Political, economic, and social turmoil shaped Germany’s short-lived Weimar Republic (1919-1933). These pivotal years also became a most creative period of 20th-century German culture, generating innovation in literature, music, film, theater, and architecture. In painting, a trend of matter-of-fact realism took hold in Germany like nowhere else in Europe. Disillusioned by the cataclysm of World War I, the most vital German artists moved towards a Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), in particular its branch known as Verism. These artists looked soberly, cynically, and even ferociously at their fellow citizens and found their true métier in portraiture, as seen in the 40 paintings and 60 works on paper featured in Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s. The presentation, features gripping portraits by ten renowned artists: Max Beckmann, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Karl Hubbuch, Ludwig Meidner, Christian Schad, Rudolf Schlichter, Georg Scholz, and Gert H. Wollheim.
“This landmark presentation is the first anywhere to focus on the portraiture of the Weimar period,” said Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum. “In these gripping images, the rootless society that flourished or floundered during these years in metropolises such as Berlin, Düsseldorf, and Dresden jolts back to life.”
Although memorialized in song and story for the escapist thrills of erotic cabaret shows, wild dancing, frenzied jazz, and sexual licentiousness, German cities of the 1920s were in the throes of rampant unemployment, hyperinflation, and social panic. After the initial patriotic fervor, followed by the crippling devastation of World War I, the Verists questioned their own involvement in this war and focused on the country’s quickly changing social landscape and uncertain political future.
Forgoing new modes of abstraction, the artists found worthy subjects in urban denizens of all walks of life, from the war wounded to the art dealer. With a marked abhorrence of idealization, the Verists’ portraits captured the stark existence of a populace through an incisive and often satiric form of realism. Their psychological portraits do not attempt to reproduce likenesses, as in the conservative painting styles popular at the time. Rather, with savage distortions of the face and the figure, the artist turns the sitter into an exaggerated type that reflects the extremes of a turbulent era: wealth and poverty, glamour and violence, decadence and banality.
People of vastly different backgrounds came together in the common pursuit of pleasure as Germany’s traditional class structure and moral strictures collapsed. Christian Schad’s portraits depict the modern individual caught between debauchery and ennui. In Count St. Genois d’Anneaucourt (1927), Schad places the jaded and aging Count between the cold profile of a mannish woman and the willowy figure of her rival, a transvestite.
Many of the artists suffered from the lingering trauma of the war, and their portraits convey a pervasive malaise. In Max Beckmann’s Dance in Baden-Baden (1923), stylishly dressed couples go through the motions of living the high life, their expressions indifferent and weary. Even the artists themselves seem be to role-playing, as seen in Beckmann’s forced pose as a bon vivant in Self-Portrait with Champagne Glass (1919).
Social criticism also took more pointedly political forms, when artists filled with anger and distrust satirized corrupt individuals in scathing portraits. George Grosz’s The Pillars of Society (1926) mocks politicians, military men, and priests, who grit their teeth and puff their cheeks while violence and destruction loom in the background.
Although their subjects were purely contemporary, artists such as Otto Dix and Christian Schad were inspired by 16th-century German masters, such as Cranach, Dürer, Holbein, and Grünewald. Otto Dix adhered most closely to their painting techniques, while exploring the particular vices of the Weimar era. Dix sought out a brutal truth by looking unflinchingly at the most grotesque, violent, and debased aspects of society. Typical of his subject matter is The Salon I (1921), which portrays four elderly prostitutes in cheap finery that fails to hide their decrepitude. Dix’s 1925 portrait of Anita Berber immortalizes the infamous dancer, nude performer, actress, seductress of men and women, and cocaine addict, who, in her brief career (1916-28), distilled the excesses, glamour, and misery of the Weimar Republic. With more than 50 works by Otto Dix, this exhibition will be the first major presentation of the artist’s work in the U.S.
With harsh candor and biting humor, the portraits in the exhibition dissect a Weimar demimonde of prostitutes and profiteers, war veterans and war widows, performers and poets. The Verists themselves were part of this shattered world, mingling in the crowd with former aristocrats, middle-class doctors, and businessmen. Their powerful images serve as mirrors to a glittering yet doomed society. With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the end of the Weimar Republic, artists lost their teaching positions, their work was banned, and many of them went into exile.