Those Witty Germans Used the Grotesque To Attack Elevated

About the characters in Wagner’s operas, Nietzsche once said that “considered as physiological types,” they constituted a “pathological gallery”—and it does seem to be the case that German cultural taste from the highest to the lowest levels grants to grotesque imagery a more normative status than is customary elsewhere in modern European art. If you doubt it, take a look at Comic Grotesque: Wit and Mockery in German Art, 1870-1940, on view at the Neue Galerie New York.

The images that dominate this luridly fascinating exhibition may likewise be said to constitute a “pathological gallery,” but unlike Wagnerian opera, which comes wrapped in ravishingly beautiful music, Comic Grotesque offers only an onslaught of disturbing images. Mockery—which we commonly resort to in moments of intense indignation and contempt—is here elevated to the level of a vocation that seeks to avenge every observable forfeiture of civility and normality.

As for wit—which Hazlitt famously defined as “the product of art and fancy”—this, too, the Germans have transformed into a weapon of visceral revenge, especially in depictions of middle-class manners and institutional authority. It would be nice, of course, to believe that the sheer viciousness of these images is a terrible exaggeration of the social reality they depict, but of this we can by no means be certain. Our own experience of life in Germany has at times confirmed the view of society as something akin to a carnival of sociopaths.

I have a vivid memory of my own first visit to Berlin many years ago. I’d arrived by train after an extended stay in Paris, and as soon as I stepped onto the platform and looked around, I felt as if I’d been transported into a replica of a George Grosz painting. Wherever I looked, there were the men with ill-shaven faces and heavy bodies bundled into the long, double-breasted, black leather overcoats that in the American movies of my youth always signified Nazi villainy. The women, too, were Grosz-like, looking either dumpy or whorish—and devoid of the chic I’d gotten used to seeing on the streets of Paris. Until then, I’d always thought of Grosz as a caricaturist; it took a visit to Berlin to persuade me that he’d been a realist all along, even in his most extreme endeavors.

The artist commonly thought to have introduced this passion for the comic grotesque in modern German art is the painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), whose work is well represented—one might say too well represented—in the current show. Böcklin, with his fondness for the iconography of classical mythology and his other programmatic debts to the Old Masters, hardly qualifies as a modernist. In this exhibition, it isn’t until we come to the early graphic art of Paul Klee and Alfred Kubin and the even more lugubrious early paintings of Emil Nolde that we confront the full impactofthecomic grotesque. In these highly provocativeworks,the comic grotesque acquires the character of a counterculture designed to wage war against the pieties and sentimentalities of the established social order.

We’re given an excellent account of the political dimension of the comicgrotesqueinPeter Jelavich’s essay in the exhibition’s catalog, an essay that appropriately invokes the writings of the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin to make its principal points. This is the key passage in Mr. Jelavich’s essay (with quotations from Bakhtin):

“Thishighlyfertile mentality spawned numerous forms of ‘grotesque realism,’ whose fundamental attributes were ‘exaggeration, hyperbolism, excessiveness.’ These corresponded to the predominant themes of the ‘system of grotesque images’: ‘copulation, pregnancy, birth, growth, old age, disintegration, dismemberment.’ From the perspective of classical aesthetics—with its worship of beautiful, perennially youthful, and fully enclosed bodies—this emphasis on bodily functions and orifices, on corporal change, was considered revolting, ugly, and obscene. For that very reason, it was employed aggressively by the populace against the sensibilities of the ruling classes: ‘The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract.’”

Following Bakhtin, Mr. Jelavich also claims that “grotesque realism expressed a positive and optimistic, a fertilizing and revitalizing mentality,” and this may be true for minds that are determined to find an element of affirmation even in the most negative impulses. On that question, however, visitors to the exhibition will have to decide for themselves.

Comic Grotesque: Wit and Mockery in German Art, 1870-1940 remains on view at the Neue Galerie New York, Fifth Avenue at 86th Street, through Feb. 14, 2005.