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 showing more than 50 Dix works, Glitter and Doom will be “the first major presentation of the artist’s work in the United States.” That alone is reason enough for anyone to catch a flight to New York.
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.”
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 exemplary Felixmüller.
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 quiet dignity. Felixmüller obviously had an unshakable belief in humanity.
Glitter and Doom runs at the Met until February 19th, 2007. For more info view the Met’s website.