Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s
Metropolitan Museum of Art November 16, 2006–February 19, 2007
A very large preparatory study by Otto Dix for his 1928 triptych, “Metropolis,” hangs in the foyer leading into the exhibition Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Meticulously drawn in red chalk, gouache and pencil, the cartoon’s central panel shows the interior of a swanky, Art Deco nightclub, while its flanking sections depict lurid processions of derelict amputees and flashy streetwalkers. Dix’s fierce mix of salaciousness and misanthropy is a fitting introduction to an exhibition focusing on a select group of artists whose work could more or less fall under the rubric of the “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivity), a form of hyper or “objective” realism native to Northern European painting that Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Christian Schad, Karl Hubbuch and others revived as a response to Germany’s social and political entropy following World War I.
One way of addressing the dire circumstances faced by Germans during the Weimar Republic was through varying degrees of stylization that often condensed the subject into a social “type,” a reduction masterfully performed by the photographer August Sander. Paradoxically, both Grosz and Dix used a heightened realism as a means of dissecting pretenses and falsehoods. In light of the advancements of Cubism, Expressionism and other Modernist subsets, these artists could easily be seen as reactionary. However, the strength of the Neue Sachlichkeit artists lies in their social consciousness; in fact, the more abstract or “modern” works in the exhibition—such as Dix’s “Skat Players” (1920) and Grosz’ “Gray Day” (1921)—are some of the least effective. Their moral invective has been deflated by formal invention.
While the works of Grosz and Beckmann, both of whom later emigrated to the U.S., are well known to American audiences, Glitter and Doom provides a rare opportunity to study unfamiliar offerings like the quirky Precisionist drawings of Karl Hubbuch, the empathic social realism of Rudolph Schlichter, and a small, choice selection of the chic magic realism of Christian Schad, which feels like a dispassionate tonic among the otherwise overheated sentiments.
Glitter and Doom could also be viewed as a comprehensive solo exhibition nestled in the arms of a very smart group show. Of the 100-plus paintings and drawings included, over half of them are by Otto Dix, providing American viewers with the most in-depth look at this virtuosic German painter to date. Dix’s dazzling ingenuity and dexterity, particularly as a draftsman, are showcased and contextualized by this gathering of his peers and countrymen.
Among all the artists in the exhibition, Otto Dix was the most interested in mining the stylistic tropes of Northern European painting, which he adopted with sufficient technical ability and curiosity to rival its masters. The jewel-toned, flat fields against which Dix sets his subjects seem to refer directly to the portraits of Holbein and Memling. He is obsessed with variations of texture, tracking the material shift from the rough weave of a suit to a crisp white shirt, or the sensuality of a sheer chiffon negligee over an expanse of naked flesh. In “Lady with Mink and Veil,” Dix, who in terms of sheer inventiveness rivaled Max Ernst, another German alchemist, uses milliner’s netting to print a pattern in paint directly onto the image.
The majority of works by Dix included in Glitter and Doom fall neatly into one of two categories: formal portraits of notables drawn from Berlin’s culturati and pictures of disenfranchised Germans, primarily war veterans and prostitutes, who struggle at the margins of society. Dix turns the suppurating wounds of the anonymous disfigured and destitute veterans into graphic black holes in the center of the picture. The sweaty voraciousness with which he devours a seemingly endless array of female nudes reminds us of the thrilling and terrifying opportunity of intimacy—to look as long and as closely as we wish at a naked, living body. Dix repeatedly demonstrates his ambivalent fascination with flesh by brutally describing the marks left on it by time, gravity and desperation. From a tender rendering of his kittenish wife, to the elegant ink gouges of a syphilitic streetwalker, to the witty, elongated contours of a young prostitute, Dix’s subtle calibration of touch to intention and feeling can be breathtaking.
Despite his energetic moral outrage, Dix unselfconsciously reveals the more pedestrian biases of his time. Often his single-minded interest in the physical imperfections of his subjects feels more sadistic than insightful. For this viewer, Dix’s apparent misogyny is ameliorated somewhat by the sheer number and types of women he painted. At a certain point, however, the fact that every Jew is shown with a grotesquely hooked nose steps over the line of political or social critique. In his 1926 portrait of art dealer, Alfred Flechtheim, all the gorgeously-rendered details conspire to tell the same old story: an expensively dressed, effeminate Jew slouching before a collection of expensive, effeminate French art. Decadent dealer, decadent art. Tellingly, when Dix does show us a male who is not gay, Jewish or maimed, he usually models him on his own physique, which was stereotypically Aryan: blond, brawny and rather stern.
Although “Glitter and Doom” is ostensibly focused on the use of portraiture as a means of documenting social change, the other primary motif is the modern city, in this case, Berlin, as crucible for the transformation of consciousness in all her residents, be they high rollers or provisional margin dwellers. The virile, the modish, the dirty, damaged, or just plain strange—all are drawn to this nexus where social strata have collapsed and permission is granted. Spend an hour with the painters of Glitter and Doom and you’ll gain a whole new spin on your subway ride home.
Carrie Moyer is a Brooklyn-based painter.