Category: German Expressionism

Echoes of Weimar

"Self Portrait with Gasmask" - Barthel Gilles. Oil on canvas, 19.5 × 15.5 inches. 1930. Collection of Suermondt-Ludwig Museum in Aachen.

"Self Portrait with Gasmask" - Barthel Gilles. Egg tempera on wood panel , 19.5 × 15.5 inches. 1930. Collection of the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum in Aachen, Germany.

Barthel Gilles (1891-1977) was one of those artists overlooked by history, he was a fabulously talented painter who lived during the rise and fall of Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919-1933), not to mention the ascendancy and demise of the Nazi regime.

An undeniably idealistic and passionate artist, he was not left unscathed by the terrible days he passed through; one could say he was left broken by them. I wrote briefly about him and his 1930 painting Ruhrkampf (Ruhr Struggle) in 2001, but I feel compelled to say more about the life and work of this little known artist.

Otto Dix (1891-1969) should be familiar to readers of this web log, since he is one of the most celebrated of all German Expressionist artists.

My conviction that there is much to learn from the German Expressionist movement, mixes with my sense that we are living in times reminiscent of the Weimar period; an epoch marked by the eroding of democratic institutions and cultural life, economic collapse, endless war, corrupt monied elites and professional politicians that are completely out of touch with common people. Add the foibles of late capitalism in the early 21st century, and suddenly this article is not so much about Gilles or Dix and the moral, political, and aesthetic questions they and their compatriots faced; it becomes a matter of how artists are responding to today’s world situation.

"Self Portrait" - Otto Dix. Oil on canvas, 39 2/5 × 31 1/2 inches. 1931. Collection of Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. Photo: Hermann Buresch © ARS, NY

"Self Portrait" - Otto Dix. Oil on canvas, 39 2/5 × 31 1/2 inches. 1931. Collection of Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. Photo: Hermann Buresch © ARS, NY

In 1927 Otto Dix painted Straßenkampf (Street Fight), a shocking representation of the ferocious armed clashes that took place between militant left-wing workers and right-wing militias in the years just prior to Nazism.

Barthel Gilles painted a similar work in 1930 titled Ruhrkampf (Ruhr Struggle); his masterwork was based upon the Märzrevolution (March Revolution) staged by German workers in 1920. But what were the real-world events that so captivated the imagination - and outrage - of these two artists?

The street battles that induced Gilles and Dix to record their indignation have mostly been long forgotten, even in Germany, but the political dynamics of the events continue to resonate in our present. To fully comprehend the two paintings examined in this article, one needs to understand a bit of German history.

When Otto Dix painted Straßenkampf (Street Fight) in 1927, he placed the viewer in the midst of a bloody and desperate mêlée between an armed populace and soldiers. His Goyaesque work of art depicted the ruthless class struggle then taking place in Germany; bloodletting that pitted impoverished workers, war veterans, and various left-wing groups against the very forces that would become the Nazi’s political base - militarists, xenophobes, ultra-nationalists, racists, and extreme rightwing anti-communists.

Straßenkampf (Street Fight) - Otto Dix. 1927. Medium unknown. In all probability this painting was destroyed by the Nazis. Photographer of the painting, unknown. Reproduction courtesy the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Library Photo Archive.

"Straßenkampf" (Street Fight) - Otto Dix. 1927. Medium unknown. In all probability this painting was destroyed by the Nazis. Photographer of the painting, unknown. Reproduction courtesy the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Library Photo Archive.

The painting shows a throng of disorganized civilian rebels, most of which are not men of fighting age. Shrouded in a haze of gun smoke and armed with a hodgepodge of weapons, they are desperate to get at their enemies, a unit of heavily armed paramilitary Freikorps troops. Though offering valiant resistance, the crowd is being decimated by deadly precision volleys of rifle fire from the Freikorps soldiers, who were largely battle hardened WWI veterans.

The mob buckles under the withering barrage; blood-splattered women with horrific gunshot wounds are crushed beneath the crowd; two young blonde women raise their hands in dismay; a bearded rebel fighter attempts to fling a captured “stick grenade” at the Freikorps but is fatally shot before he can toss it. In juxtaposition to the routed multitude the disciplined Freikorps seem unyielding and invincible, though one of their own lay dead at their feet, his right arm a bloody pulp. Dix’s painting was as prescient as it was horrific. He sardonically signed his painting by placing his monogram on a grenade hanging from the belt of the soldier closest to the foreground.

What specific event Dix was showing in his painting is unclear. In the early 1900s Germany was impoverished, exhausted from war, and on the verge of revolution. Left-wing rebels regularly battled with those right-wing ultra-nationalists who eventually would form the Nazis; as the hapless “liberal” Weimar government played at being centrist (all the while seeking the support of Weimar industrialists and the rightist German military). Perhaps the painting was a depiction of the Weimar reprisals made against the Munich Soviet Republic established in Bavaria in 1919. Maybe it was a portrayal of state repression aimed at the 1919 Spartacist uprising, when communists attempted to set off a revolution in Berlin. Whatever the inspiration, Dix encapsulated the agony of the Weimar years in the gory scene. The few references one can find about the painting list it as “destroyed or lost”. Sadly, there is but one black and white photo of the painting (year and photographer unknown).

Sketch for "Street Fight" - Otto Dix. Pencil on paper. 1924. The artist created this study in a 1924 sketch book.

Sketch for "Street Fight" - Otto Dix. Pencil on paper. 1924. The artist created this study in a sketch book of his, three years prior to creating the painting.

It should be remembered that once the Nazis came to power in 1933, they removed Dix from his teaching position at the Dresden Art Academy, prohibited him from exhibiting in Germany, mockingly placed his paintings in the Nazi organized Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit, and removed two hundred and sixty of his artworks from museums. In fascist parlance his work was “un-German” and responsible for helping to undermine “the will of the German people to defend themselves.” It is a fair assumption that Straßenkampf was confiscated by the Nazis and later destroyed for its portrayal of German soldiers.

Barthel Gilles and Otto Dix both painted in the difficult medium of egg tempera. Used for centuries, egg tempera was the medium of choice for European artists until the introduction of oil painting in the 15th century. Because of its handling qualities and relative ease of use, oil would eventually displace egg tempera as a preferred painting medium. However, egg tempera did not entirely disappear. Old masters used it as an “underpainting” because it dried so quickly, completing their paintings with glazes of oil paint. German master painters like Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545) excelled at mischtechnik, the “mixed technique” mentioned above.

Leading lights in the Neue Sachlichkeit (”New Objectivity”) school of German Expressionism that flourished during the ill-fated Weimar Republic, Gilles and Dix shared an infatuation with Old Master paintings. Inspired since his youth by the likes of Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien, Dix created some of his most well-known artworks in mixed technique. While perhaps better known for his radically severe expressionist works, Dix could paint on par with a German Renaissance Master like Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553); ample evidence is provided in Triumph des Todes (Triumph of Death) a 1934 allegorical work Dix painted after the Nazis fired him from his professorship at the Dresden Art Academy. In fact Dix once said, “I am not a gifted pupil of Rembrandt, but rather of Cranach, Dürer, and Grünewald“.

A year before painting Ruhrkampf, Barthel Gilles had become a member the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), as well as joining the Assoziation Revolutionärer Bildender Künstler Deutschlands (ASSO - “Association of revolutionary visual artists of Germany”) a group of artists associated with the KPD. Notables in the group included the likes of George Grosz, Curt Querner, Otto Nagel, Paul Fuhrmann, and Hans Grundig).

Ruhrkampf (Ruhr Struggle) - Barthel Gilles. Egg tempera and oil on wood panel. 1930. The artist portrayed armed revolutionary workers in battle against government soldiers. The work was based upon the real world event known as the "Ruhr Struggle" or "March uprising".

"Ruhrkampf" (Ruhr Struggle) - Barthel Gilles. Egg tempera and oil on wood panel. 1930. The artist portrayed armed revolutionary workers in battle against government soldiers. The work was based upon the real world event known as the "Ruhr Struggle" or "March uprising".

Gilles’ 1930 Ruhrkampf (Ruhr Struggle) was based upon the March Revolution of 1920. That uprising was the response of workers to the Kapp Putsch, an attempted military coup against the young centrist Weimar Republic that was organized by an extremist nationalist named Wolfgang Kapp and joined by large segments of the armed forces. The Weimar government ordered the army to suppress the coup, but the command was refused. As rightist pro-coup troops marched on Berlin, the government fled to Stuttgart. The Kapp Putsch collapsed in four days because a massive nationwide strike against it paralyzed the country. However, the failed coup set off a series of events that would forever alter German society.

"Ruhrkampf" (Detail) - Barthel Gilles.1930.

"Ruhrkampf" (Detail) - Barthel Gilles.1930.

After the Kapp Putsch affair, large numbers of Germans who had defended the Weimar Republic came to view the Social Democratic government as an obstacle to the completion of the 1918 November Revolution that overthrew the monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Insurrection became the order of the day as revolutionary workers and former soldiers took over various cities; eventually some 80,000 leftwing workers would organize themselves as the Red Ruhr Army to control the entire Ruhr industrial area of North Rhine-Westphalia. In a fateful decision, the Social Democrats of the Weimar government sent in the army - the very same army that refused to defend the Weimar regime - and the Ruhr uprising was crushed with brutal force. Thousands of rebels were killed. From that point on, German leftists found it impossible to work in partnership with the Social Democrats, a fact that splintered opposition to the rise of Hitler. That is the background narrative of Gilles’ painting.

"Ruhrkampf" (Detail) - Barthel Gilles.1930. "(....) bullet holes can be seen in the legs of the chair, and splintering the top of the wicker basket".

"Ruhrkampf" (Detail) - Barthel Gilles.1930. "(....) bullet holes can be seen in the legs of the chair, and splintering the top of the wicker basket".

Ruhrkampf is a technically brilliant painting, and Gilles deftly employed the Old Master method of painting oil glazes over an egg tempera underpainting.

Compositionally, the work focuses on three insurrectionists from the March Revolution cramped together with their rifles behind a makeshift barricade.

The three form a curve that ends with the agitated looking fellow in the foreground. He works the bolt action on his Steyr-Mannlicher M1895 rifle, the standard service rifle for soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in WWI that would later be used by Weimar era soldiers and to a lesser extent by the Nazis. The worker in the center of the painting is also armed with an M1895, which is easily identified by its unique shaped trigger guard assembly and magazine. That Gilles included these technical details shows what a stickler he was for accuracy.

Gilles’ exactitude is found in other details of Ruhrkampf; the Neues Bauen (New Building) modern architecture barely discernable at the skyline; the working class attire of the men (precise right down to the embroidery on their caps); even the items making up the barricade add to the narrative. One can see wicker basketry, box springs from a bed, an upside-down wooden chair, and a bound stack of newspapers.

"Ruhrkampf" (Detail) - Barthel Gilles.1930. As sensitive a depiction of human hands ever portrayed in German art, these are the rough hands of a man who suffered much but remained unbowed.

"Ruhrkampf" (Detail) - Barthel Gilles.1930. As sensitive a depiction of human hands ever portrayed in German art, these are the rough hands of a man who suffered much but remained unbowed.

The papers in the painting indicate two things; that the workers were literate and well informed (at the time German newspapers ran the entire political gambit from hard left to extreme right and everything in between); and that experience taught the workers that tightly bound bundles of newspaper made effective bullet stops.

The three rebels are under fire from German soldiers mobilized against them by the Weimar government; if one looks closely bullet holes can be seen in the legs of the chair, and splintering the top of the wicker basket.

Even the cap of the worker in the top right corner has a bullet hole in it.

Given the fact that Germany was experiencing mass insurrectionary violence between the left and those on the extreme right, the Weimar government was terrified of an armed populace. The Social Democrats of the Weimar regime used rightwing Freikorps troops and the German army to brutally crush the left and communist movements in Germany - killing thousands. The Weimar gun control laws of 1928 were not so much used out of a concern to “stop the bloodshed”, as they were a desperate attempt to increase the political control the regime had over a population increasingly in revolt.

In his article, Nazism, Firearm Registration, and the Night of the Broken Glass (PDF file), Attorney at Law and conservative activist Stephen P. Halbrook wrote about Weimar gun control laws, noting that the April 12, 1928 Weimar Law on Firearms and Ammunition required that licenses issued by police departments would be necessary in order for an individual to obtain or carry a firearm. That law was amended in 1931, authorizing that all guns must “be registered with the police authorities.” The Weimar decree further authorized the police to confiscate weapons in order to foster “the maintenance of public security and order.” Those who failed to register their guns, or surrender them to the authorities when told to do so, could be jailed for “not less than three months.” [1] Halbrook also documented that Weimar law stated that “Licenses to obtain or to carry firearms shall only be issued to persons whose reliability is not in doubt, and only after proving a need for them.” [2]

Meant as a rebuttal to Halbrook’s research, liberal University of Chicago law professor Bernard E. Harcourt wrote his 2004 treatise on gun control in Nazi Germany, Hitler and Gun Registration. Harcourt conceded that “the Weimar Republic passed very strict gun control laws essentially banning all gun ownership,” and that on January 13, 1919, the Weimer government “enacted legislation requiring the surrender of all guns to the government. This law, as well as the August 7, 1920, Law on the Disarmament of the People passed in light of the Versailles Treaty, remained in effect until 1928, when the German parliament enacted the Law on Firearms and Ammunition (April 12, 1928).” [3]

Harcourt’s article correctly discounted the myth that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party disarmed the German people, pointing out that it was the Social Democrats of the Weimar Republic that disarmed them. The Weimar Government’s gun registration program was so effective that once the Nazi’s seized power, they simply used Weimar records on gun owners to put their own version of gun confiscation into practice. With the political opposition disarmed, banned, imprisoned, driven into exile or murdered, Hitler’s regime expanded the Weimar gun laws by writing their own in 1938 - which of course forbad Jews and regime opponents from owning firearms. While Halbrook and Harcourt are ideological adversaries and they reach different conclusions, their insights into Weimar era gun bans are penetrating and informative.

There is one last wrinkle in the saga of Barthel Gilles, it is a miserable, shameful, and lamentable fact. While the majority of his colleagues in Expressionist and left political circles refused to give in to the Nazis, displaying their open or clandestine resistance by various means both large and small - Gilles appears to have collaborated with the fascist regime.

With their seizure of power in 1933, in order to guarantee their absolute control over all aspects of cultural and artistic life in Germany, the Nazis established a “National Chamber of Culture” headed by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Two of the Nazi organized art exhibitions for 1933, West-front (Western Front) and Gesunde Frau, Gesundes Volk (A Healthy Woman - A Healthy People), listed Barthel Gilles as a participating artist.[4] While I have no information about the former, I can tell the reader something about the latter.

Brochure cover art for the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum exhibition "Healthy Woman - Healthy Nation" (1932). Designer unknown. The exhibit and pamphlet were created prior to the Nazi takeover of the museum. The legend at the bottom of the artwork reads, "German publisher for national welfare". Image courtesy of the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden.

Brochure cover art for the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum exhibition "Healthy Woman - Healthy Nation" (1932). Designer unknown. The exhibit and pamphlet were created prior to the Nazi takeover of the museum. The legend at the bottom of the artwork reads, "German publisher for national welfare". Image courtesy of the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden.

A Healthy Woman - A Healthy People was originally an exhibit curated by the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum of Dresden, founded in 1912 as an institution dedicated to “public understanding of sciences and humanities.” Once the museum came under the direct control of the Nazis in 1933, that mission changed. The Nazis altered the exhibit A Healthy Woman, to promote their theories on racial hygiene and eugenics. It became a traveling exhibit, its first showing was outside of Dresden in the city of Cologne. I can find no record of what Gilles exhibited in the show.

In 1938 Gilles frequently took part in exhibits organized by the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labor Front or DAF), the Nazi established “trade union” that replaced all worker’s organizations and unions after such groups had been abolished by the fascists in 1933. The DAF put an emphasis on combating liberalism and communism, as well as generating support for the Nazi state among the working class.

A powerful arm of the DAF was the Gemeinschaft Kraft durch Freude (Community Strength Through Joy - KdF). Responsible for arranging leisure pastimes for workers, the Strength Through Joy branch of the Nazi labor front organized art exhibits, concerts, cruises, and other cultural activities. The KdF was also responsible for developing the Volkswagen (People’s Car). Historic records show Barthel Gilles listed as a “regular” participant in Strength Through Joy art exhibits [5], though I can find no record of what he exhibited.

Even if appalled by Gilles’ collaboration with the Nazis, it is problematical to judge him. Believe it or not, the Nazi curated exhibit A Healthy Woman - A Healthy People actually toured the U.S. from 1934 to 1943. In fact, it was housed by the Museum of Science in Buffalo, New York, until 1943. [6] What does that say about abetting Nazi ideology? Apparently thousands of Americans viewed and enjoyed the exhibit, until the museum decided to permanently take the show down due to sensitivity over the then two-year long war with Nazi Germany.

As for Gilles’ exhibiting in Nazi organized exhibits, aside from exile, what other opportunities did German artists have for showing their works? Since the Nazis tightly controlled the museum and gallery system as well as all other aspects of cultural production, those who criticized the regime were hounded, banned from making art, imprisoned or worse. How many of us could withstand such persecution? Ultimately it is a question of one’s own humanity, do you keep it by resisting or lose it by consenting to the most despicable outrages. That Gilles collaborated with a genocidal regime to save himself is his shame, that many of us today accept the unacceptable is ours.

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PLAGIARISM NOTICE:

Mr. Gunther Stephan (aka ” Kraftgenie”), who administers the so-called Weimar website, has plagiarized my original writings regarding German Expressionist artists. Without authorization, he lifted my original text on Barthel Gilles (written 2001), and used it without credit or link for his 2010 Barthel Gilles post. Stephan also stole verbatim, sections of my writings on Gert Wollheim (Stephan’s plagiarized version), and Curt Querner (plagiarized version). If my most recent article about Barthel Gilles and Otto Dix shows up on Stephan’s Weimar website, at least now you will know who the genuine author is.

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[1] Stephen P. Halbrook: “Nazism, Firearm Registration, and the Night of the Broken Glass.” (PDF file). Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law, No. 3. (2009)

[2] Stephen P. Halbrook: “Nazi Firearms and the Disarming of the German Jews.” (PDF file). Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law, No. 3. (2000)

[3] Bernard E. Harcourt: “Hitler and Gun Registration.

[4] Sergiusz Michalski: “Neue Sachlichkeit: Malerei, Graphik und Photographie in Deutschland 1919-1933.

[5] Sergiusz Michalski: “Neue Sachlichkeit: Malerei, Graphik und Photographie in Deutschland 1919-1933.

[6] Susan Currell, Christina Cogdell: “Popular Eugenics: National Efficiency And American Mass Culture in the 1930s.

Paul Fuhrmann’s “War Profiteer”

Kriegsgewinnler ("War Profiteer"). Paul Fuhrmann. Oil on canvas. 1932.

Kriegsgewinnler ("War Profiteer"). Paul Fuhrmann. Oil on canvas. 1932.

Paul Fuhrmann’s painting titled War Profiteer depicts a straightforward scene of an artist at work in his studio with a patron approvingly overseeing the beginnings of a freshly painted canvas. Upon closer inspection the picture reveals a narrative on the subject of culpability and corruption; the canvas is in actuality a fully relevant morality tale for today’s art world. Fuhrmann is little known outside of Germany, though he was an important figure in the avant-garde of that country during the pre-Nazi Weimar years (1919-1932). Though Kriegsgewinnler (”War Profiteer”) was painted in 1932 under extreme circumstances, it is still worth analyzing for the insights it continues to provide.

One can begin to unravel the painting’s message by taking note of what is shown outside of the artist’s garret. In the background great factories involved in war production belch smoke into the sky, with a bank building in the foreground proudly advertising war loans. The broad streets are filled with maimed war veterans on crutches and newly recruited marching soldiers, it is an ominous scene that not only indicates a nation engaged in endless warfare, but a social order where all aspects of society are intrinsically connected to militarism.

The political drama of the artwork focuses on the two figures in the foreground, an artist at his easel and his “War Profiteer” benefactor, a bowler hat wearing patron that one can assume is associated with either the arms manufacturing or banking industry. The well heeled client has just placed a somewhat large pile of money on the window ledge of the artist’s studio. The artist, preparing to work further on his painting, squeezes oil paint from a tube onto his wooden palette. He has already outlined the central figures of his canvas; a battle dressed soldier that pledges loyalty to the nation - represented by a woman with a radiating halo. Cherubs bearing an artillery piece complete the scene. Obviously the artist was not inspired by the muses, but by a desire to ingratiate himself with the rich and powerful elite circles running society. Appropriately enough, the artist painting the jingoistic tableau wears rose colored glasses.

Fuhrmann also included subliminal icons into his disquieting expressionist masterwork. While many German artists at the time included cactus in their modernist still life paintings, Fuhrmann seemed to include two of the prickly succulent plants as a sign of looming danger. What’s more, the metal frame that holds the studio window glass together first appears as a giant Christian cross, on second-glance it becomes a Swastika; symbolic of the sacred being obliterated by the profane and prescient of the liquidation of all those who opposed militarism on religious and political grounds. There was more than a little antiwar sentiment discernable in the painting, which made it anathema to right-wing nationalists. In 1933, the year after Fuhrmann painted War Profiteer, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party seized absolute power in Germany; Fuhrmann and likeminded artists would pay a heavy price for their vision and outspokenness.

As with most of the German Expressionists, Fuhrmann’s anti-militarist stance did not simply come about overnight, it was based upon observance of and involvement in social reality, that and a mindfulness concerning the class dynamics of society. Born in Berlin in 1893, Fuhrmann was an art student at the Academy of the Museum of Applied Arts in Berlin under the Czech artist, Emil Orlik (1870-1932). Orlik’s students included George Grosz, who was to become famous for paintings and graphics that savaged the German ruling class of the period.

The First World War broke out in 1914, and the next year German authorities arrested Fuhrmann for his outspoken anti-militarist politics; WWI would end with at least five million civilians and some nine million soldiers killed. When the war ended in 1918, Germans overthrew the Kaiser at the beginning of the 1918-23 revolution, and Fuhrmann joined those revolutionaries who sought to create a popular, democratic government - the Weimar Republic. He participated in the street battles that broke out between right-wing followers of the old regime, and supporters of the new republic.

In 1918 Fuhrmann become a member of the Novembergruppe (November Group), those artists who believed that art must play a role in building a new progressive society. Members of the group included Max Pechstein, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Conrad Felixmüller, Hannah Höch, Wassily Kandinsky, Rudolf Schlichter, and many other notable expressionist artists. During the 1920s Fuhrmann began to explore the possibilities of collage and assembly artworks, and he began to regularly exhibit in galleries. Sometime around 1924 he joined the Rote Gruppe (Red Group), a radical artist’s association chaired by George Grosz.

From 1926 to 1927 Fuhrmann contributed many designs and illustrations to Germany’s growing left-wing and communist press. In 1927 he joined the KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, Communist Party of Germany), and in 1928 he joined the Association Revolutionärer Bildender Künstler Deutschlands (the “German Association of Revolutionary Artists”, co-founded by George Grosz). By 1931 right-wing violence and repression was well on the rise. That year Fuhrmann’s mixed media collage The Political Ones, an artwork denouncing the German court system of the day for its suppression of left-wing activists, was removed from a Berlin art exhibition by the police. The next year Fuhrmann painted War Profiteer.

When the Nazis assumed power in 1933 they immediately moved against arts professionals who did not conform to fascist ideals. The first to be attacked were writers, and books deemed “anti-German” were reduced to ashes in the mass public book burnings of ‘33. Artists, filmmakers, and musicians lost their jobs, had their works banned, were forced into exile, or were sent to death camps. Fuhrmann’s teacher from his student days, Emil Orlik, had died of a heart attack a year earlier, but 1933 marked the end of the Orlik family. Being Jewish they would all perish at the hands of the Nazis, save for a single aunt. George Grosz went into exile in the United States.

Entartete Kunst exhibit in Hamburg, Germany, 1938.

Entartete Kunst exhibit in Hamburg, Germany, 1938.

The Nazis listed Fuhrmann as a “degenerate artist”, and forbade him from doing his work. His artworks were banned and seized by Nazi authorities, who included War Profiteer in their infamous 1937 traveling exhibition, Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art).

The fascist authorities removed all avant-garde artworks from the nation’s museums - some 16,000 paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures - using a selection of 650 of these artworks to create the Entartete Kunst show. The exhibit condemned modern art as “anti-German”, the product of mental illness and of “Jewish-Bolshevist” conspirators. Some 3 million people attended the show during its four-year tour of Germany. Inclusion in the exhibit put Fuhrmann in good company as paintings by the likes of Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, George Grosz, and many other exemplary artists were also placed in the mocking display.

The artworks in the exhibit were divided into subgroups, nine in all, each presenting supposed characteristics in art the Nazis found anathema to their extreme rightist philosophy. Artworks were condemned for their “barbarous” ultramodern aesthetics, for their “shameless mockery of any religious idea”, for promoting “Marxist and Bolshevik ideology” and for idealizing “the negro as the racial ideal” in modern art - along with “the idiot, the cretin, and the cripple.” One set of artworks was meant to showcase the “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul”. Groups of artworks were surrounded by hostile slogans daubed onto museum walls; “An insult to the German heroes of the Great War”, “Crazy at any price”, “Madness becomes method”, “The cultural Bolsheviks’ order of battle”, and “Jewish, all too Jewish”. One grouping had to do with art construed as “sabotage of national defense”, Paul Fuhrmann’s War Profiteer was likely placed with those paintings. Quoting the original Exhibition Guide printed by the Nazis on the nature of that particular group of artworks:

“Here ‘art’ enters the service of Marxist draft-dodging propaganda. The intention is manifest: the viewer is meant to see the soldier either as a murderer or a victim, senselessly immolated for something known to the Bolshevik class struggle as ‘the capitalist world order.’ Above all, the people are to be deprived of their profound reverence for all military virtues, valor, fortitude, and readiness for combat. And so, in the drawings in this section, alongside caricatures of war cripples expressly designed to arouse repulsion and views of mass graves delineated with every refinement of detail, we see German soldiers represented as simpletons, vile erotic wastrels, and drunkards. That not just Jews but ‘artists’ of German blood could produce such botched and contemptible works, in which they gratuitously reaffirmed our enemies’ war atrocity propaganda - already unmasked at the time as a tissue of lies - will forever remain a blot on the history of German culture.”

Paul Fuhrmann survived the Nazis as well as the bombings of Berlin by the Allied powers, but he never abandoned the city throughout all of the violence and destruction it suffered. He would pass away in East Berlin on January 25, 1952.

Museum catalogue for the 1991 exhibit, "Degenerate Art": The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany

Museum catalogue for the 1991 exhibit, "Degenerate Art": The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany

On a side note, long before the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), became an appendage of the BP corporate empire, it organized a partial reconstruction of the infamous exhibition in 1991, intended to reveal the crimes against art committed by German fascism. Curated by Stephanie Barron and titled “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, the exhibit traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago later that same year.

The show displayed 150 surviving artworks as well as archival materials like motion-picture footage and photographs. Having walked through the L.A. exhibit during its opening week, I still regard it as one of the most impressive shows LACMA ever mounted.

In collaboration with the Harry N. Abrams publishing house, LACMA also produced an exhaustive exhibit catalogue full of incisive essays and historic photos - as well as a listing (with biographies) of many of the artists whose works were included in some of the original Entartete Kunst exhibits. The inside cover of the catalogue stated unequivocally that the book’s essays “cannot help but suggest a parallel with our own times, in which artistic freedom is under attack by ideologues.” Fortunately LACMA has made a .pdf version of the entire catalogue that is currently available online. In the forward to the 1991 catalogue, then Director of LACMA, Earl A. Powell III and James N. Wood, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, wrote the following:

“Our exhibition and catalogue ‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany examines the events surrounding that condemnation of modern art. Although this project has been in the planning stage for five years, its topic has recently attained greater timeliness. Museums in this country have relied for a quarter of a century on government grants through the agencies of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, and the Institute for Museum Services. This assistance has, among many other things, enabled public institutions to continue to present important exhibitions to an ever-growing public and to attract private and corporate funding. As the 1990s begin, museum exhibitions are in a precarious position. If government support for the arts is jeopardized, the ability of all museums to organize exhibitions will be affected and the museum as an educational institution will be seriously diminished.

Only with two very generous subventions from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities have we been able to mount this exhibition, organize its related events, and produce this catalogue. This exhibition focuses on events that are powerful, disturbing, and sometimes difficult to understand. It is especially gratifying to us that the Endowments recognize the importance of the issues and made it possible for us to pursue the project.”

It must be noted that the government arts agencies Mr. Powell and Mr. Wood regarded as absolutely vital to the mounting of LACMA’s Degenerate Art exhibit, have had their budgets whittled away over the years. At the time of the 1991 exhibit the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts was $174,080,737 - adjusted for inflation that would be $275,103,014 in today’s dollars. President Obama’s proposed NEA budget for fiscal year 2012 is a trifling $146,255,000.

What is more, museums have been increasingly moving away from being institutions that acquire, care for, study, and exhibit objects of enduring significance, and are instead being steadily transformed into entertainment centers; venues where “blockbuster” shows curated or sponsored by corporate entities pander to popular tastes. LACMA has gone that route, which is why it is hard to imagine the museum ever again mounting an exhibit as profound as “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany.

A case in point, from May 29 to October 31, 2011, LACMA is presenting a “major retrospective” on the works of Tim Burton. According to LACMA the exhibit examines “the full range of Tim Burton’s creative work, both as a film director and as an artist.” The public will have the dubious honor of viewing storyboards, puppets, movie related concept artworks and illustrations, as well as other bits of cinematic ephemera from Burton films like Mars Attacks! and Edward Scissorhands. Museum goers will also have the opportunity to view screenings of Burton’s films at LACMA’s Bing Theater, cinematic masterworks like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Batman (1989), and the pointless 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes.

Why those in charge of LACMA regard Burton’s works as the pinnacle of artistic achievement is anyone’s guess. In all fairness, the exhibit was actually organized and curated by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and funded by SyFy, the U.S. cable television channel owned by entertainment conglomerate, NBCUniversal. During its five-month run at MoMA, 810,500 visitors took in the show, making it the third-highest attended exhibit in the museum’s history. At $20 dollars per ticket MoMA brought in $16,210,000 with its Tim Burton extravaganza, no doubt LACMA hopes to do the same. Perhaps LACMA will next mount a major retrospective featuring ephemera from the career of late pop star Michael Jackson.

But back to Paul Fuhrmann and his brilliantly critical painting, War Profiteer.

While Fuhrmann confronted untenable circumstances that were far removed from our own, every epoch offers conditions and events that demand responses from artists, yet little of social reality seems to register with artists at this point in time. The issues are indisputably daunting; the crisis of modernity, the vulgarity and crassness of late capitalism’s hyper-consumerist societies, the deterioration of democracy and the ascendancy of oligarchy, our collective lurching towards worldwide environmental catastrophe. These are undeniably difficult concerns for artists to grapple with, but as was the case with Fuhrmann and his fellow German Expressionists, a way was found to assail social backwardness and the systematic destruction of culture beneath the weight of capital and the heels of hobnailed boots.

The type of artist portrayed in Paul Fuhrmann’s War Profiteer is with us today, though perhaps in far larger numbers and with a greater capacity for self-delusion. Metaphorically speaking, the most notable aspect of today’s art scene, from top to bottom, is the fashionable wearing of rose colored glasses. Fuhrmann’s admonition to the artist is more pertinent than ever.

The Good Soldier Schweik

"The Good Soldier Schweik." Illustration of the soldier Joseph Schweik by Czech artist Josef Lada.1923.

"The Good Soldier Schweik." Illustration of the soldier Joseph Schweik by Czech artist Josef Lada. 1923.

A rare presentation of Robert Kurka’s opera, The Good Soldier Schweik, was offered to audiences in Southern California by the Long Beach Opera at the Center Theater in Long Beach on Jan. 23, 2010, and at Barnum Hall in Santa Monica on Jan. 30, 2010. Based on the 1923 antiwar novel by Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek, the opera is scarcely known in the United States and has been infrequently performed since it first premiered in 1958.

I attended the performance in Santa Monica, California and offer this article as a review, but I also wish to familiarize readers with the history of the Schweik tale since it was first published eighty-seven-years ago.

The confluence of talents, historic events, and political lessons embodied in Schweik is nothing less than astounding. While Hašek’s story took place during the First World War – “the War to end all Wars” – the work has continued to resonate throughout the decades. It is especially pertinent now that President Obama is fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

I commend Andreas Mitisek, the artistic and general director of the Long Beach Opera company, for staging a boldly anti-militarist production during a time of war. In the Long Beach Opera’s program guide for Schweik, Mitisek states: “The story of Schweik has lost none of its original bite and sarcasm. Seeing it today, you get the sense that we’ve learned some things about war – but not a lot.” It is regrettable that after all the effort the company put into mounting Kurka’s Schweik, only two performances were given. The work deserves a longer run, and hopefully the Long Beach Opera’s efforts will give rise to renewed interest in Kurka’s magnum opus.

Sergeant Vanek (left: played by Mark Bringelson) and Joseph Schweik (played by Mathew DiBattista), on patrol at the front during the opera’s closing scene. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Mark Bringelson (left: playing Sergeant Vanek) and Mathew DiBattista (playing Joseph Schweik), perform in the Long Beach Opera production of "The Good Soldier Schweik" on Jan. 30, 2010. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Of Czech descent, Robert Kurka (1921-1957) was born just outside of Chicago, Illinois. Mostly self-taught when it came to music composition, he nevertheless had a burgeoning career in the field due to his extraordinary talent.

After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1951 and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1952, he made up his mind that same year to compose an opera based on Hašek’s antiwar novel. Why exactly he chose to do so is unknown, but whatever the reason for his decision he picked an inopportune moment in history for his endeavor. The United States began fighting the Korean War on June 25, 1950, a bloody conflict that would end in stalemate on July 17, 1953. It should go without saying that the powers that be in the U.S. were in no mood for pacifist messages in art, not only that, but American society was in the throes of the frenzied anticommunism of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Set in that context, Kurka’s resolve to write an antiwar opera can be considered an act of defiance.

As work proceeded on his opera Kurka was stricken with leukemia. He continued to labor at his composition, fashioning a brilliant modernist fusion of folk, jazz, and classical idioms. His score was created for a small orchestra without strings, focusing exclusively on percussion, brass, and wind instruments in order to produce a sound evocative of marching rhythms and martial music. The opera shared much with the theatrical works of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht – especially with their magnificent proletarian opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Kurka developed a musical language that described the absurdity of war as expressed in Hašek’s original antiwar novel, and he was just able to finish the opera when he died of his illness on December 12, 1957, ten days before his 36th birthday. Only months after Kurka’s tragic death, The Good Soldier Schweik premiered at the New York City Opera in April 1958.

In Act II – Scene 1 of the opera, a member of the ruling class, the Baroness Von Botzenheim (played by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell) visits a military field hospital to "comfort" soldiers on their way to be slaughtered at the frontline. Bringing gifts of sausages, candies, and toothbrushes, she sings: "Brave soldiers, going off to war, day and night, night and day. While you fight, we will pray. God knows what you’re fighting for." Photo by Mark Vallen ©

In Act II – Scene 1 of the opera, a member of the ruling class, the Baroness Von Botzenheim, visits a military field hospital to "comfort" soldiers on their way to be slaughtered at the front. Bringing gifts of sausages and candies, she sings: "Brave soldiers, going off to war, day and night, night and day. While you fight, we will pray. God knows what you’re fighting for." Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell played the Baroness in the Long Beach Opera production of "The Good Soldier Schweik" on Jan. 30, 2010. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Following the overture of The Good Soldier Schweik, the opera’s prologue commences with the appearance of “A Gentleman of the Kingdom of Bohemia,” a dandy in a bowler hat who proclaims that “Great times call for great men.” He continues his narrative by telling the audience that “modest, unrecognized heroes without Napoleon’s glory” exist, men and women who are “Greater than Alexander the Great.” He speaks of “a common man, the kind it’s easy to like,” introducing “a very plain fellow called Schweik.” With the opera’s egalitarian tone set, the black comedy farce unfolds.

Kurka had picked Abel Meeropol (1903-1986) to write the libretto for his opera, and Meeropol produced a witty and sometimes devastating libretto. He was Jewish and a teacher in New York City, but he was also a skilled writer of poems and songs. Troubled that anti-semitism would prevent his advancement in the field of writing, he published his works under the pseudonym of “Lewis Allan.” Meeropol had a second reason for using a nom de plume; he was a member of the American Communist Party. In 1937 he wrote the words and music to a hauntingly poetic song he titled Strange Fruit, a work that protested the lynching of African-Americans in the Southern United States. By 1939 the Blues singer Billie Holiday recorded the song, and her record reached No. 16 on the American music charts. Strange Fruit is still considered to be a signature work for Holiday.

In 1941 Meeropol was made to appear before the anti-communist Rapp-Coudert Committee (1940-1942), a precursor to the anti-communist campaigns waged in the 1950s by Joe McCarthy and HUAC. Headed by Senators Herbert Rapp and Frederic Coudert, the committee conducted “investigations” into the presence of communists in the public schools of New York. As a result of the witch hunt, dozens of teachers were dismissed and had their reputations ruined. Meeropol was questioned as to whether or not the American Communist Party ordered him to write Strange Fruit, but he escaped further badgering from the committee when he answered that the party had nothing to do with the writing of the song.

In 1950 the U.S. government charged Julius and Ethel Rosenberg with attempting to pass nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. The couple were tried and convicted of the charges and sentenced to death. During this period, anti-communism in the U.S. reached a fever pitch, and it must be noted that Kurka was working on his opera in the middle of all of this. On June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed by electric chair, leaving their little boys Michael and Robert orphaned. Abel Meeropol and his wife Anne would adopt the boys. In a March 2009 interview with Robert Meeropol, Guardian journalist Joanna Moorhead wrote: “It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people – even family members – were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so. After he and his wife had adopted the boys, says Meeropol, Abel didn’t get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s. ‘I can’t say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted.’” There is little doubt that U.S. authorities kept an eye on Abel Meeropol, and that Kurka fell under suspicion for working with him.

Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek as a member of the Soviet Red Army in 1920. Hašek was attached to the political department of the 5th army, where he worked on the Red Army newspaper.

Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek as a member of the Soviet Red Army in 1920. Hašek was attached to the political department of the 5th army, where he worked on the Red Army newspaper.

To fully appreciate Kurka’s opera it is necessary to have some understanding of author Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923) and his satiric novel, The Good Soldier Schweik (also spelled Schwejk or Švejk), one of the greatest antiwar books of all time. In the story Hašek detailed the life and times of his fictional character, the rotund and mild-mannered Joseph Schweik, who is inducted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to fight against the Allied Powers in World War I (1914-1918). An enthusiastic patriot, Schweik is also a lumbering idiot who, in his zealotry to carry out the orders of his superiors, succeeds only in creating havoc. But one is never certain if Schweik’s ineptness reveals his true nature or if it is clever posturing as a means of self-preservation. Whatever the case, his foul-ups keep him from reaching the war’s blood-spattered frontline, until the story’s ending, when he finally arrives at the front but disappears without a trace while on patrol.

A colorful character, as a young man Hašek was an anarchist militant before he became completely engrossed in his writing. At the outbreak of WWI the wild bohemian, writer, and radical anarchist found himself inducted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and sent to the frontline trenches to fight against the Allied Powers; it is not hard to see that The Good Soldier story was to some degree autobiographical. While he had already invented his Schweik character and had previously written stories about him, it was during the travails of war that Hašek began to “flesh out” the character; transforming him into a good-natured buffoon that became a menace to the forces of militarism.

In 1915 Hašek was captured by the Russians and placed in a prisoner of war camp before his captors decided to employ him as a propagandist. When the Russian monarchy and its army collapsed with the 1917 Soviet revolution, Hašek joined the Bolsheviks, becoming a political commissar in the Red Army. Hašek’s allegiance to communism proved as tenuous as his loyalty to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after some years of living in the Soviet Union he returned to Prague in 1920, throwing himself in earnest into the completion of his Schweik novel.

Heavy drinking and ill-health overtook Hašek, who struggled to finish his masterwork. He became so sick that he stopped writing altogether, dictating to assistants the final chapters of Schweik from his sickbed. He died of tuberculosis on January 3, 1923, at the age of 40; it was said that he had completed some 1,500 literary works during his lifetime – but alas Schweik would not be one of them. Hašek had planned on Schweik running six volumes in length, but he had only created three volumes when he died (a forth was published posthumously). His old friend Josef Lada created marvelous illustrations for all the volumes, and it is his artworks that defined the bumbling good soldier. Years after his death Hašek came to be accepted as one of the most important of all Czech writers, and The Good Soldier Schweik – having been translated into 60 languages – is still the most well known work of fiction by a Czech author.

Stage design for Piscator’s 1928 production of "The Good Soldier Schweik," showing backdrop projected images by George Grosz.

Stage design for Piscator’s 1928 stage play production of "The Good Soldier Schweik," showing backdrop projected images by George Grosz.

I first learned of Hašek’s masterpiece years ago through my studies of the German Expressionist movement of the late 1920s. Because of its disdain for militarism the Schweik novel was appreciated by broad sectors of the German public, who had been impoverished and exhausted by WWI. The intelligentsia embraced the story for its pacifism and defiance of conservative social order. In 1928 Erwin Piscator (1893-1966), the German Marxist director and producer of political theater during the years of the Weimar Republic, developed a landmark stage play adaptation of The Good Soldier Schweik that he presented at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz in Berlin.

Drawing by George Grosz for "Hintergrund: 17 Zeichnungen zur Aufführung des Schwejk in der Piscator-Bühne" (Background: 17 designs for the performance of the Schwejk in the Piscator stage). Published in 1928 by the Malik-Verlag Berlin publishing house, this portfolio contains reproductions of 17 drawings created by Grosz as stage background images for the stage play, "The Good Soldier Schwejk." This particular image was the portfolio’s title page.

Drawing by George Grosz for "Hintergrund: 17 Zeichnungen zur Aufführung des Schwejk in der Piscator-Bühne" (Background: 17 designs for the performance of the Schweik in the Piscator stage). Published in 1928 by the Malik-Verlag Berlin publishing house, this portfolio contains reproductions of 17 drawings created by Grosz as stage background images for the stage play, "The Good Soldier Schweik." This particular image was the portfolio’s title page.

Piscator commissioned prominent playwright Hans Reimann (1889-1969) to write the play’s script, and Bertolt Brecht assisted in writing the adaptation. Edmund Meisel (1894-1930) who just three years earlier had scored the music for Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, was commissioned to compose the music. The character of Schweik was played by the famed actor Max Pallenberg. Artist George Grosz created the stage backgrounds for the play, making hundreds of pen and ink drawings for the production. His drawings were made into an animated film that was back-projected onto the stage to coincide with the play’s action – a groundbreaking theatrical technique common to Piscator’s productions. The Long Beach Opera utilized Piscator’s idea of projected images, but its choice of images was much less effective.

"Schwejk: The Actor Max Pallenberg." George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Grosz created this portrait of the Opera’s leading man playing the part of Schweik the soldier This drawing was plate no. 1 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio, and carried the title of; "Beg to report, Sir, I am an idiot."

"Schweik: The Actor Max Pallenberg." George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Grosz created this portrait of the play’s leading man as Schweik. This drawing was plate no. 1 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio, and was titled, "Beg to report, Sir, I am an idiot."

Piscator’s theories concerning what he called “epic theater” transformed the stage presenting Schweik into a motorized “arena for battling ideas,” in fact mechanized treadmills moved actors about on stage – in one scene allowing actors dressed as soldiers to march off to war without actually moving.

The intent behind Piscator’s theatrical work was to prevent audiences from losing themselves in the illusion of theater, instead making them focus on socio-political ideas. The young Bertolt Brecht would be inspired by Piscator’s ideas, making them his own.

The Schweik production included projected still photographs on the stage and auditorium walls – news headlines and text, as well as projections of motion picture films (Grosz’s animation, footage of war, and the like).

The projections were combined with other theatrical devices: audio recordings and electronic sounds, actors emerging from the audience, and giant military maps as stage scenery. Grosz wrote the following regarding his role in the Piscator production:

“It is a fact that here Erwin has created a great new area for the graphic artists to work in, a veritable graphic arena, more tempting for graphic artists of today than all that stuffy aesthetic business or the hawking around of drawings in bibliophile editions for educated nobs. Here’s a chance for our often quoted latter-day Daumiers to paint their gloomy prophecies on the walls. What a medium, though, for the artist who wants to speak to the masses, purely and simply.

Naturally a new area requires new techniques, a new clear and concise language of graphic style – certainly a great opportunity for teaching discipline to the muddleheaded and confused! And there’s nothing to be achieved with your careless impressionist brush, either. The line must be cinematographic – clear, simple, but not too thin, because of over-exposure; furthermore it must be hard, something like the drawings and woodcuts in Gothic block books, or the massive stone carvings on the pyramids.”

"Kein schoner Tod." (Not a Nice Way of Dying). George Grosz. Black chalk. 1927. Plate no. 12 in the Hintergrund portfolio, this drawing also appeared in another portfolio of prints by Grosz titled, Die Gezeichneten (The Designated). In that portfolio the print had the title of "Mir ist der Krieg wie eine Badekur bekommen" (The War Did Me a Lot of Good, Like a Spa).

"Kein schoner Tod." (Not a Nice Way of Dying). George Grosz. Black chalk. 1927. Plate no. 12 in the Hintergrund portfolio, this drawing also appeared in another portfolio of prints by Grosz titled, Die Gezeichneten (The Designated). In that portfolio the print had the title of "Mir ist der Krieg wie eine Badekur bekommen" (The War Did Me a Lot of Good, Like a Spa).

Grosz’s projected drawings helped to move the drama along by emphasizing aspects of the Schweik tale, but the artworks also transcended the story, becoming universal in their condemnation of war and its causes. The audience could see that Grosz was criticizing the renewed warlike direction of Germany’s ruling class, and if his projected images were not unsettling enough, Grosz would up the ante by publishing a number of the drawings in book form.

He collaborated with Wieland Herzfelde (founder of the Malik-Verlag Berlin publishing house and also the brother of well-known artist John Heartfield), in issuing a portfolio of reproductions titled, Background: 17 designs for the performance of the Schweik in the Piscator stage. The publication of the book caused a major uproar; what had been ephemeral projections could now be held in the hands of increasingly powerful critics.

Three drawings from the portfolio, Shut up and soldier on!, Bow to the Authorities, and The pouring out of the Holy Spirit, led to a right-wing campaign against Grosz and Herzfelde that resulted in the authorities charging the two with blasphemy and placing them on trial in 1928; it turned out to be one of the longest running and closely watched blasphemy trials in history.

The essence of Grosz’s drawing, The pouring out of the Holy Spirit, would be preserved by Meeropol in his libretto for Kurka’s opera in Act II, Scene Two, “Okay, let’s pray!”. In attempting to explain his Shut up and soldier on! drawing to a judge, Grosz said the following:

“This drawing was created as a cover on the book about Schweik. In one of the chapters there’s the following scene – I’ll give you the gist, because I can’t remember it exactly. Well, there are these two soldiers lying on a bed in a cell, I think, and they’re telling each other stories about their war experiences. They grumble about the war. One says to the other something like: Well, shut up and soldier on. As I read this account the drawing took shape in my imagination. I imagined that Christ might come now… They would grab him, hand him a gas mask, put him into army boots, in short, they wouldn’t understand him at all.” [Taken from notes of the blasphemy trial, published in Das Tagebuch, 1928].

"Maul halten und weiter dienen." (Shut up and soldier on!). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde (brother of John Heartfield) were accused and tried on blasphemy charges for this drawing, which originally served as a backdrop image in the Opera, "The Good Soldier," but was later published in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

"Maul halten und weiter dienen." (Shut up and soldier on!) George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde (brother of John Heartfield) were accused and tried on blasphemy charges for this drawing, which originally served as a backdrop image in the play, "The Good Soldier Schweik," but was later published in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

After numerous trials and retrials, Grosz and Hezfelde were acquitted in 1931, but the Schweik drawings and their printing plates were confiscated by the court and destroyed. The social forces of the burgeoning Nazi movement had scored a major victory. When Hitler came to power two years later, The Good Soldier Schweik became one of the many thousands of books destroyed during the massive public book-burnings organized by the Nazi party on May 10, 1933. Hašek’s book was burned because it was considered “pacifist literature,” but books by “Marxists,” “liberals,” “Jews,” and anyone considered to be “un-German” were thrown onto the bonfires as well. Books by Piscator, Brecht, Grosz, and Herzfelde were also added to what the Nazis called the “funeral pyre of the intellect.”

"Die Obrigkeit." (The Authorities). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. This print had the subtitle of: "Seid untertan der Obrigkeit (Bow to the Authorities). Plate no. 2 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing.

"Die Obrigkeit." (The Authorities). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. This print had the subtitle of: "Seid untertan der Obrigkeit" (Bow to the Authorities). Plate no. 2 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing.

To escape Nazi persecution Grosz would flee to the U.S. in 1932. Herzfelde went underground soon after, finally escaping to Prague in 1933. Working on a film in the Soviet Union in 1933, Piscator found himself in exile when Hitler came to power. He became disillusioned with the Soviet Union under the leadership of Stalin and by 1936 he move to France, finally emigrating to the U.S. in 1939.

Piscator was invited to found a Dramatic Workshop at New York’s The New School, where his students included Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Tony Curtis, Shelley Winters, and many others. Ironically, the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthyism drove Piscator from America. His associate and fellow exile in the U.S., Bertolt Brecht, was hauled up before HUAC on October 30, 1947, and harshly interrogated regarding his political sympathies. The next day Brecht left the U.S. for Europe. Piscator did not wait to receive his subpoena, he returned to West Germany in 1951 to avoid the witch-hunts.

"Ausschuttung des heiligen Geistes." (The pouring out of the Holy Spirit). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing. Plate no. 9 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

"Ausschuttung des heiligen Geistes." (The pouring out of the Holy Spirit). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing. Plate no. 9 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

Piscator’s technical ideas regarding the staging of the Schweik play clearly have had an influence on theatre and opera over the decades. His concepts like projected backdrops, stage hands incorporated into the action as they shuffled props on and off stage, and actors performing in the aisles amongst the audience, were incorporated into the Long Beach Opera production. However, Piscator meant to provoke his audience into taking sides against war and those who profit from it, while the Long Beach Opera placed its emphasis on entertainment.

Given the profundity of Kurka’s material it would be impossible not to impart some level of political insight, and such moments were plentiful in the Long Beach Opera production. In Act I – Scene Four, Schweik finds himself in a cell at police headquarters after having been arrested for allegedly speaking against the Emperor. Many others are also in the jail for the very same offense, and all are worried about being brutalized and tortured at the hands of the police. Schweik, assuring his fellow jailbirds that things are not so bad, sings:

“I once read in a book where it said, you had to dance on red-hot iron and drink molten lead. You were shot or hanged, burned or slaughtered, and as a special event, drawn and quartered. They split you open or chopped your head, you might be innocent but you were also dead. There’s no quartering here or things of that kind, it’s improved for our benefit I’m glad to find. We’ve got a mattress, a table, a seat, they bring us soup and water and bread to eat, the slop pot is right there under your nose, a lot of progress is what it shows.”

"Der Lebensbaum." (Tree of Life). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Executed prisoners hang from a tree made out of the "§" symbol used to denote German legal articles. Plate no. 4 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

"Der Lebensbaum." (Tree of Life). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Executed men hang from a tree made of the "§" symbol used to denote German legal articles. No. 4 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

As with a number of scenes in the opera, the action in Scene Four transcends the period setting of 1914, in fact it is hard not to think of the present when hearing about the “progress” made in the handling of prisoners held by certain governments. Surely waterboarding is an improvement over being drawn and quartered – yes, a lot of progress is what it shows!

The ending scenes of the Long Beach Opera production could hardly have concluded on a more profound note. In Act II – Scene Seven, the character of Schweik at last finds himself at the front. On the stage backdrop a gigantic image is projected, a terrible scene of utter desolation; shattered and blackened skeletal trees and bomb craters cast in blue light. From behind the stage backdrop the orchestra begins the somber music for the song, “Wait for the ragged soldiers.” Groups of wounded troops walk onto the stage – collapsing, exhausted, dying, as they sing their foreboding song:

“Wait for the ragged soldiers, watch for the ragged men with their sunken faces, holding their blood-red wounds with their hands. No sound of drums when they come, no trumpets blow when they come, no flags at the gate. Wait for the ragged soldiers. Wait…wait and watch for the ragged, watch for the tired men marching slowly homeward. Men… homeward. (….) Coat sleeves armless, legless, sightless. Angry, angry, angry men, angry men. No sound of drums when they come, No!”

Act II – Scene 7. Joseph Schweik and Sergeant Vanek at the bomb blasted battle front. A group of wounded soldiers trudge by, collapsing one by one into muddy trenches as they sing: "Wait for the ragged soldiers, watch for the ragged men, with their sunken faces, holding their blood-red wounds with their hands. No sound of drums when they come, no trumpets blow when they come, no flags at the gate."  Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Act II – Scene 7. Joseph Schweik and Sergeant Vanek at the bomb blasted battle front. A group of wounded soldiers trudge by, collapsing one by one into muddy trenches as they sing: "Wait for the ragged soldiers." Photo of the Jan. 30, 2010, Long Beach Opera production of "The Good Soldier Schweik" taken by Mark Vallen ©

Patrolling the battlefield, Schweik and Sergeant Vanek enter the scene carrying their guns; here the production has been updated to good effect.

Rather than carrying WWI era bolt action rifles, the two soldiers are armed with modern automatic assault rifles, reminders that the sentiments of this opera are not rooted in the past, but relevant and applicable to the world as it is today.

Lost in the landscape of mangled barbed-wire and stinking corpses, Schweik and Vanek argue over which direction to take. Vanek insists that his military map indicates a right turn, Schweik shrugs and says, “Maps are sometimes wrong.” The two cannot agree on how to advance, so they part, going separate ways.

Schweik watches the Sergeant disappear into the blackened wasteland of destruction, waves goodbye, and lays down his gun. As the character of Schweik begins to walk off stage, he sings: “I’ll take a quiet road where forget-me-nots grow, along a clear stream where soft breezes blow. I’ll take it easy for the rest of the day and pick some meadow flowers on the way. I’ll take a quiet road and I’ll lie in the sun, for birds and butterflies, I won’t need my gun.” His song over, Schweik vanishes.

In the opera’s epilogue the gentleman of Bohemia returns, stepping out of the darkness and into a spotlight to find Schweik’s abandoned gun. The gentleman sings the opera’s final words: “Schweik, Schweik, where did he go? He just disappeared and that’s all we know. Some say they saw him at a much later day, sipping a drink at a little café. And others will swear he was seen on the street, and lost in the crowd before they could meet. Schweik, Schweik, the Good Soldier Schweik, the kind of fellow that fellow men like. In one place or other he’s sure to be found. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s somewhere around.”

[ More information on Robert Kurka’s opera, The Good Soldier Schweik: Song lyrics and a synopsis of the opera’s storyline, can be found on the Cedille Records website in .pdf format. An excellent recording of the opera performed by the Chicago Opera Theater and released by Cedille Records can be purchased from Amazon, where you can also hear song excerpts. An English language edition of Jaroslav Hašek’s Schweik novel, with illustrations by Josef Lada can also be purchased on Amazon.]

O Blessed Christmas!

 O du fröhliche, O du selige, gnadenbringende Zeit - John Heartfield. Photomontage. 1935.

"O joyful, o blessed, miracle-bringing time." - John Heartfield. Photomontage. 1935.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing!
Machine Gun Clatter!
Bomb Blast!
Poison Gas!

The anti-militarist Christmas message from John Heartfield shown at left was published on December 26, 1935, in the German magazine, Arbeiter-Illustriete Zeitung (AIZ, or “Worker’s Illustrated Paper”).

The title of the photomontage, O du fröhliche, O du selige, gnadenbringende Zeit (O joyful, o blessed, miracle-bringing time), was taken from one of Germany’s most popular Christmas carols.

Heartfield made a number of photomontage works that touched upon Christmas and how its message of peace was being subverted by the forces of war and fascism.

For instance, in the 1934 Christmas edition of AIZ, the artist published his photomontage, O Tannenbaum im deutschen Raum, wie krumm sind deine Äste! (O Christmas tree in German soil, how bent are thy branches). The artwork depicted a Christmas tree with its branches twisted into the shape of a swastika.

The cover of the 1933 Christmas issue of AIZ featured a photograph of an American battleship with the headline, “And Peace on Earth!” When opening the magazine the reader would see a Heartfield photomontage on the first page - its message read, “Peace on Earth? No peace on earth, as long as the poor become poorer!” Heartfield’s artwork depicted hungry Germans peering into an upscale shop window that was bursting with Christmas merchandise they could not afford.

Gouge: The Modern Woodcut

Gouge: The Modern Woodcut 1870 to Now, is a splendid exhibition of woodcut and linoleum prints now showing until Feb. 8, 2009, at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California. On display are 100 diverse and quite extraordinary prints from the likes of Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Käthe Kollwitz, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Joseph Beuys, and many others too numerous to mention.

Divided into four thematic sections, the first presents the emergence of modern printmaking in the 1870’s, the second shows how artists used the grain of the wood to enhance their compositions, the third is devoted to prints in the arena of social activism, and the final section presents sacred and religious iconography. While I could easily wax poetic on the prints included under each theme, in this article I will focus on the prints categorized under social activism, or as the Hammer defined them - prints that are “The Voice Of The Activist”.

Woodcut print by Iglesias

[ La Seudorepublica y la Revolucion (The Pseudo-republic and The Revolution). Carmelo Gonzalez Iglesias. Woodcut. 1960. 51 x 169 inches. Detail from the upper left of the monumental print. In the foreground sits a worker paralyzed by hunger and despair. Springing up behind him are Cuban sugarcane cutters rising in revolution with machetes in hand. They are led by Lady Liberty bearing a sword and wearing a Phrygian cap - the international icon of revolution and freedom. ]


Without a doubt, the core of the exhibit is comprised of two monumental woodcut prints from Cuba; The Pseudo-Republic and the Revolution by Carmelo Gonzalez Iglesias, and Latin America, Unite! by Luis Peñalever Collazo - who was a student of Iglesias. In contemplating the intricate woodcut prints one is left dumbfounded by the fact that they were designed to be used as street posters!

Woodcut print by Iglesias

[ The Pseudo-republic and The Revolution. Detail from the left panels of the monumental print. A revolutionary worker breaks the chains that bind him, defiantly waving a machete with the word "Independencia" emblazoned upon it. He exhorts his armed compañeros (bottom left) to join the battle against their oppressors, and they can be seen - middle left - fleeing into the arms of an eagle-faced Uncle Sam.]


Iglesias and Collazo are beyond reproach when it comes to superlative draftsmanship, clear narrative, and technical virtuosity. Their prints make today’s vaunted “street-art” seem feeble in comparison. Unfortunately the Hammer would not allow photography in the gallery, and the museum has not made available any decent reproductions of these extraordinary prints. The few image details I present here are woefully inadequate in conveying the beauty and power of these Cuban woodcuts.

Woodcut print by Collazo

[ America Latina, Unete! (Latin America, Unite!) Luis Peñalever Collazo. Woodcut. 1960. 33-7/8 x 87-1/2 inches. Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum. Photo by Brian Forrest. ]


Detail of woodcut print by Collazo

[ Latin America, Unite! Detail from the left panels depicting the insurgent Cuban masses led by a woman who points the way towards revolution. A slain comrade is at the feet of marchers who carry a banner reading - "Venceremos" (We Will Win). ]


Both Pseudo-Republic and Unite! were created in 1960, just a year after the triumph of the revolution against the U.S. backed regime of General Fulgencio Batista. Since the majority of the mural-like prints were wheat-pasted on city walls in Cuba, not many copies survived intact. However, in 1961 Che Guevara gave a set of the prints to a young foreign student in Cuba, Maurice Zeitlin (now a UCLA professor), and the gift to Zeitlin currently hangs in the Hammer exhibit. Printed from seven different woodblocks, Pseudo-Republic measures 51 by 169 inches, and like puzzle pieces, when the separate prints are brought together properly - they become one cohesive narrative. Unite! is somewhat smaller at 33 7/8 by 87 1/2 inches, but no less effective. It too was printed from several carved woodblocks.

Detail of woodcut print by Collazo

[ Latin America, Unite! Detail from central panels depicting combat between a Cuban patriot and a knife wielding imperialist. ]


The exhibit has a small but weighty collection of graphics produced by the Mexican collective - El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop). Included in this grouping is a beautiful linoleum cut by African American artist, Elizabeth Catlett, who worked with the TGP when she moved to and settled in Mexico in 1946. The print on display is titled Sharecropper, and only a few black and white proofs were made by Catlett in 1952. In 1968-70 the artist would pull an edition of 60 full color prints - but it is one of the stunning black and white proofs that is on view at the Hammer. Another of the TGP associated artists shown in Gouge is Leopoldo Méndez, who surely was one of Mexico’s most impressive socially conscious printmakers. I was first introduced to his works during the 1970’s, when his fiery prints were enthusiastically circulated in Chicano arts and activist circles in the U.S. In the near future I will be writing extensively about Méndez on this web log, but for now, all that is necessary to say is that his print at the Hammer show, The Heritage of Juarez - is a marvel to behold.

Detail of woodcut print by Collazo

[ Latin America, Unite! Detail from right panels depicting life under capitalism. Workers divided by race bludgeon each other over dwindling resources, women sell themselves into prostitution, and imperialist war planes launch attacks. ]


Gouge also presents three woodcuts by David Alfaro Siqueiros from his 13 Grabados series. In 1930 the artist spent 6 months in a Mexican prison for having participated in a May Day demonstration. While incarcerated he created 13 grabados (engravings), cut from scrap wood, and upon his release he printed a small edition of proofs. It would not be until he came to Los Angeles as a political refugee in 1932 that he would print his woodcuts as a full portfolio in an edition of 100. In tribute to the great Mexican printmaker, José Guadalupe Posada, the prints were made on colored tissue - and three of these made their way into the Gouge exhibit. Stylistically the works are blunt, almost abstract, and not surprisingly they deal with issues of state repression and violence.

In addition, Gouge has on view an impressive collection of prints from the German Expressionists. Woodcuts by Erich Heckel, Emile Nolde, Christian Rohlfs, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Lovis Corinth, and Käthe Kollwitz - all provide consummate examples of the Expressionist school I so unwaveringly admire. But it is two woodcuts created by Conrad Felixmüller in 1921 that I find especially delightful - if for no other reason than the artist is so little known in the U.S. and rarely if at all exhibited. Felixmüller’s Factory Worker (Invalid) and Mine Engineer, are sympathetic portraits of working men, a common theme for the artist. Stylistically the brusque angular portraits explode with dynamic swirls of energy and agitated lines, while revealing considerable empathy for the men he portrayed.

The Gouge exhibition is not without its weaknesses. The contemporary prints, relying heavily on gimmickry, by and large convey little more than the detached hollowness one associates with postmodernism. The limitations of these new works, deficient in both originality and anything significant to say, is made all the more apparent when they are compared to the older works in the exhibit. Another drawback to the show is that it lacks an exhibit catalog. I could write volumes on the tour de force works of the Cuban artists alone. Given the fact that outside of Cuba virtually nothing is known about these particular artworks or the artists that produced them, it is indeed unfortunate that the Hammer has not published even a diminutive catalog. Despite these failings Gouge is a blockbuster show not to be missed.

Gouge: The Modern Woodcut 1870 to Now - at the Hammer Museum from November 9, 2008 through February 8, 2009. On Feb. 4, 2009, exhibit curators will hold a 12:30 lunchtime talk concerning Luis Peñalever Collazo and his woodcut, Latin America, Unite!

The Cologne Progressives

Some years ago, while visiting the German city of Cologne, I discovered the works of the Cologne Progressive Artists Group (Gruppe Progressiver Künstler Köln), a bloc of artists that represented the radical outer fringe of the Expressionist movement of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933). Fortunately for enthusiasts of art from the Weimar years the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, has mounted an exhibition titled Progressive Cologne: 1920-33, Seiwert - Hoerle - Arntz. Running from March 15 to June 15, 2008, the exhibit is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalog book, Painting as a Weapon - a definitive text on the Progressives that is sure to please both historians and aficionados of German Expressionism.

Painting by Heinrich Hoerle

[ Drei Invaliden (Three Invalids) Heinrich Hoerle. Oil on canvas. 1930. In this painting Hoerle depicted three wounded veterans of World War I, a vision that did not endear him to Germany’s militarists. ]


The exhibition focuses on three core members of the Cologne Progressives, Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, Heinrich Hoerle, and Gerd Arntz, with the exhibit presenting over fifty paintings and ninety prints by the artists. The Progressives were interested in the creation of a formal proletarian aesthetic, an innovative art of and for the working class. While the Cologne Progressives were in part inspired by the Soviet Constructivists, they did not adopt the severe geometric abstractions of their Soviet counterparts. Stirred by the aesthetics of “primitive” tribal art and the iconography of early Christian images, the Progressives never fully abandoned figurative realism. Instead they stripped what they perceived to be superfluous details from their paintings, prints and drawings, de-emphasizing individual features of the people in their artworks, leaving the minimalist figures to convey some instructive narrative. From 1929 to 1933, the group published a theoretical journal titled A bis Z (A to Z), where the writings and artworks of Progressive circle members and their associates were published.

August Sander's photo of artist Heinrich Hoerle

[ The Painter Heinrich Hoerle - August Sander. Gelatin silver print. 1927. ]


The photographer August Sander was attracted to the Progressive circle, aligning himself with the group in the early 1920s. His photos were often published in A bis Z, and his method of photographing his subjects according to their place in society’s hierarchy - revealing social tensions and class relations - was in harmony with the Progressive’s political and aesthetic outlook. Sander ended up photographing most members of the Progressive group, as with this portrait of painter Gottfried Brockmann now in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Interestingly enough, at the time of this writing, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is presenting August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century - a selection of 130 photos taken by Sander during the Weimar years, an exhibit that runs until September 14, 2008.

Linocut print by Franz W. Seiwert

[ Klassenkampf (Class warfare) - Franz W. Seiwert. Linocut. 1922. Published in the radical newspaper, Die Aktion. ]


The Progressives held two major views that set them apart from the larger Expressionist school. They rejected the notion of art in service to politics; only because they viewed the type of art they were creating as political action in and of itself - from their perspective their art was the revolution, or at least a vital component of it. Secondly, they commonly depicted people as generic symbols. By reducing and standardizing the human form, and by dressing their minimalist figures in garments worn either by oligarchs or workers, the Progressives intended to show how class divisions were imposed upon humanity. One of the Progressives who excelled in this type of didactic minimalism was Gerd Arntz, whose works would come to influence international design to this very day.

Gerd Arntz collaborated with the Marxist Viennese social scientist Otto Neurath on creating what they called the International System of Typographic Picture Education, or Isotype. The idea was to provide the working class with a universal visual language of symbols and pictograms that would assist them in understanding complex ideas concerning politics, economics, industry, and society in general. Neurath hired Arntz as a designer for the Isotype project in 1928, and over the years the artist designed some 4000 pictograms. While Isotype was based upon a radical political vision, the very concept for the pictographic road signs and other governmental pictograms we see everywhere today can be traced back directly to the collaborative work of Neurath and Arntz.

Linocut print by Gerd Arntz

[ The Third Reich - Gerd Arntz. Linocut. 1934. In his typical minimalist style Arntz depicted German society constructed like a pyramid, with workers at the very bottom. The elites at the top enjoyed wealth, privilege, and political power. In the art of the Progressives, the rich bore the same de-individualized features as the poor. ]


The Progressive’s drive to develop a new visual language was cut short by the rise of the Nazis, who branded them as “degenerate” and prohibited them from producing or exhibiting their works. Franz W. Seiwert died in Cologne in 1933 of radiation burns he suffered as a child - just before the Nazis undoubtedly would have come for him. Gerd Arntz was forced into exile in 1934 as Nazi repression against the arts increased, fleeing to the Netherlands where he would live and work until he died in 1988. In 1936 Heinrich Hoerle died in Cologne of tuberculosis, which had previously killed his father, sister, and first wife, Angelika. August Sanders never left Germany. In 1936 the Nazis seized and destroyed the printing plates for his photo book, Face of our Time, forbidding him to exhibit or publish. When his Cologne studio was destroyed in a 1944 Allied Forces bombing raid, thousands of his negatives were obliterated. Sander died in Cologne in 1964. Today, 4,500 original prints and some 11,000 original glass negatives are housed in the August Sander Archive in Cologne, Germany, the largest collection of his work in the world.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

The opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, is a razor-edged critique of capitalism, and considered by many to be the greatest collaboration between music composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht. On March 4th, 2007, well over 3,000 people packed the Los Angeles Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to see the seventh and final performance of the L.A. Opera’s English-language production of, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Augsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny). It may come as a big surprise to some people that I’m a fervent opera enthusiast, but I was one of those in attendance, and that very performance was filmed for broadcast by PBS.

Now, millions of Americans will finally be able to see the remarkable opera when PBS Great Performances broadcasts it nationally. Its televised premiere begins on Monday, Dec. 17, 2007, when it’s shown on New York’s WNET-TV, at 9:00 p.m., and again on Friday, December 21, at 12:30 a.m. Angelenos can see Mahagonny when L.A.’s KCET-TV broadcasts the opera on Saturday, Dec. 22, at 10 p.m. Check your local PBS listings for the broadcast time in your area. The L.A. Opera production is also now available as a high-definition DVD release.

Portrait of Bertolt Brecht by Rudolf Schlichter

[ Portrait of Bertolt Brecht - Rudolf Schlichter. Oil on canvas, 1926/27. Schlichter painted his friend Brecht during the time the playwright was working on Mahagonny with Weill. In 1937 the Nazis declared Schlichter’s paintings "degenerate", and the public exhibition of his work was banned. ]

Mahagonny is far from being a traditional opera. It tells the story of Mahagonny (pronounced “Mah-ha-GO-knee”), an imaginary American city founded by three criminals on the run, where everything has been commodified, the only real crime is to be poor, and a lifestyle of over-consumption and never-ending vice is unhindered by ethics or morality. Sound familiar? Two of the city’s denizens, a prostitute named Jenny Smith, and a lumberjack named Jim Macintyre, fall in love; but when Jim runs out of cash and can’t pay his bar bill, the boss and co-founder of the corrupt city, Leocadia Begbick, has him arrested. Tried in a kangaroo court organized by the shady and the crooked, Jim is found guilty of having no money - and then summarily executed.

Interestingly enough, Mahagonny has received nothing but praise and enthusiastic acclaim from the corporate press, but with stellar performances by a talented cast how could it be otherwise. Leocadia Begbick is played by Tony Award winner Patti LuPone, Jenny Smith the prostitute is played by Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, and lumberjack Jim is played by tenor Anthony Dean Griffey. The L.A. Opera company’s Music Director, James Conlon, conducted the company’s superb orchestra, delivering Weill’s opus with precision and enthusiasm. John Doyle’s direction and inventive stage production not only updated the parable, making it perfectly believable as a contemporary moralistic tale, he also managed to retain Brecht’s radical ideas concerning theater as a vehicle for social change.

It was in 1927 that Weill and Brecht decided to work on an opera together. Brecht had been writing satirical poems in the early 20’s about a mythical city he called Mahagonny, a debauched metropolis obsessed with money and sordid pleasures. Mockingly compiled as a pseudo-devotional book of prayers and hymns titled Domestic Breviary, Brecht’s poems served as the basis for Weill’s Mahagonny-Songspiel, ten poems set to music that would later be integrated into the full opera for which Brecht wrote the libretto. When the opera was still in its rehearsal stage, Weill commented; “The work we intend to produce is not going to make use of contemporary material that will be out of date in a year’s time but sets out to present our age in a definitive form. Its influence will thus extend far beyond the moment in which it is written.” That Mahagonny continues to ring true to a contemporary audience - nearly 80 years after its premiere, is a tribute to the artistic vision and political clarity possessed by Weill and Brecht.

Original 1930s program guide for Mahagonny

[ Original 1930s program guide for Augsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. ]

At the opera’s Leipzig premiere in March 1930, Nazi hoodlums initiated protests and threatened violence against the production. The singer Lotte Lenya, who was Weill’s wife and would later play the part of Jenny in the 1931 Berlin production of Mahagonny, attended the Leipzig opening and had this to say about the Nazi assault: “The performance was well underway before I was startled out of my absorption by the electric tension around us, something strange and ugly; by the last scene the riot had spread to the stage. Only after the arrival of the police could the theater finally be emptied.” The police ended up canceling the second performance. Fascist intimidation continued during the opera’s 1931 run in Berlin, and it would increase until the opera was finally banned outright by the Nazis in 1933 - the year Weill and Brecht fled Germany.

Lotte Lenya - Photo by Lotte Jacobi, 1928

[ Portrait of Lotte Lenya - Lotte Jacobi. Black and white photograph. 1928. The famous singer witnessed fascist attempts to disrupt the premiere performance of Mahagonny. Lenya would later play the role of Jenny in the 1931 Berlin production of the Opera. ]

Brecht understood theatre not just as a form of entertainment, but as a vehicle that could help workers understand and analyze their political situation, he felt theatrical performances should appeal to reason and not simply give way to sentimentality. In the 1957 book, Brecht on Theater, the playwright described his theory of “alienation effect” theatre as being that “which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor - and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer.” The original Brecht production of Mahagonny, as with his other plays, utilized various contrivances to prevent viewers from being lulled into a theatrical fantasy. Stage settings were deliberately sparse and flooded with harsh lights, with no attempt to hide stage lighting equipment. Slogans and explanatory text were projected upon stage walls, and actors carried placards onstage bearing political messages. With outbursts of songs whose lyrics drove home his political points, Brecht would use music itself to interrupt stage action.

Photo courtesy of L.A. Opera.

[ The founder of Mahagonny, Leocadia Begbick (played by Patti LuPone), looms large in the capitalist media spectacle at the trial of lumberjack Jim. Photo courtesy of L.A. Opera. ]

By the closing scenes of the L.A. Opera production, if you haven’t already recognized that we are all living in Mahagonny, the opera offers a reflection of our commodity spectacle society that is so searing you’re likely never to forget it. It’s here that the brilliance of John Doyle’s direction becomes apparent. As the lumberjack Jim MacIntyre is put on trial for the crime of having no legal tender, the stage is transformed into something evocative of a set for a television game show. Paparazzi and court reporters roam the stage with hand-held video cameras, projecting the court proceedings onto a giant flat screen monitor suspended from the ceiling. As Jim is sentenced to die and we see his face larger than life on that huge flat screen, it’s as if the ghost of Brecht has come back to scold us for being so easily distracted by the frivolous media spectacle that daily blinds and misleads us.

Photo courtesy of L.A. Opera.

[ The final scene. Audra McDonald as the prostitute Jenny, holding a folded tri-cornered American flag like the ones used at military funerals. Photo courtesy of L.A. Opera. ]

The updated finale of the L.A. production preserves Brecht’s intention of theatre provoking an audience to thought and action. Jimmy MacIntyre has been executed, and as the people abandon the deteriorating and collapsing city of Mahagonny in droves, an oversized electronic ticker-tape machine suspended over the stage flashes its digital red letter message - For the Freedom of the Rich - For Property - For Theft. Forsaking the sinful city, a long line of black-suited men carrying briefcases shuffles grimly by, and out of their midst comes the prostitute Jenny. She’s carrying all that she has left of her lost love Jim, an American flag that has been presented to her, smartly tucked and folded into a tri-cornered shape, the type of flag presented at US military funerals. The obvious reference to America’s war dead in Iraq is chilling. Jenny holds the folded flag up towards the audience - and the stage goes dark.

Night of the Black Moon

Sometimes an artist’s efforts to endure an indifferent society seems an unbearable, uphill battle. When on occasion I’m feeling disheartened, I find solace by reading about what other artists have had to put up with in the course of their careers. Such reading usually provides me with enough consolation to shake off my negative mind-set and enthusiastically return to my painting.

One evening while hitting the books to elude a squall of dejection, I happened upon the reproduction of a painting I had never seen before. Titled, Night of the Black Moon, the mysterious work commanded my immediate attention, as it seemed a visual representation of everything I had recently been feeling. An unsettling image that matched my melancholia, Karl Hofer’s Black Moon nevertheless quite inexplicably gave me feelings of optimism.

Night of the Black Moon - Painting by Karl Hofer

[ Schwarzmondnacht (Night of the Black Moon) - Karl Hofer 1944. Oil on canvas, 35 x 45 inches. Berlinische Galerie. ]


Hofer (1878-1955) was a leading expressionist painter in Germany, but he was never affiliated with any of the expressionist groups or circles like Die Brücke (The Bridge), Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), or the Novembergruppe (November Group). In 1921 Hofer became an art professor at the Kunstschule in Berlin-Charlottenburg, but the growing rightwing movement in the country considered expressionism to be “un-German.” After the Nazis seized power they officially banned Hofer’s works and sacked him from his teaching position. Eventually Hofer’s paintings were included in the Nazi’s infamous 1937 Entartete Kunst (”Degenerate Art”) exhibit held in Munich. Incredibly the artist was never sent to a concentration camp or press-ganged into military service like so many of his contemporaries. Forbidden by the authorities to paint or exhibit, Hofer continued to reside in Berlin - living a shadow existence but somehow surviving.

One can only imagine Hofer in his Berlin studio painting Night of the Black Moon during the unhappy days of 1944. He created this masterwork surreptitiously under the most terrifying conditions. Berlin would finally be liberated in April of 1945 by Soviet and Allied troops, but most of the city would be left in utter ruin. It is miraculous that Hofer survived it all. After the war he would continue painting in his West Berlin studio until his passing in 1955 - and what a legacy he left for us all! Luckily an excellent German language art book on the life and work of Karl Hofer is available on Amazon books. You can see a small overview of the artist’s works at the German language website, Galerie Karl Hofer.

Glitter and Doom at the NY Metropolitan

If there was ever an exhibition of historic artworks with more resonance in today’s world, I’m sure it couldn’t beat Glitter and Doom: German Portraits From the 1920’s at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rarely seen artworks by German Expressionist artists from the 20’s are on loan to the Met, and the works document German society stumbling along between World Wars I and II as it takes the long fall into the open pit of fascism. The show is nothing short of explosive, and viewers will no doubt be made uneasy by the echoes the artworks have in our own troubled times.

Glitter and Doom presents more than 100 paintings and drawings by ten artists, some of which are not at all well known outside of Germany. I’m eternally grateful that on my numerous sojourns to Germany over the years, I’ve become familiar with some of these lesser known but no less brilliant artists. Without hestitation I credit the German Expressionists as a major influence upon my own work, and it’s no exageration to say that without their bold and courageous examples - I wouldn’t be the artist I am today. Those exhibited in Glitter and Doom include: Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Rudolf Schlichter, Karl Hubbuch, Ludwig Meidner, Georg Scholz, Gert H. Wollheim, and Christian Schad. The exhibit is heavily weighted in favor of Beckman and Dix, but I’m sure no one will complain. Beckman is represented by 17 works, and the Met is touting that with more than 50 Dix works on display, Glitter and Doom will be “the first major presentation of the artist’s work in the United States.” That alone should be reason enough for anyone to catch a flight to New York.

Lady with Mink and Veil by Otto Dix

[ Lady with Mink and Veil - Otto Dix. Oil on Linen. 1920. ]

One of my favorite paintings by Dix will be on view, Portrait of Anita Berber, however it’s an unknown but recently discovered painting by Dix that is sure to steal the show. Lady with Mink and Veil was found in 1993 in the estate of its German owner, and the painting has never been on public display or reproduced in books. Dix’s poor unfortunate subject is an old war widow who has turned to prostitution in order to survive. She wears a green hat and a shabby fur, her baggy slip revealing blotchy pale skin and breasts that sag. Her heavily made-up face and mouth full of broken teeth are masked by a blue veil. Her large deformed face is like a nightmare, a blurry distortion of reality that can’t be washed from memory. Remarkably, Dix dipped an actual veil in blue paint, gently pressing the lace onto the painting in order to leave its imprint.

As much as I love Otto Dix, I’m thrilled that an American audience will also be seeing the startling works of other important artists like those of Ludwig Meidner. Starting in 1912, a full two years before the outbreak of World War I, Meidner began a series of extraordinary paintings that were extreme departures from his usual style. Prophetic works, Meidner’s Apocalyptic Landscapes depicted the earth cracking open and the skies torn asunder, with cities crashing and burning as people fled in panic stricken terror. Two years before his death in 1966 at the age of 82, Meidner wrote On the Summer of the Apocalyptic Landscapes, a recollection of the fevered work sessions that resulted in the creation of his most famous canvases.

“That was a summer unlike any other, in a brooding, lowering metropolis of Berlin, high up on the sixth floor of a modest apartment house in Friedenau. That angry vicious, summer began in the spring of 1912; it was a strange and doom-laden time for me as none other ever was. I was very poor but not at all unhappy. I was charged with energy, full of mighty plans; I had faith in a magnificent future. I had made a home for myself under the blistering hot slate roof; in a cheap studio with an iron bedstead, a chair, a mirror, and a number of bones that served as tables and closets, and on one of which there wobbled a spirit burner with a pot of lentils, white beans, or potatoes simmered. Food was a minor matter, and I did not crave it, but sail cloth, bought cheap in the Wertheim department store, seemed the most valuable thing there was. I was in love with that canvas, which I stretched and grounded myself, and went so far as to kiss it with trembling lips before painting those ominous landscapes.

By the end of May the heat was getting hard to bear. But I was going to hold out. I was damned stubborn. What I lacked in skill I made up in boldness and insolence; I did not paint from life, but what my imagination told me to paint. Dripping with sweat, even when I throw off clothes, it was so hard - oh, how hard it seemed to me to get down on canvas what I wanted to say. Still, I sweated, stamped and slaved long afternoons away until evening fell, that kindly Friedenau evening that was not kindly at all up in my little cell, but a time to sweat and to groan and to refuse to shake off the burden of toil, even for a few hours. Bathed in sweat, I felt like a heavy-jowled hound careering along in a wild chase, mile after mile to find his master – represented in my case by a finished oil painting replete with apocalyptic doom. I feared those visions, although the finished products gave me a strange, warm feeling of satisfaction, a slightly satanic joy.”

Portrait of Conrad Felixmüller by Ludwig Meidner.

[ Portrait of Conrad Felixmüller - Ludwig Meidner. Oil on Linen. 1918. ]

Military service in World War I made Ludwig Meidner a confirmed pacifist. In 1919 he wrote the broadside An alle Künstler, Dichter, Musiker (To all Artists, Poets, and Musicians), a tract that exhorted artists to become socialists and work for the common good. Like his fellow expressionists, he became a target for the Nazis and his works were banned in 1933. Being Jewish he fled the country that same year and did not return until 1953. Aside from painting his amazing Apocalyptic Landscapes series, Meidner also managed to paint numerous portraits of artists from Germany’s expressionist circle. One such painting was his wonderful likeness of Conrad Felixmüller (shown above), an artist barely known in the U.S., but a leading member of the expressionist movement and a painter I hold in the highest regard. The one drawback to the Glitter and Doom exhibit is that it does not include the works of the exemplarary Felixmüller.

Self-portrait with Wife Gertrud by Conrad Felixmüller

[ Self-portrait with Wife, Gertrud Müller - Conrad Felixmüller. Probably 1920’s. This oil on linen portrait reveals the artist’s strength as a figurative realist painter, but he was also an early main proponant of a radical new expressionism, with its exaggerated colors and sharp angular planes - hints of which can be seen in this sensitive double portrait.]

Conrad Felixmüller proved himself capable of creating the most sensitive figurative realist paintings, but he also became a main proponent of the most extreme expressionist vision. His skewed perspectives and distorted forms were set ablaze by a glowing palette of scorching primary colors. While focusing on the debauched and degraded state of affairs Germany found itself in, artists like Dix and Grosz often made portraits of people that mirrored that corruption. Repulsive and unsightly creatures littered their canvases, to the point that some have wrongly concluded such depictions were essentially anti-humanist in nature. “Ugly” had became an aesthetic device to expose the true nature of bourgeois society, and as an artistic response to the growing monstrosity of fascism, it was an angry and honest reply. Yet something about Felixmüller’s art set him apart from his contemporaries, he never lapsed into creating pictures that could be construed as misanthropic or anti-humanist. Even during the darkest days when all appeared lost, his portraits of working people were full of quite dignity. Felixmüller obviously had an unshakable belief in humanity.

Glitter and Doom runs at the Met until February 19th, 2007. For more information, view the Met’s website.