Twentieth-century German art generally makes me sweat. There is little doubt that the most famous paintings of the Weimar period, which tapped into the horrors unleashed by World War I and the economic uncertainties that racked Germany during the 1920s — the pre-Fascist period — were meant to make viewers uncomfortable. This is not art that we long to linger over — no matter how striking and impressive its technique — or that sets out like Impressionist works to make us feel at one with the world.
(Yes, I'm aware that Impressionism began as a challenge to the status quo in the realm of art, as well as to the way we view the world around us, but the passage of time has a strange way of making what first seemed odd or startling or was meant as a premeditated affront to bourgeois taste into something lovely, even pleasurable.)
Not so Expressionism and post-Expressionism in Germany. And especially not so the many paintings gathered in Glitter and Doom: German Portraits From the 1920s, published by Yale University Press and tied to a show that ran at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year. These paintings — indelible masterworks by Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, George Grosz and many other greats — are often a frontal assault on common notions of taste and what might qualify as subject matter for painting. When a work is titled "To Beauty," as is one by Dix included in this volume, it might be best to turn away.
Glitter and Doom is yet another solid, beautiful compilation put together by Yale, with some truly wonderful essays to accompany the splendid, flesh-crawling reproductions, especially the piece done by one of my favorite current writers, Ian Buruma, author most recently of Murder in Amsterdam.
Sabine Rewald, the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Curator in the Department of 19th-Century, Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was given stewardship over this entire project — book and exhibit, it would seem. In the essay she contributes here, she notes that these painters were attempting to represent their era, which began with the First World War, "the quintessential 20th-century catastrophe," and continued until at least the advent of Hitler and the Nazis, which generally put an end to the careers of these despised "degenerate" artists.
"Dix and his generation were marked for life by the war," writes Rewald. "Burnt out and disillusioned, they had been to hell and back and looked at their surroundings and their countrymen with new eyes — soberly, sometimes cynically and even ferociously. They turned to a matter-of-fact realism that crystallized as Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, which was the most vital of the various post-Expressionist styles that developed in Germany after the war.
"Neue Sachlichkeit encompasses two wings: the right, conservative and tending toward classicism, and the left, Verism, the trend that is the subject of this exhibition. Many of the Verists found their métier in portraiture in which they attempted not to capture a precise likeness but to distill the sitter's appearance so that he or she represents a type. By showing sitters simultaneously as real individuals and as types, these portraits hold up a mirror to the rootless society that flourished in Berlin, Düsseldorf and Dresden during the 1920s."
Buruma perhaps best details what was caught in these startling portraits, many of which still cause squeamishness, even after repeated viewings.
"The total hopelessness of the human individual was horribly revealed by the war," writes Buruma. "In a clash of massive armies the individual was reduced to nothing more than a tiny cog in a huge war machine. Ernst Jünger, who served as a young officer on the western front, wrote about how this affected the way people looked. He described the face of soldiers, peering from their steel helmets, faces that had lost much of their individual distinction but were nonetheless sharply defined, as though molded from steel. This, he continued, 'is the face of a race that is beginning to develop under the peculiar demands of a new landscape, a race that no longer represents the lone figure as a person or individual, but as a type.'
"This was a notion of a new machine age that was celebrated by some and deeply feared, and resisted, by others. The metropolis, as a giant machine, with its own mechanical rhythms, reducing humans to helpless antlike creatures," became a popular theme of many works of the period.
Though Jünger could not have known, the Nazis were just around the corner and, as Buruma notes, they would expertly fit the description of this new race of types spawned by this new era: "steely, machinelike, without individual distinction."
The art in Glitter and Doom portrays the victims — of the first war and its peace — and the soon-to-be-dominant breed of new victimizers.