German Expressionist painting, which is currently the subject of a thematic exhibition focused on Arcadia and Metropolis at the Neue Galerie in New York, has never been an art for the tender-hearted. It’s an art conceived in a spirit of raucous rebellion, and its ethos remained confrontational and its aesthetic abrasive even after the movement itself came to be embraced by critical opinion. Compared to parallel developments in the School of Paris, especially in regard to the radicalizing influence of Gauguin and Van Gogh, the German avant-garde remained obstinately uncouth and even brutal in style and subjects.
From the artists who called themselves (after Nietzsche) Die Bruecke (the Bridge) in 1905 to the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) group in the 1920′s, advanced painting in Germany displayed a heavy-handed truculence and bitterness that was more directly addressed to the solar plexus than to the subtleties of aesthetic sensibility. It was designed to challenge public complacency and undermine accepted taste, and it amply succeeded in both of these endeavors. There was no mistaking the visceral impact of these paintings-even when the subject was a naked romp in a leafy countryside, which it frequently is in the work of the Bruecke painters. The depictions of urban life were almost invariably sinister and macabre.
It’s no wonder, then, that in its heyday, painting of this persuasion met with a good deal of resistance and, at times, even outrage. In some quarters, moreover, it still does. People who have somehow come to terms with the bizarre inventions of Surrealism, the high jinks of Dada and numerous other assaults on respectable taste still draw a line when it comes to the excesses of German Expressionism.
The reasons for this resistance are anything but obscure. German Expressionism in both its Bruecke and Neue Sachlichkeit phases is incessantly intemperate in feeling, implacable, inelegant or overemphatic in its painterly facture, and fatally inclined to caricature even in depictions of subjects it means to exalt, never mind those that are explicitly targeted for satirical demolition. Its nude female figures (a frequent motif) are among the most unlovely in the canon of Western art, and deliberately so: They’re modeled not on the bodies of living persons, but on the stylized distortions of primitive tribal sculpture-and thus have the effect of mocking European cultural pieties. Male figures, too, often look demented, debauched, or otherwise abnormal and sinister. Such are the paradoxes of the German pictorial sensibility, however, that this affinity for distortion, dementia and the macabre is often combined with a peculiarly Teutonic sentimentality-an inverted sentimentality, to be sure, but all the more cloying for its vehemence.
And yet, owing to the tragic fate of art in the Nazi era, when Hitler embarked upon his remorseless campaign to eradicate all “degenerate” art from the Reich, the United States became the principal haven for many of the people closely associated with the modernist movement in Germany in the 1920′s-art collectors, art dealers, art historians and critics. As a result of this migration, German Expressionism found a new home, so to speak, in the American art world. Major private collections of German art were assembled in New York, Chicago and St. Louis, and German Expressionism was accorded an honored place in our museums. Two of its major talents-Max Beckmann and George Grosz-spent their final years living, painting and teaching in New York, and exerted a considerable influence on American painting.
In this connection, it’s worth recalling how different things were in France. As late as 1977, when the Pompidou Center opened in Paris, there wasn’t a single German painting to be seen in its extensive modern collection. French officialdom, though it had managed to live with the humiliations and impositions of the Nazi occupation during World War II, avenged its tattered honor in the postwar years by refusing to recognize the achievements of the “degenerate” German artists condemned by Hitler.
The latest manifestation of New York’s keen interest in the German avant-garde is the Neue Galerie itself, the recently established museum devoted to German and Austrian art. In some respects, you could hardly ask for a better introduction to the 20th-century German avant-garde than the current exhibition, Arcadia and Metropolis: Masterworks of German Expressionism from the Nationalgalerie Berlin . It features excellent examples of work by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, Karl Schimdt-Rottluff, Emil Nolde and Erich Heckel ( Bruecke painters), and equally excellent examples of Otto Dix and George Grosz ( Neue Sachlichkeit artists). There’s even a dazzling collage by a Dada artist, Hannah Hoch, who is not usually represented in such surveys.
But it must also be said that the Arcadia and Metropolis show doesn’t come close to giving us an adequate account of the German Expressionist movement. The Blaue Reiter group, dating from 1911, is omitted (probably because its leader, Vasily Kandinsky, was Russian); and two early paintings by Max Beckmann hardly offer a clue to his later achievements, which in my judgment are among the greatest in modern painting.
It will be interesting to see, by the way, what scale of attention is given to German avant-garde when the Museum of Modern Art reopens in its expanded facilities in November. Meanwhile, Arcadia and Metropolis remains on view at the Neue Gallerie, Fifth Avenue at 86th Street, through June 7.