Otto Dix, “Shock Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor)” from the portfolio The War (Der Krieg), (1924). Etching, aquatint, and drypoint. Plate: 75/8 × 115/16˝; sheet: 1311/16 × 185/8˝. Publisher: Karl Nierendorf, Berlin. Printer: Otto Felsing, Berlin. Edition: 70. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1934. © Otto Dix / 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

In the end, it all comes down to Otto Dix.  Once again we have been privileged with his unsurpassable intaglio suite, The War (1924), which was displayed less than six months ago at the Guggenheim (Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936) and in 2005 and 2010 at the Neue Galerie (War/Hell: Master Prints by Otto Dix and Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, respectively). What, we may ask, are the gods telling us? 

But not to jump ahead. German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse at the Museum of Modern Art goes down like a throat full of drain cleaner. Raw, immediate, and unflinching, these prints drill down to the emotional extremes at Expression’s core. Like the unforgettable Dada in 2006, The Graphic Impulse is the kind of show MoMA does best: deeply researched, epochal in sweep, mixing up the familiar, the unknown, and the rarely seen with understated panache. It is also, to my eye, the most compellingly contemporary exhibition the museum has mounted in some time.

Charles Baudelaire famously championed the painting of modern life, a critical platform that arguably gave rise to the observational imperative undergirding Realism and Impressionism, which in turn (as the conventional, if simplified, version goes), led to the abstracting impulse of Post-Impressionism and the various factions of the School of Paris. What began, then, as bracingly flat planes of paint embodying the up-to-the-minute effrontery of Édouard Manet’s whore, evolved into the optical interplay of color, shape, and design upon a fanciful, archaic, or bourgeois pictorial armature.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But image-making in early 20th-century Germany, while reliant on its French cousin, took on a decidedly different social and moral cast. Compare for a moment Emil Nolde’s 1913 lithograph “Dancer,” with her splayed legs, burning nipples, and black triangle of pubic hair, with Matisse’s “Dance (I)” (1909). Rather than Nolde’s rubber-limbed sexual savage flailing away for the benefit of a pair of presumably paying customers, we are presented with a naked but neutered circle of Arcadian innocence. The contrast between the two paintings is the divergence between a wish-world and the here-and-now. And by “now” I don’t mean 1913; I mean now.

This distinction becomes clearer if we return to Baudelaire: Nolde’s image (or Max Beckmann’s, or George Grosz’s, or Erich Heckel’s, or Oskar Kokoschka’s, or the sublime Egon Schiele’s) is not one of “modern life” but of life as it is lived.

It is a commonplace that German Expression has always been with us, infiltrating every mode of the creative sphere—from painting and film to music and dance to graphic novels and comic books. That isn’t the now I’m talking about.

If these artists, like the Realists and Impressionists before them, turned their gaze toward the street, the theater, the bordello and the bedroom, the imagery evokes a contemporary production of Alban Berg’s Lulu or Wozzeck more than it opens a window to another time, as might be the case with a sun-filled Monet or a gas-lit Degas. The characters in a Kirchner or a Pechstein are dressed in the clothes of a specific historical period, but their squirmy, sweaty, wasted expressions are our own. And if they are nude, their forms are rarely classicized or abstracted, but rather redolent of ruddy skin, body hair, bad smells, anorexia, and syphilis.

But the shock of recognition can go only so far.  There are formal reasons for this sense of identification, and this is where it all comes down to Dix. In brief, most of the work in this exhibition refuses to be suckered into behaving like art. It hews closely to its commonalities with book, magazine and newspaper design—rarely leaving the realm of black-and-white or bold, flat color—and accordingly keeps its belly to the ground, allowing any and every means to its unmediated ends. In Dix’s memory-driven The War, there is no differentiation between cartooning and horror, reportage and abstraction. Styles shift from print to print, and one is stranger than the next—the chiaroscuro moonscape of “Crater Field near Dontrien, Lit by Flares” to the sketchy, nearly impressionistic “Wounded Man Fleeing (Battle of the Somme, 1916).” The weirdly comic rendering of “Shock Troops Advance under Gas,” “Corpse in Barbed Wire (Flanders),” or “Skin Graft” evokes not so much the absurdity of the cataclysm, which might lend itself to a philosophical, and thereby redemptive, framework, but its ridiculousness, which would not.

We cannot impute our skepticism regarding the efficacy and significance of art to another, distant generation. Still, these receptacles of conflicted experience feel so deeply resonant precisely because they seem unafraid to admit confusion or surrender to futility. In fact, in those instances where we discern a coherent worldview at play (such as Vasily Kandinsky’s spiritual abstraction, Franz Marc’s idealization of nature or Käthe Kollwitz’s tragic vision), the effect is such that, rather than elevating those works to a higher plane, it takes their intensity down a notch.

These artists sat at the inside portal of one century, and we sit at another. For them, things only got worse.  For us, who knows? We can’t say we haven’t been warned.


Thomas Micchelli