"Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s," Nov. 14, 2006-Feb. 19, 2007, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.
There they are, a wondrous mix of narcissism and indifference -- the former symbolized by their masturbation, the latter by their inexpressive faces -- that Freud thought was the essence of femininity. (He once compared women to cats that lick themselves.) What did Christian Schad have in mind when he painted Two Girls (1928), his paean to timeless perversity? And what do these undistressed damsels have on their minds? They’re clearly liberated young ladies, as their fashionably bobbed hair and smug coolness suggests. Unembarrassed, they confront us, in all their exhibitionistic glory, even as their eyes evade ours, suggesting that while we can look we can’t touch, certainly not where they touch themselves. Unless, of course, they’re also inviting us to touch ourselves.
Notice the fine, elongated fingers of the foreground girl. One finger of each hand is adorned with a ring, each set with a gem, suggesting wealth and privilege. There’s a clever interplay between the pink nail polish of her masturbating fingers and the darker pink of her thick labia, and between the thick black line that marks the opening between them and the delicate lines that demarcate her fingers. The inflamed labia register the pressure of her touch just as the blanket on which she sits registers the pressure of her body. There’s an odd density to the scene, for all its uncanny flatness: bodies, blankets, sheets, skins, eyebrows, lips, faces, slip, stockings -- and paint -- are studies in flatness. Gradations of thinness, they seem more facade than substance. But detail builds upon detail, with little or no painterly mortar or excess. They hold together seamlessly: the picture is a hermetic garden of flawed innocence. Two sisters in sin have fallen, tasted the forbidden fruit of self-knowledge, and have been ousted from emotional paradise. They form a community of incommunicado suffering.
They’re hardly intimates, even sexually: each does her own auto-erotic thing, and doesn’t seem to get much pleasure from it, if their impassive expressions are a clue. They’re clearly at odds, the one upright, the other reclining, together forming a cross, suggesting living death. No physical or emotional excitement, no orgasmic transfiguration, cosmetic masks for faces -- they’re frigid femme fatales, unable to warm themselves by self-stimulation. They’re connected only by the simultaneity of their masturbation, but they masturbate mechanically, like perfunctory machines. Their fingers busily move, like strings trying to animate puppets, but nothing stirs them. No joie de vivre here, but rather the melancholy and muteness of meaninglessness.
Schad’s picture is a voyeuristic triumph -- a shocker. It breaks a taboo of representation. (Or what used to be one; images of masturbating woman have become fashionable, not to say tedious, as Chloe Piene’s "Masturbator" series of 2003 shows.) But there’s something uncanny and calculated about its "unwholesomeness." Schad’s figures seem more invented than observed. For all its "journalistic" accuracy -- reality is in the details, as in all good reporting -- Schad’s picture is more provocative than descriptive. Description in the service of provocation: that, I want to suggest, is the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) formula. Schad’s work is unnerving and estranging -- its manneristic distortions embody the modern sense of urban estrangement. Elongated fingers, steep perspective, displaced details (the belt buckle on top, the grid pattern below), the sharp juxtaposition and wooden look of the figures, each compressed into a closed plane and schematized, the dramatic highlights and transparent shadows -- all arouse disturbing feelings having nothing to do with masturbation. The girls are insidiously grotesque. In a world in which everyone does his own thing -- a world in which no one seriously relates to anyone else -- a world of casual, "experimental" relationships, sexual and otherwise -- human beings cannot help becoming emotional monsters. Schad, like all the German New Objectivists, implies that they are innately grotesque -- that modern human beings are distorted, isolated and inherently absurd.
The prostitutes in Otto Dix’s Three Wenches (1926) -- a body for every perverse taste -- and Three Prostitutes on the Street (1925) are obviously grotesque. So is the prostitute pictured in Lady with Mink and Veil (1920). The Businessmen Max Roesberg, Dresden (1922) and Dr. Mayer-Hermann (1926) are more subtly grotesque. Roesberg is as angular and lean as his telephone and Mayer-Hermann is as bulbous, not to say bloated, as his X-ray machine. The attribute defines the man, indeed, has taken him over, given him his personal as well as social identity. Indeed, the machine has more personality than he does.
Capitalism and technology inform all of Dix’s paintings, appropriating human presence -- dehumanizing the body. Capitalism and technology also show their omnivorous presence and ominous power in Georg Scholz’s Self-Portrait Before an Advertisement Pillar (1926), with its automobile and gas pump as well as advertisement pillar -- still a feature of German public space -- and Rudolf Schlichter’s The Writer Bertolt Brecht (1926), standing in front of an automobile. Without the larger-than-life automobile backing him up, the cigar-smoking Brecht is all pretentious ego, and without the sturdy pillar and pristine automobile behind him Scholz is a troubled bourgeois, his propriety a shaky facade on his misery.
Dix, a lifelong Communist, may have been critical of capitalism and technology -- his etching Dead Soldier in a Trench and drawing How I Looked as A Soldier (both 1924), have as much to do with all-powerful technology, as the weapons suggest, as with war, and his Metropolis (Triptych) (1928) represents, with cynical wit, the unsavory contradictions of capitalism -- but he could not deny their power and importance. They determined modern life -- both high life and low life. They had sordid consequences, but nothing could be done about them. Satire, after all, is impotent revolution. Dix ruthlessly shows the underside of Baudelaire’s "heroism of modern life," discrediting its idealism completely. But his modern "disasters of war" and "disasters of sex" -- for the New Objectivists war and sex express failed human relationships, with resentment and violence, latent or manifest, the signs of failure -- are rooted in romantic realism. As Goya’s "Disasters of War" and "Caprichos" -- his sardonic take on the disastrous war between the sexes -- makes clear, Romanticism believes that war and sex are the fundamental realities of human nature, whatever the social circumstances in which they appear.
There is nothing more objective in New Objectivity painting than machines. They were meticulously represented, in acknowledgement of their social importance. Unlike Picabia and Duchamp, who sardonically used them to make sexual jokes, the New Objectivists show great respect for machines. They have the integrity, authority and character -- inescapable presence and hard givenness, and the authenticity of use value -- human beings lack. Compared to them, human beings seem vulnerable, as in Dix’s The Poet Iwar von Lücken (1926); or misshapen, as in Georg Grosz’s portrait of Max Hermann Neisse (1925) and Christian Schad’s Agosta the "Winged One" and Rasha the "Black Dove" (1929); or mad, as in Dix’s Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann (1920), a psychiatrist.
The artists did not exempt themselves from this harsh judgment, as Beckmann’s Self-Portrait with Champagne Glass (1919) with its grotesquely distorted hand makes clear. While not as crippled as Dix’s Skat Players (1920) -- handicapped veterans, kept going by technology (hearing aids, mechanical jaws) -- or as bizarre as Dix’s The Dancer Anita Berger (1925), or as demented as Gert Heinrich Wollheim in his Self-Portrait (1922), Beckmann is clearly a twisted individual. He is not one of George Grosz’s Pimps of Death (1919), but he is also emotionally ugly -- and dangerous.
The New Objectivists have a striking ability to convey idiosyncratic individuality, as is shown by Dix’s The Journalist Sylvia von Harden, (1926), but they also have a strong sense of the ridiculous, conveyed by the exaggeration of details, as Dix’s Prostitute -- Girl with Red Bow (1922) makes clear. The human body -- especially the female body -- seems inherently ridiculous to Dix, as Sweet Little Elly (1920) and Elli (1921) suggest. No classically ideal proportions here. Is Dix a misogynist, perhaps in response to the repulsive, ever-present prostitutes, evoking physical disease and social pathology? Max Beckmann also seems to be a misogynist, if with less ferocity, in his portraits of Maria Swarzenski and Carola Netter (1923) and Käthe von Porada (1924). There’s a general sense that life is disgusting -- rancid and decaying -- in New Objectivist portraits, suggesting they’re not as objective -- matter-of-factly descriptive, supposedly with photographic verisimilitude -- as they’re supposed to be.
The people who come off looking better than most -- who are treated with a certain amount of respect, and allowed dignity and decency -- are the art dealers on whom the artists were dependent, among them The Art Dealer J. B. Neumann, portrayed by Ludwig Meidner in 1919, and Alfred Flechtheim, portrayed by Dix in 1926. (But he’s accompanied by two faded abstract paintings, suggesting the realist Dix’s distrust of him.) But The Art Dealer Johanna Ey doesn’t come off too well in Dix’s 1924 portrait of her, not only because of her obesity, but because of her lurid appearance. She’s another grotesque female, as though femaleness was inherently grotesque, not to say gross.
America is associated with modernity, and the creeping Americanization of Germany is suggested by the pack of Camels on the table next to Schad’s Sonja (1928) and the jazz band in Dix’s To Beauty (1922) and Metropolis (Triptych). Americans are known (or used to be) for their put-up-or-shut-up practicality -- the same hardheaded approach as a straightforward photograph. But there is a good deal of subliminal Sturm und Drang in New Objectivity portraits -- a sort of expressionistic hang-over, conveyed by the hot-under-the-collar character of many of them -- that suggests an unresolved and unhappy relationship with reality. More particularly, uncertainty about industrial reality, and perhaps hatred of modern reality per se. Dix’s nostalgic use of Old Master devices, such as the reflection in Mayer-Hermann’s X-ray machine, an echo of the reflection in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage Portrait, hints at this.
Karl Hubbuch’s The Swimmer of Cologne (1923) makes the point brilliantly. The female swimmer -- an ironic Rhine maiden? -- stands on a steel bridge, barely holding her own. For all her spunkiness, she looks vulnerable and small next to the huge, well-built bridge. She is hardly its equal in strength. She’s caught on the horns of a dilemma -- or rather trapped between the pincers of the rising girder and the platform to which it is bolted. She’s all the more pathetic because the Old Germany, symbolized by a ghostly Cologne Cathedral, is pictured behind her. It exists in the space between the girder and the platform, as though about to be crushed. Certainly it is fading into oblivion -- a souvenir of the German medieval past. Caught between the religious past, with its old construction of reality, and the technological future, with its new construction of reality, she can only dive off the bridge into the river below. Will she survive?
Am I free associating too much in comparing the space in which the cathedral appears, like a hallucination, to the sharp-toothed punitive machine in Kafka’s The Penal Colony? Will the swimmer also be punished for a crime she hasn’t committed, or is she a new Hercules able to rescue herself from the jaws of the powerful lion represented by the modern bridge? The New Objectivists are clearly psychosocial allegorists.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.