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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 6 FEBRUARY 2007— You know you are in for a good time when the first thing you see on entering an exhibition at a major cultural institution is a sign warning that it may be unsuitable for children and that viewer discretion is advised.  One might expect such a notice at the Whitney Museum’s biennial survey of new American art, where shock and awe are called upon to stuff the holes left by talent.  With its rooms of Dutch Masters, Impressionists, suits of armor and suits by Chanel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is New York’s family-safe art museum.  One need only say about Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s (running until February 19, 2007) that it’s the twentieth-century Germans they are showing for Americans to understand that, by the standards of Met and America, rough seas are ahead.  As every German-American family knows (mine included), "family values" are culturally relative: Americans bar from the sight of their children works that Germans hang in their dining rooms, but by any measure, this is strong art.

The theme is portraiture—that representational genre that, confounding numerous manifestos about abstract art, affirms that the human face tells us more about the human soul than anything else on a canvas.  Abstract artists can shout commands about what art is and what it means; portrait painters are obliged to shut up and pay attention to the humanity expressed in a subject’s eyes.

Christian Schad (German, 1894–1982), Self-Portrait, 1927l
Oil on wood; 29 15/16 x 24 3/16 in. (76 x 61.5 cm)
Private collection, courtesy Galerie Brockstedt, Hamburg
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

For the Met’s curators, "portrait" means a painting with people in the foreground, and for German artists of the period, flattery—that Achilles’ heel of portraiture—was never a prerequisite.  A large oil by Otto Dix, Dr. Hans Koch (1921), shows a scar-faced, unshaven, hypodermic-wielding Dr. Koch, standing goggle-eyed in front of medical apparatus straight from a horror story.  The wall label cautions that the real doctor was a good man—a poet, novelist and art collector—and you somehow aren’t surprised to learn that the artist ran off with his wife.  In his Self-Portrait on Yellow Ground with Cigarette (1923), Max Beckmann renders himself with severe, Cézannesque angles and slashes—a bank robber in a period movie poster, in contrast to the companion photograph of Beckmann in the exhibition catalogue, which makes him look like a period murderer.

Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969):  Dr. Hans Koch, 1921 
Mixed media on canvas; 39 9/16 x 35 7/16 in. (100.5 x 90 cm)
Museum Ludwig, Cologne
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

On a broad scale, the exhibition reminds us that the break between nineteenth and twentieth-century western art was less about a turn from representational works toward abstraction but the refutation of the belief that art, by definition, had something to do with beauty.  The Met’s curators have more specific goals: an exploration of Germany at a particular time and place.  Germany had been rolling along brilliantly from its formation in 1871 until World War I sent it skidding into a ditch.  It took the addition of the worldwide economic depression to bring on National Socialism—the ultimate example of the political cure that was worse than the disease.  Art historians are easily seduced by the notion that the art they love is a reflection of a culture and, at its most prescient, a reflection of where a culture, a civilization or an era is heading.  So it is easy to look back on these disturbing works and see the signs of putrefaction that would end in National Socialist victory.

But painting is the world’s most biased medium, and it is dangerous to find universal truths from what it shows.  To look at what the Met has hung in seven galleries and you’d hardly guess that the Roaring Twenties were often quite fun in Germany—despite the war, the reparations to the victors and the hyperinflation of 1923.  The Portrait of Anita Berber (1925) by Otto Dix shows the dancer at twenty-six, two years shy of death by dissipation; wearing an ice-white face of a woman three times her age and flaunting a blood-red dress as if posing for Vogue, she looks every bit the candidate for an early grave, but it must have been a thrill while it lasted: in his memoirs, the boxer Max Schmeling recalls the time that Berber took a table in the crowded dining room of the Adlon—quite the grandest hotel in Berlin—escorted by two young men.  Berber ordered three bottles of Veuve Clicquot, opened the diamond broach on her fur and, letting it fall, toasted her companions in the nude.

Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969): The Dancer Anita Berber, 1925
Oil and tempera on plywood; 47 1/4 x 25 9/16 in. (120 x 65 cm)
Loan of the Landesbank Baden-Würtemberg in the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There are delicate, intimate moments represented in the show—German style.  One is a favorite of mine on loan from the nearby Neue Galerie: a double portrait by Christian Schad, Two Girls (1928); it’s an homage to lesbian masturbation.  As women who have spent Saturday nights alone will admit on seeing two attractive men together, homosexuality intrigues and frustrates heterosexuals by revealing the loss of two opportunities.  Perhaps that explains the strap from a man’s wristwatch, just visible on a pillow.  It’s almost a pity even to read that simple message into the painting, let alone some higher truth about love and longing.  If anything, the exhibition pleads a case somewhat contrary to the museum’s intensions: the rawest of representational art is best taken at face value at first sight, leaving social interpretation and deeper meaning for later.

Christian Schad (German, 1894–1982): Two Girls, 1928
Private collection
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

But it is almost impossible to sell German of any era as art for art’s sake.  Pessimism, depression and—let’s use the inevitable word—Angst, are traits most Germans will own up to and that are widely understood as the Ur-themes of German modern art; moments of sheer, Matisse-like joy or even Impressionist serenity are rarely considered worthy of a German’s time.  And there is that damnable European expectation that, when a German is depressed, he will lift his spirits by either creating depressing art or invading Poland.  Maybe gracious, reflective portraits were painted in Germany during the period; you just won’t see them here, and would we really care?

Although you’ll never convince a patriotic American that it is true, no nation does everything well, and art history has looked more generously on the oeuvre of France and that of Italy than the totality of what has been delivered from German-speaking regions.  Switch the topic to music, however, and the tables are turned on the French, and even the Italians slip into a respectable second place.  There are many reasons for that, but one of them is that the world hears beauty, grandeur and elegance in German music and doesn’t see much of that in German painting—a few Caspar David Friedrichs notwithstanding.

Christian Schad (German, 1894–1982)
Count St. Genois d'Anneaucourt, 1927
Oil on wood, 33 7/8 x 24 13/16 in. (86 x 63 cm)
Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

The audience is a limited one in any event.  The art world will never own up to it, but all fine art speaks to the educated—and only to those among the educated who are interested in art; in the USA, outside a few major cities, university towns and country estates, no lasting hunger for art has ever evidenced itself.  Life keeps happening whether or not art is made and regardless of what art or even science says about it.  My maternal grandmother spent part of a contented adolescence in Vienna, blissfully unaware that she lived at the center of the Jugendstil and Secession movements, not far from Gustav Klimt and within walking distance of Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, Egon Schiele and Alban Berg , among others; nor did she seem to understand that the empire in whose capital she lived was collapsing around her.  I suspect a good many people today have parents and grandparents who muddled through life in Weimar Germany as both my grandmothers did, without a clue that Dix, Beckmann, Schad, George Grosz and other artists whose works are in the Met’s exhibition were warning they were in deep trouble.

Max Beckmann (German, 1884–1950), Self–Portrait with Champagne Glass, 1919
Oil on canvas; 25 9/16 x 21 7/8 in. (65 x 55.5 cm)
Private collection, courtesy W. Wittrock, Berlin
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

So if German portraits between the world wars tell a troubling story, who was listening then?  (The Nazis would soon ban the stuff.)  And should we listen now?  The answer is that a deep understanding of what happened then is not required to appreciate what the Met has brought us: a compelling look at the human spirit in trouble, made by a diverse group of artists whose work, in totality, is tight—indeed, almost seamless—in theme and execution.  For those seeking a silver lining, however, this small but fascinating exhibition is also a reminder that, from Riemenschneider to Dürer to Beuys, anyone looking for beauty and affirmation in the visual arts lowers his expectations on entering Germany—and anyone looking for beauty and affirmation in German art need only turn on his stereo.

Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s
Until 19 February 2007
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10028
Tel: (1) 212 535 77 10

Alan Behr is a citizen of the United States and Germany and practices intellectual property law at Alston & Bird LLP.  He has written extensively on European travel and cultural affairs and is the author of the travel memoir Once Around the Fountain. Alan Behr last wrote on New Orleans for

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