A Photographic Portrait of Germany
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Though overshadowed by the superb collection and exhibition program housed in the nearby Neue Galerie, an institution that solely specializes in the art and design of the German and Austrian Expressionist movements, two small shows at The Metropolitan Museum of Art offer a glimpse of the conflicting visions of German culture in the interwar period.
Tucked away in the North Mezzanine Gallery in the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, German Drawings and Prints from the Weimar Republic (1919–33) features a number of works on paper by such prominent painters as Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, as well as the lesser-known Karl Hubbuch. Certainly, each work provides a glimpse into the artists’ important oeuvres, yet as a group, the selection fails to excite. Due to its small size and the modest nature of most of the works included, this exhibition can only serve as a superficial survey of this controversial and ultimately doomed period in German history. It is not until combining one’s visit with the much more elaborate exhibition of August Sander’s photographs upstairs that the examination of artistic tendencies during the Weimar Republic becomes less fragmentary and truly worthwhile.
Proclaimed on November 9, 1918, the Weimar Republic marked the first German experiment in democracy, paving the way for a period of intense and uncensored intellectual and cultural productivity. However, filling the brief time slot between World War I and the rise of the Nazis, Weimar Germany was characterized by social upheaval, corruption, depression, and general resentment for the losses of the war. The result was a short-lived era of extremes in which the rich lived in excess and the poor and unemployed increased daily. Retaining the emotional intensity of German Expressionism, while advocating a return to realism and direct social criticism, artists such as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Karl Hubbuch, and Käthe Kollwitz captured their time and society with blunt honesty and a cynical insight that was often rooted in horrific personal experiences.
In "Cardplayers" (1920) Dix, who had been a soldier in World War I, portrays three satirically disfigured military officers playing skat in an interior setting. Having lost many of their limbs in the Great War, the men have become grotesque constructions of human flesh and artificial body parts. With mechanical arms, feet, and teeth that seem to stick to lipless mouths, each individual tries to hold on to his game, ignoring his personal misfortune. Commenting on the urban degradation following the war, Grosz’s caricature of a "Berlin Street Scene" (1920) unites contrasting social types on a small terrain and reads as a cross-section of the Berlin public. In the foreground, a monocled army officer wearing the medal for outstanding bravery is shown with a stern, yet absent-minded expression, while a common criminal vanishes into the background crowd, undetected. Through this harsh and ironic opposition of the clichéd brave and evil, Grosz relentlessly exhibits his critique of the overall social chaos and the general lack of structure that accompanied the new republic. Though the artistic approaches within the disorganized movement varied in tone and urgency, this distinct stylistic trend later came to be known as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).
But the English term for this movement is misleading, considering the fact that the artists’ strongly felt social criticism was anything but objective. Yet objectivity certainly characterizes the work of August Sander. Familiar with the ideas of the Neue Sachlichkeit through his friend Dix, Sander’s devotion to the photographic medium, as well as his ambition to create a systematic portrait collection of German society, provided his work with unusual neutrality. Envisioned as an opus of social documentation around 1922, Sander’s Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts (People of the Twentieth Century) was sub-divided into seven categories: the Farmer; the Skilled Tradesman; the Woman; Classes and Professions; the Artists; the City; and the Last People, comprising the elderly, the deformed, and the dead. Conceiving this project as "a physiognomic image of an age," Sander photographed each sitter, ranging from a butcher’s apprentice to young farmers, soldiers, war veterans, writers, filmmakers, secretaries, and industrialists, with astounding clarity.
Photographed with strict frontality, "Bricklayer" (1928) and "Pastrycook" (1928) are rich in descriptive detail and psychological depth. Engaging in activities associated with their profession, both men function as representatives of their trade as much as they make their stance as strong individuals. While the young bricklayer balances a stack of bricks on his shoulders, enforcing the overall notion of strength and determination, the pastry chef stirs something in a large metal pot. Framed by the sideboards of a commercial kitchen, the cook’s stocky figure and large shaven head appear exaggerated, bringing Dix’s portrait of the physician "Dr. Mayer-Hermann" (1926) to mind, in which a massive male figure is seated frontally, framed by the vaguely menacing machines of a laryngologist.
In fact, when comparing works by Dix and Sander, interesting overlaps occur. One of the more obvious instances of this is Dix’s portrait of the "Journalist Sylvia von Harden" (1926), which in pose and structural composition appears as a mirror image of Sander’s photograph "Secretary, Cologne" (1931). Unfortunately for those looking to uncover these parallels, the exhibitions at the Met will hardly prove a fruitful source, but perhaps they will spark a more thorough investigation of the Weimar Republic for a future exhibition. The critical studies of humanity and contemporary life that flourished during this era never cease to inspire.