lives. One of the loveliest portraits in the show is Dix's painting of the failed poet Iwar von Lucken; the tentative, elderly, shabbily dressed beanpole belongs to a different species than the gleaming, golden boys who would soon march in front of Leni Riefenstahl's camera. In 1933, the year Hitler came to power, Bertolt Brecht, who appears here in an attractive and sympathetic portrait by Rudolf Schlichter, left Germany. Many of his colleagues and peers followed suit, though Christian Schad was able to fly under the Nazi radar, perhaps because his work sold so poorly that he was never taken seriously enough to be classified as an artist, degenerate or otherwise.

These artists saw the worst coming, as did Sebastian Haffner and Stefan Zweig and so many memoirists of the period, though no one could have predicted how bad it would get. The political nightmares of the moment, as well as the men dedicated to making those evil dreams come true, are at the center of Grosz's The Pillars of Society and The Eclipse of the Sun. Both paintings, from 1926, are sinister and chilling: one of the "pillars," a bureaucrat, wears a swastika tiepin, grips a fencing sword, and has a cavalry officer on horseback rising from inside his neatly sliced-open cranium. The fact that these are, in some ways, among the more predictable and less resonant paintings in the exhibition leads you to ponder (uncomfortably, as always) the question of how rarely the most didactic art attains the status of a masterpiece. It may be the problem that Chekhov wryly cites in one of his letters: the difficulty of combining art with a sermon. And it may have something to do with the simple fact that a polemic seems to have (and to want to tell us) all the answers, whereas art raises, and invites us to contemplate, the unanswerable questions.

No contemporary artists are painting like the Verists, and no one would suggest that they should be. Who wants to see a new version of Rudolf Schlichter's fetishes and Otto Dix's hatred of women? Who wants to see an update of Grosz's Pillars of Society with lobbyists and lawmakers in place of his bureaucrat and cleric? In any case, no one wants to risk having a career like Schad's, who by the outbreak of World War II "had managed to sell a total of four paintings privately." It's interesting to consider the fact that Schad, the best of these artists, should have had the least success. We know that his paintings disturb us, but the source of that disturbance is much harder to locate than it is when we look at Dix's portrayals of hideously wounded veterans. We only intuit the melancholy and the profound anger that underlies Schad's vision; he expresses (and cloaks) those raw emotions with images that cannot be explained or reduced to ideas or words.

Nobody now seems quite so angry as the Neue Sachlichkeit painters were. The dark stew of emotion burbling out of these works makes John Currin's most wicked takes on our current moment look as milky as a Botticelli; they reduce Elizabeth Peyton's portraits to fashion spreads. Damien Hirst begins to seem, by comparison, squeamish. The paintings most like Christian Schad's tend to come from the third world; years ago I saw a Schad-like Haitian painting of "Baby Doc" Duvalier in drag, holding a nasty pistol and wearing a white wedding gown.

Only a very few of the paintings in Glitter and Doom move us as great paintings do, yet they have something in common with great art, which is the ability to make the world reveal itself as another manifestation of the artist's vision. Spend some time with Glitter and Doom, then spend a day in any American city or town, and you see those Weimar faces everywhere. It's probably unwise to look at Dix's portraits of doctors the night before your annual checkup; you start seeing reality through these painters' eyes, whether you want to or not.

One evening, after I'd spent the day looking at Weimar art, I happened to turn on the TV news. The lead story, about the fact that three hundred people had been killed in Iraq in the past two days, was immediately followed by another report--this one about the shopping frenzy that caused near-riots in stores on the annual so-called Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. One minute, an Iraqi woman was scrabbling in the dirt and throwing sand in her own face in an agony of grief. A minute later, a woman was nearly trampled by people struggling with boxes of flat-screen TVs.

It was what, I suppose, might be called a Weimar moment, an unfortunate proximity that the New Objectivity artists would have instantly grasped: the wounded passing right alongside the gluttonous patrons of the pork store. I wondered who might have been watching that particular journalistic segue, if perhaps there was an artist somewhere responding to, and transforming, those incongruent images--if there was an attentive, observant guest at the cabaret who had the rage, the desire, and the talent to show the future what our moment looked like.

Francine Prose is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. Her most recent book is Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.
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Title Annotation:Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s
Author:Prose, Francine
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2007
Words:4416
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