Sunday, December 24, 2006

Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s

I will be away in New Orleans from Christmas Day to the day before New Year's Eve. My first visit to that city, and I am looking forward to tramping round it, eating Cajun and Creole food and hearing some jazz. And doing some writing and reading in the mornings of the 6-day vacation.

On Friday, I viewed the Met exhibition on German portraits by artists such as Otto Dix, George Grosz, Christian Schad, Rudolf Schlicter and Max Beckmann. Known as the Verists, a branch of the New Objectivism, the artists prided themselves on depicting their subjects dispassionately, even cynically. Such "realism" was deemed the only adequate response to the crises of German society after World War II.

Otto Dix's paintings scrutinize his subjects mercilessly, exposing their weaknesses and vices. I have seen a few of the same paintings in the Dada exhibition in Washington D.C.. The Dada exhibition framed Dix as one example of an European and American artistic "movement," and emphasized the formal iconoclasm. In the Met exhibition, Dix's paintings are revealed as social satire, peculiar in subject and tone to a period of German history. I was especially drawn to Dix's painting of singer and performer, Anita Berber, which captures her demonic sexuality, as perceived by his contemporaries.

The painting I liked best in the exhibition is "The Old Actress" by Max Beckmann. Its simple, almost minimalist, lines, together with its few but bright colors that throw the woman's black outfit into relief, create a moving portrait of this woman. I read in the exhibition catalogue later that Beckmann considered this portrait one of his major works.

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