"Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s" exposes a troubled period on a winding journey through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show focuses on the era through the eyes of the Verism branch of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement. At once lucid and illusory, clinical and provocative, the works in the exhibition capture the myriad personalities of the Weimar Republic.
The exhibit features portraits by 10 artists: Max Beckmann, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Karl Hubbuch, Ludwig Meidner, Christian Schad, Rudolf Schlicter, Georg Scholz, and Gert Wollheim. Each section of the gallery devotes itself to the exploration of different social types, each conveying the banality of life with a hallucinatory vision, probing its viewer to question what is real and what is created.
Upon entrance, one is met with a series of sketches that introduce this play between the real and the imagined. Yet amid this gentle opening, the viewer gets a glimpse of the shocking representations to come: sandwiched between unconventional family portraits and unorthodox preparations of the picture plane, is Otto Dix's "Cartoon for the Painting 'The Three Wenches,'1926. Here we are presented with mangled bodies, emphatic sexuality and a suggestion of violence that becomes prevalent as the exhibition continues.
Dix's "Cartoon for the Triptych 'Metropolis,' " 1928, is a work that combines generic religious representation with the iconic ideal of Berlin in a fabled "Golden Twenties." We are then faced with many layers of distortion, such as an idealized scene of a myopic slice of society, contrasted and overwhelmed by the brutal presence of a subculture. Both sides of the central panel are flanked by the Weimar Republic's outcasts. Other figures are shown in different states of undress, as if they are decomposing into society's detritus. On a third level, we see Dix's precision of representation, and the use of linear outlines, which highlight an aesthetic the Verists used to comment on their disoriented world.
Brilliantly, the viewer is not directed through the exhibit in any particular way. On either side of the triptych sits the same wall label, allowing the viewer to follow his or her own path. The galleries themselves reflect and promote the duality of chaos and precision that the paintings express.
In both galleries, "Nightlife and the Demimonde" and "Cripples, Prostitutes, and Profiteers," one finds vitriolic and sympathetic portrayals of the sordid creatures of 1920s Germany and the denizens who frequented the era's ignoble yet colorful locals. Within the artists' disturbing images of war veterans and prostitutes, there is compassion. In these works, specifically in a latter gallery devoted to sketches of different Weimer types, we see the personalities of the sitters come to life.
It is this intimacy and sympathy between artist and subject that is the most interesting part of the show. In Dix's portraits of the professional class, the subjects are merely used as canvases, or scaffolds for Dix's creations and distortions, and the paintings reveal the introspection and tragedy of the era poignantly. Moreover, it is to these works that the viewer is most attached, and ultimately mesmerized by. He is unable to turn away from provocative, pornographic and often nauseating depictions. He moves inside of the painting, beneath the repugnant forms. Then, he understands the Verist works not only as mirrors of Weimer society, but also as an acerbic critique, whose blow is either softened or made more cutting by its depressing respect for the personality depicted.
Through the dualities we find both in the subject matter we are presented, and in the aesthetic by which they are rendered, we see the dichotomy of glitter and doom that plagued 1920s Germany. We find the ideal of the "glittering" society undercut through the resolution of realistic images and delusory perversions. Similarly, we see biting satires of the government and societal structure, prescient of the "doom" that would soon overtake Germany.
"Glitter and Doom" is a fascinating exhibition; while faced with often disturbing images, the viewer leaves entirely entranced. Like the best novel or film, it completely engages the viewer with, and inserts him in the middle of an art that is a testament to the somewhat distant culture in which it was created. The works oscillate between linear draftsmanship and abstract and imaginative modes of representation, and between realistic and outsized depictions, to reveal a truth about the world they reflect. Similarly, the viewer is moved from an objective to a personal experience with the works, so that in viewing the exhibit, he can locate and comprehend that truth.
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