The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s is an exhibition that submerges pleasure beneath the burden of history. It’s a dark and sometimes trying examination of characters from the Weimar era, that brief moment when a fragile German republic, caught between the First World War and the Third Reich, tried to steer itself through a collective crisis of faith.
The period was one of great unrest exacerbated by political incompetence. There was violence in the streets, as well as ruinous unemployment and hyperinflation. Photos of the time testify that money was better used as kindling than currency. Amputees—veterans of the First World War—begged in the streets. Women of all ages became prostitutes just to maintain the barest standard of living. Social structures collapsed—and with them, traditional notions of civil behavior. Decadence partnered with devastation, fueled by sex, drugs and cynicism.
The journalist Hans Sahl, writing in retrospect, described the dismantled empire as an “unreal” and “provisional” country, one that “sleepwalked into a republic for which it wasn’t prepared.” Sleepwalking would lead to the goosestep: Glitter and Doom has the terrible force of prophecy.
A wall label at the Met states that “artists, writers, and thinkers were liberated … and felt free to invent new forms.” An incredible explosion of artistic creativity did take place during the Weimar Republic, but “liberation” seems too revolutionary a conceit for the dour and disappointed brand of realism that makes up most of this exhibition.
Harsh colors, slashing brushwork and roiling spaces are largely absent; the reigning tack is clinical meticulousness. Artists who subscribed to what was called the Neue Sachlichkeit (the New Objectivity) prided themselves on telling it like it was and delineating, with cruel precision, the dread, sleaze and fanciful personalities parading through Germany’s urban centers.
But though they gazed outward at the crumbling world—rather than inward at an inflamed psyche—an Expressionistic strain of indignation courses through the pictures. They are overloaded with grotesques: old, sagging and exhausted whores; capitalist mercenaries; maimed and misshapen men; freaks, dandies, sadistic doctors and, in the gleefully malicious hands of George Grosz, a politician who literally has shit for brains. Forget the Neue Sachlichkeit: These artists’ visions were keenly subjective. In that sense, they were Expressionists of an extreme order.
And while every style of art has the potential for self-parody, few lend themselves as readily to it as Expressionism. When ugly emotions and anxieties aren’t redeemed by aesthetic decisions and formal rigor, their primacy becomes a liability. Coupled with politics, Expressionism can become laughable.
Glitter and Doom makes this most apparent with its overbearing abundance of work by Otto Dix—a surplus that dampens, distracts and all but capsizes the exhibition. (Did Dix’s estate sponsor the show? Its alternate title could well be Tour the Weimar Republic—with Otto Dix!)
Dix was in the thick of it. Avidly attuned to the demimonde, he was often entranced by its queasy allure. Several of his images—a trio of robotic amputees in Skat Players (1920); the unrelenting stare of the metallic sphere hovering above Dr. Mayer-Hermann (1926)—are art-history staples. Dix provides the prologue to Glitter and Doom: an ambitious charcoal-on-paper triptych replete with jazz musicians, greasy aristocrats and a parade of hookers that could be refugees from Night of the Living Dead.
But despite some amount of proficiency with materials and a knack for the arresting image, Dix’s work holds minimal interest as painting. His antipathy is typically dulled by pedestrian skills. His brush can’t keep up with his disgust. A drift toward outright caricature proved fatal and objectionable: The Art Dealer Alfred Flechteim (1926) and The Jeweler Karl Krall (1923) are notable mainly for their easy stereotypes of, respectively, Jews and homosexuals. A card-carrying Nazi might have given these pictures a stamp of approval.
A dose of corrosively over-the-top comedy provides a corrective towards the end of Glitter and Doom. Grosz’s The Eclipse of the Sun and Pillars of Society (both 1926) are cartoon spectacles crammed with unmistakable types and symbols, including headless bureaucrats and the almighty Deutschmark. The paintings lack the incisiveness of Grosz’s pen-and-ink drawings—has the history of art ever witnessed a more caustic line?—and they suffer for it. Yet the cramped, Cubist-inspired spaces and isolated, sickly hues—in particular, the livid pinks of the piggish robber baron in The Eclipse of the Sun—exert an unsettling power.
Even better, if not as showy, are five nearby portraits of “polite society” by Max Beckmann. Beckmann didn’t excuse himself from the country’s moral fatigue, but in these modestly scaled paintings of women, the harsh tone of the three self-portraits earlier in the exhibition are notably absent. The latter portraits continue and—especially in the case of Marie Swarzenski and Carola Netter (1923)—deepen his medievalist tendencies: Forms become simplified and subtly exaggerated, the spaces around them distilled and intensified. Righteous anger is suppressed in favor of sympathy.
An orderly in the Great War, Beckmann was discharged after suffering a nervous breakdown. The experience didn’t altogether extinguish a pitiless idealism: “Art should testify to life, but hold itself above it, attain so much power that finally life follows its example.”
It’s a welcome (if not exactly sunny) respite from the unrelenting pessimism and repetitive misanthropy of the rest of the show. Beckmann’s paintings stand in marked contrast to, say, the fastidious ennui and creepy theatrics of Christian Schad’s masturbating lesbians and androgynous exotics. And while his idealism might be dismissed as naïveté, it played a vital role in shaping the mysteries, contradictions and unsparing verdicts seen in his work. A deeply humane artist of spare and fierce command, Beckmann knew—like Bosch, Goya, Daumier and Philip Guston to come—that the inanities and terrors of the world are everywhere, but so too are fleeting moments of grace.
Beckmann’s greatness comes from a complexity of vision matched by stern pictorial gifts: His breadth shows up the competition as small talents working in a big time. Which isn’t to say that narrow gifts can’t illuminate history’s darker corners. Glitter and Doom makes obvious the shame, horror and failings of the Weimar Republic. As such, a lot of the show is better sociology than art.
Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Feb. 19.