Life’s Not a Cabaret, My Friends

Dr Mayer-Hermann (1926), by Otto Dix.Photo: The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Licensed by Scala/Art Resource, NY © 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In a famous cartoon by Charles Addams, which shows an audience reacting to a movie, everyone appears horrified—sobbing, distraught—except for one man who’s grinning with glee. That man was me at “Glitter and Doom,” the exhibit of Weimar portraits from the twenties that opened last week at the Met. It cheered me up no end. The worldview of Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Christian Schad, and the rest may be bitter, cruel, and vitriolic, but it’s nonsense to suppose that their work is not also enjoyable. There is a wicked joy—and blessed release from piety—to be found in skewering the human animal and in refusing, occasionally, the invitation by Rembrandt et al. to be judicious, kindly, profound, and wise. Sometimes, screw ’em all.

“Glitter and Doom” has a pleasing timeliness, too, like MoMA’s show “Manet and the Execution of Maximilian.” The situation in Germany between the wars was much worse than ours is today, but the dark eye of Weimar still beguiles our culture; it asks us to see through the masks of hypocrisy, platitude, and respectability. Imagine what Dix or Grosz would have made of the simian Bush, the feral Rumsfeld, the gloating bullfrog Cheney. Imagine how these Germans would have treated the Clintons, or Ted Haggard. How uncharmed they would be by the toothpaste smile of Tom Cruise. They would not have turned a blind eye on the Wall Street trough, where all our little piggies now feed.

In presenting German art from this period, which is often more angry than good, selection is important. The organizer of the show, Sabine Rewald, not only emphasizes portraits—which brought out the best in many of these painters—but also includes a strong group of drawings. The artists associated with the style Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, depended upon the graphic power of line, which was sometimes rough and crude, sometimes scalpel-sharp. (The slap of rage, like the caress of love, is often best captured by the quick, intimate hand.) Rewald opens the exhibit with audacious drawings, including the preparatory study for Otto Dix’s Metropolis (Triptych). She’s kept the galleries relatively small. The heat in this work dissipates in large spaces. And too much repetition blunts its edge.

The show has all the classic Weimar types: prostitutes, profiteers, war-cripples, artists, musicians, Nazis, nightclubbers. Christian Schad developed an elegant hothouse light with which to depict the poisonous night flowers of the period. In one painting, mostly kept from view until 1977, he depicted, with the clinical pleasure of a surgeon who subtly relishes his fleshy work, two women masturbating. Dix, who’s rarely been seen in such depth, addressed a wide range of subjects with singular ferocity. He gave no quarter, even to children. (The jeweler Karl Krall, unable to live with his own portrait, gave it to a museum.) Two of the most ambitious examples of Grosz’s rage are on display, The Pillars of Society and Eclipse of the Sun, in which German society seems to be a swinish horror.

The placement of the images can be provocative. Dix painted two pictures of doctors, for example, both times putting the viewer in the position of a patient facing some grisly treatment. Rewald doubles the effect by introducing both doctors to us at once. The best juxtaposition is a pairing of two literary figures, one portrayed by Dix, the other by Grosz. Almost alone among the subjects in this show, these two poets seem, amazingly, to have tamed the savage eye. Their portraits are unsparing but remarkably tender. They remind us that Dix and Grosz were not just furious. They were furiously disappointed. The portraits here, after their initial impact, leave behind an after-image—of what should be. Another proffered pleasure, but more melancholy.

Glitter and Doom: German Portraits From the 1920s
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Through February 19.

Life’s Not a Cabaret, My Friends