Friday, October 2, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Art as Voyeurism" (on New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933 at LACMA)

art as voyeurism
by Douglas Messerli

Stephanie Barron (curator) New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933 / Los Angeles County Museum of Art, October 4, 2015-January 18, 2016 / I saw the show at the press preview on September 30, 2015


Beginning after World War I with the rise the Weimar Republic, the first democratic German government, artists of many mediums began to refocus on the world around them in a way that reacted against the spiritual and personal values of Expressionism. The new art—which took its name from a commentary by German art historian Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, responding to a 1925 exhibition of Mannheim—came to be called Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), although it has also been described as Post-Expressionism, neo-naturalism, Verism, and Magic Realism. With a new show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (a portion of which was previously exhibited at the Museo Correr in Venice, Italy), museum curator Stephanie Barron (with a catalogue co-edited by Sabine Eckmann) has brought together almost 200 works by more than 50 German artists of the period, including well known figures such as Otto Dix, George Grosz, Christian Schad, August Sander, and Max Beckmann, as well as numerous lesser known figures, to explore the Weimar art.

     Before I even begin, let me clarify that the “objectivism” hinted at in the show’s title can only be understood in that word’s dictionary definition if it is proceeded by the word “new.” For, in fact, the works in this show might all be described as being the most “nonobjective” images possible. As Barron herself writes:


                 While they were not unified by manifesto, political tendency, or
                 geography, these artists did share a skepticism regarding German
                 society in the years following World War I and an awareness of
                 the human isolation brought about by social change. They chose 
                 themes from contemporary life, using realism to negotiate rapidly  
                 changing social and political conditions. By closely scrutinizing
                 everyday objects, modern machinery, and new technologies, these
                 artists rendered them unnatural—as uneasy as individuals alienated
                 from each other and their surroundings. As if to correct the chaos
                 of wartime, they became productive voyeurs, dissecting their sub-
                 jects with laser focus, even when overemphasis on detail came at
                 the expense of the composition as a whole.

     Time and again in the numerous portraits, single and group, of German types portrayed in these paintings and photographs, all traces of humanity seem to be whiped away, as their characters become involved in almost orgiastic celebrations that reveal their grotesque natures, their bestial temperaments, and their dance with death.
     In a painting central to the show, Otto Dix’s To Beauty (An die Schönheit) of 1922, the dancing couples, despite the frenzied playing of the black American percussionist (himself a caricature of a US negro of the day), seem dazed and isolated in their activities, the woman on the right seemingly dancing alone. The artist, presenting himself as a well-dressed businessman (while in real life Dix was apparently a good dancer), seems transfixed not by a real woman but the bust of what may be a prostitute. The beauty which the painting’s title toasts is not even a real woman.

     Max Beckmann’s crowded canvas of Paris Society (Gesellschaft Paris) of 1931, confronts us with a seemingly boxed-in group of well-dressed Parisians, nearly all of whom are looking in different directions from one another, as if trapped in their own worlds, despite the tight frame of their gathering.

     Another of his works, the 1923 Dance in Baden-Baden, shows two dancing couples with men leering at women who seem to be so distracted from their partners that they might be described in be in an entirely different space.

     Many other artists in their show present table mates as death heads, bizarrely deformed lovers (as in Christian Schad’s Agosta, “The Pigeon Chested Man,” and Rasha, “The Black Dove”) of 1929, or creatures in advanced levels of decay.
     Just as in the period fictions such as Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, obscenely poised prostitutes dominate some rooms of the show, along with several works by Otto Dix and Rudolf Schlichter, devoted to “Lustmord” or “Sexual Murder,” events that became more and more common during the Weimar era, and were documented even in films such as Pabst’s Lulu.

      Sexual perversion, indeed, becomes a dominant theme throughout these artworks, documented in George Grosz’s horrific 1927 work, Circe (above). In Berlin, particularly, as I have observed earlier in this volume, gay and lesbian sexuality became more and more openly accepted. And some of the artists, such as Christian Shad in his drawings Boys in Love seemingly celebrate the new openness. New Objectivity includes both gay and lesbian magazines and newspapers such as Die Intel and August Brand’s boy-love literary journal Die Eigene that were sold in local newsstands throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Other artists such as photograph Friedrich Seidenstücker’s untitled portrait of two young women lying together upon a couch also seem to accept the new sexualities, while Dix satirizes them is his painting of 1923, The Jeweller Karl Krall (De Juwelier Karl Krall), wherein the jeweler is caricatured not only as a Jew but as a gay man, showing off his outrageously corseted figure while staring out at the viewer with darkly lined eyebrows and heavily roughed cheeks. This work makes no pretense in its outright disgust of its subject, refusing to devote any objective sympathy to the figure it depicts.
     Even in less obviously biased depictions of German citizens of the era, such as the photographs of August Sander, the emphasis is not so much on living, breathing human being as it is on a series of typologies. Sander is less interested in the inner lives of his numerous subjects as he is in how their very physiognomies clue us into their personal behaviors and their roles or jobs in life. And, in that sense, they are frozen in time and space, never to be released into the world outside of his definitions of them: The Architect, Coal Carrier, or Cook. Even when he provides us with their names, as in the case of Helen Abelen, his photograph is far more interested in her societally based position, Painter’s Wife, which presumably allows her unconventional “mannish” look.

     Even children were perceived as subjects who are revealed, as Baron writes, to be “something sinister or disturbed.” “These are children coming of age, in the eyes of the artists who painted them, in a time characterized not by joy, play, and innocence, but by alienation and objectification.” Karl Gümter’s Portrait of a Boy (Knabenbildnis), for example, is an already determined young man, who, with his handsome Nordic looks and demeanor, promises to be a perfect young scout—or even a future Nazi.
     Although dominated by the portrait, the New Objectivists also took paint and canvas into the surrounding landscape and focused on the rising industrialism around them. Despite the later Nazi adulation of nature, presumably, since many of these Berliners and others painters were city dwellers, the natural world was often seen as an alienating and slightly sinister space having to do more with the past than the present. Nature is presented only in brief glimpses, from balconies or from strange vistas. The exoticism of nature is expressed through several of these artist’s fascination with indoor cacti, as in Geroge Scholz’s Cacti and Semaphore (Kakteen und Sempahore) of 1923. Even in this indoor “natural” scene there is the stench of perversity.
    When people actually enter into nature, as in Georg Schrimpf’s Reclining Girls in the Countryside of 1930, the influence comes not from the great German tradition of landscapes, but rather from the Italian Futurist artist Carlo Carrà.
     While numerous portraits concern themselves with industrialist leaders, often mocking their boorish and brutal behavior, artists such as Hans Finsler, Carl Grossberg, and others also seemingly celebrate the machine and the new commercial productions they created. Yet, how different, for example, is Grossberg’s The Yellow Boiler, with its oddly colored yellow, orange and blue-green tentacles, from the loving testaments to industry painted in the same decade by US artists such as Charles Sheeler, Arthur Dove, and Stuart Davis. Although Grossberg’s images may be somewhat sleek and beautiful, they are also preposterously constructed and hued in a way that seems to immediately put them under suspicion, just as these artists questioned even the innocence of their own offspring.