Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"A welter of tears and vodka..."

This past weekend, while venturing around New York with a friend visiting from London, I stumbled upon an excellent exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition, titled Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s, is a retrospective featuring portraits from Germany’s Weimar Republic era, which lasted from 1919 until 1933, including sketches and paintings by such top-flights artists as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Christian Schad. Often depicting obese war profiteers, disfigured soldiers, fascist demagogues, kohl-eyed wantons and other iconic images from a Germany that was staggering towards the dual disasters of a Nazi government and World War II, the show’s visual portrait of a country in freefall serves as an excellent compliment to Otto Friedrich’s gripping history of that era, Before the Deluge, which remains, along with Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories and Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, as probably the best record we have of Germany between the wars.

Particularly outstanding is the series in the show from the Dadaist/Expressionist painter George Grosz, who volunteered for the German army in 1914 only to be deeply disillusioned with what he later referred to as “the mass intoxication.” Discharged in 1915 and drafted again in 1917, Grosz subsequently suffered a mental breakdown and was almost shot as a “deserter” before being permanently discharged through the intervention of the eminent patron of the arts and diarist Count Harry Kessler.

This show includes some of Groz’s most scathing work, including Eclipse of the Sun, depicting a rotund Paul von Hindenburg (World War I field marshal and second president of the Weimar Republic) and a group of headless ministers conspiring around a table, as well as Pillars of Society, which mercilessly lambastes the Nazis, the Socialists and the church.

When one reviews these haunting and visceral paintings, it is hard not to recall Count Kessler’s words upon hearing of the terms of Germany’s “peace” with France in January 1920:

Today the Peace Treaty was ratified at Paris; the War is over. A terrible era begins for Europe, like the gathering of clouds before a storm, and it will end in an explosion probably still more terrible than that of the World War.

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