Uptown, there’s a cozy little theater whose plush carpeting gives it the feel of a 1970s swinger’s palace. The lusty cries heard coming from its basement doors last weekend only added to the thrill. Inside, the Dutch troupe Dood Paard (Dead Horse) spent two mostly naked hours bouncing on a pile of vintage mattresses, howling and humping like creatures out of a Tex Avery cartoon. It was a performance at the Guggenheim Museum of Reigen ad lib, a once-banned play done in Germany in 1920, and it is far from the city’s only Weimar-period piece these days.
The Museum of Modern Art has dipped into its permanent collection to give a broad view of the red-hot movement, just weeks after the close of its massive exhibition on Weimar film; Galerie St. Etienne has a classic exhibition of the big names of the era on view, and the Neue Galerie museum has long saluted old-world cafe society.
A host of recent events and exhibitions are seeking to remind viewers that life is a cabaret, old chum, and often a quite grim or erotic one.
In Frank Lloyd Wright’s theater Friday night at the Guggenheim, and presented as part of the Museum’s “The Great Upheaval,” a survey of art made in Europe before and during World War I, the troupe acted out vignettes of seduction wearing restraints and see-through jockstraps, guzzling whipped cream. Museum producer Charles Fabius called the show, with pride, “a punch in the face.”
The Weimar style is garish, gruesome and, right now, fantastically popular, though no one is quite sure why. “Weimar Republic” is usually used to describe the time in Germany between the two World Wars. Violence, upheaval and prostitution thrived, but so did the avant-garde art and performance scene, particularly at nightclubs. The period has become associated with, at best, an artistic playfulness and, at worst, a dark decadence.
Speaking to the Guggenheim curators about the art-world vogue for the period, the word “visceral” came up again and again, suggesting that the intensity of the teens and twenties so shocks visitors that they cannot help but come. Historians of the period, meanwhile, said that in a city still traumatized by 9/11 and the financial meltdown, sympathy for those who careened from World War I to hyperinflation is natural. But most important, they all agree, is that this was a sexually saturated period, and that’s never a bad draw.
“In many ways, the 1920s in Germany was a far more open period about sex than contemporary United States society,” said Eric Weitz, a historian of the period. “Everything that people think has been discovered since the so-called sexual revolution, Germans were discussing in the 1920s.” Sex manuals sold like Stieg Larsson novels, and social reformers saw bedroom antics as a path to social equality.
Last summer’s Otto Dix spectacular at the Neue Galerie included a room dedicated to gruesome battlefield etchings, entrancing visitors even as it horrified them, a sensation that Viola Kolarov, a German cultural historian at New York University, boiled down to a frustration of the city’s “war-ego.” As the theory goes, the city remains tortured by the Sept. 11th attacks, in psychological agony at our inability to fight back. For solace, we turn to work created “at a time of war, a time of trauma, a time of mourning,” and see ourselves in Dix’s crippled soldiers.
All these exhibitions owe a debt to “Glitter and Doom,” the 2006 exhibition of 1920s portraiture by the likes of Dix, Max Beckmann and George Grosz. A surprise blockbuster with a catalog went into four printings, the show reaffirmed the perception of the postwar Weimar Republic as a sinister place peopled by obese plutocrats and underfed whores. Curator Sabine Rewald believes the portraits shocked a city that had grown used to watered-down portrayals of old Berlin.
At the Galerie St. Etienne, on 57th Street, director Jane Kallir has organized a show that she calls “a sequel and follow-up to what the Met did.” Adhering to pattern, she dubbed this exhibition–of again Dix, Beckmann and Grosz–”Decadence and Decay.” Using loans and some recent acquisitions, she has assembled an exhibition that no one would accuse of being too cheery. In the Galerie St. Etienne, despair hangs in the air like the stale cigar smoke that fills the paintings on the walls. “It’s not a ‘let-the-good-times-roll’ scenario,” said Ms. Kallir.
Such exhibitions irk Mr. Weitz, whose book Weimar Germany was an attempt to define the period as more than “only a culture of despair and agony.” What’s missing, he said, is the sense of utopian possibility that had not died with the war–this was an era when architect Bruno Taut dreamed of building cities at the tops of the Alps–and the positive sense of sexuality on display at the Guggenheim.
The powerful works at St. Etienne are also permeated with sex, but not the fun kind. The grotesque figures who people Dix and Grosz’s canvasses seem lascivious, yes, but sickly, as though one could contract syphilis by spending too long inspecting the brushwork.
At the nearby Museum of Modern Art, meanwhile, is the less ostentatiously titled “German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse.” Curator Starr Figura mined the permanent collection to build a show that, spanning from 1905 to 1934, could perhaps serve as a compromise between the other two. It opened at the tail end of “Weimar Cinema,” a well-reviewed film series chock full of films that organizer Laurence Kardish called “not pornographic, but fairly explicit.” This included a young, seductive Marlene Dietrich in Three Loves, and Sex in Chains, a film about a homosexual romance born in jail. “The people who love it really love it, but too many in the general public have no idea what German Expressionism is.”
Of course, there’s such a thing as over-analysis. Sex is more fun than death, and the Guggenheim ran with it. The actors onstage this weekend spent the evening cursing, exposing themselves and fiddling with a cigar that was, for three nights only, hardly just a cigar.
“It felt a bit like the audience was in two parts,” said company co-founder Kuno Bakker. “A part really enjoyed it and was laughing and very attentive and had a great time, and there was a part that I think in a way was shocked. A very small part unfortunately, left the room.” Mr. Fabius, who invited Dood Paard to perform based on their provocative reputation, was keen to emphasize the show’s fixation. “Every single word that’s pronounced onstage is to get laid,” he said.